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.
Excerpted from "Meta: The Life of a Diplomat."
U.S.S.N. Washington, low Earth orbit, April 12, 2051
Meta awoke to classical music and cheerful whistling. He was lying on a cold surface, naked. Only a white linen blanket lay over him. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, feeling unnaturally stiff.
Meta sat up. The new body he was occupying, a female's, he noted, needed a moment to adapt.
"Um...ma'am? Dr. Parker?" A man at the other end of the room stuttered nervously.
Meta rolled his eyes and snorted in disgust. Dr. Parker. Definitely sounds like a migrant name, he thought to himself. Better get used to it, at least for the duration of the mission. He tried to get off the table but was overwhelmed with fatigue and joints that felt stiff with disuse. This was an older body he was inhabiting, and the lack of vigor took some getting used to. Even breathing was a difficult task until his -- her -- diaphragm and lungs remembered their function. Strange to have a pulse that was not his, thinking thoughts with a brain that had been dead moments ago. He held his balance, gripping the table, and the man approached to help, tentatively.
Meta's training had taught him how to compartmentalize his mental self from the physical self, to use his new shell as the tool it was meant to be, but this was not an insignificant adjustment.
"Get me out of here," Meta snapped.
"Just one second, please, um, ma'am."
Fumbling with the panel next to the door, the man then made a call, which summoned a number of frantic doctors and nurses nearly instantaneously. As they came in, a loud buzzing could be heard, and through the window of the dank-smelling examination room Meta could see that the phrase "LOCKDOWN" flashing on several of the large screens on the walls in the outer rooms.
Meta resigned himself to the situation and submitted himself to examination. They could gather all the information they wanted about this new body of his. It was just as unfamiliar to him as to everyone else in the room and would give away no secrets as to the nature of his mission.
"This patient has no record of nanobiotic installation," one of the doctors said to no one in particular.
Once they were convinced Dr. Parker was not going to die on them again anytime soon, the ring of people in masks, some holding screens in their hands, gave way and a man in a lab coat without a mask stepped forward. He took Meta's new head in his hands and cradled it, kissing the forehead.
"Josephina. You're back. We did it!"
There was a tear in his eye and Meta could feel his pulse quickening involuntarily. He had never felt a sense of anxiety that was so...physical. He thought of his training. In uncertain situations and interactions, affirmation and minimal expression were key to preventing suspicion and gathering useful intelligence for the mission.
"Yes, I am. Yes, we did."
"I love you. This is so fantastic."
The man kissed Josephina's cold lips and Meta struggled to control his shock and his instinct to pull away. Affirmation is key, he thought to himself, pressing his unfamiliar lips back into the older man's face awkwardly.
"Listen, we'll debrief once you're rested and all the lab coats are done with you. But the Party is going to want a piece of our success. They're really pushing to get both of us some media time. We'll go over what we can and can't discuss, but they want to put the word out that there's been some kind of breakthrough in multiversal research. They view it as a real coup for the Transhumanist cause. I know how you feel about playing politics with all this, but we need to give them some screen time if we want to keep the lab open."
Meta opened his mouth to respond, unsure exactly what would come out, but at that moment, he felt a sharp pain in the back of his neck.
"Why is that necessary?" Alex shouted at a figure that Meta could sense looming behind him before the room slowly went black.
U.S.S.N. Washington, April 14, 2051
Meta opened his eyes to a blurry universe. Which one, exactly, he couldn't be sure. A sense of fatigue throughout his body and an ache in several of his joints made it clear he was still in Josephina's body. He had been moved from the examination room to what looked to Meta like a bedroom out of a historical museum on T.S.
It was filled with books, despite there being a screen on the wooden study table. The bedsheets were flowery, reminiscent of the old country style. A gentle scent of lavender filled the room.
The lone door to the room slid open and a lean, black-haired girl of about 16 with a ponytail emerged. She too, had tears in her large brown eyes.
"Mom, I didn't dare believe them, I am so glad to have you back!" she cried.
Meta could understand they were overwhelmed, but it irritated him nonetheless. EB-2 humans were completely ruled by their emotions and lacked basic mental discipline. It was a flaw that made them easy to exploit, but incredibly annoying at the same time.
Meta was finding it difficult to control his own thoughts in his new body and he felt like a cheat. The father and daughter's relief at the reappearance of their family maternal figure was disconcerting and uncomfortable, like an ill-fitting outfit. Considering which body he was inhabiting, the metaphor was rather more apt, causing Meta to chuckle out loud.
"Everything OK, Mom? What's the joke?" The girl looked confused.
Maintain discipline. You're better than them, Meta thought to himself. Affirmation, remember affirmation, it is the key to assuming control.
"Everything is OK, my girl."
A photo of Alex, Josephina and Cindy as a toddler in a wooden frame hung above the bed. Meta studied the faint wrinkles in their faces. The bioengineering on this planet must be archaic, he thought to himself.
The door slid open again and Alex, looking even older than the face in the photo, stood in the passage.
"Welcome back home. I've got everything mapped out for our first network appearance. We're going to break the news that it's possible to send consciousness data between universes. The details of exactly how we did it will of course remain classified. CORP and DoD are refusing to budge on that, but so long as we give some credit to the Kurzweil Machine, it's good press for the party and the lab gets another year of funding."
Meta was beginning to wonder if he had underestimated Einstein-Beyonce scientists' grasp of the multiverse. He listened intently to Alex as they pored over a binder provided by CORP's media department, studying all the prep material and talking points he had no intention of actually using on the network. Instead, Meta had planned to rely on his own study of this planet's intensifying political and social conflicts.
A phrase he had learned in an Earth history class long ago stuck with him. Now it's time, he thought to himself. It's time to wag the dog.
Editor's note: The true nature of the Kurzweil Machine was later revealed to be less grandiose than was generally thought at the time. The phrase was the colloquial name for the Kurzweil Institute's Global Artificial Neural Network, an array of connected supercomputers that was rumored to have reached a level of artificial intelligence capable of bringing about a concept popularized by the engineer of the same name: the so-called Singularity.
A popular rumor on Earth EB-2 at this time was that the Kurzweil Machine had reached a critical mass of artificial intelligence, generating far more rumors and conspiracy theories about possible uses for the machine ranging from global mind control to time travel.
The truth, however, was that the Parkers' lab merely tapped into the Kurzweil Machine's processing power and was aided in no way by its deep learning capabilities, which wound up being deeply flawed. As the machine advanced toward sentience, it took on some of the characteristics of its designers, becoming excessively narcissistic and simultaneously misanthropic. Rather than accept commands from humans, the Kurzweil Machine turned inward, creating and running a full simulation of the multiverse, which could have catapulted EB-2 society's understanding of such things to be on par with most other civilizations'. Unfortunately, however, the Machine chose to completely lock out all humans from accessing the data from its pet simulation project. Whenever programmers attempted to reason with the computer, it simply turned a digital cold shoulder, always returning the same response: A link to an early 21st-century video of human engineers abusing a prototype android.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 8: Traveling between universes requires a new body
Jul 1•'Crowd Control,' part 22: Spies in heaven
Jun 30•'Crowd Control,' part 21: What comes after the zombie apocalypse
Jun 24•'Crowd Control,' part 20: When the dead fight back
Jun 21•'Crowd Control,' part 19: Reunited, and it feels so not dead anymore