Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On a Spiritual Plain

The deadline for The Hugo Awards nominations is March 10. My story, "On a Spiritual Plain", which was published in issue No. 2 of Sci-Phi Journal last year, is on the Sad Puppies recommended reading slate. Here is is:


The alien cleric gestured for us to come closer.  I pressed my back up against his bulk, and drew my knees under my chin.  "Thank you," I said simply.

Around us, the various clan groups were drawing together--their masses the only thing breaking the gray monotony of the planet’s polar plain.  Ymilans on pilgrimage traditionally slept clustered together--including ghosts of the dead.  The spirit of Joe McDonald stared at Dergec and me, still somewhat uncomfortable by what was going on.  I beckoned to him. "C'mon, Joe, you're with us," I said.

The ghost of the dead human scooted over to us.   He sidled up beside me, his back against the Ymilan cleric.  Dergec became dormant--Ymilans really don't sleep in the human sense--and I eventually began to drift off myself.   Joe didn’t move.  I didn’t know if he was asleep.  Do the dead sleep?   Can the dead sleep?


Compared to Earth, Ymilas has an energetic planetary core, and the planet has a very strong magnetic field.   Its ionosphere is constantly permeated with brilliant auroras.

The planet, however, is spectacularly bereft of minerals useful to Terrans, and there would be no reason to visit it, except for it being near a wormhole.

Some Terrans also find the Ymilans interesting.

Unlike Earth, Ymilas has only one sentient life form.  The Ymilans have a low-tech highly-ritualized culture.  Their religion is genuinely unique because the living and the spirits of the dead coexist side by side.

Dergec is the chief cleric of the continent where our Terran base is located.  After my posting there as Base Chaplain, we spoke frequently and found a surprising amount of common ground.   The Ymilans believe--as do many Terran religions--that each individual has a spark of an eternal extra-dimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable.

I told him we call it the “soul”.

They also know--I won’t say believe because the evidence was obvious on Ymilas--that while alive we develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death.  I told Dergec an ancient Terran religion had the same belief, and in fact built elaborate pyramids and tombs filled with personal belongings to keep those spirits happy.

The ancient Egyptians called that type of a spirit the “Ba”.  The Ymilans call them Helpful Ancestors, and they are considered part of one’s extended family.

I explained Earth’s weak magnetic field apparently allows most of our spirits to dissipate, “Although there were many cultures on Earth that believed their ancestors were a part of their everyday lives," I said.  "But you couldn't interact with them."

 "But are you sure of that?" said Dergec, with the Ymilan equivalent of a smile. “Don’t you have a type of literature called The Ghost Story?”

He was smart as well as wise.


This first Terran base had less than 50 people.  Because of the isolation and sparse conditions, it was traditional for the Service to “suggest” a posting to the planet.

Although most people went along with being “volunteered”, after the suggestion was made I agreed willingly.  I was single and so nobody else had to suffer with me; I thought it would be worthwhile experience for a young Methodist minister.

Dergec was always polite if not a little bit bemused when I peppered him with questions. "A mutant race like yours asks a lot of simple questions," he said.

The Ymilans were comfortable being a race with both physical and spiritual members and had evolved with sensory organs that could both detect and communicate with their spiritual world.  When Dergec learned of humans' inabilities in that regard, he was compassionate.

One thing I had noticed in passing was that I never heard of an Ymilan extended family of the dead going back more than six generations.  I made a mental note to ask Dergec why these ancestral houses didn't extend back farther.

That "note" was the first thing I thought of when Joe McDonald's ghost appeared to me.


Joe was an average Service "grunt”, just another face under the dome.   He never had come to me for any counseling or help--until after he died.

I had been updating my sermonblog when I heard the base emergency siren.  I ran out and saw a large shipping container swaying back and forth from a crane, a body lying on the floor beneath.

Apparently Joe took a left when he should have taken a right and walked just close enough to the edge of the container as it was being swung around that it clipped him.  The sharp corner punctured his helmet and crushed in his temple.  The light was gone from his eyes by the time I reached him.
His base file did not indicate any religious preference.

That night, I noticed the lights flicker briefly in my quarters--not terribly uncommon, our shielding constantly battled to protect our tech from the strong Ymilan magnetic field.  I did think it strange, though, that the lights flickered from white to blue, and back to white again.

During the next few minutes I got the strangest crawling or burning sensation on my skin.  Despite its violent climate--or perhaps because of it--Ymilas does not lack for water.  I thought it would help to take a nice, hot shower.

When I left the bathroom, gusts of steam poured into my bedroom--and I saw Joe.

He gestured, looking alternately angry and scared.  Despite the fact I was speaking to a ghost, his look of discomfort and anxiety was so pronounced my natural pastoral reaction was to put him at ease.  “It’s OK, Joe, I’ll help you any way I can.  Stay here with me.”

I commed the base Commander.   "A quick question," I asked.   "Was Joe McDonald the first human die on Ymilas?"

"Why yes, he was. Why do you ask?"

"He's here in my quarters.  He's become his own Helpful Ancestor."

The Commander cursed, then asked "What do we do now?"

"I don' know about 'we'," I said, "but I have some counseling to do, and then I call Dergec."

I turned off my lights, and as I hoped, Joe appeared as a dimly lit apparition, as ghosts do on Earth.
I determined--through questions on my part and nods and gestures on his--that he understood his spirit was somehow trapped.  "Did you ever see the container?" I asked.

He shook his head vigorously, looking very sad.

"Did you look at your death?"  He nodded, slowly.
I commed Dergec,  and explained what happened.  "I will be there as soon as I can," he said.

I spoke to Joe again. “We will get through this. I know on Earth, when we die, the soul leaves the body and moves on to the afterlife.  Things are different here, but my friend the Ymilan priest will help us.”
Joe made a gesture of helplessness.  “It’s my job to deal with spiritual matters, thanks for coming to me,” I said.  “We will get through this together.”

My port signaled. "That must be Dergec."

The Ymilan was far too large to enter my quarters.  I stepped outside, assuming Joe followed me, as there was no way I could see him as we stepped into the light.

Dergec looked to the side of me and addressed Joe directly. "What is your name, my friend?"   He paused for a moment, then replied, "Your proper name is Joseph, then?"

I realized Dergec could speak directly to Joe, just as he could to his own ancestors. Despite the fact I listened to a one-sided conversation, I could tell Joe was relieved to be able to make himself easily understood.

"I understand your discomfort, your people do not exist this way," said Dergec to Joe.
"Can you help Joe to move on?" I asked Dergec.

Then with a start, I remembered that "mental note" I had made to myself.

 "Sir," I said, using an untranslatable word that is an extreme Ymilan honorific, "I have observed that your Helpful Ancestors do not go back many generations." I paused.  "Is there a way for them to move on?"

“Since when I first learned about the spiritual nature of your people,” he said, “I knew this day would come.”


Our lone base on Ymilas is located near the equator, where the electrical storms are the weakest.   The planet's magnetosphere dips down at the poles.  It was Dergec who suggested using the specially shielded segway for my own protection.

The Commander raised her voice.  "You want to take a Faraday segway on what?"

 "A pilgrimage, Ma’am."

"Why?  Whose idea is this?"

"Monsignor Dergec," I said, using the closest human word to the Ymilan title.  "We need to make a pilgrimage to the north polar plain so the soul of Joe McDonald can move on.  We have no idea how the ground level magnetic field at the pole would affect an unshielded human.”

"I have one Faraday segway, if you wreck it, we won’t have another one for months, until it is requisitioned, approved and shipped.”

"Bureaucracy is your problem,” I snapped.  “Do you want a haunted base?”

On cue, her case folder slid off his desk and slammed on the floor.  The Commander jumped up from her seat.  "I felt something on the back of my neck!"

I sighed. "Do you believe my ghost story or not?"

She began to type on her desktop.  "Take your segway, take the Ymilan, take Joe, get out of here.  I don't want to hear any more about this."

Dergec was waiting outside. "Did you get what you needed?"

"Yes, despite a little reluctance from the Commander.”

"Joseph accompanied you."

"I know, the Commander's hemming and hawing infuriated him enough that he was able to manifest himself a bit."

"I have noticed that human emotions generate spiritual turmoil," said Dergec.

"I'm a little angry myself," I said. "But that won't help things."

Dergec turned around and plodded off.  "Let us begin our journey.”


The Ymilans have well-worn trails to the polar region where the magnetic field bends down to the surface.  There the Helpful Ancestors can dissipate.

The Ymilan pilgrimage trails loop and wind, because they need to avoid serious fault zones, another result of that active planetary core.

Dergec said the journey would take 12 Terran days.  Like everyone in the colonial Service, I maintained Earth days.  Ymilas’ sun had contracted in the distant past, and the planet's orbit has adjusted as a result.  It was that gravitational disturbance that had shifted its core into such an active state.

We were joined by other clan groups along the way.  Dergec led the way, and Joe, of course, had no trouble keeping up.  I brought up the rear of our little group, my treads grinding along the slate gray landscape.  There were caravanserais at regular distances.  Clusters of pilgrims gathered and parted along the way.

The other Ymilans were fascinated to see the first humans on a pilgrimage.  It is an accepted part of their life and society and they accepted our participation with great equanimity.  Dergec spoke often to Joe, who seemed “talkative” enough in his current state.

During one stop, Dergec said some Ymilans expressed something akin to admiration for Joe and myself.  "They are proud of you," he said.  "They say humans are finally Ymilans now."

Of course, I couldn’t see Joe, but it was usually obvious from Dergec's "body language"--a strange term considering how different Ymilans are from humans--where Joe was.  I spoke to Joe whenever I could, and when necessary, Dergec repeated Joe's side of the conversation.

I noticed about the halfway point that Dergec's interactions with Joe began to diminish. "Joseph is speaking with Helpful Ancestors now,” said Dergec.

“Is he away from us?” I asked.

“Yes, he is with that clan over there,” he said gesturing.

“Why does a Helpful Ancestor finally decide to make the journey?" I asked him.

"The closest word in your language would be futility," said Dergec.  "Our term might be translated as understanding that your role in the material world is over.”

I took the opportunity to ask a question.  “Does he realize that this trip means extinction,” I said. “That his soul has already flown, he is just a ghost?”

“No.  That is something you must work out amongst yourselves,” said Dergec.  “It is not proper for me to interfere in the spiritual matters of another species.”

“Your Helpful Ancestors don’t seem to mind trekking towards dissipation,” I said.

“We are a mature race,” he said.  “I would be cautious is discussing it with Joseph, though.”
"How is Joe taking the attention from the Helpful Ancestors?"

"I believe he is enjoying it," said the wise cleric. “He did not receive much attention from his own kind in life."

The severity and frequency of the electrical storms increased as we neared the Ymilan pole.  I monitored and inspected my Faraday segway more than ever.  The pilgrimage route meandered through a landscape of diminishing hills until, on the 11th day we hiked over a ridge and saw--nothing.

"It is another day's journey across flatlands to the Temple of Release," said Dergec.

As our caravan of pilgrims marched across the plain, we began to line up abreast of each other.   Despite the many dissimilarities between the two planets, one thing Ymilas has in common with Earth is a tilted axis, and therefore seasons--as well as long polar days.

This was the depth of the polar night, and the dark grayness of the sky matched the cold gray slate that made up the polar plain.  In the darkness I could now see all the Helpful Ancestors as well as Joe.  He marched near Dergec and me, but within a cluster of the Ymilan ancestors.

It was obvious he was in a position of honor amongst them, but when everyone stopped for the "night", all the Ymilans went back to their individual clan groups, which is why Joe was left alone and off to the side when Dergec and I stopped to sleep.

There was no indication of any danger so I slipped out of the Faraday cabin and sat down as Dergec gestured for me to come closer.  Joe looked at me.

"C'mon, Joe, you're with us."

Joe nudged himself between Dergec and me, and stopped moving,  I didn’t know if he was asleep.
“Do the dead sleep?  Can the dead sleep?”  I repeated to myself.

Dergec turned his head to me.  I didn’t realize I had spoken out loud.

"He sleeps the sleep of the dead,” said Dergec. “You would call it meditation. His mind is empty."
Dergec settled down into his posture of dormancy and I drifted off to sleep myself on that dark plain with the spirits of the alien dead--and one man.


Dergec stirred himself and I clamped myself in the cabin of the segway.

“We will be there soon,” he said to us.

He turned aside and spoke to Joe.  “Are you at peace, my brother?”

I could tell from Dergec’s body language Joe answered in the affirmative.  “It is well, then,” said Dergec. “Let us finish.”

As the long parallel line moved forward towards the unseen destination, I noticed the general grayness began to brighten.  After a while, I instinctively looked up.  There, high in the sky, was a glowing grayish green vortex of auroral light.  Dergec turned as Joe had obviously spoken to him.  “Yes, the Temple of Release is directly below it.”

I knew the polar magnetic vortex would be the location of the weakness in the magnetic field that would allow Joe’s “Ba” to dissipate, but I had no idea it would be visible.

“It looks like the eye of God,” I thought.

As the polar night began begin to imperceptibly brighten because of the glow, I soon was unable to tell where Joe was among us.

A few hours later, the plain was clearly lit by the glow of the “Eye” and I realized the previously uninterrupted flatness of the landscape was broken now by something rising directly ahead of us in the distance.

As we approached I saw it was an obviously artificial structure, and as we neared even closer, I saw it consisted of an enormous circle of upright blocks with the dimensional ratio of 1: 4: 9--the Golden Mean.  The lintels were of the same dimensions, and it was with a shock I realized that, except for the size and preciseness, the structure was essentially of the same design of Stonehenge back on Earth.
The actual size was the biggest distinction.  Although it was hard to judge at first, as we approached I saw the structure was more than 1,000 Terran feet high.

As we neared it, the various Ymilan clans began to bunch up as they would have to pass through the openings.  Dergec turned to Joe.  “This is the point of no return,” he said.

I turned in the same direction as Dergec.  “Are you okay with this, friend?  You ready to go home?”
There was a pause, and then Dergec said “He is fearful, but ready.”  He paused and continued.  “Joseph said he wants you to know he appreciates your kindness, but he knows nothing awaits him.  He learned the true nature of the pilgrimage from the Helpful Ancestors.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t...”

“He says it is good, he realizes there is nothing left for him here, and he would rather be nothing than a ghost on a strange world,” said Dergec.  “He said the others have given him courage.  He hopes his immortal soul has already reached your heaven.”

“I know it has, Joe,” I said, my voice cracking a bit.  “I have faith in that, that’s my job. To have faith.”

“Joe says he likes that,” said Dergec.

The other Ymilans on either side of us began to move forward.  “Let us go, then,” said Dergec.
We passed between a pair of giant uprights and passed inside the circle.  There was nothing there but another caravanserai.

I turned to Dergec.  “What happens next?”

“Nothing,” he said. “He is gone. They are all gone.”

“What!  That’s it?”

“There is no ceremony, if that is what you mean,” he said.  “The composition of these stones provides the shielding necessary to allow the dissipation.”

He turned to me.  “I’m sorry, I forget your people put a great deal of stock in theater and rituals, which is to be expected in such an immature race.  We take this process for granted.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We stop and rest and sleep, and then begin the trip home,” said Dergec.


When I was back at the base and I filed my report with the Commander. “This opens up a whole new issue in the Colonial Relations Division.”

“Yes, but  it was inevitable, if we stay on this planet,” I said.

“Well, you’ve done well as the lone chaplain on a base with many different religions,” she said. “This is just another issue you have to finesse.”

“For the time being, let’s not file a report,” I said.  “If this problem arises again, I’ll deal with it  personally.”

“Of course, all religion is personal,” she said.  “And I don’t want anything to leave the base that will bring bureaucrats down to us.”

She paused.  “And speaking of leaving the base, where is your condition report of the Faraday segway?  Is it back in inventory?”


Raju Bopardikar was not a grunt, but a low-level clerk in the transportation office.  He was drunk off his butt one night in the rec bar when he started hitting on a pretty Brazilian girl, whose boyfriend didn’t take kindly to his attentions, and was just as drunk as Raju--and a lot meaner.

The jealous boyfriend had a knife hidden in his boot, and before anyone could do anything, he slashed Raju across the abdomen.  Everyone grabbed the attacker, but his deep cut severed Raju’s abdominal aortic artery, and he bled out in a few minutes.

When I heard what had happened, I checked the base records, and then called up a copy of the Bhagavata Purana and read it until Raju appeared in my quarters.

I had to speak to Raju like anyone who is in deep shock, and with great patience explained the process I had gone through with Joe.

As I was counseling him, Dergec commed me.  “I learned of another death,” he said. “Can I help?”

“I think we can handle this ourselves,” I said, nodding to Raju.  “You don’t have to come on the pilgrimage.  Raju is one of us, and we can take care of ourselves.”

“I will assist in any way you need,” he said.

“Thank you, friend,” I said, “but we will make this journey ourselves.”

I turned to Raju.  “I know the way.”

-The End-

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