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.
Adapted from the Diaries of Cindy Parker.
Terra Superioris, April 21, 2051
Cindy awoke in a giant white room. A fog covered everything around her and yet she could see everything with crystal clarity. Behind her, people appeared out of thin air from a gigantic flickering ring and, as if in a trance, moved past like ghosts. The glow around the masses appeared to Cindy as a rainbow of emotions -- fear, joy, anxiety, anger, etc.
People moved toward a line of counters at the front of the long room and queued up as if by instinct. Where the hell was she? All Cindy knew was that she was at the end of a very long line, but she had no idea where it would lead.
She felt as if she had been waiting for ages. Or was it minutes? It was impossible to tell; there was no timekeeping device anywhere as far as she could ascertain. Behind her, the queues grew longer faster than the agents behind the counters were able to clear them. While earlier on, the uniformed officers had been going through the motions, they were starting to sweat and become frantic.
The crowd too, was becoming unruly, pressing against the counters as they demanded to be let through. The officers, all in peak physical condition, stood steadfast below a large sign that read "Terra Superioris," as if they were some defensive barrier guarding the paradise that lay beyond. Someone threw a shoe. "Oi! You there! Try something like that again and I'll throw you to the back of the queue!" shouted an officer whose face narrowly missed an opportunity to become one with some flying footwear.
Cindy heard swearing from behind as large numbers of confused, disoriented people streamed in. A hand grabbed hers and she turned with a strong sense of deja vu. Her eyes met those of a familiar face.
"Mom?" Cindy gasped.
"Cindy, oh my god, I can't believe it's you," Josephina pulled her into her embrace. "I missed you so much. I came here as soon as I saw your name had come up on the arrival manifest. This must all be very confusing for you."
Cindy cried into her mother's shoulder. She smelled of roses and ink, just as she remembered her. Soon, Cindy was heaving with great relief. She was alive. Her mother was alive. The risk she had taken had been worth it. She was right to trust the glow. She was right to trust herself.
"I missed you too," she cried.
"But, what are you doing here? What happened to you? Did you...die?"
Cindy stopped bawling and wiped her eyes. She pulled back to look into her mother's eyes.
"What? No. I followed you here in the chamber, just like you did. I re-created your experiment. What do you mean, did I die?"
Josephina looked back at the line of people fighting for space in the room that had looked endlessly large when she first arrived months ago, but now looked like a submarine in comparison. "That's why people come here. At least, I think that's why. It's the only thing that makes sense. It's complicated...But, wait -- all these people are dying on Earth?"
"I don't understand."
"We'll have plenty of time for explanations later. Right now we just need to get you out of here."
Josephina grabbed her daughter by the arm and they began walking toward the front of the line, drawing suspicious looks from those still standing in the queue.
"How did you find me?" Cindy asked. "Where are we?"
"Well, they call this place Terra Superioris, and I'm pretty sure we're in a different universe. Some people say it's Heaven, but as you can see, I wouldn't be so sure." Cindy stared at her mother confused. Josephina continued, "I know. I didn't believe it either. I thought I was having a dream or hallucination or something."
Suddenly, screams filled the air. Cindy heard "Transhumanist scum!" and "Terrorist!" being bandied about. The newly arrived migrants were attacking each other. One man punched another's head, sending blood splattering on the clean floor and walls. In another corner, a woman was being held down while a man sat on her, tracing religious symbols in the air.
Cindy shuddered to think she would have been caught in that, had her mom not found her.
A man in a soldier's uniform, or what used to be his uniform, approached them. His shirt and pants were ripped in places, and his hair was a mess. He had fresh scratches on his face that were still bleeding. "Josephina," he said, "something's wrong. We need to close up the Rings."
"Is he talking to you?" Cindy asked her mother.
"I work here now in their immigration department. The technology is incredible. You wouldn't believe it. I'll explain everything later. I promise." She turned to the guard. "You can't shut it down. Without the Rings, people on Earth will be cast to the solar wind!"
The soldier looked at the Rings and said, "I don't know how much time we have. There's too many of them coming through. What's happening?"
"I think I can answer that," Cindy said quietly, and they both turned to look at her.
The soldier rolled his eyes, clearly skeptical of any insights such a young new migrant could offer.
"Wait here," he said before disappearing into a large set of double doors behind him.
Cindy and Josephina waited outside the meeting room to be called in.
"Mom, can you try...I mean, I know it's difficult to explain where we are, but maybe..."
"I know, honey. I know it's difficult to understand at first. Hey, you learned about different afterlife myths in school, right?"
Cindy nodded and replied, "Don't you think that's superstition?"
Josephina laughed, "Yet here we are."
"Well, then, what happens when people die on Terra Superioris?"
This puzzled Cindy. "Doesn't anyone ever get old and die?"
Her mom stared into the blank space before her as she answered, "Well, it's similar to our nanobiotics back home...they've pretty much perfected that technology here. That's the short explanation, at least."
The giant wooden door opened, and a man greeted them. He looked young, but he had a slight paunch. His badge said "Cortes, Trainer."
"Dr. Parker, the Committee is ready to see you and your daughter now," he said.
They proceeded into the chamber, where they were directed to two plain wooden chairs behind a plain wooden table with sharp clean lines. This was in stark contrast to the exquisitely carved bench behind which sat the seven members of the Committee. Everything about this chamber was intimidating, including the large, circular, well-polished bronze seal of Terra Superioris that had an inscription written in a language Cindy didn't recognize.
She did, however, notice what appeared to be a depiction of the Rings on the seal.
Cindy watched the proceedings, answering only when she needed to. She gave the most succinct summary she could of the building tensions between the movement of Uninstallers on Earth and Transhumanist governments that were leading to violence worldwide. She told them about how her mother's body had been hijacked and how the corporeal hijacker was now fomenting violence between the Transhumans and Uninstallers.
Thereafter, it was mostly her mother speaking with the Committee, and Cindy noticed something. Her mother had a very faint afterimage around her. She only saw it when Josephina stood against the committee. She looked at her hands and saw the same faint afterimage.
"Mr. Chairman, please, I assure you that it is with a sound mind that I say this: The Rings must remain open." Josephina was trying to convince the Committee not to close the Rings, but their response was cold, like they were talking to a servant who was voicing a petty complaint.
"The decision is final, then," the Chairman said. "We're getting enough migrants, we close all the Rings but one."
Editor's note: Immigration control on T.S. was most easily performed via the particle- and string-based rings that reconstituted captured consciousness data and stored it on quantum servers while a new physical body was bioengineered to match it.
The threat of shutting down the Rings was a near-constant issue of complex political controversy tied to society-wide demands for migrant labor, the available budget for the on-boarding program and protests from migrants' rights groups who objected to incoming souls being put in "immoral" cold server storage. Turning off the Rings would also increase the likelihood that server malfunctions could cause unique energetic data to be permanently scrambled, deleted or even discharged to float aimlessly on the solar wind.
Josephina looked down at the wooden floor, hands clenched at her side. "Thank you for taking the time to hear me out."
"I'm glad to hear your views, Mrs. Parker. We should always listen to our migrants. Their concerns might be small and they don't always know what they are talking about but they should be heard." The Chairman spoke as though he was rewarding a particularly intelligent pet for performing a trick. Cindy wanted to slap the man. Her mother was one of the most distinguished physicists of her time. She wondered if this was common, to view migrants as less advanced and less capable.
The apartment was surprisingly messy. Cindy had always thought of her mother as being a neat freak. "Sorry about the mess," Josephina said, moving papers off a chair. "I wasn't expecting my daughter to come today! It's so wonderful to see you." She grinned. "I've been working nonstop trying to figure out how to get back to you."
A Ring replica about the size of a large watermelon sat on the table. Josephina turned it on, and Cindy saw images of fighting on Earth. It was like watching an old silent movie. The colors were washed out and there was no sound. She saw people die, and swarms of particles dissipate from their bodies. She had never seen death before, and now she was witnessing so much carnage as it happened.
As they watched, her mother explained, "The Rings are connected to ports in the outflow channel of a white hole on the other side of the galaxy. It's kind of like magnets that attract all the consciousness from Earth."
Cindy didn't fully understand, but it made a kind of intuitive sense to her.
"Can I look at your plans for this?" Cindy asked, pointing at the model Ring. Josephina didn't ask why but found the file on her scanner and passed it to Cindy.
"OK, I understand how this works now. It's very similar to the machine that brought me here. How did Dad ever figure this..." Cindy said.
"I think if we make a few adjustments, I've figured out a way to send audio through. We don't have enough energy here to send a person and I doubt the Committee will help us right now," she said.
It took Cindy and Josephina a few hours to enhance the Ring. "OK, this Ring is mind-controlled. It uses your mind's recollection of the particle signature to target the person you're looking for," Josephina said, brushing metal shavings from her palms.
"It's the faint outline you see around people," she said, looking at Cindy, who nodded. "The amazing thing is that normal people can't see them. Only you and I are part of the experiment."
"Get out!" Cindy exclaimed and gasped. "Seriously? I thought I was the only one...Wait, experiment?"
Josephina looked into her daughter's eyes intently. "I'm so sorry, honey. I should have been more forthright with you from the start. It's just that, you were so young, we wanted you to have your childhood, not mix you up in all of this. I've never completely forgiven your father for hiding the abilities he gave you from us both at the start, but when I saw the results, I came around."
Cindy didn't know whether to be mad or relieved. If her parents had told her from the start the images she was seeing weren't crazy, she wouldn't have gone through all the stress of trying to hide it from them. She would have felt, well, less crazy.
Josephina continued. "That's why you were so special, and why we kept you out of school for so long. And with the Ring, this ability should allow you to lock onto anyone you have met before. Now concentrate."
The first person Cindy looked for was Lyle. Lyle was coming out of the shower in a towel, looking depressed.
"Lyle Watson!" she called.
Lyle covered up with a blanket immediately. "Cindy?" he said, looking around.
Cindy breathed deeply. "Yes, it's me, I'm on the 'other side.'"
"Oh my god," he said. "I'm hearing things."
"This has nothing to do with God, Lyle. I made it. I traversed. I'm in a parallel universe with my mom."
"Hi, Lyle!" Josephina yelled, but he couldn't hear her.
"I didn't want you to feel responsible..."
"Wait a second, this can't be possible. That thing actually works? But how am I hearing you? I must be losing it... unless... this could be the most incredible breakthrough. So, wait, you can hear me too? And what do you mean responsible? I mean, sure, yea, I was rattled when I thought you were dead, buy my neck is still sore, you know."
"I've gotta go, Lyle, but I'll be in touch!"
As she turned her attention to her dad, she heard Lyle calling something out to her, "Your father, he..."
She quickly followed her father's particle signature and found him asleep drunk. She tried, but could not wake him.
Editor's note: Naturally, the Committee continued its discussion after Cindy and Josephina were ushered from the meeting room. What we now know from declassified meeting minutes is that the Committee was concerned not only about the flood of new migrants coming through the Rings due to increasing casualties on Earth. There was much discussion about the "quality" of migration that would be occurring with animosity and violence between the two sides on Earth spilling over into not just the welcome center, but the onboarding program and larger T.S. society as well. In a secret Executive Session that followed, the Committee voted to get word to Meta to abort his mission. Very quickly, Terra Superioris had gone from worry about a dearth of immigration to being concerned that society might be torn apart by too much of it. How valid those concerns were...well, that's a debate for a different time. I'm just here to give you the history of how it all went down.
Next up: Back on Earth, Meta's mission is coming to an end, but not the way anyone expected.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 15: Heaven isn't big enough for everyone
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