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Playing Dice With The Universe

Colonizing Purgatory

by Bill Kte'pi
Nov 04,2004


Playing Dice With The Universe

Colonizing Purgatory

This column is unlike previous ones in that it wasn't originally intended to be a column. Originally, the material here went into a brief series of short stories, which magazines rejected (rightfully so) because I had focused too much on worldbuilding and not enough on story -- that ancient Achilles' heel of many a science fiction writer, and one I had hoped I'd outgrown. So I toyed with the ideas for a bit and thought about turning them into a game -- but couldn't put enough material together without answering questions that I wanted to leave open-ended.

These things happen. So it's a column. A minigame. There's no system here, because I'm not intuitively a systems designer, which means when I need to be one, either I do a crap job -- like the unpublished draft of Santa's Soldiers, before Todd Downing and the rest of the Deep 7 crew redid the mechanics from the ground up -- or it takes me forever, as with the forthcoming Fierce Lullabies.

I'm leaving those questions I just mentioned unanswered. Are the beliefs of the people in this setting correct? Do they have the right idea about God? Is there a God? Is Heaven really Heaven? The setting works best, I think, when these questions have answers no more clear-cut and definitive than in our own world -- even if that seems, at first glance, to run contrary to the setting's overall feel.

So here's the pitch, kids, here's the central conceit: What if some religious claims -- the existence of the soul and the afterlife -- were empirically correct? What if we could see our souls as clearly as our shadows, and travel to the afterlife as easily as to the moon?

As far as the eye can see, the hills are lush and green with thick grass, dappled with shadows, and all I can think about is St Joseph's Day, when Father Mike's necromancy trial ended within hours of the Galilei probe landing here in Purgatory. The air is still, but the shadows keep movin. I'm afraid to listen, cause even if I don't see anything that oughta make noise, I'm pretty sure there's something to hear. The "ears" of my environment suit are turned as low as the safety controls will allow.

What I'm going to do is just keep talking, ladies and gentlemen, so if all of a sudden y'all can't hear me, either something has gone wrong here or Mission Control has cut me off. I'm not pointing fingers either way. Talking's about my best option right now.

I keep thinking about my last day in New Orleans before I got called in to train for the Enoch assignment, which wasn't called that yet. I've been back a couple times since then -- holidays, leave -- but always as a Local Celebrity, if you see what I mean. That day before the telephone call, it was my last day of anonymity. The fact that it was the day Father Mike was convicted -- and that the Church approved the release of the feed from the Galilei probe that same day -- well, I'm not allowed to comment on the coincidence of that. I know there's folks think it was all about spin control, pointing out the good of the Church in the wake of one of its own being pegged for rotten, but you gotta figure that'd be a pretty expensive gambit, right?

March 19 was St Joseph's Day and if your name ends in a vowel I guess you know what that means: the feast of St Joseph the father of Christ, patron saint of Sicily and protector of la famiglia. Now, my last name might be Duchesne, and il mio padre might be from Acadiana, but I was took in by my mama's family when I was pretty young, and them Primas came over from Missina in 1852, by way of Palermo. I was as dark-skinned as any of em, moreso than the few that caught the redhead gene, and I fit in just fine. Aunt Lil makes her own olive salad and gives ribbon-tied jars of it to the neighbors every Christmas, and every Easter she brings cassata cakes to the St Francis bake sale, with lots of chocolate and pistachios and homemade apricot jam.

They do their penance at Holy Name Sanctuarium, Father Mike's, and they kept going even after he got arrested. That's about the time I started thinking of my family as "they," I guess. It was well and good for them to stand by their padre, right? But me, I was on a career track with the Swiss Guard Exploration Bureau, and it's hard enough for an American to get ahead in the field of exploration, with all its Old Europe Catholics holding sway, and Mission Captain titles portioned out to the landless nobility. I got a world of respect for Captain Vanessa Adria, but I can't get past the newest of her titles, "Marquess of Heaven." You want to tell me that's not tempting fate, that's not hubris -- but a secular sanctuarium, that you've got a problem with?

At least New Orleans was still a Catholic city, so it wasn't near as bad as if I'd lived in M'ssippi or 'Bama. It's funny how you can have a small town inside a big city. I guess, what I've seen in movies, New York is like that too, all skyscrapers one minute and Chinatown the next. In New Orleans, everyone from somewhere else forgets we got as many Italians as anything else -- there was a time part of the French Quarter was called Little Sicily, back when the Quarter had more than daiquiris and strip clubs and those skeevy-looking sanctuariums so the tourists can wash their sins off before heading home.

I remember my grandma telling me, when I was young enough to take it at face value, that the reason the buildings are so close in cities is so you can't tell who casts a shadow: when you got that many people living in one place, you got a better chance of one of em having that taint on em, consorting with that evil, and you're best off not knowing. I believed it back then, sure as every child does I guess, at that age when you believe in ghosts and fairy cats: I believed that somewhere out there, or better yet and worse still somehow among us, were people who cast shadows. Just like animals did. Me and my friends -- mostly Jimmy Garrity, a nint'warder I knew from school, he's Jimmy G now, you go try his sandwich place and tell him Cesare Duchesne sent you -- we'd get into arguments about them, you know, about the fetches.

"Chezz," Jimmy'd ask, "do you reckon a fetch has a shadow and a soul? Or do they just have the shadow, like dogs and cats and what all?"

"Well," I'd say sometimes, "they gotta have the soul too, you know, because that's just ... scarier. Like werewolves. They're scary because they're wolves and people both. Think of how scary that'd be to see: you're looking at someone, they look normal, normal looking guy, normal looking soul, and then you look down and he's casting a shadow! It's like neckermancy, isn't it? Only worser."

"Just the shadow," I'd say other times, "it's like they were born wrong, like they were born without a soul, and so they're just like everything else in the world. Right? Having a soul, that's why we don't have shadows. You couldn't have both, it's like water being hot and cold at the same time."

I guess we weren't the only guys in the world to talk about stuff like that, but at the time of course you think you are. When you're that young, everything still seems magical, everything still seems possible. Do you remember how old you were when you stopped watching the colors of your soul change at the sanctuarium? Stopped watching the oranges and reds seep away as you wondered which sin caused which stain? I have this theory that it's around the time you reconcile guilt over masturbation with the certainty that you're going to do it anyway, but that might be a Catholic thing. I should ask Philips, he's the most vocal Protestant on the Enoch mission team --

-- ah, I was trying not to think about Philips, about the look on his face for that moment, just a moment, after his soul dissolved like sugar candy on your tongue, when the hills started to lurch at him.

On St Joseph's Day I went to Delacroix's Universal Blessed, the nondenominational sanctuarium, which will probably disappoint a lot of people and surprise others, since ever'body back home has been holding me up as this hero, this saint of the New Orleans Italian Catholics. I don't know what to tell you about that. I switched from Holy Name for the same reason a lot of people did: cause the whole thing with Father Mike, it made us uncomfterble. No two ways about it, I'm sorry. No, I didn't think he'd done it. I didn't think he was guilty, or if so, not of the whole enchilada. I mean, the affair with that woman, he copped to that, so I reckon that part was true.

But shit on toast, as we used to say, it was the first necromancy trial in America since 1808, and that one never got past the first hearing. You figure, the state bothers going that far, well maybe there's something to something, right? I guess that's what they mean by the court of public opinion. There was no denying, his soul was pure white, China white, like bones in the snow. There's only two ways to get your soul that white, and when it turns out you been sleeping with your choir leader, well, that only leaves one way, don't it? Necromancy.

Nondenominational sanctuariums. Mother Mary. When I was a boy, Aunt Lil and my grandma -- especially my grandma -- would go on about them, saying as how just cause they was a necessity didn't mean they was right. Saying as how it was like marriage, how sure it was a good thing, a necessary thing, for people to be allowed to get married without a priest -- by a justice of the peace or what have you -- but that dint mean it was a good thing to do it. Maybe the soul wouldn't know the difference -- maybe you'd come out just as clean in a nondom as you would in Holy Name or Jean Baptiste or Fatima Bless or Beth Shalom up in Gentilly. Or even one of them Buddhist sancs they started up in the 60s! Yeah, maybe your soul wouldn't know, but God?

Well, maybe God kept track different from how people did. If my grandma wasn't around, Aunt Lil would say it was like orgasms. Just cause your thing doesn't know if you're putting it somewhere you're supposed to or not, and'll finish itself off either way, dunt mean it's okay to put it any old place. And if you did, God would know.

I'd been raised with alla that, but I still went to Delacroix's, cause somehow it seemed less of a betrayal to work my sins off in a nondom than it did to go to a Baptist one or something. And if I went to another Catholic one, well, that'd just drive home the fact that it was Father Mike's place I was avoiding, I guess. I didn't think this all through consciously, you understand. But I've had plenty of time to look back on it, especially now.

Thing is, there wasn't that much difference between Delacroix's and Holy Name, and neither of them was all that different from the nameless nondom -- we just called it "the sanc" -- I went to while I was in training. You go in, and you work your sins off. You make some meals for the poor. You take a few rounds recycling the paper. You sew some buttons onto clothes. Delacroix's had a selling point in that it was part of that new Charity Community, you know -- big corporations pooling some of their non-proprietary data-crunching together and having people do it for free in the nondoms, and using whatever money got saved for "charitable efforts." Building houses and stuff.

The big difference wasn't even that the Catholic ones had the confessionals -- it was really in the decor. Nondoms don't have the crosses and the stained glass and like that -- they have televisions, motivational posters, lots of hanging plants. They don't look like church. Delacroix's looked more like a cross between a gym and a really upscale bar -- hell, they even had waitresses who'd bring you a drink or a snack while you worked, but I found that kind of distracting. Maybe if they only hired, you know, uglier waitresses ...

Point is, you know, you do your good deeds, and you watch your soul heal. You watch the color seep out of that grapefruit-sized ball of light floating over your shoulder. You work till it sparkles like somebody just scooped a cup of glow out of the stars. You do your work now, so's to spend less time in Purgatory.

That was the idea anyway, right?

I know people blame President Kennedy, God rest his soul, for "Purgatory" becoming the official-like name with the government and all, but hell, can you blame him? It ain't just cause he was Catholic, he weren't the only Catholic president. There's just no other good name for it. What else you gonna call it, Limbo? Nirvana? Maine? It's a place where you go so the fires can blast the last bits of sin off your soul, before you go on to whatever's next. You don't have to be Catholic to know that. Just happens we had a good name for it, is all.

Or that was the idea, anyway.

So I started St Joseph's Day at Delacroix's, which I know isn't a very New Orleans thing to do. Usually, you know, you dirty it up before you clean it off, if you see what I mean. Not the other way around. But me, maybe I'm finicky like that -- I shower before going to bed, too -- I never liked the idea of starting in on any kind of partying or debauchery without I whited out first.

If it tells you anything about secularism -- and me, I'm not saying it does -- the TVs at Delacroix's were broadcasting the stuff about Father Mike's trial, the speculation about whether or not he'd get the death sentence now that he was found guilty, panels of experts, shit like that. But when I took the streetcar down to Garrity's, to get one of Jimmy's poboys for lunch? TV there had the Galilei probe. Now, maybe the Delacroix's TVs switched over, too, after some whatcha call perfunctory rehashing of the Father Mike case. I can't say one way or t'other.

By time I got to Garrity's, anyway, ever'body was lookin at the TV he had up in the corner of the ceiling. I mean ever'body, I mean his niece Celia come in from the kitchen, and that boy Fredo he got cleaning the place, and the cashiers Snookie and that boy with the earrings in his nose, all of them just come out to the front there and sat down on one of them picnic tables Jimmy G has all over the place and they just were lookin at it.

So I had to look, too, because when you see that you feel like a dick if you decide you can't wait to order your poboy and Coke.

"Chezz!" Jimmy G said, in that voice where you're shouting in a whisper. "Chezz, looka!" His soul pulsed over his shoulder, as if responding to his excitement, which who knows, maybe it was. It was in pretty good shape for middle of the week -- some yellowy-purple bruises, a red splotch like a paintball wound, the usual nonspecific dirtiness you pick up over the course of an ordinary day.

The images on the TV were grainy, and just kept playing in a loop. Black and white, fuzzy, not much more than a vague sense of motion, and you could tell whatever was moving wasn't doing it too smooth. The news scrawl at the bottom said "Galilei probe damaged in landing, but landing successful."

"Shit!" I said, and got a look from Celia for it. Her soul had a compulsive shine to it, but never quite lost a green hue around the edges. "I thought it wasn't even gonna be getting there for another week?"

"Got there early," Jimmy G said with a shrug. "Cameras got thonked, though. All they got is that one ittle bit, looping over and over, wid that damn mouse wiggling his nose and stuff. But Chezz, it's Purgatory! I mean fuck all -- shut up, Celia -- we got history on the screen here."

"Don't we damn," I said. There wasn't much to see but we couldn't stop lookin, you know?

Kinda the opposite of now, where there's plenty to see and I'm doing everything I can not to look. But there's nothing for it, y'all. I look down, or straight ahead, and all's I see are shadows. I look up, and well, up is the sky. Where it meets the hills and whatever's beyond them, it looks like foaming teeth. The cycle -- what you'd call day and night anywhere on the world -- is fast here, and I've seen it go through twice but I don't think we've been here anything even close to a full day. Up from those teeth, from those jagged something-or-others, a brilliant blue is climbing the sky, and if it really is a cycle then it'll drag marble behind it, the vast cracked marble underfloor of what I have to assume is a good place to go when you die.

Behind me, the flames of Hell are setting in the crinkled-cellophane horizon of what I can only call the west. It'll be another hour before the screams are distant enough for me to risk listening, and even then I'm afraid of what else I might hear, from above and around, from everywhere.

I don't know for sure it's Heaven and Hell running through this sky, so let me put that out there to you before Mission Control starts blaring all kindsa disclaimers around. What I'm saying is that's my feeling. That's my gut. Cause when them flames is up in the sky, when the hot's beatin down on you like a wet blanket soaked in August gasoline, it ain't even the hot you're thinking on -- it's the screams, and the noises beneath the screams, and it's the devil that rises up inside you telling you all the things you forgot you did, all the things you got forgave for. When that sky presses down like a handshake, you can't think none of your good thoughts no more, and that's the plain truth so help me Jesus.

So help me Jesus.

Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know I ought to tell you my feelings on what I think is Heaven, cause I'm awful certain they're not gonna match up to the official position of the Swiss Guard Exploration Bureau, the Roman Catholic Church, or my laicized sponsor the United States government of America. So there you go, Mission Control, there is a disclaimer right there for you in my own voice and my words too. Say you happy, Jack.

But what I think on it is that it doesn't feel good when it takes its turn in the sky. It feels cold, and I don't mean like ice, although there is a settling down from it, if you see what I mean, not like a breeze but like what a breeze brings with it, when the December air gets snatched off the surface of Lake Pontchartrain. It cools you off after Hell's done set, it's true. But it feels cold like a friend you haven't seen in years cause you done bad by him and he ain't forgot. It feels cold like the woman you dint call back. It feels resentful. And that ain't something you want to feel down here in the Purgatory.

You know, that reminds me, I made a promise to one of y'all. I promised I'd look for Elijah, the mouse got sent up here with the Galilei probe, since that was a one way trip and all. I'm sorry to tell you, I haven't seen him. Maybe we touched down somewhere different. Maybe he went explorin himself. Maybe he got took up one place or t'other. But I did look.

"Purgatory can support life," that's what I remember Walter Cronkite saying on the TV, when Elijah hopped out of the probe. You could just barely make out his nose twitching at the beginning of that loop, before the video went out. "Repeat -- we have confirmed that Purgatory can support life."

"Damn," Jimmy G said, his soul bobbing a little as the tiniest spot of color floated to its surface for the profanity, and I nodded. More'n a couple of the people in Garrity's was looking at me then, you know, the ones who knew me, knew who I was. "You reckon you'll go in?" Jimmy G asked. "Reckon they'll call you?"

"Hell," I said, feeling kinda self-conscious and everything as my own little bloom of sin showed up on my just-cleaned soul. "I dunno. Who knows what they'll do. Maybe some day. Maybe one of the missions. I'uz too young to go in for the field surveys, but now, who knows. I got some years left in me."

"That boy right there," Jimmy G said to Snookie and one of the customers, a nice looking girl probably went to Loyola. "That boy's going places. He's in the Swiss Guard EB. Stands for Exploration Bureau, ladies, so he's going places for real. Probably go to Purgatory, him. Hell, probably even go to Heaven."

"Oh yeah?" the Loyola girl asked. Her soul looked slutty. I'm sorry, I know they keep on tellin us them colors ain't got no kinda correlation to anything real, but I got the old prejudices, me. When I see a soul with more red on it than anything else, well, I figure it's somebody who likes testin the mattresses. Yeah, Jimmy G was trying to get me laid, just like in high school, when he was the baseball jock and me I dint care about much except for watching Dr Morgus on the TV and reading Robert Heinlein.

"Hey Chezz," Snookie said. "What can I get for you?"

"Take me a fries and ham poboy," I said. "Lots of debris on it, if you please, and a Coke."

She smiled and saw to it, and yeah, she was one of the reasons I always had my lunch at Jimmy G's, I guess. The seafood poboys were crappy and he knew it, but the ham or the roast beef? Good enough you didn't mind a line if you kettled onto one.

Everyone was quiet again as we watched, although not a lot was happening, which I guess is how it goes with news-of-the-minute. I ate my poboy, I washed it down with the Coke, and thanked Snookie for the piece of pecan pie she brought me -- on the house, "cause it's the last one from the pie anyway," a logic I couldn't make sense of, but then, I don't run me no restaurant.

"Guess we know where Casarotto's goin," Jimmy G said in that tone of his, playful but at the same time dark, a tone I remembered from when we'uz in grade school and we'd dare each other to look in the mirror. You know, look dead-on in it instead of out the corner of our eye, like we wasn't afraid at all of catching the reflected light of our souls, no matter what we'd heard it coulda done to us.

"Now c'mon," I said, trying to sound light.

"What?" Jimmy G said. "Ain't like you're going to Holy Name any more either, or St Francis. You know as well as I do, he was a fuckin freak, a fuckin demon-consortin freak."

"Shit," I said, and everyone else was makin faces like they expected an argument to roll, so I wondered how long Jimmy'd been setting in on this line. "All we know is, you know, his soul doesn't quite seem to -- well, to work the way we think it ought."

"Uh-huh," he said. "Cause of his necromancy."

"I don't think that automatically means it's necromancy, Jimmy G, Christ almighty."

"Well, court says different now. Court says, your Father Mike's been stealing off the dead, eating off their souls, to keep his own clean. Gonna hang for it, too."

"They don't hang folks no more," Snookie said. "Gas em or something."

"Yeah, well." Jimmy G said.

"Anyway," I said. "I gotta get down the road, you know. Gotta put my offering up on the altar."

That took Jimmy off. "The public one? What about your family's?"

"Yeah, well," I said, and shrugged. He knew il mio famiglia went to Father Mike's church, and he knew I didn't, so I figured he could piece the rest together. That was the thing with Jimmy, he was from a small family -- two parents, one older brother, an aunt whose daughters he'd set me up with, and ever'body else was dead or in Texas. "Anyway."

"Happy St Joseph's, Cesare," Snookie said, and gave me a little hug.

I picked me up a muffuletta at Central Grocery, and a box of pralines, and brought em on up to St Anthony's, where they had a big ole altar set up. The way St Joseph's altars work, see, the father of the house is supposed to build one without spending any money on it -- he's supposed to go door to door, begging for the supplies and what all. I didn't have a father, me, not no more, but my uncle woulda done it if my grandfather weren't feeling up to it. But this year, well, I wasn't having much to do with them Primas, is the thing.

They done a nice job at Tony's, though: the altar was like a few tables put together, like the Holy Cross with two extra vertical parts, for to represent the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By the time I got there, it was already covered with candles, gold medals, fava beans, twelve whole baked redfish for the miracle of the loaves and fishes, pignolatti, and a buncha breads and cakes. My pralines and sandwich, they were pretty dwarfed in there, but that was all right. Later, at the end of the day, what would happen'd be the kids in the neighborhood or from wherever, they'd knock on the door -- shout "tupa tupa," which is, you know, Italian for "knock knock" and kinda sounds like it too -- and the priest would tell em no, they can't come in. Two more times they'd knock, and the third time, then they'd come in, and knock the altar over, breaking it and spilling the food. Whatever the kids didn't take, it went to the poor.

And me I figured, buncha kids, like I used to be? Rather get some pralines than fava beans or a salami, no matter how good that salami is, right?

And also I was thinking of Father Mike, yeah. Pralines were what he put on the altar, every year. Pralines and a muffuletta -- that's a sandwich, by the way, cold cuts and cheese and olive salad on a big round bread the size of a manhole cover. I mean, necromancer, no necromancer, I don't know, I can't explain it. I always thought there might be at least something to the Marcion heresy, that different souls taint differently. Some people are born stronger than others. Maybe some of em's better sinners. I know it ain't a good thought, but I'm saying, is necromancy any better a one?

I didn't see much more of St Joseph's Day, cause when I went home to change for the parade, I had a message flashing on the answering machine. Work. Not the local office, but the regional director's office in San Antonio.

I'd got called in. They announced it by the end of the day: Man was going to go to Purgatory, like we'd dreamed of without realizing it for time on end, like President Kennedy'd promised. I mean, some of y'all, some of y'all out there's too young to remember life before that promise, life in them early days when we was all sure we was gonna do it but had no idea how. We knew the veil could be pierced, but not what to do on t'other end.

But now, not only did we know how to get there -- wouldn't be long fore they'd have maps of the veil down at the K&B, down at the Winn-Dixie, and nice big fancy ones you could hang on your wall -- we knew we could survive there. Not for long. Not for long at all, we dint figure, not to be safe. Purgatory ain't meant for living in, after all, and someone showing up with taint on their souls, too much sin, well, they might get eat up, or hurt bad, or who knew what.

But I was martyr-class. What the Church said that meant was, I cleaned up after myself real quick, and I lived careful. My soul never took color over fifty percent, not in the time they'd been tracking it. And it never stayed dark for long. I was whatcha call fastidious. The Marcions and the like, they mighta said I was just better at sinning, like they mighta said it about Father Mike, but the Church, you know. The Church doesn't see things through that eye.

We were gonna figure it all out, that's how it felt. We was gonna figure out how the afterlife worked. How long it took for sin to be cleansed from a soul fore that soul ascent to Heaven. What sins were truly unforgivable and consigned a soul to Hell. How effective prayers for the dead were, and whether some prayers would do more good than others, jumpstart the soul's metabolism so's it'd get clean quicker. And maybe we'd finally end that debate Augustine and Galileo had across the centuries: whether Purgatory and Hell shared the same fires, or whether they was "separate but sympathetic."

We said alla that, and I think we're still figuring it out, me. I guess the details, well -- I kinda, I don't want Mission Control cuttin me off, I kinda want to keep talkin as long as I'm able. So I'll leave it to them to fill you in or not as they like it. Me, I'm just gonna sit here. Y'all pray for my crew. Wherever they are. I guess we don't know yet if prayers help, but I got a silver dime says they can't hurt.

I think them shadows hugging the hills noticed my soul's gone. It lasted longer'n the others, but longer ain't forever. They keep swarming. Moving. Ain't nothing I can see casting em, and I think maybe that's the thing of it. I just keep thinking of St Joseph's Day -- keep thinking of packing my bag while the kids down the street, the kids all over, pounded on the doors shouting "Tupa-tupa!" and being told to go away.

The marble sky pushes on overhead, rippled with cracks and fissures like the foundation of some old, old house. On the green hills, the shadows swarm and surge forth like stormwaters, and I'm wondering will I recognize mine fore it comes for me.

The visible soul

In this setting, the soul possesses the following characteristics:

  • Only humans have souls. Whatever people may speculate about the moral treatment of animals, or the fate of animals in the afterlife ("will my dog go to heaven?"), it remains the case that animals lack souls. (OOCly, we might hedge and say they lack visible souls, but since souls are visible in this setting, implying an invisible soul might exist would be like saying someone "lacks visible feet." The adjective would seem an unnecessary qualifier.)

  • The soul is visible as a bright white sphere hovering over the shoulder.

  • The soul possesses no mass, is not composed of atoms or other particles, does not give off light or heat, and although it's intangible, it's exceptionally rude and unpleasant to touch the space "occupied" by a soul, whether your own or someone else's. It is perceptible on film, and recent (20th century) scientific advances have enabled researchers to observe the soul's passage to another place upon the death of the body.

  • It becomes "dirty" over time -- evidently the result of sin or wrongdoing -- developing splotches, stains, and other blemishes until the white is entirely covered up.

  • Certain actions remove these blemishes and return the soul to its original white state.

  • The soul remains an unblemished white -- although some argue that it isn't as brilliant a white as an adult's soul is when thoroughly cleaned -- until sometime between age 3 and 5, typically. Some developmental disorders slow the onset of the first blemish (which, while feared at some points in human history, is generally celebrated the way "baby's first tooth" or "baby stands up unassisted" is) -- but not all of them, and multiple medical studies have shown that no human reaches puberty without a blemished soul.

  • Upon death of the body, the soul disappears from sight, its energy passing on to some other place -- by convention, we call that place Purgatory.

  • Unlike everything soulless (animals, plants, inanimate objects, etc), humans cast no shadows. Beginning with Newton's Optics, science has done a good job of explaining this with lots of diagrams and complicated math. The typical answer given both before and after Newton, though, is that the light of the soul chases away the darkness of shadows.

  • Humans are very, very uncomfortable looking at their reflections in the mirror, and the less distorted the reflection, the more uncomfortable they are. Psychologists and biologists are not yet agreed on whether there's any legitimate basis for this discomfort -- folklore insists it jeopardizes the soul, and modern-day "conventional wisdom" says that seeing your reflection can cause migraines, vertigo, and eyestrain.

  • There is considerable debate about what causes a soul's stain and why various remedies work to clean it.

Notice what isn't said here, as Chezz alludes to in the story above: the existence of a soul does not in of itself prove the existence of God, or the veracity of any one religion over another, per se (it does seem to privilege those religions which discuss the continued existence of the soul after death). Christians have as much going for them as Buddhists, Jews, atheists, Hindus, members of the Native American Church, and so on. Essentially, the existence of the soul ceases to be a religious matter: its treatment and import remain the religious focus.


There continues to be considerable debate about whether a sinful action leads directly to a corresponding stain, or whether stains are the result of accumulation. Contrary to the way things are often portrayed in this world's fiction and folklore, stains don't actually show up in immediate response to sin -- there is a lag of sorts, but it's hard to tell just how long that lag is without being able to quantify things somehow, which can't yet be done. There are quacks on the internet and handing out pamphlets at the airport, claiming they know how to "track stains," but neither science nor mainstream theology agree with them yet.

If you're not sure what the difference is, consider this analogy: if you buy a pack of gum with five dimes, did you buy two sticks of gum with each dime, or did you buy a whole pack for fifty cents? Is any individual dime in the transaction significant? Would it matter if you were paying in ten nickels, two quarters, or a mixture? Or is the only important thing the final sum? (You can tell which side of the debate the analogy favors.)

But perhaps, in fact, a white lie eventually shows up on your soul as an orange spot. Maybe a betrayal of a friend appears as a greasy green smear. Maybe the general muddiness of a soul's surface is due to its owner's misanthropy. It's certainly a theme that's popular with this world's poets.

Because the link can't be demonstrated, though, there is disagreement both between and within religions as to what constitutes a sin -- and to what extent intent is important. Unlike in the real world, however, you have a long history of "experiments" (ranging from the ridiculous to the rigorous) aimed at testing the relative morality of actions. Some critics point out the difficulty in setting up a truly effective experimental environment for this, particularly given the impossibility of infallibly demonstrating the intent of an experiment's subjects.


One place where that debate becomes more than abstract is when it comes to cleaning one's soul. A number of remedies exist for soul-cleaning, and they all seem to work -- but many will argue that some work better than others (and disagree about which those some are), while others will argue that intent is more important than deed. Whatever the case, traditional remedies include (but are not limited to):

  • Prayer.

  • The Catholic rite of confession. (Technically it's the subsequent penance that does the cleaning.)

  • Ritual cleansings and purifications, such as through baptism, purging, smoke, sweat lodges, fasting, flagellation, orgasm, bloodletting, etc.

  • Doing good works. While there's always going to be debate about what this includes, nearly everyone agrees that feeding the hungry and caring for the sick or infirm are Good Things.

  • Many Christians believe that taking part in the rite of Communion cleans the soul -- some say completely, some just "a lot." This is not an official part of mainstream Protestant theology, and Catholic theology dances around the question somewhat; but it remains a compelling belief among the laity. (Some also argue that participating in any Church rite -- witnessing a wedding or ordination, presenting a child for baptism, etc -- has a smaller cleaning effect, but this is not as popular a belief: it emphasizes the importance of ritual in Communion, not simply the transubstantive effect of it.)

  • Making a sacrifice, a broad term which includes everything from animal and plant sacrifices (largely abandoned in modern times, with some symbolic exceptions like the burning of a handful of grain from the first harvest in some farming communities around the world, or the placement of food on St Joseph's Day altars discussed in the story above) to putting a dollar in the collection plate at church.

  • Repentance. Some theologians and philosophers argue that learning from one's errors is sufficient to forgive the sin of them; while this can make for clever aphorisms, it's extremely difficult to live up to (and that, some of those philosophers will add, is why Man needs God).

  • Amends. If you have sinned against someone, repair the damage you have done to them.

  • Punishment. For many religious people -- particularly conservative Christians in the United States and parts of Europe, and some Muslims in the Middle East -- the state has a duty to punish wrongdoers because that punishment assists them in the burden of their sin, and hence benefits all (this is a variation of the "I'm doing this for your own good" speech every child learns to hate).


Yes, it's "sanctuariums," not "sanctuaria," although there are well-meaning pedants who will say otherwise.

A sanctuarium is like a gym: its goal is to make convenient (and make a profit from) those activities you need to do to improve yourself. For years, sanctuariums would claim it had discovered the "most effective" methods for soul-cleaning -- in most countries which regulate the private sector, those claims have become illegal in recent years, since science has not yet managed to back them up.

Much as gyms have machines set up on which to do your exercises, sanctuariums have them set up to assist you with doing charitable works: you can do volunteer work (envelope stuffing, data entry, basic assembly, the specifics vary) in return for which the sponsoring company donates the money they would have spent to charity; you can cook meals for the homeless and hungry; sew clothes; prepare medications; and so on. Las Vegas, of course, even has drive-through sanctuariums.

Many sanctuariums are non-denominational, which for many people is code for "secular" or "atheist" -- they're places you can go and wash your sins away without needing to believe in God, or at least in any specific religion. But the major religions all have them too -- traditionally they were an adjunct to the church, synagogue, mosque, etc., but these days they're usually free-standing (but tend to retain their association with a specific church). Usually the charities supported by a denominational sanctuarium are religious organizations, missions in other countries, and so on. Catholic sanctuariums have on-site confessionals.

The tainted soul

What happens if you don't clean your soul? What happens if you just let the stains accumulate, until what once was white turns a dirty, rancid black?


At least, that seems to be the consensus. There are few cases where it's clear that the taint of a soul actually killed its possessor: but science has comfortably proven the signs of soul-sickness leading up to death, including (usually in this order):

Sluggishness, narcolepsy, insomnia, and other sleep disorders.

Breathing troubles and exacerbation of existing cardiovascular problems, if any.

Manic depression.

Birth defects in children conceived by parents with heavily tainted souls.

Deep lethargy similar to mononucleosis.

Religion and the atheist response

There are some inevitable differences in the religions of this world versus our own, but they're all nevertheless there in roughly the same way: the "religions are just multiple paths leading to the same goal" conceit which is popular in the real world is a bit more popular here, and is much more frequently the subject of actual debate, since there are nominally measurable results in the form of the cleaning of the soul, and its passage to Purgatory. If evangelical Christianity were really the only way to get to Heaven, this argument will ask, why aren't evangelical Christians the only ones able to clean their souls? (The answer given either invokes necromancy, a charge common in ancient and Medieval times -- see below for more on that -- or argues, logically enough actually, that we cannot know for certain that the cleaning of the soul is more than cosmetic.)

Despite the phrasing of the minigame's conceit -- that certain religious claims had been proven -- atheism, agnosticism, and secular indifference are alive and well here. The existence of a soul proves nothing about God; it proves nothing about the creation of the universe, or our role in it -- it is harder to get around the proposition that humans are in some way set aside from animals, but this is not a requisitely religious proposition. Likewise, although it is clear that the soul travels on to Purgatory upon the death of the body, there is as yet no proof that it brings with it any sort of awareness, any sort of sentience: in other words, pointing out that the soul moves on to somewhere else after the death of the body may be no more evidence of an afterlife existence than is the fact that the feet continue to exist after death, at least for awhile.

Deism -- broadly speaking, the idea that God created the universe but no longer interacts directly with it, and instead built in natural laws (which we discover through physics, biology, etc) so that the universe could govern itself -- is popular here as well, with many of its supporters in fact using the soul's visible tainting as evidence. A non-Deist theistic world, after all, might need a God who stuck around to examine every soul -- this one has tagged them all in advance.

Necromancy, Fetches, and other Legendry

A great many folk tales and other legends persist relating to souls. It would require a book-length work to address all of them for all the world's cultures, but in Western culture the most important ones are:

Necromancy. Necromancy is the magical art of transferring the taint of one's own soul to the passed-on souls of the dead. Technically, as we see in the story above, necromancy remains a crime, but it's one that hadn't been prosecuted in a very long time. Necromancy is considered by many to be the worst of crimes: it inflicts suffering upon the dead, who have no one to defend them, and it removes the necromancer from the natural order of things which keeps us in check.

Fetches. A fetch is a legendary creature who, like a vampire, can appear human, but is in fact supernaturally evil. The specifics vary, except that they are always identified by the fact that they possess shadows -- which is why they are rarely found during the day. In some stories, they also lack souls, like human-shaped animals; in others, they have both soul and shadow.

Witches. One of the many things it is alleged witches can do is cleanse a soul by shifting its taint elsewhere -- not to the dead, but to the soul of another. Some cultures have sin eaters who take the taint upon themselves; others have witches who can be hired or otherwise enticed to heal one person while cursing another.

The exploration of the afterlife

Although space has been explored in this world, much as in our own, this column is more interested in discussing the exploration of the afterlife. The existence of Purgatory -- a "morally neutral" realm through which all souls travel before moving on to the more hypothetical Heaven or Hell (or, perhaps, other afterlives altogether) -- has been suspected since ancient times. Aristotle claimed to have seen a soul enter it, but Galileo was the first to "pierce the veil" between this universe and another, observing differences in light, heat, and air quality through a tiny opening. Since then, our knowledge of Purgatory has expanded along with all of our other sciences.

Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and others -- William Blake, for instance, based a poem on the idea -- all suggested that it might be possible to travel, bodily, to Purgatory (and perhaps beyond?) without needing to die first, citing the bodily ascension of Enoch, Elijah, and various saints as evidence. A pure soul might be a prerequisite, they reasoned -- one as free of taint as possible. Newton was the one to demonstrate for the first time that the place the soul disappeared to and the place Galileo discovered were one and the same.

By the late nineteenth century, what we would now consider "serious" science had made considerable in-roads into addressing the issue of where, exactly, Purgatory was -- although it was quantum physics that would eventually provide the answer preferred in the twenty-first century. Still, even before we were quite sure where they were, contact was made. Newton's unpublished notebooks include an experiment in which he claims to have sent a small quantity of mercury to Purgatory, never to see it again. Nineteenth century experimenters managed to look into Purgatory through specially modified telescopes, and beyond Purgatory to what they theorized must be Hell.

Einstein devoted a small but dense chunk of work to the physics behind it all, and in the 1930s and 1940s, while Hitler was busy amassing an army of alleged necromancers and witches to attempt a massive attack on Allied souls, a coalition of Allied scientists built the first Infernal bomb under the auspices of the ironically named Trinity project. The Infernal bomb -- or more commonly simply the Hell bomb -- siphoned a tiny amount of energy out of Hell itself and unleashed it on an Earth never built to withstand it.

The effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was devastating, and fear of Hell fueled the Cold War to come.

That fear sublimated the natural aggression of powerful nations and channeled it into a fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to explore the afterlife. President Kennedy, the first Catholic president, signed the Swiss Guard Treaty, which set up a cooperative effort between the United States, the NATO nations, and the Vatican (to whom the Swiss Guard had long served as the only military force), and the Swiss Guard Exploration Bureau was formed.

The SGEB sent out a number of probes, testing the "veil," the barrier between ordinary space and the space of Purgatory and the afterlives. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the Galilei probe landed in Purgatory and provided Earth with a live camera feed, while releasing mice and other animals to affirm the presence of atmosphere and life-friendly temperatures and other ambient conditions.

The first manned mission followed some years later, after intensive training -- and you see, in the story, the results.

Why we're there

What are the motives for afterlife exploration?

1: Religious. Every religion that includes an afterlife is at least curious about this Purgatory, and which of their beliefs it matches up to. Purgatory itself is a Catholic-specific belief, mind you -- but it's only assumed (widely so, by westerners) that the place we call Purgatory shares the characteristics of Catholic Purgatory, by virtue of the fact that it appears to be neither Hell (as the probe saw no evidence of tormented souls, etc) nor Heaven (which everyone sort of thinks would be recognizable immediately). Protestants tend to consider this Purgatory a place souls pass through, without stopping, on their way elsewhere -- part of the tunnel rather than a subway station of its own, so to speak.

Venturing into the afterlife could answer a great many questions, ranging from the fairly tame and simple ("how long does a soul remain in Purgatory before moving elsewhere," "does every soul pass on to the afterlife") to the potentially dangerous ("is it possible to travel to Heaven," "can we knock on God's door," "can we use Hell as a prison"). There is a simple human need to know. Although some theologians and other religious folk are naturally concerned, there are others who posit that if God did not want us to explore the afterlife under any circumstances, he wouldn't make it accessible (and some say, further, that he didn't -- that this apparent Purgatory is simply an outer layer of the mortal universe, and that if the soul does travel through it, it's only because this is the access point to that which lies beyond).

2: Secular. Whether you're religious or not, and no matter what religion you belong to, something is there. You don't have to believe in the possibility of extraterrestrials to support space travel, after all. If the soul moves on to somewhere else at death, mightn't that somewhere else have resources we could use? Could definitive answers about this so-called "Purgatory" settle religious disputes -- or if nothing else, prevent new ones from arising?

The campaign

A campaign as I would run it would begin play shortly after the Enoch mission of the short story, and would revolve around PCs working for the SGEB (presumably another mission team, perhaps including people at Mission Control). What happened to the first team? Can it be avoided? Do the shadows in Purgatory belong to the dead, or are they somehow the shadows which correspond to the living? Etc., etc. -- this setting is very much in one of those positions where the more you discover, the less becomes clear.

As I see it, this wouldn't be an especially cinematic (as GURPS uses the term) campaign: the PCs would be about as competent as, say, your average real-world astronaut -- which is not to say that they aren't exceptionally competent people by our standards, but they're not a squad of Rambos and Batmen. Apollo 13 mixed with a little Alien -- tonally, that's how I'd imagine it.

If you decide that Chezz is correct and some people are "better at sinning than others" -- i.e. that some souls are slightly stain-resistant -- I'd make PCs who want this pay for it: a seven-point Merit in World of Darkness, an Advantage in GURPS, that sort of thing. Although you don't want to harp too much on the condition of PCs' souls -- they're used to them, after all -- don't let them go too long without cleaning them, either, without suffering some ill effect. People can go months without cleaning their soul, and years before dying, depending on the life they lead -- but they don't like to. You can go days without eating, too, but people usually don't, even if they're eating food they don't particularly like. The sluggishness and lethargy of soul-sickness can set in after less than a month, little enough at a time that it isn't noticeable at first (deduct from the PC's appropriate rolls without telling them, or increase the difficulty of certain actions, or whatever's best for the system you're using).

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What do you think?

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