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'Crowd Control,' part 5: Who will make heaven great again?

In the latest chapter of CNET's crowdsourced novel, we eavesdrop on a conversation in what seems to be the afterlife. Things there might not be as perfect as you'd guess.

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 4

Adapted from "A Migrant's Story."

Terra Superioris - January 8, 2051

Charles' deep conversations with Meta as the kid approached his certification date had the elder of the two pondering things more deeply as he did his work around the house and the rooftop garden.

By Charles' recollection it had been the better part of four decades since he died and wound up on T.S. That would make his wife Rebecca nearly 110 if time was passing for her back on Earth at the same pace as it did for him.

"Funny thing about Heaven," he would chuckle to the other recent migrants. "It's hell how slow time passes here sometimes."

Charles didn't pay it too much mind, though. He found it uncanny how completely Earth-like the actual natural parts of his second home had always been since he arrived, from the landscape to the flora and fauna. The Grand Canyon was in the exact same place it had always been and looked exactly as he remembered, but most Superiorans insisted on calling it by its Spanish name, Canon Grande, and any mention of Arizona always drew bewildered looks and questions.

"What zone are you talking about? Canon Grande is in New Spain, everyone knows that."

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Julia Zimmerman is a longtime sci-fi fan and artist who works at an awesome company.

It was these little wrinkles that most confused Charles. He had been transported to an afterlife where time seemed to move more slowly than on Earth. That seemed a reasonable byproduct of eternity to him, as did the hyper-futuristic, highly technological and more-or-less Utopian society that had been overlaid on the familiar geography of Earth.

He could even understand why so many of the residents seemed to have truly forgotten their previous life on Earth -- perhaps it was just part of the natural grieving process and essentially part of transcending to some sort of eternal Nirvana. Quite thoughtful, when you really consider it, for the good Lord to build in that feature, actually. Kind of eases you into the permanence of the afterlife for a more pleasant forever. What will the guy think of next?

But Charles could not, for the life and death and afterlife of him, figure out the reason for smaller differences. Many places had different names than on Earth, especially in North America where he had lived his first life. As far as he could determine, he was now living in the capital city of a huge Northern American country or alliance. The capital, Tenochtitlan, was more or less the same as the Mexico City he once visited in 2005, just stretched vertically.

Charles eventually determined he was paid a rather low wage compared with what his employers and other "native born" Superiorans earned. Still, hanging around in a pollution- and crime-free technological Utopian version of Mexico fixing various household robots and devices was highly satisfying, even if it didn't sound quite like Heaven.

Tinkering and fixing things had been how Charles had always chosen to spend much of his free time at home. He knew just enough to figure out how to keep most systems running and had learned to access the Council Labor Department's vast library of holographic and augmented-reality tutorials when he came across a less familiar part or gadget. He was truly impressed the council's system had managed to match him with an activity to occupy his eternity that was not only a perfect match, but also served the greater good of society and gave Charles a sense of purpose.

On measure, Charles did not actually want for anything on T.S., save for his wife. He had managed to find his parents and a few other family members who had passed before him. His father, who had been an accountant in life, reported similar satisfaction with his assigned job double-checking the number-crunching of various new and fascinating pieces of software; he said it appealed to his problem-solving abilities. Most recently, Charles' father reported that his supervisors had taken an interest in working with him to understand the various accounting methods and tax codes of 20th-century Earth for what they called a "historical project," and it gave him great satisfaction to fill the role of teacher for the Superiorans.

Superioran digital postcard, circa 2050.

Eric Mack/Pablo

Of course, it might also be that Charles and his family all had the sometimes irritating habit of being eternal optimists and now seemed determined to occupy the label literally as well as figuratively. They regularly ran into plenty of others who seemed far less content on Terra Superioris and would mock any suggestion that it was Heaven. Indeed, there were a surprising number of clearly confused but still adamant atheists wandering around who still remembered their lives on Earth but did not see the hand of God or anything else in Terra Superioris.

The prevailing theory among the nonbelievers was that they were experiencing some sort of mass delusion or prolonged dream. Others bought the new-age, quantum-theoretical gobbledy-gook that Meta was always talking.

Charles could not deny that T.S. was far from perfect. There was a fair amount of unhappiness and dissatisfaction among his neighbors, especially those who claimed to be native with no recollection of ever having lived on Earth. He made a mental note of this and resolved to stay appreciative of this afterlife and never forget his previous stage of existence, but still there were times when Charles would briefly despair and long for a beach to share with his wife and daughter. He had found it unthinkable to even consider pursuing other women on T.S., although it was an increasingly common practice among the more amorous of the believers to give up the wait for loved ones to join them.

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

Sam Falconer

As the years stretched into decades on T.S., Charles' outlook had begun to darken slightly. He had started to accept the fact that he may not have hit the afterlife lottery ticket and was more likely in some sort of high-dollar purgatory.

As Charles' chats with Meta became more involved, the boy also seemed to be becoming more anxious about the status of the family's migrant worker.

"Charles, you're happy here, right? Working for my family, I mean...you're satisfied, aren't you?" Meta asked Charles these questions as the domestic worker stared at a screen running a diagnostic scan on all household systems, from fabrication to ventilation.

"Always have been," Charles responded, his rising tone implying -- why do you ask?

"Just checking in. My parents...all of us...we just hope that if you ever got an offer to work anywhere else that...well, that you'd give us a chance to discuss it. We just want to make sure you're happy and you've got all you need."

Charles knew exactly what Meta was getting at, but he continued to play dumb. He'd always preferred to keep people guessing, especially those closest to him. Rebecca and Khloe were the only people he'd ever let get close enough to know what he was really thinking most of the time.

"So no other offers, then?"

Meta seemed truly uncomfortable with this exchange. His parents must have put him up to it, Charles thought. All members of the family were nice people, but communication was not their strength.

"Well, you know, the Pequots offered to double my salary and just let me move into the house while they pitched a tent in the yard, but I turned that down because they refused to meet my lone demand. All I wanted was my own personal space elevator. Back where I come from, I'd never ridden one more than 100 floors up, figure it's time I got a ride on a modern lift. That ain't too much to ask, now, is it?"

Charles grinned devilishly.

"Back where you come from, there must have been plenty of people awfully annoyed with Charles Danish most of the time. Maybe I'm changing my mind, old man. Maybe things aren't quite working out here."

Click on the screenshot above to see a rough draft of this scene and the contributors discussing the character of Charles as it was being written. (Watch out for chapter 5 spoilers!)

Eric Mack/CNET

Meta smiled even more mischievously than Charles to make it clear he was joking. Charles howled with laughter, giving Meta a positive barrage of elbow jabs.

"That's why I like you, boy! You're even more full of s**t than me!"

Meta knew Charles was loyal to his family, yet the rumors were circulating and even people in the migrant community had heard about it. Routine Earth immigration had been declining for years, but the decrease was accelerating more quickly and the Superiorans' supply of cheap and cheerful labor was running out. Migrant labor was thinning out and people were willing to pay more and offer more benefits for quality laborers.

Inevitably and fairly soon, Charles had been told to expect offers. Not just from other families in need of basic facility and mechanical maintenance, but even from a few T.S. government agencies in need of help as both the universe and "multiverse" exploration initiatives rapidly expanded.

With more Superiorans moving up to more advanced professions, or leaving to live on colonies off-planet, the need for migrants to move up the professional ladder into more highly skilled jobs was also increasing.

Meta had tried to talk his parents into giving Charles a higher wage, but they were unconvinced. They relied, in part, on Charles' naivete to keep him loyal to them. Charles had picked up on this, but rather than take it as a slight, he took a sort of secret pleasure in being underestimated. Knowledge was power, and knowing something without others knowing that you knew it, well...it was a bit like having a hidden superpower. It gave you leverage.

"But listen, your family's always taken good care of me," Charles said with a more serious tone to his voice as he put his arm on Meta's shoulder. "If I'm thinking of leaving, you'll be first to know. I promise."

In the next installment of "Crowd Control," Meta prepares for the most far-out trip of all time.

See our "Crowd Control" contributors list.