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'Crowd Control,' part 14: Dying for a family reunion

In this installment of CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel, our young hero is determined to find out what happened to her mother, even if it means leaving this universe.

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

Sam Falconer

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 10

From The Diaries of Cindy Parker.

U.S.S.N. Washington, low-Earth orbit, April 20, 2051

"Screen off," Cindy yelled, maybe too loudly. She was sick of watching the news.

The media had done nothing but follow her mother around for days, hanging on her every word.

"God wants you to stop nanobiotics." "God awaits you in Heaven." "Your real life is in Heaven." Blah, blah, blah. It just sounded like some superstitious antiquated bullshit to Cindy. Yet people were buying it. The Uninstallers were holding larger and larger rallies every day. The Transhumanists escalated their own rhetoric, calling the Uninstallers blasphemous fanatics without the slightest acknowledgment of any irony.

Neither Cindy nor her father had heard from Josephina since the day of the shooting. She had simply disappeared in the chaotic scene at the studio and all attempts to contact her had returned network errors. She had gone completely off the grid.

The night of the shooting, Cindy had passed out from exhaustion in their Boston hotel room near the studio while her father frantically messaged everyone he knew attempting to track his wife down. When Cindy woke, he was still busily working his screens.

"Did you find mom yet?" Cindy asked groggily.

"Cindy, I think we both know the truth," he said, still staring at the screens as he spoke.

Cindy did have an idea of what he meant but was not ready to say it out loud.

"What do you mean?"

Click on the screen capture above to read an alternate beginning to this chapter that didn't make it into our final draft.

Eric Mack/CNET

"That woman isn't your mother anymore. She's someone else now. I'm sure you've noticed with your...I mean, I'm sure you've seen the signs. At first I thought it was just a side effect of the whole experiment, but I've been up all night comparing her neurological profiles from before the, uh...journey, to her brain activity right after she returned, and they're completely different. The difference can't be explained as a mere side effect. I don't think that's her in her body."

Cindy had suspected as much when she began to notice that Josephina glowed differently after her return. Each person's glow grew stronger, weaker and changed colors depending on the situation, but there was also a feel to each individual, like a person's handwriting. Josephina's glow had initially been completely absent, and then when Cindy finally saw her emanating so intensely during the interview, the glow had looked entirely foreign to her, like someone who had always written in sloppy cursive suddenly writing in a disciplined print.

So Cindy did not argue when her father gave up the search for Josephina and hailed a transport to take them both back to the Washington and to his lab as soon as possible. In fact, she wanted to get back to the lab fast.

Cindy had dreamed the night before of her mother alive and well in another world that was familiar but very different from the one they both knew. In the morning she thought back to a lecture from school about a new hypothesis from some string theorist whose name she couldn't recall that dreams are actual "echoes" of realities in parallel universes.

As they packed for their return to their home on the Washington, Cindy secretly swiped her father's hologram key and loaded some confidential notes from his experiment onto her own screen to study during the transport ride. He was lost in much of the same material on his own screen, as usual oblivious to anything but his research.

Once they were back on the orbiting city, Alex locked himself in his office to sequester himself with his sorrows and science. After Cindy could take no more of the news coverage, she knew it was as good a time as any to do what she needed to do.

Cindy knocked on the lab door. A tall, bespectacled man opened it. When he saw her with his dark blue eyes, he smiled warmly. Lyle was Cindy's physics tutor. He was also the head mechanical engineer in her father's department. Though she had been living with her dad on the Washington since her mom's death, she still barely saw Alex. He was always busy working on his experiments. Even though she knew he was trying to get her mom back, she still wished he would spend more time with her.

Cindy hugged Lyle awkwardly.

"I hope you're hungry, I, uh, brought your favorite pizza," Cindy exclaimed.

She released her embrace and he led the way to his office. "I wasn't expecting you." In his office, she placed the pizza on his desk. "I, uh, that's really crazy about Dr. Parker...Josephina, uh, your mom, I mean. Is she OK?"

"You know that's not my mom."

Lyle was visibly uncomfortable with the whole exchange.

"Right. Yeah, your dad's been messaging me, I just wasn't sure if you, um...if you knew everything. Sorry."

He immediately returned to the project at hand.

"You can start eating," he said.

"What are you working on, anyway?"

"This? Oh, this?" he said, stuttering. "This is the sensory deprivation chamber your mom used in the experi -- ahhhh!"

Cindy stood up and stared at him intently, "Experi-what?"

"Oh shit, Cindy, I wasn't supposed to say anything, please..." He began pacing back and forth anxiously.

She smiled. "Don't worry, Lyle. I know all about it. I've actually been studying my dad's research notes all day."

"What? Those are like...classified, right?"

Her eyes pleaded. "I need your help."

He shook his head, foreseeing only trouble ahead. "No, no way. I don't know what you're planning, but I'm not getting involved."

"I want to replicate my mother's experiment exactly. I know you know how to do it. I could probably even do it. But I know you were there. And you know that's not my mom walking around out there talking all that stuff about revolution against the government and the Transhumanists. She's still out there somewhere, I can feel it. I know my dad knows it too, but he's too scared to try to fix this whole thing. Please, please, help me."

"No, I can't, Cindy! It's too dangerous! You know what happened to your mom."

"She's still alive! I know it."

She hadn't told anybody that she saw the glow, that she knew things others didn't. She didn't want him to worry or freak out or experiment on her. She didn't want to distract him from his work. The images spoke to her in a mysterious language. Maybe she was like a pinhole camera, able to detect those minuscule bursts of energy that came through from the other side, the multiverse, whatever. She couldn't explain it. No scientist could understand it. For now, she had to keep it to herself. She just knew her mother was alive. She believed with all of her heart that if she replicated the experiment, she could find her mother. Her father would never let her do it. She could never explain. She had to convince Lyle to help her.

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Lyle looked at her with his earnest blue eyes. "The point is, it's unethical for me to use this dangerous procedure on you!"

"I know the adjustments to make. I know what to do, Lyle. Please, trust me. I'll be safe!"

Lyle shook his head, biting his lower lip stubbornly, and folded his arms across his chest.

"Fine, if you won't help me. I'll do it myself!" She shook his hands off and started shifting the heavy pieces around to get at the electronics. She felt a sharp pain and made a sudden intake of breath. She'd clumsily cut her palm on a sharp metal panel.

Lyle, seeing her hurt, quickly found a first aid kit and was immediately at her side.

While he was bandaging her hand, Cindy grabbed the tranquilizer pod from the first aid kit and jabbed it into the back of Lyle's neck.

"What the...?" He shouted across the soundproof lab, unable to even finish his sentence before slumping to the floor.

Click on the screen capture above to see an earlier version of the end to chapter 10, including some of the contributors' discussion about the scene on the side.

Eric Mack/CNET

Cindy spent several minutes inputting figures into the lab screens. She'd come up with the numbers intuitively after studying her father's notes. When she allowed her mind to drift, she was able to see the glow around certain data points. The glow signature around certain figures was like her mother's. It was like playing with an ancient Ouija board, but with much higher stakes.

Eventually, she slowly lifted the cover of the sensory deprivation chamber, suddenly feeling uncertain.

She slipped in and the cover locked automatically. She found herself suspended, weightless in the tank.

After a brief period of darkness, the chamber came alive with a psychedelic glow. Cindy's eyes opened wide just as she felt a horrible sensation pulse from her head and toes toward the center of her chest as her body shook and her back arched with such force it felt as though there were a rope around her waist and she was being hoisted skyward with tremendous acceleration. Her breath left her body and she saw what looked like beam of energy shoot into the sky.

As the beam died down, Lyle came to the tank cover and opened it. "CINDY!" he cried out. "No, no, no, no --- Cindy, wake up!" He shook her shoulders and tapped the side of her face with the back of his hand to no avail. "Oh, Cindy please... oh shit," he said as he pulled Cindy's limp body out, cradling her head against his chest. "Cindy?" He whispered her name, sweeping back her hair from her face.

She didn't respond. He carried her body in his arms with great care and a sense of duty to the cryotube as tears rolled down his cheeks.

He gently placed her inside and carefully straightened her legs and arms. When he was finished he stood gazing at her peaceful face. He stroked her cheek. "Come back to me, Cindy, you hear me!" he said and shut the glass cover.

Next up, Cindy finally gets to put her true genius to work.

See our "Crowd Control" contributors list.