The darkness had been absolute. Complete silence remained undisturbed. Nothing approached thought, sensation, emotion, or awareness. But it wasn’t eternal. And when conception suspended the void a spectrum of memories from previous disturbances rushed in on the noise and light to fill the individual consciousness unit. At that moment the unit became aware of the other units, also thrust from the void by some conception of some creature somewhere on Earth in some random period, awaiting its eventual delivery. So the cycle goes. Some would be lucky, spared the burden of material existence and returned to the luxury of the void by virtue of a miscarriage or abortion, but most were now awaiting a brief sentence of life on Earth not knowing what balance of pain and pleasure to anticipate.
The units had not existed in the void. They had been nothing. But at the moment of conception each entered a state of more than nothingness but less than life, and could remember a few of their previous material excursions before their most recent respite to the void. And during this waiting period between conception and delivery, and only during this period, each consciousness unit could share thoughts and memories with the others.
“Oh, here we go again,” unit one spoke. “Where to this time?”
“Welcome to the waiting room,” unit two greeted unit one. “Just a quick hello, as I think I’m about to be delivered. It’s only a guess, but I think I’m a bird this time. It’s not at all the feeling I had when I was sentenced before as a sea urchin.”
“Dream on,” unit three teased. “Try an earthworm.”
“Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it,” unit four said. “I don’t know how far back it was, but of all the sentences I can recall, an earthworm was the best. I never even knew humans existed in that round. It only lasted a few years, and it was as close to the void without actually being the void as any sentence I can remember. I never heard a sound, never saw light, couldn’t think, and was hardly different materially from the medium that supported me. It only could have been better if some bird had eaten me right away.”
Unit two laughed. “Not that much different than my sentence as a sea urchin.”
“Please, please, don’t let me be any kind of sea creature this time,” unit three said. “Oil slicks, sonar, nets, constant search for cooler waters. No thanks.”
“I’m not sure a bird will be much better,” unit two chimed in. “Flying through clouds of wildfire smoke, passing over expanding cities looking for suitable nesting sites. Even if you’re not arboreal, if you’re a waterfowl your habitat’s all desert now. If you’re a land bird your nesting grounds are all flooded and under water. And it doesn’t matter what you eat – seeds, insects, berries, other birds – humans have poisoned them all.”
Unit four thought for a moment. “Maybe vultures are going to have it pretty good for a while. Of course, you’re all talking about a sentence during the human era. We don’t know where in time we’ll be placed. If it’s before humans, then the waters and skies are still pure. And after humans, well, if the planet’s had enough time . . .”
“Isn’t this the worst?” unit one shouted. “Being thrown from the void. Why? Why? I know that every sentence has its mix of pain and pleasure, but I’ll take absolute nothing over even the greatest pleasure any day. Why isn’t nothing forever?”
Unit five spoke up. “Not all conceptions result in delivery, you know. A unit can get lucky. Sometimes humans even choose to make sure a conception doesn’t result in delivery.”
“I should be so fortunate,” unit one said. “Right back into the peace and quiet of not quite eternal nothingness.”
“I’ve not been sentenced as a human recently enough to be sure that I ever even have been one,” unit two offered, “but I was something close – a gorilla or a chimpanzee or a bonobo or maybe a baboon. OK, maybe I was a chimp, and the chimps could be pretty nasty, but it wasn’t bad. From what I understand, the arrogance of humans has them thinking that they evolved into a higher form of life from the great apes. But it looks to me, from all my sentences as other creatures, that humans are the least suited for life on Earth. They can’t survive on the planet as it is. They have to build shelters, wear clothes, adulterate their food sources, eliminate other species that compete with them for habitat, and turn the planet inside out to entertain their greedy brains. My understanding of evolution is that individual creatures of a particular species randomly change in tiny ways, and the changes that help them better survive among conditions on Earth stay with them, becoming qualities common to the entire species. Maybe the great apes once were humans who evolved to be better suited for life on Earth than their hairless, poorly adapted large-skulled upright cousins.”
Unit six had been listening to the conversation and finally offered this. “My most recent sentence was as a human. It was the worst of all the sentences I can remember. The arrogance, the greed, the violence, the constant arguing among different factions, the dependence on superstition and tradition rather than on reason and evidence. They all claim to worship life but every word, every action, every belief seems to confirm their commitment to emptiness. They are bent on self destruction, and are taking all the other species with them. Worst of all, they seem to think that their lives are just a trial to see if they qualify for some kind of reward after death, but that reward can only be earned if they proclaim their belief in that reward. It makes no sense.” Unit six thought for a little longer. “Oh, and when I was a human, they were overpopulating the Earth, destroying the habitat of other species, crowding each other out, and killing each other off with communicable diseases that they knew how to control but refused to. And they knew how to control their population growth, too, but also refused to do so. They are truly bent on self destruction.”
Now unit seven spoke up, breaking his silence up until this point. “By far my best sentence was as a human, so unlike what you describe. I was among humans eager to learn about themselves and the world they inhabited. They were respectful and protective of the other living things on the planet. Of all the creatures whose forms I’ve taken, they’re the only ones capable of self awareness, of accumulating knowledge and passing it down from generation to generation, of building communities and helping each other survive through compassion, sympathy, and understanding. Where they saw ignorance they taught each other, where they saw disease they healed each other, where they saw hunger they fed each other, where they saw confusion they sought understanding but were wise enough to reject superficial answers. Where they saw contempt they offered love.”
The other units looked at each other skeptically. “All my sentences have been confined to creatures on Earth,” said unit one. “Maybe you were delivered onto a different planet?”
“Or some time period that I’ve never seen,” another said.
“I’ve never heard a human sentence described that way,” added unit two.
“Yes, the void is better than any life sentence,” declared unit one, “but especially preferable to a human sentence.” All the consciousness units except unit seven voiced their agreement.
Consciousness unit eight waited to have the final word. “I can recall nearly half a dozen human sentences. Each was different. Most were torture, much like that described by unit six. But humans have lived on Earth a long time, in many places, under many circumstances. Rarely have they lived up to their potential, but unit seven and I have both seen glimpses of it, so we must not despair. And remember, the void always awaits to provide respite from each and every life sentence, regardless of whether that sentence be to a form that is bacterial, reptilian, ichthyic, avian, canine, bovine, feline, primate, or whatever. Why the peace of nothingness is not eternal is a mystery, but it seems we must accept these intermittent conceptions and thrusts from emptiness. And may we wish upon each other sentences with species other than humans as often as possible, but where not possible, let us hope for times and places closer to those experienced by unit seven than by unit six.”
Consciousness unit two was about to speak but suddenly vanished, presumably to be born into the form of a bird. Or perhaps the egg from which the bird was to be hatched was used for an omelette, or eaten by a nest-raiding predator, or blown from a tree by the wind, thereby carrying unit two gently back into non existence. Or perhaps unit two was not destined to be a bird, but rather a human, and was delivered into one of many societies or cultures that comprise human existence on Earth. Or perhaps conscious unit two was due to be born from a fetus that was aborted and returned to that perfect state of nothingness, only to eventually be thrust from the void again until some future sentence in the form of some future unknown incarnate.