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'Crowd Control,' part 11: Going through hell to get to heaven

In this installment of CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel, we pass through a border checkpoint on the way into a parallel universe.

This is "Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing," CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel written and edited by readers around the world. New to the story? Click here to start. To read other past installments, visit our table of contents.

Chapter 9

Adapted from "Knocking on Heaven's Door Through the Back End of a Black Hole" by J. Parker.

Terra Superioris Central Port of Entry, April 13, 2051

"You have got to be kidding me," Josephina said to herself as she stood in the queue behind a woman mumbling to herself.

By all appearances they seemed to be in some sort of customs and immigration line at the cleanest, most well-organized jetport she'd ever seen. It was not exactly how she had pictured being welcomed to an alternate universe, but it did make a cruel kind of sense.

Sam Falconer

Her first instinct had been that the experiment had failed. She had imagined herself whizzing through the cosmos, the packets of particles making up her consciousness somehow comprehending stars and planets in the distance, despite the obvious lack of eyes or any other sensory organs to experience them with.

She and Alex had predicted that it was far more likely she would wake up in the lab remembering nothing of the trip her particles had made. The proof would come in later examining her brain activity for evidence that the experiment had succeeded.

But this scene made the least sense. A long and super-sanitized security queue? It had all the hallmarks of a lucid dream -- or perhaps a trip to purgatory, or worse -- rather than a successful journey to another universe.

"Do you know where we are? What's going on?" The frail woman in front of her turned around.

Josephina was aware the woman was speaking a language she didn't know. Something like Tagalog, maybe? While the individual words hitting her ears were undecipherable, she was able to understand what she was hearing, as if her brain were involuntarily translating every word.


Editor's note: Josephina's automatically bioengineered body was designed to match her own perception of herself, as determined from her consciousness data upon passing through the "entry rings" just beyond T.S., but with a few upgrades received by all new migrants, such as auto-translation ability.


"Apparently, we're waiting to get in to Terra Superioris, or at least that's what that huge welcome sign over there says," Josephina responded in a whisper.

"The last thing I remember are the sirens," the woman said. "The sirens were so loud, and then it was dark, horribly dark...until...it was like a light went on, you know. Just bright white light. That light back there."

She pointed toward the back of the room. In front of them and to the right and left were short lines, all leading toward the set of doorways below the "Welcome to Terra Superioris" sign. Behind them and to the sides, it was not clear where the room began or ended; there was nothing but white light. The floor, ceiling, walls, all were just white with no clear delineation separating one dimension from another. The effect was like walking through a thick fog, but one where all people and objects within the fog could be seen with complete clarity, like being in the eye of a hurricane, or inside an air bubble as it floats through a glass of bioluminescent milk.

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Eric Mack/CNET


A man in a powder-blue uniform carrying what appeared to be a large briefcase was making his way down the line in their direction, stopping to speak briefly to each person in the queue. Every few people, he would stop and flip his briefcase over so that it rested horizontally. What it rested on was not clear. It seemed to just hover in the air like something out of a vintage science fiction movie or some piece of gimmicky hover gear from a catalog.

From inside the case, the uniformed man withdrew a wide variety of sundries, the totality of which clearly should not have been able to fit in the case. Blankets, stuffed animals, an older-model VR headset, drinks, sandwiches, fresh fruit, screens and one live miniature pig had all emerged from that case while Josephina listened to the woman in front of her give a lengthy description of what she could recall of the last moments of her life on Earth, which were sadly mundane and involved some very bad toast from her final breakfast.

The people in the powder-blue uniforms also seemed to be consoling or otherwise calming the fair number of people in the lines who appeared to be at the point of melting down. A few cried, some shouted out, but the majority just shuffled forward in a catatonic state, uncertain of where they were but generally aware of a few of the possibilities and eager to get through the gate to see what lay behind Door No. 1.

Is "Crowd Control" sparking your imagination? Share your visual interpretations.

"Good day, ladies. Welcome to your new home. Some people like to call it Heaven, which is all right by us, but we call it Terra Superioris and it's my job to make you comfortable during your processing time here. I know you certainly have plenty of questions, and I assure you we will be answering them all soon. But for now, I just want to put you at ease. So, please, what can I offer you? Something to eat or drink, maybe?"

"Are we in Singapore? This must be City Island, right?" the woman in front of Josephina asked.

"No, we're currently on the other side of the planet, although I'm sure we're much farther away from the specific place you're thinking of. And anyhow, as I was saying, I promise we'll explain everything just as soon as we get through processing, which is easily the worst part of life here on T.S. Nowhere to go but up from here, ladies! So how about a drink or a snack, I can make anything for you."

Yes, it's kind of like this.

CBS

Two coffees, one chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of kimchi later, Josephina had made her way to the front of the line to be processed. The procedure had all the bells and whistles of the typical immigration and customs check, but with the odd addition of copious smiles and latte refills. There was also the interview.

The interviewing officer, who identified herself as Diplomat Second Class Peralta, asked Josephina about her career, educational and family background, hobbies and special skills followed by an awkward section of questions about unrealized dreams and desires. At the end of the prolonged question-and-answer session, she was fitted with some sort of advanced VR setup and asked to play a series of games. In the span of an hour, the system put her through jet flight simulators, various mathematical calculations, pattern recognition routines and even martial-arts competitions.

"So isn't this the point where you tell me where I really am? I mean, Terra Superioris is a little heavy-handed, isn't it? Why not just come out and call it Better Earth."

Josephina was still running probabilities in her head. The odds that the experiment would have succeeded this spectacularly -- landing her in a world identical to her own in many ways, and even in her same physical body -- were inconceivable. She concluded it was far more likely that she was trapped somewhere in her subconscious, or someplace even more bizarre that she hadn't yet imagined.

Diplomat Peralta smiled. "It's funny how the transition is often hardest to process for the most well-educated new arrivals. It's a lot to process, and I don't mean to condescend, but you'll come to fully understand things in time, especially someone of your intellectual pedigree."

Josephina let out an exasperated sigh and leaned back in her chair, tired of mentally fighting her uncertain state of being and resigned to letting the bizarre journey carry her to the next waypoint.

Peralta looked up from her paperwork. "To answer your question, though. This used to also be called Earth, and once the portal was discovered and the migration system put in place, the name was changed to make things less confusing, and while I shouldn't mention this, there was obviously a little political hubris involved, but let's just leave it at that for now. You can always dig deep by taking a parallel-history course."

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Click on the book cover to read past installments of "Crowd Control."

Sam Falconer

"A course?"

"Naturally. I'm sure you know your way around institutes of higher learning. A course catalog should be provided to you once we get you paired up with your initial assignment, which will of course be an at-will situation. You're free to work and live where you please, but we've taken the liberty of getting you all set up while you orientate yourself to your new life."

"And I suppose there's some reason that I can't say no to my initial assignment? That I can't walk back out those doors and back into that weird endless room of white light and find my way back home?"

The diplomat seemed to ignore the question. She pulled a screen from behind the desk and set it in front of Josephina.

"This is a technology that I believe you're familiar with on Earth. We've done our best to replicate the interface of current information-networking technologies with this device. I've given you third-level access to our global archive here because of your background, which includes course material on multiversal physics. It will explain in terms more eloquent than I ever could why the portal that brought you here is most certainly a one-way door, if you will."

"My, my!" Josephina exclaimed sarcastically. Was some element of her own unconscious ego now talking down to her? "What have I done to deserve such privileged access?"

"I understand your suspicion of our system. Again, you didn't hear this from me, but others will surely tell you that it isn't a perfect one. People arrive from Earth with all levels of education and ideas about the true nature of Terra Superioris and how they arrived here. You are one of the rare ones with the mental capacity and educational background to actually understand the answers to those questions. For the more 'average Joes and Joses'"...Peralta made awkward air quotes as she spoke, "as I think the phrase is on Earth, it can take decades of onboarding new information to comprehend. You'll find most of them resistant to any explanation that contradicts their preconceived notions of the AfterEarthLife or just afterlife as most call it. So, while I can't prevent you from sharing the information in the archives that I've just given to you, I caution you to be mindful of what you share and with whom, as there are very real potential mental health consequences of sharing the truth with a mind that is unable to process it."

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A discussion from the contributors' Facebook group about the direction of the story.

Eric Mack

"Yes, I'm sure you don't want to distract the ignorant masses from those shiny suitcases of yours satiating our every basic desire."

Peralta flinched and paused for a second before rising from behind her desk. "Anyhow, let's get you set up with your place so you can start to get orientated and the answers to many of your questions will emerge along the way."

The only door to the small room slid open as if it could sense the tension in the room and was doing its part to smooth over an awkward moment. "We have what I think you'll find to be a very fascinating and satisfying assignment and a quite desirable living situation in the Tenochtitlan district. Right this way, please."

Next up, it's time to hyperloop over to a haute high-rise where Josephina discovers a surprising connection with one of her new neighbors.

See our "Crowd Control" contributors list.