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'Crowd Control,' part 6: Death you can believe in

In this installment of CNET's crowdsourced sci-fi novel, Meta is assigned his first mission, and it will take him to corners of the multiverse you might recognize.

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 5

Excerpted from "Meta: Biography of a Diplomat," Tenochtitlan Digital, 2077.

Terra Superioris, March 7, 2051

The headlines on Meta's screens were uncharacteristically ominous in the weeks leading up to his final certification at the academy. Discussions in classes were more easily derailed by questions about the future of interversal trade and immigration asked by students who just weeks earlier were more likely to be drooling or snoring through sessions that were largely remedial, a last chance to catch up.

"I don't understand why we can't just offer more positions to the subs," Zulema shouted in frustration during one class, surprising her fellow students with her use of a derogatory term for migrants.

"Yea, we need help now," echoed Nara. "Everything is broken at my place since our help got poached to work at some resort out in Oaxaca. Versatile maintenance bots cost a fortune, otherwise my family would have already ordered one. I'm stuck trying to figure out how to get coffee without any kind of functioning fabrication system. You want to hear something crazy? Did you know that stuff comes from beans?"

"Nara, you are so clueless." Meta slapped his friend on the back from across the aisle.

Trainer Cortes interrupted. "Can we redirect this little aside, please, candidates? As you know, we don't control the actual migration rate, all we can do is grab whoever comes through the portal and get them trained up as quickly as possible. Sometimes we get lucky with a plane crash of physicists or artificial-intelligence specialists heading home from a conference that we can onboard relatively quickly, but as we've discussed, your average Earth human has a woefully limited understanding of their own universe, let alone the multiverse.

"You think this class is dense...just imagine running into someone famously brilliant for their time like Copernicus. Even though he may have understood the universe better than anyone else on his world at the time, he still lacked an understanding of some key basics. Imagine trying to explain to him how electricity works, or how light and electricity carry data. You'd do just as well explaining it to a child -- that's what we face with each new migrant, even the most skilled. They have the ability, but they need to be brought up on generations' worth of science and engineering knowledge."

Nara wasn't able to tolerate this off-topic derailment of his own off-topic derailment of the class. "So what, you're saying it's hopeless? We can't get more migrants to keep things running and we couldn't train them fast enough even if we could get more of them? Why are we even here then? What's the point of certifying more helpless diplomats, Cortes?"

"It's only hopeless if you turn out to be as dumb a diplomat as you sound right now, Narragansett," Cortes fired back. "If you don't want to be wandering around your kitchen making amazing discoveries about the origin of your entire breakfast for the rest of your life, then you can help all your other fellow cadets erase one of the key immigration limitations so that it's not so hopeless."

Nara, Meta and the rest of the room fell silent and waited for Cortes to continue.

"The onboarding system is actually quite efficient. New migrants are often filled with so much wonder and admiration for their new surroundings that they tend to soak things up with ease, and we've become quite good at identifying their strengths and updating their greatest asset skills right away to perform their assigned functions. That leaves us with just one area where we can improve -- we need to be able to influence the number of arriving migrants from the other side."

More silence from the room.

"How many of you have heard from migrants you know that it's taking longer than they expected for their family or friends to get here?"

More than half the cadets in the room raised a hand. Meta suddenly knew where Cortes was going. He knew the waiting had been getting to Charles. His wife should have left Earth years, if not decades, ago.

"Who knows why that's happening?"

Significantly fewer hands went up.

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Lecture on another world.

Eric Mack/US Marines

"On Earth, they're called nanobiotics. From what we can gather from migrant interviews, they're a rudimentary version of our own bioengineering technology that is added to their natural-born bodies, delaying what they still conceive of as 'death,' which, as we've discussed, is the No. 1 fear among the humans there. Just as they've started to give up the myths that we all hear constantly about the afterlife, they double down on the myth of death and their obsession with avoiding it at all costs."

"But we have a solution for this problem," Cortes continued. "Believe it or not you're among the top diplomatic trainees on Superioris and in peak physical condition." Here, Cortes shot a look at Nara, and Meta couldn't help chuckling out loud. "Which is key for some of the missions you'll be embarking upon. You have a good background knowledge of the historical forces that have driven the Earth humans for centuries, and the skill to use those to your advantage...to the advantage of all Superiorans."

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Bryce Rajkarnikar, a student from Nepal soon to be living in Copenhagen, is a master of the single-eyebrow raise.

Meta and Nara exchanged a glance. Was this going where they thought it was going?

"You all know that on Earth, war crimes, poverty, disease and hatred caused the death and misery of millions -- billions -- of people. Whereas here on Superioris, we have left that unfortunate legacy behind and created Utopia. We have enough resources for every Superioran. We have peace. We protect our planet's beauty and sustainability. We provide work and education for every Superioran and every Earthen soul that arrives here." Cortes seemed to be whipping himself, and the class, up to some grand conclusion.

"Now is the time that you can do your part to perpetuate our society. To rescue the humans of Earth from the Hell of their own devising and bring them to the Heaven of ours."

There was a dramatic silence as Cortes looked self-righteously around the classroom. "Look, I don't need to ox-s**t you all. We know very well things are far from perfect here, but we don't have to let the migrants in on that little secret now, do we?"

Most of the students glowered back at him, but a few, Meta included, looked excited as well as hesitant.

"Tomorrow we'll discuss the details of your upcoming assignments. In the meantime, remember that you are not to discuss official diplomatic business with anyone outside of this program. Well, this is it, trainees, your transition from students to active diplomats in the service of Terra Superioris! Class dismissed. Meta, stay behind, please." Meta sank back into his chair.

"You have a particularly religious migrant, do you not? What's his name? Carlos?"

"Charles, sir," Meta replied.

"Ah, Charles. Well, not all of your classmates have had such valuable firsthand exposure to the religious attitude among humans. And you have displayed a particular interest in it, I believe. The Institute is impressed at the informal field research you've voluntarily engaged in, exploring Charles' beliefs and reaction to his transition to Superioris. In fact, it's not just the people here at the Institute taking notice, you've also been referred to The Committee.

"Both the faculty here and The Committee view you as a potentially key member of our mission to increase the rate of migration. Your aptitude for persuasion and other interpersonal skills that will aid you in your first mission have also not gone unnoticed. You're being singled out among your classmates, Meta -- a great honor."

Cortes seemed to be waiting for a response. Meta was suddenly concerned and trying his best to hide it.

The Committee was among the most secretive branches of government on T.S., so much so that its full name was not publicly known. He had heard of older diplomats being drafted for Committee missions in the past. He wasn't sure he knew what became of any of them.

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

Sam Falconer

"What will I...do?" Meta asked.

Cortes delivered his next line with a flourish, as if confident it would impress.

"You'll go to Earth."

There was a long silence as Cortes allowed the gravity of the revelation to sink in. It was akin to the earliest Puritan pilgrim voyages across the Atlantic, to visit a place that everyone knew existed, but that was thought to be wild, dangerous and practically unreachable.

"I don't understand. Hu...how?" Meta stammered.

"We have the technology. We've had it for a while. Heck, we've been working on reverse-engineering the white hole phenomenon that brings them to us from there ever since we discovered it. We started testing it when we were only able to make it a one-way trip."

"Maybe you've heard of the microdome algae experiment?"

"I think so," Meta said. That was the lesson he slept through in reverse-engineering class.

"Right. We found a way to send to Earth a vitally important new species, an aggressively reproducing algae that can survive in salt water while rapidly converting carbon dioxide to other compounds. It spread rapidly, lowering the levels of the gases that were slowly killing all life on that planet, until Earth's atmosphere returned to its natural balance and then that algae itself died off before it could start new troubles. It was one hell of a gift, if you ask me.

"Anyway, you know about that. It's in your curriculum here. But what I'm sure is not in the curriculum are the results of our successful manned, round-trip missions to Earth."

"Doesn't that violate Diplomatic ethics to interfere, er, uh...to visit an unenlightened civilization? Are the rules different when we're dealing with civilizations from another universe?" Meta protested instinctively, forgetting both his general disdain for ethics and who he was arguing with.

Cortes smiled.

"A fair point. This is part of why you were selected for this mission...always an eye on the details. Very good," Cortes patted Meta on the back and then began pacing, slipping back into lecture mode. "We have been authorized to bend the rules a little bit. Ever heard migrants talk about cryptids back on EB-2? They use lots of different names for them like Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Woodsman."

Meta laughed out loud. He'd heard more than one drunken migrant, including Charles, make reference to the creatures when they were a little too inebriated and forgot where they were.

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They have the technology.

NASA

"You're telling me those crazy Earth legends are all real? That it's actually...us?"

"Oh, definitely not all of them," Cortes scoffed. "Multiversal historians tell us that the majority of the sightings, if not all up until a few decades ago, were hoaxes. We simply continued the tradition. We've actually engineered a real Sasquatch, so at least one of those sightings was not a hoax. Of course, the savages shot the beautiful creature and we had to pull him back through the portal before they could drag him off. He didn't survive long after that."

"So, you want to send me there like you sent some freak genetic creation who ended up shot by Earth humans?"

"We've moved well beyond that point. We've been sending cadets like you on brief test missions, we call them silent missions. We've confirmed that the round-trip journey is not only possible, but has an extremely high success rate, especially for candidates of your premium bioengineered pedigree. You are Mr. 2030 himself, after all."

Cortes smirked and even seemed to roll his eyes a bit. Meta resisted the urge to gouge out his superior's eyes as he continued.

Feeling inspired as you read? Learn how you can still contribute your visual interpretations.

"We're now ready to turn the volume up, which is why we've tapped you to conduct our first vocal mission."

"Vocal mission?"

"Everything will be explained to you in your training, which will be extensive and will begin now. Given the confidential nature of the mission, we've taken the liberty of assigning you a new, temporary post where you'll be taught everything you need to know to be prepared. Just follow me and we'll get you set up."

"But...my family?"

"Yes, they'll be notified, of course. Your life will be waiting for you after this mission is complete, Meta. You're going to be doing a great service to two societies. Get ready to become a hero, perhaps the first one across two universes."

With that, Cortes pushed open the fire door in the rear of the auditorium that Meta had never seen anyone use. A white, nondescript unmarked transport was waiting outside for both of them.

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Screenshot/CNET

April 10, 2051

Meta had spent a month being pummeled with more information than physical training. He was taken to a small Diplomatic camp set up in a forest reserve not far from the Capitol where he was given refresher courses on martial arts and antique weapons operation and repair, but the vast majority of training involved role playing and developing persuasion techniques.

Their propaganda included references derived from the Christian bible, cross-referenced with parallel passages from the Koran and a dozen other holy Earth texts. Meta quickly recognized the religion that Charles followed and the one that proclaimed not only the miracle of Heaven, but the reincarnation of a messiah that comes down to Earth from Heaven. Meta found this particularly funny. He sometimes referred to himself as Jesus when no one was around. He studied quotes from the bible such as Genesis 3:19, "People should return to the ground from which they were taken, because they are dust," as well as Ecclesiastes 12:7, "Body goes to earth and spirit goes to God." They all read like part of the perfect sales pitch...for death.

Click on the screenshot above to see an earlier draft of this scene, including discussion from contributors.

Eric Mack/CNET

By the end of the fourth week going over all sorts of tricks of oration, psychological manipulation and rhetorical deflection, Meta had still not been briefed on the specific details of his mission objectives, and he was starting to feel as though he were being primed for a run for a local political office rather than an interuniversal diplomatic mission.

He had been working the entire time with a handful of white-suited instructors he'd never seen before who wore no insignias, no indication of their name, rank or agency anywhere on their uniforms. Meta stopped asking questions of the trainers, whom he came to assume were independent contractors, after his first several queries were met with the same response:

"I'm sorry, I am not authorized to answer. Please redirect to Commander Cortes."

Cortes, however, had not been seen since Meta was dropped off at the reserve. Until he showed up suddenly at the end of day 28.

He walked into the modular facility, drawing an instant salute from Meta, who noticed he was the only one from the group with such an instinct. He was a little surprised to realize he was the only person in the room with Diplomatic training.

"Thank you, everyone, I'll take him from here."

He waited for the contractors to exit and remained silent for another 15 seconds before finally speaking.

"It's time, Meta."

Next: Meta isn't the only one with multiversal travel on the agenda...

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