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'Crowd Control,' part 18: Love resurrected, a family destroyed

In the latest installment of CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel, a couple is finally reunited under the most unlikely circumstances, while a brilliant scientist's ambition leaves him alone and in despair.

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 14

Compiled by Escobar MacNamara, curator of the Museum of the Uninstallation, San Jose, State of Jefferson, 2067.

New Delhi, Earth, June 20, 2051

Rebecca sat on the parapet, watching Josephina's still body on the broken concrete roof of the school. The rain had subsided. From her purse, Rebecca pulled out a pack of Morley cigarettes. "There's two left, you want one?" she asked the corpse. "No, you never were much of a smoker, were you?" Rebecca took a long drag of the cigarette, its taste bittersweet in her mouth. She had quit a lifetime ago, back when she was expecting her first child. She shuddered.

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

Sam Falconer

When she miscarried, she'd needed cigarettes, lots of cigarettes, and alcohol, but Charles had had the prudence to stop her. What did he used to say? She muttered, "Better start taking care of our bodies..."

"Our bodies are temples," came a voice from behind her. It sounded just like Charles, like he was standing just over her shoulder. She shook her head.

The voice came again. "It's been a long time, my strawberry danish."

Rebecca's eyes widened. She turned around to see Josephina's recently broken body sitting up on the concrete.

"What the hell? What did you call me?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I was just placing an order for a strawberry danish and a Manzanillo margarita to go with this sunset. Although, I think I'd prefer a view of the Lotus Temple. We are nearby, after all."

"Ch-Charles?!"

Charles nodded and grinned. As he stood up he noticed his legs were stiffer than he would have expected and he stumbled a bit as he adapted to the body he recognized immediately as Josephina's.

"Now this is awkward. I'm better-looking as a zombie woman than I was when we were married."

Rebecca stepped back a few feet and tripped, falling backward. It had only been a few minutes ago that she had hit her leader with the taser, and watched gleefully as the woman recoiled in electric withdrawal, stiffened, then collapsed like a rag doll. Had she really done that? Had she really killed someone with a smile?

"I don't understand. I just, Josephina..."

"Yeah, I figure we've got a lot of catching up to do. And the real Josephina is one heck of a nice lady. Good mom, too. Remember a student named Cindy Parker? That's her kid. Imagine that, right? Poor lady, her body keeps getting taken over by lame chumps."

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Charles/Josephina returns to India.

Sam Falconer

"Wait a second. I need to think."

Charles took his wife's hand in Josephina's now wrinkle-free one.

"Let's take a walk. Which way is that temple from here anyway? It's been too long. Way too long."

Chapter 15

Adapted from "The Trial of Dr. Alex Parker," TransNational Archives, 2057.

U.S.S.N. Washington, low-Earth orbit, April 21, 2051

Alex struggled to breathe, his heartbeat overwhelming his thoughts. He felt the panic taking over his body, his fingers going numb, and that horrible itch at the base of his spine triggering the impulse to run, or scream. Every sense he had told him to take action, any action, anything to relieve some of the pressure barely contained within him -- but he knew, looking at his daughter's icy body in the cryotube, that there was no action he could take. She was gone.

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Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

She must have tried to go after her mother, he thought, but without his scientific knowledge of the process, without help setting up the complex experimental equipment, there would have been no chance of success.

First his wife, and now his daughter -- blind panic rose again to the surface. All his life he had worked to advance the multiverse theory, his and his wife's shared obsession, but he had never imagined it would require the sacrifice of his entire family. Even now, some small part of him wanted to analyze what Cindy had done, not just for himself, but for refinement of the proposed mechanism of transport. His stomach churned and he suppressed the wave of nausea. What kind of father could analyze his dead daughter for his own scientific curiosity?

She was gone, her mother was gone, and his credibility as a scientist was soon to be gone. Still thinking about your professional reputation, you despicable selfish shit? What kind of human thinks of their career when their whole family has died because of it? What kind of man experiments on his whole family? It should have been me!

Click the screen capture to see an earlier draft of chapter 15, including discussion about the direction of the story among contributors.

Eric Mack/CNET

A pint of vodka later the panic had receded to the deepest, hollowest despair he had ever known. It throbbed within him, tolling. Tolling. He had paid a toll. He had used his family as the tokens.

With effort, he focused on the cryotube door. He could see his daughter's face, almost asleep but the wrong color. In the tube next to her, his own reflection. He was ready to join her. It won't be painful, just cold, and then loss of feeling in the extremities, and shallow breathing, and then... I hope it is painful, you repulsive shit, you deserve pain, you deserve to feel the death of every nerve and the lysing of every cell; as many deaths as there are within you, you deserve. As he reached for the silver handle he stumbled and fell, falling, falling into a deep sleep approaching death.

"Oh, Cindy, why did you have to go chasing after your mother?" Alex asked a stranger who at first glance looked like it might be Cindy. There was no reply. "Hey who, who are you?" Alex asked as he put his right hand on the stranger's shoulder in an attempt to also grab the stranger's attention. Instantly his right arm from his fingers to just beyond his wrist froze and turned obsidian. He clutched his arm against his chest and loosed a wail of pain.

Turning around, the stranger -- who now looked very much like the Cindy he saw in the cryotube just moments ago -- enigmatically replied, "To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream; aye there's the rub, for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come." The cold, bluish-white Cindy turned away from Alex and proceeded to walk away.

"Hey! I'm talking to you! Come back here! What the--? Where the hell am I? Who are all these people?!" Alex became a little worried, as seemingly out of nowhere, he was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of shuffling strangers. Upon closer inspection, each of the "strangers" had an appearance that morphed into some version of William Shakespeare. This one was young and fit, that one old and walked with a cane. That one over there was an infant in a pram being pushed by a middle-aged Shakespeare in a dress.

There were hundreds of them, and as Alex began to frantically look around for an escape route, thousands more could be seen in all directions. They were not even moving in one cohesive concourse, it was more like they were all shuffling about randomly, aimlessly. In a fit of panic, he started to run. He did not have any indication of direction, he merely ran. Alex had to maneuver with a great deal of finesse through the crowd as he jockeyed for the same point in space-time, point after point. The points quickly formed a line reminiscent of Brownian motion.

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Folger Shakespeare Library

It was unknown to Alex how long or how far he had been running; all he knew was he was exhausted and rapidly approaching the final step he would be able to take before collapsing. And collapse he did, except that as he fell he continued to fall with increasing haste. He turned over on his back and saw the crowd shuffling on an invisible surface. The individual members were getting smaller and smaller, but Alex could see the crowd becoming innumerable, stretching in all directions.

As Alex fell he became less and less aware of being conscious. Images zipped past him. Voices taunted his psyche. His senses were overloaded and he was easily confused. Every now and then he caught a glimpse of some past event of his life. Alex quickly noticed that what he was seeing was a highlight reel of his failures. Some of them never actually happened, it was just that, at the time, Alex had been worried that it could happen. He grew weary and slipped into a trance.

"Alex Parker, answer the question," a raspy voice exclaimed. Alex snapped out of his cataleptic condition and saw that he was no longer falling but restrained in a chair. In front of him was what appeared to be a rather random selection of television sets, each one replaying one of his many memories. Not much else could be seen. Aside from the glow of the television screens the room was absent of any other light.

"Th-, the question?" Alex stammered.

"Yes Alex Parker, the question. Why did you kill your wife and daughter?" responded the raspy voice.

"Wh-what?! I, er, I, I didn't! I didn't kill anyone! There must be some mistake! It was an accident! I, I, I love Cindy, and Josephina, I would never..."

"Alex Parker, let me make this very clear to you. You are not on trial. We know exactly what you did and exactly how it happened. The only thing we do not know is why. I am not going to ask you again. Answer the question, Alex Parker."

It was at this point the television screens stopped showing random memories and instead displayed a reenactment of the events that resulted in the deaths of Josephina and Cindy. Alex began to panic. The combination of being restrained against his will and forced to watch the untimely demise of the two people he cared about most was suffocating. He tried to look away but could not turn his head. He tried to close his eyes but his eyelids were transparent. "Stop! Please, I beg you! Stop! I can't take it! I didn't want them to die, I didn't know it would happen! I was trying to prove a theory! Please! You have to believe me! I never inten..."

Suddenly the screens went dark. He could hear other voices arguing with the raspy one. It sounded like there was at least one voice that believed Alex and was trying to convince the others to let him go. It was difficult for Alex to make out all of what they were saying, but he noticed that they kept using the same two words over and over again.

"Look, I really don't think he knows about Terra Superioris. If it was just a scientific experiment, how is he a threat to The Committee?"

"It's not just Terra Superioris. If he has truly found a way to travel to other universes we lose our power, our security, our safety!"

"That's right! Terra Superioris could just be the beginning. If the humans of Earth have this technology, there's only one conclusion. We have seen many times over what humans are capable of. I for one don't want to be a part of an interuniversal war!"

"I think we should help him."

"Preposterous! What would we gain by helping this pitiful creature?"

"He obviously cares about his family. And we've seen what he is capable of. Would it not be better to help him rather than let him discover the answers he needs on his own? The consequences of someone as distraught and emotional as he is, armed with multiversal travel ...could be calamitous. Let's just give him what he needs to bring them back from Terra Superioris."

Suddenly, the room seemed to burst into pillars of light and he was falling rapidly down a long white corridor. Before him flashed images of his wife and daughter, alive and smiling in a beautiful, extraterrestrial city. The sky was bluer than he had ever seen. And he knew, he just knew, they were still alive. Everything went black.

He awoke on his stomach, puking up his guts. When the last of his internal contents seemed to be completely evicted from his body, he knew what he had to do. As if in some altered state of consciousness, he was gifted the answer he needed to bring back his family.

Next up: A daring escape back to Earth marks the start of a reversal in the war among the dead.

See our "Crowd Control" contributors list.