Professor Smith dusted off his jacket and looked around. The room in which he suddenly found himself was huge, with no walls, and a suggestion of a ceiling far overhead, but that could also have been low cloud cover. The space was quite crowded. The floor was uneven and seemed to be made of stone, and he changed his assessment from “room” to “cave”.
“Smith!” he heard a voice yelling nearby. “Smith! Where are you?”
Smith smiled and waved. Professor Lin shouldered her way through a crowd of young people, who Smith vaguely recognized as his neighbors.
“Lin! Over here!” yelled Smith.
Lin made her way carefully to Smith, glancing down at the floor.
“Did we…” said Lin.
“I think so,” said Smith.
“Then we’re in…” said Lin
“Good question,” said Smith. “Not heaven certainly. I recognize some of my students.”
“And not hell,” said Lin. “I see my doorman, Jerry.”
“Good man, was he?” said Smith.
“One of the very best.” said Lin. “He died a little over a month ago.”
“Ahead of the crowd, as it were. So. Purgatory?”
“Perhaps,” said Lin, and raised a hand “Jerry! Halloo! Over here!”
And elderly man, with a bald head and bushy moustache, wandered over to join the two academics. Lin took one of his hands.
“Jerry! It is so good to see you again!”
“Doctor Lin! Likewise.” The corners of Jerry’s moustache drew up into a smile. “Kind of crowded here, all of a sudden.”
“The meteor hit,” said Smith, and offered a hand. “Smith. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” said Jerry. “Doctor Lin mentioned you from time to time.”
“Positively, I hope!” said Smith. “Lin tells me you’ve been here for a little while. Where is ‘here’, exactly?”
Jerry snorted. “The Bardo, they tell me. We’re all biding our time before we head back to the world. People popping in and out all over the place.”
Lin frowned. “The Bardo, eh? So we’re between lives?”
“Sounds about right,” said Jerry. “I’m Baptist myself, or I was. This whole reincarnation thing is taking a while to wrap my head around.”
“The Bardo! We’re in luck!” said Smith. “Another go at getting things right.”
Lin frowned. “Maybe not. If we are waiting here for our turn at reincarnation…”
Smith’s face fell. “And the world was just destroyed…”
“See, this is why I was happy being a Baptist,” said Jerry. “We only had to worry about our souls once.”
“And we’re sure this is the Bardo?” said Lin.
“Sure as I’m standing here.” said Jerry. “There’s some folks in yellow robes seem to have it all figured out. I never even heard of the place before my heart attack.”
“Er, what happens if we’re supposed to reincarnate and there are no, er, vessels?”
“Beats me,” said Jerry. “I don’t know who’s really in ch-” He abruptly vanished with a small “pop”.
Lin and Smith stared at the empty space, then at each other.
“Maybe he came back as a microbe?” said Smith.
“I’m not sure it works that way,” said Lin. “Maybe reincarnation isn’t bound to one planet.”
“You’re saying he just went back as an alien something?”
“Perhaps,” said Lin. “Buddhism is bound to one planet. That doesn’t mean that the thing Buddhism points toward is also bound to one planet.”
“Nonsense,” said Smith. “If that is the case, where are all the aliens? All I see are a lot of people.”
“Do you see any animals?” said Lin. “Any birds or insects or anything like that?”
Smith looked around. “No, now that you mention it.”
“Maybe they have their own room. Er, cave. Space?”
“But it’s not really ‘after’,” said Lin.
“That works. Let’s walk around.”
Smith smiled and offered his arm. Lin hooked hers through his, and they set off through the crowd. After a while Smith said, “I don’t feel like we’re making progress.”
“And I’m not exactly sure how long we’ve been here. The Book of the Dead says forty days, but who is to say if time works here the way it works—worked—back home.”
“It makes sense that it doesn’t,” said Smith. “Space certainly doesn’t.”
“So we don’t know exactly when we’ll head off to the next place.”
“Interesting phrasing,” said Smith. “If space has come unbound, then perhaps time has too. Maybe we stay on the same planet, but we go back to, well, whenever. The 1800s. Or the time of the dinosaurs.”
“Or two billion years from now, when the planet reforms and life begins anew.”
“And wouldn’t that be strange,” said Smith. “No different from being on an alien planet.”
“So in the end we know where we came from, but not where we are—”
“The Bardo,” said Smith.
“But that doesn’t really explain anything,” said Lin. “As I was saying, we’re not sure where we are, and we certainly don’t know where we’re going.”
“So we just have to trust in a higher power?” said Smith.
“Or a lower one.” said Lin.
“That doesn’t sound encouraging,” said Smith. “Maybe Dante—”
“Not lower as in infernal,” snapped Lin. “Lower as in intrinsic. A more basic function of the universe. Not consciously directed by some external agent.”
“A deeper octave of a fractal?” said Smith.
“Yes!” said Lin, squeezing Smith’s arm. “The little details are reflected in the larger picture.”
“So at some level it is all determinism,” said Smith. He sighed and shook his head.
“At some level, perhaps.” said Lin. “But at this level, it could all be luck. Maybe it’s all down to timing. I died at a slightly different microsecond than you did. I come back as a furry critter new Alpha Centauri, or something, and you come back as a polyp in an ocean near Betelgeuse.”
“And there’s a line vessels in the universe waiting for a line of souls. Interesting idea!”
“Time and good behavior,” said Smith.
“Right place, right time, and the Eightfold Path.”
“Ten is a nice round number,” said Smith. “Am I imagining things, or is the crowd thinning out a bit?”
“Seems to be,” said Lin, “Though it could be Brownian motion distributing everyone more evenly in this space.”
Smith squinted into the distance. “No, people are definitely leaving. Seems to be picking up pace, too.”
“I guess this is goodbye again,” said Lin.
“And no terrible vodka this time,” said Smith.
Lin smiled. Smith vanished with a small pop. Lin closed her eyes as a wave of vertigo washed through her, and reopened them to something completely unexpected.