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 "A Migrant's Story."
Tenochtitlan District, Terra Superioris, June 13, 2051
Charles figured he was having the most belated crisis of faith in human history. For decades in what he had assumed was eternity he had felt contented. But now, with all he had learned from his new neighbor about the progression of life on Earth, and about his Rebecca's ongoing, perhaps infinite life without him, he felt empty and unfulfilled for the first time in his afterlife.
"Mr. N, I'm going across the hall for a moment... Mr. N?" he called to the back of the family apartment.
"What's that, Charles?" A distracted voice called from the back office.
"Just heading over to speak with Dr. Parker about setting up that dinner we discussed when she first arrived."
"Right, whatever you say. That's yours to arrange."
Charles slipped out the front door and pressed his hand to the recognition panel next to Josephina's door down the hallway of the apartment building.
"Can you wait just one moment, please, Charles?" Josephina's voice came through the panel followed by the sounds of all sorts of rustling and the indiscernible voice of a girl that he'd never heard before in the building.
"Take your time, no one's pants are on fire out here."
Moments later the door slid open to the apartment, but there wasn't anyone waiting to greet Charles at the entrance. He stepped into the apartment tentatively.
Josephina suddenly appeared from the back, looking unsettled. Then a teenage girl Charles didn't recognize appeared by her side.
"Oh, and who's this?"
"Charles, meet my daughter, Cindy. Cindy, you and Charles have a connection that might surprise you...meet Mr. Charles Danish."
"Get out! Wait, are you related to...I don't even remember her first name...Rebecca! It's Rebecca, right?"
"Guilty as charged, that's my wife. Sounds as though she's been doing a pretty good job getting you educated."
"Yes, well, she was, at least. I've been missing some classes lately."
"Based on the fact that you're here, I'd say that's quite an understatement. Good news is homework doesn't need to be done when you're in another state of being. Speaking of which, Dr. Parker, is everything OK? This is one of the rare places where an unexpected visit from a child could be considered bad or even tragic news, you know?"
"Oh, I didn't die," Cindy interrupted. "Don't worry about that. I came here on my own to find my mom because Dad wasn't sure if the experiment..."
"Cindy, I need to discuss a few things with Mr. Danish here alone."
"I saw her on the news, you know, just before I came here." Cindy ignored her mother.
Charles stood silent, unsure what to say next. There was so much to unpack from the precocious child's odd comments.
"Your wife, I mean. She must have quit teaching at the academy right after I left. Now she's working with...well, with her." Cindy pointed an outstretched thumb at her mother's head.
Charles was quite surprised to be even more confused every time the child opened her mouth.
"Well, not really her, obviously, but whatever creep has been running around in Mom's body starting wars while she's been here. Do you think someone took over Mrs. Danish's body, too? That would explain why she disappeared to join up with my bizarre-o psycho Mom. That's it, isn't it? The real Mrs. Danish must be up here with you now, right?"
Speechless, but with the slightest glint in his eye betraying the beginnings of hope, Charles glanced at Josephina.
"No, I'm sorry. I don't think so. I'm set to receive a notification if she shows up on the arrival manifests."
"Hold on just a second," Charles said, finally beginning to process all the surreal information this strange young girl had just unleashed on his ears. "What are you saying my Rebecca has gotten herself mixed up in?"
Cindy quickly summarized what she had seen on the news back on Earth. Charles' face fell. His hand tugged at the bottom of his T-shirt, a subconscious thing he did when he was stressed or thinking hard. This time, it was both.
For the first time in many years, Charles felt completely lost. Nothing added up.
"Something is very wrong with all this. None of it makes sense... My Rebecca would never act like that, and especially the part with these body snatchers leading revolutions you're talking about. Who's doing the snatching anyway?" He seemed to be asking no one in particular.
"Charles, do you know anything about The Committee?" Josephina tried to refocus the conversation.
There was recognition in Charles' eyes. He squinted and remained silent, appearing to consider his response. Josephina continued.
"They've got me acting as a sort of migrant liaison since I got here, and I've got a strong suspicion they have something to do with this. I know what they've told you, but based on the technology we've been working on at home and what I've seen here, I'll wager you it's not really just a one-way trip. They're meddling in what Rebecca's caught up in, and they're using me, or at least my Earth body...at the same time."
Charles let out a long sigh and stood up, looking out the window, down on all the rooftop gardens of the lower Tenochtitlan District buildings.
"Yea, I've heard of The Committee. A lot of the other migrants suspect they're up to no good, but I always try to stay out of those debates...people just being busybodies I always figure, trying to tear down people and things they know nothing about to make their own lives more interesting.
But yeah, I know them. I think Meta's involved with them. I've overheard talk around the family about it. They try to keep it hush-hush, changing the topic when I walk in the room, which is odd because they've never had many secrets from me. Consequently, they're pretty bad at keeping 'em, so I hear plenty."
Charles stopped, looked back at the window for a long moment and then turned back to Josephina, studying her face for awkwardly.
"I'll be dog-damned...It's the kid, isn't it?"
"What? Me?" Cindy seemed offended.
"No, not you. Meta. I call him the kid. I can't believe I'm saying this crazy shit. That possessed version of you starting trouble back home... I think it might be Mr. and Mrs. Nahuat's kid. He just finished at the Diplomatic Academy not too long ago. It makes an insane kind of sense. I bet it's no coincidence that they put you here on our floor, either. Damn, this place just never fails to surprise you."
"Charles, what are you talking about?" Josephina seemed truly baffled.
The normally deferential Charles was becoming unusually animated, speaking with a sense of purpose and urgency he hadn't felt since he left Rebecca on Earth.
"You said you're like the migrant whisperer for those Committee folks, right? Do you know the migrants' rights folks, too?"
Josephina nodded. "Yeah, they practically banged down my door after I started showing up around the port of entry and going to meetings."
Charles nodded slowly. "If my educated guess is right, they're the people who will know how to help us." He suddenly pointed at Josephina as he spoke. "Time to message the most senior one you know and set me up a meeting. Preferably right away."
Editor's note: All migrants' rights organizations on Terra Superioris have steadfastly denied ever meeting with Charles Danish to this day. Yet, Danish and the two Parkers are known to have gained access to a prototype bidirectional portal and ring system around this time. Only two groups on T.S. are now known to have possessed such nascent technology at that point in the timeline -- The Committee and Tenochtitlán Migrants United. Inconveniently for our purposes, Cindy Parker also failed to name the specific location where the events in the following diary entry took place.
From the Diaries of Cindy Parker.
Tenochtitlan District, Terra Superioris, June 20, 2051
"Ah, there! You see that, Cindy, turn those knobs -- no, first the one labeled azimuth, then focus, now sensitivity. Hey! That's it! There, hold it there just a moment..." Josephina finally saw something of significance on the screen, but what precisely she did not know. All that mattered was she was closing in on a signal that stood out from the abundant noise. They were attempting to fine-tune certain aspects of the Ring that would allow them to track a single consciousness, and they were succeeding in doing exactly that.
"We got it! Found her! Now, quickly! Power up the Ring!"
Cindy went over to another control panel with a dizzying array of switches, dials, knobs, indicators and lights -- some flashing, others on steady. This was not as straightforward as Cindy had hoped. Her eyes scanned the panel up, then down. Nothing. Again but left then right. Nothing. "Mom! I...I can't find it! It's the glow, it's in the way."
Josephina frantically manipulated multiple controls on the panel struggling to maintain the lock on the single consciousness. She shouted back to Cindy, "Turn on the power!"
For a moment, Cindy closed her eyes and attempted to calm the panic rising within her. When she opened them, the glow was less overwhelming and she was able to focus on the panel. Without the slightest hesitation she flipped the switch labeled 電源.
A hum began to emanate from behind the control panel and an even louder hum could be heard from the Ring. The room started to vibrate, even resonate as the hum grew louder and louder. Lightweight items on horizontal surfaces began to dance around, a few of them crashing to the floor. When the electrical hum reached peak intensity, a blinding light flashed from the center of the Ring. Cindy wanted to watch what was happening, but it was too bright. She was forced to avert her eyes.
"Cindy! Mind the gauges! The voltage needs to stay above 2.7, but don't let the current ride higher than the red line!" her mother yelled across the room.
"Got it!" Cindy shouted back. She had no discernible way of knowing the progress of their efforts. All she could do was follow Josephina's instructions and hope for the best. The power supply struggled to maintain a stable Ring.
All of a sudden the isolation chamber was lost in the blinding glow. Simultaneously, the Ring closed with a flash and a pop. The hum in the room was gone but Cindy's ears were ringing. They both rushed over to open the chamber.
It was empty. Charles was gone.
Next up: An earthly reunion between the almost dead and the back-from-the-dead.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 17: Back to hell on Earth like a bat out of heaven
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