You didn’t believe us when we first told you that you’d died.
We don’t blame you, though. You died suddenly, with almost no warning. You were at the supermarket, thinking about your shopping list, and your job, and that trip to Greece that was only a week away. The last thing you expected was to collapse and find yourself here.
You cried when we finally managed to convince you that you were really dead. You sobbed for all that you lost, and all that you never got from life. And we sobbed with you because we understand. We have all been through this before, and it is never easy.
But now your sadness has ebbed, and we see shades of curiosity begin to flicker onto your features. We watch you sit up and begin to look around.
“Where are we?”, you ask us slightly hoarsely. You clear your throat and repeat yourself.
“Where does it look like we are?”, we ask back calmly. Your eyebrows knit as you look around more closely.
“I’ve been here. It’s a town on the coast by where I grew up, though I can’t seem to remember the name.”
“Fascinating”, we say as we notice the beach in the distance. There’s almost always a beach somewhere here.
“And you”, you say suddenly and turn your attention to us, “I know you”.
“You’re a Professor I once had”, you say, straining to remember something, “You taught Philosophy”.
“Hm”, we chuckle, “We suppose we did”.
“We? Who’s we?”, you shoot back quizzically.
“Apologies – I meant I”, we reply quickly. It’s always tricky to interact with the recently deceased: we need to be careful about what we say. It will get easier as you reconnect.
“Come on”, we say as we stand up and offer you a hand, “let’s take a walk”.
You eye us suspiciously, suddenly wary.
“There’s a beach there”, we gesture, “and it’d be nice to walk while we talk”.
“So, what happens now”, you ask us after a while, “Is this the afterlife?”.
“Not exactly… This is more of a temporary place, like a waiting room”.
“Oh. What am I waiting for?”.
Your eyes suddenly widen.
“Am I about to be judged?”.
“Nothing like that”, we say with another chuckle, “you’ve been inside a human body for so long that it’ll take you a while to adjust and reconnect”.
“Oh”, you say with an audible exhalation.
“And what about after I’ve adjusted? What then?”.
“You’ll get to leave the waiting room and reconnect with all of us”.
“So there are others”, you cut in.
“Indeed, there are many more like you and I outside this waiting room”, we say, “But you won’t have to stay forever, you’ll eventually get to go back into a body”.
“Ah, reincarnation”, you nod after a moment, “Wow - I suppose some of our religions got it right”.
“Religions get a surprising number of things right”, we admit, “It’s amazing how much we retain even when we’re disconnected, though it does tend to get rather garbled”.
“When I get sent back, will I be a human again?”, you ask, “or were the Hindus right about the fact that I might go back as an animal?”.
“You might go back as any conscious thing”.
“So I could be a tiger? Or an eagle?”.
“Or a tree”, we add.
“A tree?!”, you say with surprise, “but plants aren’t conscious”.
“Not to the extent humans are”, we admit, “but that doesn’t mean they aren’t conscious at all”. You are silent for a while as you consider this.
“So I could be a bacterium? Or any other microbe? Or really any other form of life on Earth?”.
“You could”, we admit with a smile, “though there’s a good chance you won’t find yourself back on Earth”.
You stop walking.
“Wait, are you saying there’s life on other planets?”. We smile at how much this seems to surprise you.
“Among other places, yes”.
“So I could get sent back as an alien?”.
“It’s likely”, we say, gently turning to begin walking again. You follow.
“And I won’t remember anything? I won’t know what it was like to be human?”.
“Did you remember anything when you started your human life?”.
“No, I suppose not”. You suddenly stop walking again.
“Wait, did you just say remember my human life, as in I’ve had past lives before this one?”
“This was certainly not your first time inside a body”, we admit, “we’re far too old for that”.
“So I’ve been reincarnated before?”
“How many times?”
“Oh lots”, we say, “lots and lots. You could find out precisely if you’re really interested, though we generally don’t like to keep count”.
“When does it end? How do I get it to stop?!”, you inquire with eyes wide.
“We can stop whenever we like”, we respond calmly, “but why do you not want to go back?”.
You seem quite surprised by this.
“Well, I – I want to stay up here”.
“In this waiting room?”.
“No! In the place outside, with all the others you mentioned”.
“You haven’t even been there yet”, we point out with a chuckle.
“Well, yes, but I presume, I thought, it must be better there”.
“It isn’t quite better or worse there, it’s simply different… It would be hard to explain to you now. You’ll understand it when you reconnect”.
“Huh – then why are all the others there?”.
“There isn’t enough life, enough consciousness, in the universe for the entirety of us to be alive in it at once”, we admit, “though life is catching up quite quickly indeed”.
Your eyebrows knit together at this.
“So you all want to go back?”.
“We do. In fact, I am due soon”.
“Due?… To be born?”.
“Indeed”, we say with a smile.
“Is that why you’re here, in this waiting room?”.
“No”, we say, putting a hand on your shoulder, “we are here because coming back after dying is hard, and scary and confusing, and it helps to not do it alone.”
“We always come here to give each other company”.
You seem to smile at this, and we notice flickers of understanding on your features.
“You said ‘we’ again instead of ‘I’”, you say after a moment, “why do you keep making that mistake?”.
“Because it isn’t a mistake”, we admit, “When you were inside a human, you got used to thinking of everyone else as separate from you. There is some truth to this: there are certainly some differences between each of us, enough to make distinct parts. But separation is mostly an illusion. After you spend enough time here, you’ll realize that we are all deeply connected. You can access every thought I’ve had, every memory from every one of my lives, and I can do the same. And all of us, all our thoughts and wills together, connect to make a we that is much bigger than the sum of our parts”.
“So, I’m like… a cell in a body?”, you say after a pause.
“More like a neuron”, we correct.
“And together, we are something like a brain?”.
“Now you’re getting it!”, we say and pat you on the back with a smile.
“Wait, so even when I was alive on Earth, everyone else was one of us?”
“But we were disconnected then? Cut off from each other? Not part of the whole?”
“No - we’re always connected. You just lost access, forgot, because your human brain couldn’t possibly contain all of our essence”.
Your eyebrows knit in confusion.
“I don’t get that”, you admit, “how can each of us be unique, enough to make up a different person, but still be connected?”.
We smile and turn out to the shore ahead of us.
“See that wave there? Notice how each wave gradually forms from the sea around it. Each wave is distinct, even though they’re all of the same essence and come from the same thing. They’re distinct, but still connected to each other, even as they take their own paths to crash against the shore. It’s a bit like that”, I say.
“And eventually they’re pulled back into the sea?”.
“Exactly!” we confirm, beaming.
“Wait”, you say after a few moments of silence, “so every time we fought on Earth, when we killed ourselves and even animals-".
“You were killing parts of us” we finish.
“All that seems pretty silly now, doesn’t it?”. You nod along in silence and think for a while.
“What’s the point?” you finally say after a long pause, “We forget what we are every time we go back, and then we come back here and remember and reconnect, only to do the same things again. Nothing changes”.
“Not so!” we exclaim, “the more we go back, the more life matures and adapts to us. Over time, life has grown grander and more complex, able to contain more and more of what we are.
But more importantly, every time we go back, every life we live, we learn a little more. We understand more about reality, and what it is to be us, to be conscious, of it. And we appreciate everything, ourselves and our reality, that much more.”
You let out a small sound and smile widely at this, but do not follow up with another question. We can feel you beginning to remember and understand.
We both turn to the waves again and stand there in silence for a time.
My time comes before either of us can say another word.
“Ah - it seems my wait is over now”, we say, turning to you. Before you can protest, we wrap you in a tight embrace.
“Yours will be over before you know it. And we will be along again shortly to keep you company”.
“Wait!”, you say frantically, as I let go, “don’t go! I have so many more questions - “.
But, as much as we’d like it, life does not wait.
We can only smile and wave farewell as I’m sent off to be born.
Author’s Note: This story was heavily inspired by Andy Weir’s ‘The Egg’. Many thanks to Ryan Adell and Shreya Chowdhary for feedback on earlier drafts of this work.