Abysme – Chapter 10 – Janus


Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?

Mathilde, Szymon and Oliver have found life in their simulated universe, the Mosverse. Only one twist: it’s on a tidally locked planet.

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Chapter Ten: Janus

 

“A what?”

“A tidally locked planet,” Szymon repeated, “You know, like how the moon is tidally locked to the Earth? The same side always faces us?”

“That can happen to planets?”

“Of course,” he snorted, “It’s the effect of the star’s gravity – the closer you are, the stronger it pulls. So the front of the planet is getting pulled more than the back, which slows down its rotation. It’s happening to Earth too – it’s why we have to add leap seconds from time to time. A gazillion years ago, a day on Earth was like, 4 hours long.”

“So this planet is always showing the same side to its star?” asked Oliver.

Mathilde didn’t even listen to the answer. It had suddenly become obvious. The planet’s dark, blue and icy side was lost in shadow, while the other shone hotly from the onslaught of the red dwarf’s heat.

“How can life survive there though? Wouldn’t one side be way too hot and the other way too cold?” she asked.

“If there’s life,” said Szymon, his smile growing by the second, “It’ll be where there’s liquid water – where it’s warm enough not to turn to ice, and cool enough not to evaporate.”

He waited for them to get it. When Mathilde shrugged, he sighed exasperatedly.

“It’ll be on the terminator. The twilight zone. Where both halves meet and it’s neither dark nor light. That’s where we’ll find liquid water.” He made a vertical circle in the air with his finger.

Mathilde and Oliver looked back towards the planet. The terminator wasn’t easy to make out – there was nothing but a slight blurry line where light became shadow, mostly shrouded in yellow clouds moving quickly from hot to cold.

“Knowing how you guys work, I’m surprised it’s not called the ‘not-so-dark zone’ or something.”

“Probably a physicist who was a Schwarzenegger fan,” Szymon grinned.

Oliver swooshed ahead of them. “Are we going to keep jabbering about terminology, or are we going to go check it out?”

Mathilde nodded and moved the fingers on her right hand to begin her descent.

As one, they slowly floated down towards the planet’s top most point. When they hit the cloud canopy, visibility disappeared completely. A fast-moving yellow fog enveloped her from all sides. All Mathilde could see of Oliver and Szymon were the red outlines of their bodies, conveniently provided by her VR contacts. She pushed through the snowy sandstorm, moved her fingers to keep her course straight down towards the surface, and broke through the clouds as suddenly as she had entered them.

The wind and snow and fog suddenly evaporated and the planet’s surface stretched out peacefully below her. To her left rose tall icy peaks and towering glaciers, while to her right was nothing but a wide and orange-tinged wasteland of barren rock that extended out as far as the eye could see.

But in the middle, on a stretch that looked to be no more than a few hundred kilometers wide, was water. Below her, water poured and flowed in gigantic rivers that stretched out in a network of blue veins.

It looked like the mother of all deltas. Hundreds of small rivulets and waterfalls tore down the icy side, joining up progressively into bigger and wider streams, giant interlocking rivers headed straight for the orange desert. They reached their maximum width right on the terminator line, some growing to become elongated lakes or tiny seas. But as they neared the wasteland, they tapered off, and split into tiny streams that slowly ceased to exist, lost in empty riverbeds of carved rock.

She recognized it immediately – it was a mini-ecosystem, like those she had done in primary school, showing the water cycle. At one end of the twilight zone, the temperature was warm enough to melt the ice of the dark side, creating the huge rivers. But the farther the water got, the more the temperature rose, until the precious liquid evaporated completely. Once in the air, the strong winds they had crossed on their way in brought the water vapor back to the cold side, where it condensed and fell back to the ground as snow, ready to be melted again.

But what caught her eye wasn’t the rivers. It was what lay on the land that separated them.

“Grass,” she said breathlessly.

It was purplish-green, but it was unmistakably grass. It rippled out in giant waves under the force of the wind, creating eerie sea-like patterns on land. The first vegetation they had ever come across in the Mosverse.

“It’s beautiful,” Oliver said in a hushed voice.

“It’s probably not grass,” pointed out Szymon. They both ignored him.

Mathilde’s heart felt as if it was about to burst. “Come on!” she yelled, “Let’s go exploring!”

She didn’t drop to the surface, but instead moved quickly along the terminator line, heading south, letting the landscape roar past below her. The grass wasn’t uniform. In places, it became longer and bluer, shorter and greener, and even completely disappeared, replaced by rocky reddish patches. The rivers however, were everywhere. Near the south pole, they encountered three that were wider than they were long, and as they came back up north, saw an area that looked like a marshland, with thousands of tiny streams crisscrossing in a chaotic array.

“Wow,” was all Szymon said when they finished their planetary tour, “This planet is…”

Mathilde didn’t wait for him to finish, and immediately plummeted towards the ground. She saw the boys scramble to follow her.

She landed on a plot of grass dotted by large round stones, and dropped to her knees to look at it. Not that she really needed to – it was almost a meter high in some places, with every blade slanted at a 45 degree angle towards the icy mountains, billowing and twisting under the strength of the wind.

Closer inspection revealed, it wasn’t really grass at all. The long stalks were made of a series of tiny round leaves connected to each other in a line. The leaves’ border wasn’t smooth, but rather a series of smaller round leaves, themselves with a string of even smaller leaves around them, spreading out in fractal circles. An intricate pattern of dark blue vessels expanded from their center, giving them a purplish tinge.

Mathilde reached out to touch them, but her hand passed straight through. Obviously, she thought, but everything looked so real that she found herself trying anyways.

“OK guys, wait,” she said as Szymon and Oliver began roaming off in different directions, “Before we go exploring, I have two surprises for you.” They turned to her with raised eyebrows.

“While we were waiting for the results on the RNA search, I coded in a few extras that should improve gameplay,” she called up all three of their ID tags and selected them. With a swipe of her index, she activated a function, and all three of their avatars suddenly dropped a few centimeters from where they were floating above the ground. She looked at her feet and grinned in satisfaction: they were solidly planted on the surface.

“I call it ‘Surface Mode’,” she said, “If there’s a surface, it’ll stick us to it, making it feel more natural. If we move around, our avatars are going to be walking, not floating.”

“What if we want to go back to flying?” asked Oliver.

“It’s on your UX tag  – you can toggle it on and off. ”

“Nice!” said Szymon, staring at his virtual feet as he walked around in a giant circle. He leaped up, and stared at her bewilderedly. “You even coded in jumping? Cool!”

“It’s mostly copy-paste from a first-person shooter. I left most of the code in.”

Oliver looked at Szymon, then back to Mathilde. “Did you take it from a superhero game? No way Szymon can jump that high.”

“No, you retard, I take the gravitational constant into account. He’s jumping that high because the gravity on this planet is probably lower than Earth’s.”

Szymon jumped, rolled sideways, crouched, jumped some more, rolled backwards, and laughed his head off. Mathilde shook her head with a smile, and called up their ID tags again.

“Still one surprise left,” she said when he finally calmed down, “Check this out.”

She swiped to activate, and a screeching whine brought her to her knees. Her hands shot to her head, trying to drown out the ear-splitting sound, and she saw Szymon and Oliver fall to the ground with a yell of pain. Trying to ignore the violent needles piercing her eardrums, she extended a hand, swiped, and rotated it as if turning down a dial. The scream slowly became a quiet whistle, and the pain faded away instantly.

“What in bloody hell was that?” asked Oliver, standing back up.

“Sound,” she said, blushing red from embarrassment, “I coded in sound. But I didn’t realize how loud this planet was.”

Sound hadn’t mattered in space. The atoms floating there were too diffuse to carry it, so she hadn’t bothered. But as they had begun to tour planets with functional atmospheres, she had decided to add a layer to Mark III, analyzing where they were and what they should be hearing.

“It’s the wind,” Szymon said, shaking his head and slowly recovering, “It’s a lot stronger than it looks. If we were actually standing here in real life, we’d be blown away in seconds.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Happens,” said Szymon, still looking around, “And who cares. Having sound is awesome.”

Even with the shadows of pain still stinging her ears, she didn’t regret it either. The wind whistled as it blew the grass back in heavy gusts, and the rivers roared and grumbled around them. It finally felt as if they were really there, standing on an alien planet. Threading their way around smooth black and grey stones, they walked towards the nearest river, stopping every few meters to study the grass. Mathilde quickly identified multiple types – some had round leaves, others had more oval ones. The color of the central veins wasn’t always the same, and moved on a range from deep blue to burgundy red.

They stopped at the edge of the cliff overlooking the river. It was a ten meter drop to the water, stretching out as far as the eye could see. She felt oddly relaxed looking at it, as if she were back at the Seine in Paris, or walking along the sea at home. Oliver’s sudden yelp of surprise snapped her out of it.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The rock. It moved.”

“What?”

She ran over excitedly. “Which one?” Oliver pointed to a smooth grey stone. The three of them crouched down to look at it. Its surface was perfectly smooth and glistened under the reflection of the twilight. Mathilde got down on all fours and examined it.

“Look! There are holes here!”

Where the rock met the surface, it formed a slight bulge that ran all around its perimeter, except in five places, equidistant from each other. There, the bulge rose slightly, curving up into an arch. She suddenly jumped back, and watched in stunned silence as two black, hooked claws grasped their way out from their holes. The claws latched onto the ground a few centimeters away, and with a soft scraping sound, slowly dragged the rock forward.

“What in bloody hell was that?” yelled out Oliver, again, his voice an octave too high.

“Life,” said Mathilde, breathless and wide-eyed. Her hands quivered. “That was life!”

She jumped up and down excitedly, and then tore off towards the other rocks they had seen. All of them had the same five holes, and Szymon, Oliver and Mathilde managed to catch a few more in the act of dragging themselves forward with hooked claws.

“The smooth shells,” noticed Mathilde, “It’s probably to fight against the wind.”

“And the claws to latch on to the ground,” added Szymon, “My guess is they have some type of mouth under there to eat the grass.”

They tried looking into the holes, but could see nothing more than the tip of the claws.

“You know who would be helpful now?” asked Oliver from behind her, “A biology major. Like, I don’t know… Floriane?”

Mathilde distractedly waved a hand as she examined another shell. “Not yet.”

“What? Why not?” he bent down to level his face with hers, “Look at me! Why not?”

She scowled. “First, because we’re just exploring, and I still think that we should keep this a secret. Remember how we’re using Mark II? I don’t know her, and she’s given me no reason to trust her.”

Oliver opened his mouth to protest, but she powered through his objection. “And second, because then I’ll have to deal with fall-out when you dump her for the next pair of pretty boobs that passes by, and that’s going to be messy, and I don’t want any of that to even touch my Mosverse.”

“It’s not like that with-” Both their heads twisted around at the sound of a heavy splash. “What was that?”

Mathilde was already on her feet, heading towards the source. She found it twenty paces away: a five meter hole had opened up in the earth, swallowing up one of the moving rocks. The rock was slowly treading water below her with extended claws, trying to keep afloat. She immediately jumped in, Oliver and Szymon right behind her.

The rock was struggling. And losing. The claws moved weakly, and it sunk deeper. Every movement was desperation and pain. She reached out to it but her hands passed straight through.

“It’s going to die!” she cried out.

“Can we grab it? Push it maybe?” asked Oliver.

“Of course not!” she yelled, looking around for an exit or a ledge nearby. The walls rose cleanly around her.

“Huh, it does have a mouth beneath it,” said Szymon from under the water, “Looks more like a beak actually.”

“SZYMON! Help us!” she yelled, but it was already too late. The hooks had stopped moving. All five stuck out of the holes like dried twigs, and the rock sunk down into the depths. She looked to Oliver in anguish.

“Mathilde, calm down,” Oliver said, “It’s just a rock. It’s not real, remember?”

She followed the shape of the rock with her eyes until the darkness of the water below swallowed it completely, shuddered, and looked up. She shook her head and let a shiver run through her body. She had let the vividness of the Mosverse overtake her.

“Oliver raises a fair point,” said Szymon, floating up beside her, “Could we actually code in some interaction?”

Mathilde raised a finger to ask for a moment. She knew she had completely overreacted, but her body hadn’t yet caught up with her mind. Her hands still trembled and her heart was racing faster than a train. And yet, she couldn’t shake the thought that the poor rock had probably spent its last moments in a panic, feeling the water seep into whatever it used to breath. It was a horrible death. She shook her head again, took a deep breath, and turned to Szymon.

“I’ve thought about it, but we can’t. It’s impossible.”

“Why not?”

“The Mosverse is super complicated. It’s calculating stuff based on the movement of the quarks and the leptons and the bosons. Everything might have been orderly at the start, but now it’s all bunched up and interconnected.”

“It’s basically a brain,” she continued, “Imagine you want to delete one memory of yours. You have no idea which neurons to kill off, and even if you did, those neurons might serve multiple purposes. You could mess the whole brain up.”

“So what you’re saying,” said slowly Szymon, “Is that we can’t interact with it because we wouldn’t be able to specify where and how we want to interact? And even if we did, we wouldn’t want to because it could affect the whole Mosverse?”

“Exactly. Move a rock, a star explodes. I mean, I’m exaggerating, probably, but you get the point.”

Szymon nodded, and Mathilde looked to Oliver for confirmation, but found him staring at the walls of the pit instead.

“Ollie?” she asked.

He jerked towards them, startled.

“Did you guys notice it too?”

“Notice what?”

“The walls. Look how smooth they are.”

She examined them. The hole was a perfect circle, rising straight up to the surface.

“There’s no way this is natural,” said Oliver in a hushed voice.

“What do you mean?” Mathilde looked down into the murky depths of the water.

“I don’t know,” he answered, and began to descend under the water level, “But there’s only one way to find out.”

He plunged down into the water, and Mathilde and Szymon followed him. The luminosity was much lower, but a quick change in her VR settings, made it appear brighter. It wasn’t as good as being on the surface, but it was close enough. The hole began to curve as they dove deeper, twisting until it became fully horizontal.

It’s a tunnel, she realized. They continued to advance, and found the immobile shell of the rock in the crook of the curve. She tried to suppress a flash of pain in her chest and averted her eyes. Oliver’s right. It isn’t real. It’s an NPC in a simulation.

After a full thirty seconds, she saw an exit up ahead: a perfectly round circle of light. Given how far down they had gone, she estimated they would emerge straight into the river. She approached the ledge and looked out. From the corner of her eye, she saw Szymon and Oliver stop beside her, and heard them gasp.

She never could have imagined being more excited than finding grass and living creatures. And yet, now, her heart was beating so hard she was worried it would blow out of her chest.

This was what the Mosverse had been all about. Creating a level of alien complexity that even the most talented designers could never think up on their own. And they had finally found it.

Spreading out in front of them was her dream come true. An underwater city.

 

~ End of Chapter 10 ~

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