Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
Mathilde has simulated an entire universe. But when the life inside it turns dark, she has to make her most difficult decision yet.
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Chapter Thirteen: I Am Become Death
Szymon pointed to where the rivers ended and became tiny streams lost in empty beds.
“It all makes sense now,” he said softly, more to himself than to her, “The riverbeds. The cliffs. I kept wondering about it.”
“What about them?”
“The twilight zone. It’s getting smaller. Look.” He twisted his hand, slowly accelerating a hundred years forward. Under her astonished eyes, the tips of the rivers inched backwards and slowly retreated towards the mountains, leaving nothing but carved stone to mark their passage.
“But,” she asked as Szymon returned them to normal time, “How? Why?”
“Well, see, it had me confused, from the moment we first got here. How come we could see carved riverbeds at the end? Shouldn’t the rivers just end?”
He looked at her as if expecting an answer. She shook her head, and Szymon kept going.
“The only explanation that makes sense is that they’re getting smaller with each passing year.”
“Szymon. Just tell me why.”
“Follow me, I’ll show you,” he said, and floated up through the cloud layer above them. Shaking her head exasperatedly, Mathilde followed him to a point far above the atmosphere, overlooking the planet. From here, Janus was split in two again, swirling yellow masses of clouds on one side and dark, domineering crystal glaciers on the other.
“Okay, pay close attention to the twilight zone’s atmosphere,” Szymon rotated his hand and time slowly sped up.
The dwarf star burnt brightly on their right, its light illuminating the planet’s roiling mass of clouds. Tornadoes dashed across Janus’ surface, a stark contrast to the stillness of its dark side.
And right there in the middle, she saw it. A thin yellow fog that blew off from the planet into the dark of space. It spread all around Janus’ light side, as if the planet was pushing against a thin veil of matter.
“What is that?” she asked.
“The atmosphere. The star is ripping it away.”
“It can do that?”
“Of course. Think about Earth – if we didn’t have our magnetic field to shield us, we’d be toast. Haven’t you ever wondered where auroras–“ he paused and shook his head, “That’s beside the point. Janus just isn’t as well protected as Earth. And being tidally locked probably isn’t helping.”
She looked at it again, the atmosphere peeling off like layers on an onion, and shuddered involuntarily.
“What’s going to happen to it?”
“It’ll keep doing this until there’s no atmosphere left. With no atmosphere, you won’t have liquid water. Eventually it’ll become like our moon, one light side and one dark one, and that’s it.”
“That’s it? What about the Decapi?”
Szymon shrugged. “They’re going to die.”
“No!” she protested, “They can make it off the planet, can’t they? Move somewhere else?”
“In this star system? Have you looked at it?” he pointed behind them, “There’s a gas giant somewhere over there, and a tiny rock on the other side that’s way too close to the sun, but that’s it. They’ve got nowhere to go.”
“Can’t they go to a different system?”
Szymon shook his head.
“The Decapi aren’t going anywhere.”
Szymon paused for a while, pinching the bridge of his nose, as he collected his thoughts. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking at their technology tree. It doesn’t lie. We could give them a thousand more years, or a hundred thousand more, but I don’t think they’ll ever go much further than their equivalent of the Bronze Age.”
“You mean like, being able to develop computers?”
“Well, that and other things. They might be able to build computers one day. There are ways to use electricity underwater. Or they could have discovered submerged motherboards. Humans have done it. But humans always did it by discovering it first on land, where it was easier, and then building around the challenge. For electricity underwater, we wrap cables in rubber – but how are the Decapi going to discover rubber?”
He pondered it some, and added: “I guess they might discover fluidics, but even then…”
“It’s exactly what it sounds like: electronics that use fluids instead of electricity. But humans only developed fluidics because electronics were sensitive to harsh environments. And when we got better at protecting them, we dropped fluidics completely. Too limited, too slow. ”
She looked back to the planet, moving imperceptibly around the red dwarf that was burning it alive.
“I doubt the Decapi will even get to that stage though. Think about it. They’ll never discover astronomy: first they’d have to break through the surface, and then find a way to see through the perpetual cloud cover. No, scratch that,” he shook his head, “Even if they did that it wouldn’t work. They don’t have a night sky in the twilight zone.”
In hindsight, it seemed so obvious. Unspoken, but ever present, was the simplest of assumptions: intelligent societies were bound to advance, just like theirs had. But did it have to be this way? Would the dolphins ever develop cities, even if they went on living for millions of years without humans?
“Not to mention tools,” he continued, “I’m not even sure they’d ever be able to smelt metal.”
“Well wait, no,” she argued, “Can’t they do that on a volcanic vent or something?”
“Did you see any vents?”
She paused, embarrassed. “Not really.”
He crossed his arms. “It’s a pretty cold planet. And even if it had vents, how do you stop the water from instantly cooling your molten metal? Or worse, think about heat conductivity. In the air it’s low, so you and I can get close to an open oven and just feel a little heat. But water conducts heat far better than air, so it’s going to be boiling hot no matter how far away you are. They’d never get close enough .”
“I guess you could go with electroplating,” he added, “but then you’d need electricity and-”
“Szymon,” she raised her hands in surrender, “I get it, I get your point. They’re stuck no matter what.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “So you see… Darkpi or Decapi, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever we do, they’re all going to die anyway.”
“Yeah,” she said hesitantly, “I guess.”
Seeing the hurt in her eyes, Szymon moved over as if to pat her on the back.
“Come on Mathilde,” he said gently, “Enough of this for today. It’s been long and hard, and right now the best thing to do is to catch a bit of sleep.”
“But,” she hesitated, “Isn’t there something we can do?”
“We can sleep for a while,” he said, “And you’ll see, tomorrow all of this will feel a lot less raw.”
She surrendered then, and logged out. Mere minutes later, she heard the slow whisper of Szymon snoring through the wall. She snuggled into her covers and lay there, trying to fall asleep. She tossed to one side, only to find it uncomfortable and turn back. The bed was too hot, the covers too scratchy.
Angrily, she threw the covers off and got up. She slowly walked to the kitchen, opened a window and lit a cigarette. It was dark out, a deep black night engulfing all sound. She blew smoke out the window and watched it break out into a chaotic cloud and dissolve into the air.
Just like the Decapi world, she thought grimly, it starts off orderly, devolves into chaos, and eventually ceases to exist.
It angered her. Everything did. The horrible Darkpi. Szymon’s ability to just sleep it off. Her world coming to an end for no reason. Was it some dark, cosmic karma – the law of entropy? Was it Janus punishing the Darkpi for their conquest?
She shook her head at the stupidity of her own thoughts, crushed her cigarette angrily and flicked the stub out of the window. Stalking back to her room, she stood in the darkness, staring dead ahead. What should she do? Calmly accept it? Like Szymon had? Or focus on something else, and try to find planets with other, better life?
The touch of something cold snapped her away from her thoughts and back to reality. She was standing in front of her desk, her glassy VR contacts in hand. She didn’t remember getting up, let alone taking them, but before she could think about it, the contacts were in her eyes and she was logged in.
Janus hadn’t changed. She floated among the Decapi of all races toiling in the field. She swam through the dark dormitories where they slept, smushed together in tight nettings. Darkpi guards patrolled every city, with a cocky strut oddly reminiscent of Oliver’s.
She watched as her Decapi dragged themselves to work. Without the tentacles that allowed them to flit nimbly through the water, they moved with the wearisome walk of old men. She wondered. Did they still tell each other the stories of their forefathers, and pass on the dreams of freedom to their children? Or had they accepted their dark fate, that they were born slaves and would die slaves?
Nearer the fields, one Decapus collapsed and slowly floated away, carried by the current. Immediately, three Darkpi surrounded it and poked it with spears. The Decapus didn’t move. They poked it again, harder, until small tendrils of green blood floated into the river. Still nothing. Angrily, one Darkpi crushed his spear straight into the central node as if it were nothing but an annoying cockroach, and abandoned the body to drift away downstream.
It was her voice, and yet it wasn’t. It was darker, older and scarred by the shadow of pain. Enough, it repeated, and Mathilde found herself floating upwards, straight through the glassy mirror of the surface, up into the cloud cover, and then on past the atmosphere, until she stood watching Janus from a distance.
She slowly raised a hand, and called out the dial. Calmly, gently, she twisted it. The winds picked up, and the hurricanes on the hot side began a wild dance across the surface. She twisted it again, harder, and whispered a soft ‘shhh’ as time went on a frenetic race.
Layer after layer peeled off the onion planet. She could almost hear the howling winds fall from a screech to a whistle. The giant swirls shrank , from colossal windy monsters to small storms, until they suddenly blinked out of existence.
Her knuckles turned white on the invisible dial, as still she held it. Holes formed in the twilight zone’s cloud cover, and grew out like ink stains, touching, connecting and expanding until they replaced it completely. Suddenly, there were no clouds at all.
No clouds, no rivers, and no grass.
The planet was sterile and barren, stone on one side, ice on the other.
She floated, immobile, and looked down upon it silently. A slow shiver crept up from her fingertips, crawled up her arms, and reaching her shoulders, made her shake violently as she shed off an invisible cloak of lead she hadn’t even known was there.
“You did WHAT?”
“I let them go,” she said softly, “I killed them.”
She struggled to find the words. Back when she has been floating above the planet, it had made so much sense. It had felt right. But here in the kitchen, in broad daylight and faced with Oliver, it struck her as something else entirely. Digital genocide. A selfish and impulsive act.
She had wiped out months of work in seconds, and the why of it still eluded her. Was it just her hatred for the Darkpi? The guilt she had felt for her own Decapi? Charles’ advice to walk away from things that harmed you?
It had almost felt like a gift she was giving them. A quick release from the turmoil and pain, like putting a faithful old companion to sleep.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “They were all going to die anyway.”
“So that means you can just wipe them out?”
“They were going nowhere!” she protested.
“Where they were was just fine!” he slammed a hand on the table, “Did you forget what we’re trying to build? An empire of Decapi to explore was perfect! Maybe to conquer even, once we figure out how to interact! What in bloody hell was wrong with it?”
“Since the whole Decapi civilization was going nowhere anyway, we decided-”
“We decided? Where was I in this ‘we’?”
He stepped forward until he was towering over her, and she matched his dark stare just as fiercely.
“Me and Szymon decided,” she said firmly, “And last time I checked, that was a two-thirds majority.”
“Oh so you were in this as well?” Oliver turned towards Szymon, who was hiding in the corner, “And you were ok with that?”
Szymon sent her a look of guilty discomfort.
“Don’t look at her for help! ” yelled Oliver, “Answer me!”
“Ollie, calm down,” Mathilde said, trying to move between the two, “I can explain.”
“Explain what? That the Mosverse is YOUR plaything, and you get to do whatever you want with it, regardless of anyone else?”
“That’s not true! We both-”
“Oh come on!” he threw up his hands, “Of course Szymon agrees with you! Szymon’ll agree with anything you say for a speck of attention from you!”
He mimicked crying. “Boohoo, my little Decapi are evil… I know, let’s just wipe them off the face of the planet!”
“That’s not fair!” she protested.
“No!” he shouted back, “You know what’s not fair? This is OUR project. We ALL worked hard. You don’t get to make this kind of decision without us!”
He glowered at her. For a handful of heartbeats, she tried to hold it, but found herself slowly turning her eyes away.
“You’re right,” she said, staring at the floor, “I’m sorry. I got carried away.”
“Well that’s been happening an awful bloody lot lately hasn’t it?” He pushed past her and slammed the kitchen door on his way out. “Get it under control.”
She heard him slam the front door, and turned towards Szymon apologetically.
“Thanks for having my back,” she said, “And I’m sorry I brought you into that.”
“A heads up next time would be nice,” he shrugged.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
He sat down at the table and studied her as she rolled a cigarette.
“Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” she paused, and looked up to see him studying her, “It felt right. Like… like putting a dog out of its misery. It hurts, but you know he’s going somewhere where it’s not going to hurt.”
He smirked. “Ollie will never see it that way.”
She took a heavy drag off of her cigarette, and faced the window. “But I’ll make it up to him. To you. We’ll find another civilization and he’ll be happy.”
Szymon didn’t say another word, even when she crushed out her cigarette and returned to her room.
She reactivated the RNA tracker, and let Mark II run at full speed, with instructions to stop if it detected anything. The following morning, she looked into Oliver’s room but discovered it was still empty. Szymon was already logged back into the Mosverse, excitedly mumbling about quasars. She shook her head – no sense worrying about his reaction to the death of the Decapi. As far as he was concerned, the Decapi had been but a minor, albeit slightly interesting, distraction. He had a whole universe to get back to.
The last RNA search they had run had taken four days, or about two billion SzymonYears. She crossed her fingers that this one would go faster, especially given how angry Oliver was.
She stared at the read-outs for a while, and when nothing showed up, she logged in to her school’s intranet. Exams were coming up sometime soon, and it was as good a distraction as any. She discovered her first exam was in four weeks, and the last one six weeks away. Ample time to prepare. Not that she was worried. She was pretty sure she could pass most of them right now if needed. Databases. Lambda Calculation. Formal Languages.
Wait, she thought, her eyes snagging on a class she hadn’t seen, I have an English test too? She tapped on it, and saw the class was scheduled for every Monday morning at nine a.m. Yeah, right, she smirked. Algorithmic was on Wednesday afternoons though, two days from now. If Mark II still hadn’t found anything by then, she decided to sit in on that class. Charles would love it, and she owed it to him now. He had been there for her.
She took an hour to skim through the syllabi of each class and yawned, unimpressed. Out of boredom more than anything else, she put in her VR contacts and joined Szymon in the Mosverse.
“Oliver?” Mathilde knocked softly on his door.
“What?” he asked. Daggers dripped in his voice. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. It had been a rough five days. Oliver had barely been at home, and in those rare moments when he was, he had played the rebellious and sultry teen to perfection. Barely a word, dark looks of anger, and only one question on his lips: “Found anything yet?”.
And every time she told him they hadn’t, he stormed off, slamming whichever door it was he passed through.
“Can I come in?” She didn’t wait for a reply, and opened the door.
He was at his desk, poring over a heavy textbook, the ground and bed littered with sheets of paper. “Do whatever you want,” he said without looking up, “Isn’t that what you always do anyway?”
Enough, . She strode in, picked up his book, and slammed it on the floor. He jerked his chair back in surprise, but she caught both armrests and pulled, ending up face to face with him.
“You and me. One minute of serious conversation.”
He glared at her angrily.
“First. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I killed the Decapi. I’m sorry I got all emotional. It won’t happen again.”
His brow knitted, and Mathilde realized he hadn’t been expecting an apology.
“Second, I hate this. If you have a problem with me, let’s talk about it like grown-ups. Let’s hash it out or fight it out or drink it out. But let’s stop this toddler shit of not talking to each other.”
His mouth opened as if to speak, but Mathilde carried on over it.
“And third, if we can move past this, which I really hope because you are my friend and I want to make it up to you… I want you to know that we finally got a match, and I wouldn’t dream of checking it out without you.”
She let go of his chair, stood back up, and let out a deep breath. Oliver looked up at her, confusion writ large on his face, but with a hint of curiosity in his eyes. His lips formed a tight line, but she noticed his shoulders relax just a bit.
He stood to face her. “You promise you won’t kill this one?”
“Cross my heart and swear to die,” she said, a hand on her chest.
She waited. Slowly, she saw Oliver raise his right hand in front of him. A peace offering. She shook it.
For a moment, he was silent, a frown still written across his face. “We will be.”
“Close enough,” she smiled, “And I mean it. I’m sorry.”
He let go of her hand, sat back down, and reached over to his bedside table for his VR contacts, “Make it up to me. It better be a bloody good planet.”
She grinned, spun on her heels and walked out of the room. “Szymon!” she yelled from the hallway, “Let’s go! New planet!” She heard him clatter about as he got his VR contacts on.
She darted into her room and jumped into her chair excitedly. A familiar jolt of anticipation ran through her fingers as she slid on her gloves. It would be better this time, she could feel it.
She logged into the Mosverse.
~ End of Chapter 13 ~
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