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.
From "The Diaries of Cindy Parker."
U.S.S.N. Washington, low Earth orbit, April 12, 2051
The dull brightness of the cafeteria lights had replaced the sun, her sense of night and day. She wasn't sure how long she had been waiting in this stagnant room or even if it was the same day she arrived.
Someone had placed a bowl of soggy ice cream in front of her.
She turned her head at the approach of footsteps for the fifth time -- no, just someone in a bright orange jumpsuit, holding a purple flex-pipe in one hand, lunch in the other. She sighed, mentally chastising herself for being a child. Then again, worry for her mother still gnawed away at her. Matt had dropped her off in the cafeteria with promises of returning soon, but it had been 10 minutes already and no one had shown up.
She had attracted quite a few stares as well. Here was a teenager in jeans and a tank top, when normally anyone under 18 wasn't even allowed on the Washington. She was sure quite a few people there knew her dad -- even foggily recognized one or two -- but no one had gotten up to acknowledge her presence in any way.
Under any other circumstances, Cindy would not have been able to contain herself -- she was on the Washington. Even setting foot on the Washington was a dream most would never realize. She even envied the guy who had made her ice cream. By all rights, she should have been zooming around like a buzzcraft, trying to capture anything and everything in her mind -- there was a strict no-recording rule on the Washington.
A sick mixture of concern, curiosity and fear kept ripping at her. What happened to Mom? Is she OK? No, they said there was an accident. But how bad? Is she injured? Is she...is she...it was at this point that Cindy broke off her train of thought with a sick knot in her stomach and the almost overwhelming urge to puke. She looked back at the depressing puddle of goo in the dish in front of her -- the nausea didn't go away.
She saw "BASKIN ROBBINS" boldly impressed into the side in crayon hues, along with, "Now In Freeze-Dried Form -- Takes Half the SPACE!". She blinked at the fluorescent carton, and shoved it away.
"I remember when they only had 31 flavors," Matt said as he walked up. "Think about that!"
"Yeah, 'cause you're obviously old. This stuff is horrible!" said Cindy, flopping her spoon in the middle of the goo, making it stand on end. "Where's my dad?"
"He's over there." Matt pointed across the room at her dad discussing things urgently with a staff member. "See him?"
"Dad!" Cindy called out as she ran off toward her father.
"And this is where I exit. Let me know how it goes..." Matt mumbled to himself as he headed for the food line.
Cindy jumped up to hug her father. He waved away the staff member who was asking him questions and jotting notes on a tablet.
"Chicken! Thank god!" said her father, Alex Parker, interuniversal particles research head, hugging her back as if it had been years since they last saw each other. The tall man next to him in khaki pants and a shaggy crew cut was one of the three research heads on the Washington.
"Where's Mom? Is she OK? I want to see her," said Cindy, as her father set her back down. His face fell, and he glowed a faint indigo.
People in the cafeteria were shuffling awkwardly, looking down at their trays, avoiding the two family members radiating intimate sadness. Most had a general idea what had happened, but the environment that had everyone under strict nondisclosure policies didn't exactly welcome free and open discussion, especially not of presumed failure.
And the drama of a family tragedy was wholly alien and uncomfortable to the world of the ship, full of disciplined, focused teams of scientists, technicians and bureaucrats. Suddenly the bland, rectangular chunks of food on the trays, identical to the ones served countless times in the past years as mandated by a rigid and aggressively unappetizing schedule, were commanding unprecedented attention.
"Chicken, I want to show you something. Come, let's go to my office." Cindy's father led her out of the cafeteria and through a maze of hallways, hissing pneumatic doors and one more elevator than Cindy had the patience for. Finally they arrived at his office. He swiped his badge and leaned toward the wall next to the door, submitting his eyes for retinal scanning. The door hissed open and he directed Cindy inside.
"Why won't you tell me what happened to Mom?" Cindy asked him. He walked over to his desk and pulled an envelope out of the top left drawer.
"I found this in your mother's things. It was the only thing I was able to grab before they collected everything. It's standard procedure that all assets and belongings of any scientist ki--" Alex stopped himself.
Cindy looked down and saw her name written on the envelope. She turned it over and opened it. Inside was a letter undoubtedly written in her mother's handwriting. It read:
My dearest Cindy,
That you are reading this means something terrible has happened to me. I have been working on something truly wonderful for some time, and although I cannot elaborate on any of the details, I want you to know that the work I am doing has the potential to revolutionize what we currently know about, well, just about everything. I want you to understand that I have always loved you. I have always regretted not having nearly as much time as I would have liked to spend with you. I will always be with you, no matter what. I love you most. I did all of this for you, for the life that we can all have together, a life where anything is possible.
Your loving mother, Josephina Parker
Editor's note: Archival copies of the actual letter Josephina Parker wrote to young Cindy are quite different than Cindy's own recollection of what the letter said as she recorded it here in her diary. Although the general sentiment is the same, Dr. Parker tended toward more verbose language. I might even say she needed an editor, but that's just like an editor to suggest such a thing.
Cindy was taken aback. Her left hand started to tremble. She set the letter down on the desk. "Where's Mom?" she demanded.
"We aren't sure, honey, she was in an accident," he said, and turned his gaze downward. "And now she's, she's missing."
"What do you mean missing? Is she dead?" Cindy's voice rose unconsciously. She could feel her heart racing. Her insides were beginning to twist and tangle.
"Honey, I'm so sorry. It was part of our work, she was part of a trial experiment. You've heard me talk about the crossover, you know, to the new worlds, the ones beyond the space we know that we have been trying to reach for the last few years."
"But what happened to her?!" Cindy was growing more and more impatient with her father. Why wouldn't he just come out and say it?
"We were trying to allow your mom to cross over, to a place we cannot yet see or interact with from our world. To another world, another universe, actually. But something went wrong, and we don't think she... made it...." He trailed off, looking at Cindy almost beseechingly. He could see her eyes were becoming glossy, wet with inevitable tears.
Alex realized then that he had been fooling himself. He had been so sure, cocky even. He had never thought anything would go wrong at this stage in the experiment. They had done everything they could to make it as safe as possible, every safety net imaginable was set up and yet, still, he found himself standing here in front of his daughter doing the one thing he hoped he would never have to do. Her mother was gone. He had no idea where, if she was alive or dead. There was nothing, nothing but mystery.
"Why didn't you tell me you were working on something so dangerous? How do we know if she's alive? Can you bring her back? Why did she agree to go without saying anything to me?!" Cindy was becoming more and more distraught, the stress of all the previous years now coming to a peak. Forgotten calls, missed appointments, all those years learning to live on her own with only a screen to call her family. She sometimes felt closer to her cat, Sparks, than to her parents. The thought of it all caught up to her and broke her.
"I'm sorry, chicken, I'm so sorry, honey." her father said, his hands grasping her shoulders pulling her in as she began to cry.
"Just find her, bring her back, or let me go to her!"
Alex squatted down in front of his daughter and looked her in the eyes, "We can't bring her back if she is..."
"But she's not!"
"If your mother isn't dead, if she is in another world we will find her, if we can continue the project, now that..." he paused as he collected his thoughts. "If she's alive, we'll get her back, whatever we have to do; it will be all right. Everything's going to be all right." He stood up tall as if regaining his optimism.
"Why didn't you stop her? Why couldn't someone else have gone instead of Mom? Why did you bring me here anyway? Couldn't you have just lied to me and said that she was on a special mission until you found a way to bring her back?"
"I'm sorry, but I won't lie to you." Alex held Cindy as she cried. Cindy knew her father lied to her. He was lying to her about lying, right now.
A wave of sadness overtook her and she felt too distraught to argue any further. She was exhausted.
Her father tried to stay strong, but he was feeling the tears well up.
"Let's get out of here," he croaked through his sobs.
They left the office through a side door and entered a small monorail station. A few moments later they were on a four-person tracked cart.
"Where am I sleeping?" she said.
"Don't you want to see the device?"
"I don't care about the device unless it can bring her back right now! I just want to sleep. You drag me out of school and make me look weirder than I already am. You somehow managed to send my mom to another universe, but can't get her back. I am exhausted."
"Stop calling me that! This is not at all how I imagined my first trip aboard the Washington would be." Cindy almost started tearing up again. She had kept the tears in for so long, she did not know how much longer she would be able to keep them from spilling. She couldn't remember the last time she cried, or felt nearly this bad. The more she thought about it she realized she couldn't remember ever crying. "I just want to go to bed, please, and I need the bathroom, too."
Her father tapped on his watch and the monorail slowed to a stop, then reversed.
"Almost there," was all he said.
"Good." Cindy could see that her dad glowed blue, a dark midnight blue. She knew he was hurting too, but she didn't care. She was too overwhelmed to care.
The last minutes on the rail were quiet, only interrupted by its slight buzz. Once they reached their stop, Alex led his daughter down two hallways to his suite in the residence area. He swiped a token from around his neck closely near a sensor at the doors, and they opened with the sound of compressed air. Before her father could say another word Cindy went into the suite.
"Make yourself at home, your room is the one on the left there."
"Yep, goodnight," she said curtly.
"Are you sure? It's only 7, honey."
"Don't call me that!" she slammed the door to her room.
"I'm sorry, then I'll see you in the morning."
He waited for another few seconds for a response but got none.
Alex Parker went to the main door and locked it with his token. From underneath the sink he took a half-full bottle of his favorite whiskey, Georgia Prime, to the couch and sat down. He dimmed the lights with his watch, and found a more or less clean glass that sat on an old book on the coffee table. He filled it with a few ounces and shot it down, then filled it again with the same amount. While almost all the books he owned were on physics, this old book was his favorite, and it wasn't really a book at all, but a play. He read the lines to himself until he fell asleep:
You are free from them all -- rest well.
I did what I could, all I could. If only
Time had been kinder to us both.
A cruel fate I am wished to have, somewhere
There is smiling in the dark for my misfortune.
To find a friend and lose them in a swoop,
That flights from mountaintops could not save her.
All with no lesson to be learned.
And to say I am part of this, to be
Witness to true evil shown vividly in
Many forms and colors. I don't wish to see
Such portraits again. Ever again.
But I think I'll take a memory.
Editor's note: What Alex Parker failed to realize was that he had succeeded in sending his wife to another universe, but this was done simply by inducing the failure of her physical body and had nothing to do with the rudimentary wormhole-generating device he was operating alongside her body. What that device did manage to do, however, was act as a sort of interversal magnet. So, in the unlikely event that the energized particles of information belonging to another consciousness happened to be in the neighborhood of Earth, they would be drawn to Alex Parker's lab and to the void left in Josephina's dormant brain and body.
As it happens, there was a tightly organized packet of particles heading in the direction of Earth EB-2 just as Josephina's own consciousness was streaming away in another direction.
Next, one of our heroes will rise from the dead, without her knowledge.
'Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing'
reading•'Crowd Control,' part 7: 'Mom's not dead, she's just in another universe'
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