Six months after we asked readers to help us write a science fiction novel, we present “Crowd Control,” CNET’s first work of crowdsourced fiction. Hundreds of contributors — more than 120 whose names we know and many more anonymous — collaborated via a single Google Doc, working under a Creative Commons license to shape a rough draft of a story. That draft is still online for anyone to take from or build upon, and CNET edited and expanded it to create our own version of the story, which comes in at almost 50,000 words. We will publish that story on CNET over the next four to five weeks, along with more inside details on how it came to be.
April 19, 2051 – Earth Version EB-2
The moment that would come to define the relationship of two planets across two universes was based on a lie.
“So, you’re telling us that you know God? You’re saying you’ve spoken to God, essentially?”
The host sat leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, speaking slowly, wanting to be sure to get the phrasing just right to prevent the evasive answer she anticipated.
“Sure, I know God very well,” the tall woman said nonchalantly, leaning forward in response. She turned her head and shot a grin at the TV camera. Her smile telegraphed complete confidence but also betrayed a bit of mischievousness to anyone paying close attention.
“I mean, it doesn’t actually call itself God, but I can assure you it is the Creator we talk about when we talk about God, or Allah or Brahma or Yahweh. Many names, same intelligent designer of everything.”
Like all good lies, this one was designed to be applied broadly.
“And your…team, they were able to communicate with this Creator via the Kurzweil Machine?”
“You know, some people are obviously going to find this hard to believe, not just because you’re claiming to have a direct line to God, but because there’s, you know…widespread suspicion, to say the least, about the purpose and capabilities of the Kurzweil Machine since its existence was leaked last year.”
The guest sank back, the adolescent smirk on her face never faltering. If she’d mastered communicating one thing with body language, it was condescension.
“Well,” she said, still relaxing fully into the oversized chair. “Once I tell you what God, The Creator, whatever it is it’s called…Once you hear the one request it shared with me…God’s one request, Yahweh’s sole demand, Allah’s lone directive…Once you hear the next important step that we, that all of us must take, then I think you will cease to be suspicious of that machine. It’s the much smaller machines inside all of you that we need to be concerned with.”
This was, of course, another lie. There was no greater threat to the future of life on EB-2 than the woman herself.
Note: Some of you reading this Anglo-Binary edition may not have heard this classic bit of history before, so allow me to provide some basic introduction.
The events we’ll be covering take place in your universe on the planet Earth EB-2 (or just plain old Earth, as you probably know it) around the year 2050, as well as in another universe on a planet that was once called Earth, but now calls itself Terra Superioris. If this is all new to you, you might be thinking to yourself: that’s awfully convenient to set a story in two separate universes yet still never leave Earth or the 21st century.
But this is what I do. I shape and sculpt everything. Speaking strictly in the quantum sense, it’s possible that your world didn’t even exist until others like me started observing it. So, you’re welcome.
By now I suppose you’ve guessed who I am. My title is splashed all around your other texts, even though I’m rarely seen or heard from. Yes, I’m the one behind the scenes putting it all together, making sure it all has rhyme and reason and purpose.
Yes, it’s really me, the all-powerful gatekeeper through which all creation flows.
I am The Editor. Pleased to meet you.
I’ve decided to take the unusual step of speaking to you directly because this is an unusual collection of text that you’re viewing on your screen, direct-processing in your cerebral cortex or thumbing through on the pulped corpse of a tree for those of you in the slow-to-evolve corners of the multiverse.
Many of you from more advanced civilizations will recognize the story that follows as one of the more critical moments in the history of the multiverse. But for the first time with this edition, my fellow editors and I have aimed to curate a version that might be understandable to less developed societies where ideas like white-hole particle capture remain held back by the scourge of photon-based entertainment.
To that end, I solicited archivists, translators, scribes and other editors from all universes to create this new edition. A cruder term for this might be “crowdsourcing.”
Strangely, the majority of the contributions come from the less developed of the two universes that play a role in our story, on what is multiversally known as Earth Version EB-2 (for Einstein-Beyonce-2; multiversal planet-naming conventions designate each universe’s version of a planet with the initials of its most historically influential residents, followed by a numeral indicating the number of times intelligent life on the planet has been extinguished so far).
My thanks to the contributors to this project from around Earth EB-2, as well as the few who helped from Earth-MC-2, aka Terra Superioris, and from the always wise and impartial Boyajian star system, as well as the universe whose name we dare not speak because its proper pronunciation requires replicating frequencies known to rupture human DNA.
You will notice the narrative to follow is told through multiple voices and perspectives as a result of the diverse set of contributors who created it. I encourage you to shift your perspective of these critical events in our shared history as the voices shift so that we may all have a more well-rounded view of life in our infinite multiverse.
I will, however, be interjecting into the following chapters to explain or clarify things along the way, particularly for readers from the aforementioned Einstein-Beyonce Earth and other less advanced civilizations. I will attempt to keep my pontificating to a minimum, but I might not try too hard. I am The Editor after all, and editorializing is one of the things I do best.
Live and learn forever,
Excerpted from “Meta: The Life of a Diplomat,” Tenochtitlan Digital, 2077.
Tenochtitlan District, Terra Superioris – December 10, 2050
“For billions of years, the strings and particles making up the matching multiverse planets Earth EB-2 and Terra Superioris had arranged themselves and behaved in identical ways, until an anomaly set the planet Earth on its drastically divergent and destructive path. We can trace this separation back to one evening in the first month of the Earth year 1675, when a slight difference in atmospheric pressures was observed over eastern Massachusetts…”
Meta shifted to the left to get a different angle on the hologram in the front of the classroom. He gripped the side of his desk. He’d seen and heard the story countless times before. This time he and the other diplomat candidates in the room were instructed to give it an “empathetic viewing,” to attempt to understand how the implications of the split might be understood by someone emigrating from Earth.
Meta was pretty sure few migrants were capable of understanding such things at all, but he had no plan to share this opinion so close to his final certification.
He fidgeted with his long, dark hair as a three-dimensional rendering of a man dressed in furs ran through the woods, stumbling over rocks hidden beneath snow cover, an archaic hatchet-like weapon made of dull metal, branches and twine strapped to his back.
Faking empathy, at least face-to-face, was one of Meta’s many talents, but probably the only one he didn’t let others know he possessed. Understanding what others wanted was key to getting what you wanted out of them, after all. Even knowing this, he found it hard to imagine himself ever needing to work that hard to convince an Earth migrant of anything.
The trees in the three-dimensional image were barren. The sky was gray and heavy with clouds.
Meta thought about how he had never known anywhere on Terra Superioris as consistently gloomy as every representation of Earth he’d ever seen in these Multiversal History classes.
The sound of the fleeing man’s breath heaving could be heard echoing around the classroom. A chill filled the air. Taller and thinner than his peers, Meta pulled his jacket on; his friend Nara snickered from across the room.
The man stopped suddenly at the edge of a frozen pond. His eyes traced the flat surface beneath the snow. The narrator’s voice-over continued as the figure remained frozen with hesitation:
“A slight change in the atmosphere was observed at that moment over Earth’s Assawompsett Pond that does not have an analog match in the paleoclimate records here on Terra Superioris. This is the first documented moment in billions of years of planetary history that our two worlds did not evolve in identical fashion.
“The Massachusett translator Wussausmon on Earth couldn’t have known it at this moment, but he is about to become the first of many casualties of this great split between our two parallel universes.”
“The change in atmospheric pressure over this pond on that evening resulted in a persistent breeze carrying unseasonably warm air from the south. As shown by the paleometeorology charts, no corresponding breeze was observed on Superioris. The difference was miniscule, but significant enough for anthrophysicists and quantum historians to pinpoint the exact moment when our closest analog world took a divergent path…”
The charts disappeared and Wussausmon moved forward. He took a tentative step onto the ice.
“This guy never gets any smarter,” Meta whispered with a knowing smile.
Zulema, the rare redhead from the Tenochtitlan District and Meta’s competition to graduate with the highest certification ranking, shushed him. She did not turn her eyes away. The rest of the class, sans Nara, was rapt in attention, anticipating what all knew was about to happen.
A gust of wind picked up the man’s fur hat and he grabbed for it with his mitted hands just as it began to lift off. Smashing it back onto his head, he took one last nervous look back and moved forward, this time with swift surety.
“That warm air made the layer of ice covering the pond more brittle than normal,” the narrator continued.
A loud crash echoed around the room, overpowering a chorus of gasps and a few giggles as Wussausmon’s hands flew up into the air and his body dropped through the surface of the frozen lake. As he slipped into the dark water and out of the scene, the back of his neck and skull cracked against the edge of the hole in the ice in an awkward manner that elicited an audible cringe from the class, even though most had seen it several times in recent years. The awful cracking noise made it clear the translator in the display had no chance of escape, of fulfilling the potential that everyone in the room had studied and knew well.
Meta fought back the urge to let out a cruel chuckle.
The narrator continued, somberly then:
“This allowed Wussausmon, also known as John Sassamon, to fall through the lake’s surface and tragically drown. Sassamon had attempted to take a shortcut home as he was running away from three Wampanoag villagers who had accused him of betraying the Wampanoag leader Metacomet on multiple occasions. They believed he had warned the pale Puritan settlers of a planned attack by the Wampanoag.”
The scene panned out slowly at first and then faster until all could see that the pond was in the northeastern region of the United States of the northern hemisphere of planet Earth.
“Sassamon’s accidental drowning is the first death on Earth EB-2 that does not have a direct analog match in the history of Terra Superioris,” the narrator said.
The hologram of the man reappeared. He was old and reclining in bed. Three women encircled and tended to him. The narrator continued:
“The Superioran Sassamon died a peaceful death in his Plymouth home in 1686. At his memorial service, he was honored by the European settlers and the Wampanoag alike, both groups noted his lifelong efforts to maintain peace. In the next chapter, we will cover how Sassamon’s legacy factors into the founding of the nation our world would come to know as the Trans-Atlantic Council of Tribes or TACT.”
Meta had always been a prodigy, or at least that’s what he’d been told. His birth was one of just a handful that the Council had authorized for 2030, so the stakes and the pressure on him had always been high. Expert Crisprs were brought in to assure his genome was as flawless as possible.
Almost everyone Meta had ever known had pushed him aggressively toward a career as a diplomat. For much of his youth, he felt resentful about his relative lack of agency in choosing his own life’s direction, until he first learned the story of Sassamon and the split between planetary histories.
The concept fascinated him, and he was originally most interested in the notion of bridging two cultures set on different paths by a slight breeze. But over the years, the pressures increased, as did the disdain from peers and even some instructors who resented Meta’s perceived privilege.
The whole experience led Meta to turn increasingly inward, seeking comfort in a growing self-obsession while honing his skills in manipulating others to continue self-medicating through narcissism. In the final months of his training, he found himself more motivated than ever by the promise of a new level of power to feed his own demons.
The display returned to Earth, where a war raged in animated fury across the planet. The narrator continued:
“On Earth, however, Sassamon’s death did more than deprive their world of his legendary diplomatic skills. It was blamed on three Wampanoag men who were later executed by the Europeans, causing the Wampanoag’s allies to retaliate. The ensuing conflict grew into what came to be called ‘King Philip’s War.'”
Two identical planets were shown, side by side — one peacefully populated with magnificent feats of art and engineering and technology, the other a wasteland of primitive ruins ravaged by pollution and decay.
Feeling inspired as you read? Learn how you can still contribute your visual interpretations.
“This is why contemporary Earth scarcely resembles contemporary Terra Superioris. Even now on Earth, the effects of that warm breeze are still felt by the ongoing threat of fringe militia uprisings, black market nuclear weapons and genetic warfare.”
The bell shocked Meta from his seat as the class jumped in unison to head for the exit and the pods heading back to the residential sector for the evening.
‘Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing’
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