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.
Editor's note: First, let's talk about Cindy Parker. For most readers, she's a figure who needs no introduction, but for the less familiar, it's important to have some background on her unusual childhood. While Cindy was a natural-born prodigy in several areas, she also was the subject of a nanobiotics experiment while still an infant in Lagos that gifted her with an ability many readers may know as "reading auras."
Unlike that old, mythical practice, however, the nanobots installed in Cindy function as a complex set of sensors feeding an array of input taken from cues of nearby individuals into a system that analyzes them and sends the results to the visual cortex. The result, in its simplest form, is the ability to interpret coded colors that appear around other people.
This all came about because Cindy's father Alex volunteered his daughter for the project at a very young age, thanks in part to the lack of ethical standards enforcement in the Nigerian sector at the time. Mr. Parker had a sometimes unfortunate tendency to put his scientific research above all else, including his family. The family relocated to Alex's hometown of Boston while Cindy was still young, where his wife Josephina, a fellow scientist he had met while working at the University of Lagos, was also offered a position.
For most of her childhood, Cindy was educated alone, either at home or with a series of tutors, but almost never with the companionship of any of her peers. Of course, her parents would argue that no such peers existed, but as she neared adulthood, the Parkers began to question that decision, opting to place her in a "normal" academy for purposes of socialization.
What follows is excerpted from Cindy's diaries during that period in her education. At the time these entries were originally written, Cindy was unaware of the origin of her abilities or her status as a subject of one of her father's experiments. You will notice the entries are written in the third person, a coping mechanism of sorts that allowed her to better process the constant onslaught of human emotions.
Near Boston, Earth, April 12, 2051
Adapted from "The Diaries of Cindy Parker," CBS Hyperactive Publishing, 2094.
Cindy Parker sat back in her chair, focusing her attention on the windows of the classroom. Her mind escaped past the outdoors, filled with persistent haze and dusty vegetation, to the stars and planets beyond the corrupted atmosphere. She had seen these celestial bodies in videos, but the haze always blanketed the sky. Her only chance to see them in person would be to travel to space. She firmly believed it was only a matter of time.
"...and this has been the cause of the dead space that now covers a growing portion of our planet. Cindy... come back to Earth, please."
"Sorry, Mrs. Danish."
"Class, study chapter 29, 'Preserving the Earth,' and do questions 1 through 20. That's all."
Shrieking over the silence like a dare came the familiar whirr-whirr-WHIRR of the air raid siren. The class filed quickly outside into the drab schoolyard. Assuming the safety position, Cindy wished for a world without fighting, where there was only peace.
Letting her mind drift and closing her eyes to avoid seeing all the auras lighting up the yard, Cindy thought about the Crab Nebula. She couldn't remember a time she hadn't wanted to explore space. Her parents worked on experiments designed to explore "not just space, but everything beyond space," as they described it. Unfortunately, they spent all of their time working on their experiments -- particularly her father, Alex -- leaving little time to teach Cindy, even though she was hungry to learn.
She could have helped find new worlds to be colonized or mined for resources. Then she wouldn't have to read chapter 29. However, it looked like she might get out of that if this air raid lasted even half as long as last week's.
As she crouched in the schoolyard surrounded by her teachers and classmates, she imagined navigating through wormholes and space. What wondrous worlds would she visit? What kind of incredible fauna would she encounter? What amazing people might she meet? She wished for it with a childlike passion. She continued to daydream, the peaceful worlds in her mind often shattered by the daily sirens.
Naomi, her best friend, sat up close, and took her hand, like she was prone to do when they watched horror movies or when they used to take hypercoasters together. The light around Naomi was dim from fear. While it was usually a faint outline, it was barely noticeable now. The auras Cindy saw around people helped her to detect their intentions or emotions. Cindy preferred to call it simply "the glow." It wasn't until recently that she realized not everyone could see it like she did. Naomi winced at every siren, and Cindy tried very hard not to show her fear.
"We'll be OK Naomi, you'll see," Cindy comforted her friend.
The siren continued wailing, blaring through the yard. Her classmates lifted their heads and looked at their teacher for instructions.
"Is it over?" Naomi whispered.
"Sounds like it's ending to me. Thank God."
"Everyone stay in the proper safety position until the siren stops, please." Rebecca Danish spoke monotonously, sounding less concerned with safety and more like a bored Web-newsreader.
Cindy was confident her teacher cared for her students, all of them. She knew they probably viewed Mrs. Danish as unsympathetic, but Cindy could see the truth: that she was disillusioned.
Between the waves of sirens, Cindy closed her eyes and tried to drift away, back to the wormholes, back to the unknown. She knew that even if she wasn't approved for pilot training, she would be in space. The images of stars scorching the black were set free in the vastness of her imagination -- if only for a moment. The siren died, letting the ending echoes drift away. Mrs. Danish took this as her cue and stood up.
"Well that was an easy one today, thank goodness for that," she said, brushing her hair free of dust with her fingers. "Now, back inside and please get back to your work, chapter 29. I need the answers by the end of class."
The class went back silently to the mind-numbing task of reading, rereading and regurgitating chapter 29, which Cindy already knew well. In fact, she had already been reading university-level subjects in her own time. She knew she needed strong foundations in math, physics and chemistry to join the space program. If they started it again, she would be more than ready.
Dr. Evans, the headmistress who was not exactly known for being a visionary, did not approve of placing her in advanced classes, saying it put undue pressure on a child like Cindy. Thus, she was schooled according to her age group instead of her intellectual capability.
Cindy drew cruisers with her fingers on her screen as she continued to daydream, having completed her work quickly. The quiet lasted no more than a few minutes before the landing alarm sounded. The air swirled with dust on the ProBall field outside the classroom windows. The students, forgetting the task at hand, vied for head room before the windows, enthralled by the rare arrival. The intrusion into the restricted air space may also have explained the earlier false alarm.
"Everyone back to your seats, I'm sure there is a perfectly boring reason for this," Mrs. Danish said in an exasperated voice.
It was a Quetzalcoatl M-8, a personal transport, smaller than the usual attack cruisers that patrolled the sky, with just enough room for eight people. Through the dust, Cindy saw the passenger bay doors open. Two men in business suits stepped out, followed by two people in military uniforms. However, she couldn't make out their branch insignias.
The headmistress came out to greet them. The transport ship quickly took off to circle the surrounding area. Parking an aircraft was just as good as painting a target on the ground.
If only Cindy could hear what was being said, or better yet if she could show them what she had been working on! Which idea from her home projects would she show them first? Her adaptation of nanobiotics for water filtration, or her scale model of a new, efficient engine to cut energy costs in half?
Perhaps they'd take her on, despite her not having formally completed school yet. The thwack of a textbook hitting the floor brought her out of her daydream.
"Cindy, I'm not going to tell you again. Sit down!" Cindy didn't have to look to know Mrs. Danish was glowing a fiery red.
Her daydream slipped away as her surroundings jarred into focus. Cindy shuffled toward her seat, erratically sideways like a crab, the drudgery of school washing over her. She looked over her shoulder as she sat, hoping to see something new, but the group had gone inside.
"Cindy!" Naomi hissed.
Cindy turned to her friend and was greeted with the staring faces of her classmates. Mrs. Danish was glowering with that special, just-for-Cindy frown.
Lowering her head self-consciously, Cindy sank morosely into her hard thermoformed seat. Most of her classmates turned back to their work, doing a semi-convincing job of pretending to be interested. Mrs. Danish's gaze lingered on Cindy, and several students watched Mrs. Danish warily. If Mrs. Danish decided to make an example of her, it would be extremely unpleasant.
The whole class jumped when the door creaked open and the headmistress poked her head in. She was a wrinkly woman, late 100s, with wispy hair protruding from her ears. She had clearly had nanobiotics installed late in her natural life and opted for minimal age regression.
Speaking softly, she said, "I hope I'm not disturbing you, Mrs. Danish, but I need to see Cindy Parker."
"Not a problem at all, Dr. Evans," the teacher said. "Cindy, it seems you are needed."
Cindy froze, her mind racing. Dr. Evans only appeared when there was bad news to deliver. Had they found out she had toasted the lab's nanowaver? She should have been more careful with the output regulator of her prototype engine. Her mother would lecture her again about rushing her experiments. She was already racing for a good excuse to use when the headmistress opened the door to let her into the hallway.
How do you picture Cindy Parker? Share your visual interpretations.
Her legs wobbled when she stood. They didn't want to work. The walk to the door was so long, every second counted out by the sound of her heart beating in her throat. The headmistress opened the door to let her into the hallway. One of the suits was there. Her legs faltered. She recognized the insignia: The well-trained CORP military unit that secured the Washington. Had something happened to her parents?
"Are you ready, child?" repeated Dr. Evans.
"Are you ready? Your father called for you. I'm afraid there's been an accident."
"Is it my dad? My mom?" Cindy asked, suddenly feeling panicky.
"Cindy, it's your mother. I can't tell you more, it's not my place. Your father will tell you more, now let's take you out of here." Dr. Evans pressed her hand against Cindy's shoulder to direct her away from the classroom door.
"My mom? What happened to her? What are you talking about?"
"Your father will explain, Ms. Parker. It's not my place."
"I'll take it from here," the man in the CORP uniform said. Cindy looked at him, uncertain, noticing he glowed blue, indicating sadness. For a moment, she forgot her own concerns and felt bad for him. He looked down at her and made a fist, baring his knuckles for her to reciprocate. "I'm Matt, by the way, friend of your dad's. You could say we help pay for your dad's research."
"Hi," she said quietly, giving him a gentle fist bump.
"By all means," Dr. Evans said as she turned to the girl. "Good luck, Cindy, and don't worry about the final." The headmistress smiled with pity in her eyes and patted her on the back to send her off. She returned to the classroom, presumably to tell Mrs. Danish and her class what was going on with Cindy. Or she was going to lie.
Matt walked toward the exit. "Ever been on a cruiser?"
"Nope, always knew I would though," Cindy said, closely following the man, a mixture of terror and excitement tying her heart in a knot, dulling any excitement she would have felt. She managed a weak smile.
"So you know it's going to make you feel a bit light-headed?"
"My mom explained all that, how you sometimes get sick, or feel weird or whatever." A twinge of worry shot through her when she mentioned her mom, but it was overshadowed by the sight in front of her. She had never seen a transporter this close. It was astonishing. Unintentionally, she spoke out loud, "It's a Quetzalcoatl M-8, one of the newest designs, and it has a top speed of Mach 5."
Matt whistled through his teeth. "You know your craft, eh?" He sounded impressed.
The transport landed, its engines buzzing in hover mode, ready to take off at a moment's notice.
"So if you're CORP, why are you escorting a teenager?" she asked.
"Unfortunately for you, that information is classified." He smiled at her, green eyes twinkling.
"Don't suppose you can tell me anything about my mom," she said, touching the cool body of the cruiser lovingly.
"Sorry, but like the headmistress said, it's your dad's story to tell," Matt said as she entered the waiting transport.
The bay door to the transport opened with a pneumatic hiss and the two quickly boarded without another word. Cindy studied the interiors to take her mind off her mother. The inside was a small metal rectangle, all gunmetal gray, with four seats to either side, racks behind the seats and handles on the roof. At the front was a sturdy-looking metal door, no doubt separating them from the cockpit. The transport stayed still for a minute or two, engines humming, before the school doors opened. Out stepped the two men in suits escorted by the other CORP uniforms.
The suits kept to themselves, and nodded toward Cindy as they boarded, too busy on their screens and too quick to find places to sit in the rear of the transport. The men didn't even look at Matt.
The engines fired and Cindy felt the transport vehicle vibrate through her seat as it lifted from the ground. She anxiously bit her nails.
"Wish we could move faster, I want to see my dad," Cindy said to no one in particular.
"Won't be long," Matt chimed in, "Fifteen, twenty minutes maybe."
They quieted as the sound of the engines peaked, then faded to normal throttle.
Cindy got up and went to an empty seat with a window view. There had been a couple of CORP uniforms sitting there before, but they had moved to the front when Cindy and the others had entered the cabin. Cindy sat down and looked out the window, as her school and its surroundings shrunk from view.
The pilot came on the intercom and mumbled something about the artificial gravity being activated shortly, but Cindy was too preoccupied with the overwhelming view and thoughts of her mother to listen.
The land was beautiful, for something so injured, a dead landscape. It was just muddied features and colors, with no definition. The transport turned, leaving the old world behind, and faced the stars. Then, in the middle of the black starscape, a massive cruiser came into view.
"Cindy, that's the--" Matt started.
"The Washington," Cindy breathed, and adopted her mock instructor voice. "The first and largest of all space-modular ships! A 5-kilometer-long behemoth of steel, titanium and vacuum-proof glass. An aircraft carrier of space, simultaneously an attack vessel and a space station and the ship where my father works."
"Smart kid," Matt said.
Her parents' lab had relocated to the Washington at the same time she was placed in the academy, and this was her first visit, a moment she had dreamed of since the massive structure first became operational years before.
"Finally," she said.
Then the impressive view was gone and the ship turned again. A sound, like a pulse of bass, rumbled through the cabin as the door to the cockpit vibrated. A sensor went off, making her jump, before she realized that it was the docking signal.
Metal scraped on metal and the transport coupled to the cruiser. The fans came on and the pressure dropped slightly. Matt unclicked his restraints and stood up.
"Welcome to the Washington," Matt said.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 4: When your parents give you life...and superpowers
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