Abysme – Chapter 14 – Europa II


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

In a moment of pain and compassion, Mathilde has put an end to her Decapi. That isn’t the end of life in the Mosverse however, but the newest form it takes is nothing like she expected.

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Chapter Fourteen: Europa II

 

“And I thought the last system was cool,” grinned Szymon.

“What’s so special about this one?” asked Oliver.

“Well, see the star over there?” Szymon pointed towards the white flaming ball they had appeared next to.

“Red dwarf. Big deal.”

Mathilde smiled at Oliver’s answer. Somehow, their time in the Mosverse had made them all expert astronomers.

“Correct. But what about the one behind you?”

“What?” Oliver twisted around.

Much farther away stood a giant star shining bright. Despite the distance however, it looked almost as big as the red dwarf.

“Supergiant?” She ventured a guess.

“Correct again,” said Szymon, “And so why is this system interesting?”

They looked from one star to the other. Mathilde hadn’t seen two stars so close before, but that in itself didn’t seem particularly extraordinary.

“Come on guys! It’s a two star system! Look!”

Szymon twisted his hand, accelerating time to a Szymonyear a minute. As they watched, the red dwarf began to move in a slow, lazy arc.

“Woah,” Oliver looked from one star to the other, “The dwarf is orbiting the supergiant?”

“Yes and no,” said Szymon, “They’re orbiting around their center of mass. But since the supergiant is so much bigger, the center of mass is probably somewhere inside it, so it looks like only the red dwarf is moving.”

“So is this super rare?”

“In the Mosverse? Not so much. I’d say maybe, thirty percent of systems I’ve seen are two-star systems. But this one has a really big difference in star size. That’s cool.”

“Right, right,” said Mathilde, cutting him short, “The system is fun, but let’s maybe move on to checking out the planet?”

Without waiting for their response, she moved towards the planet in front of them. It was a giant ball of blue, with vertical stripes of darker and lighter shades. Because of the two stars, it was lit up with two terminator lines, one from dark to light, where the first star shone, and a second, from light to even lighter, where it faced both stars at once.

“Uh, Mathilde?” asked Szymon. She stopped and turned around. He hadn’t moved. “Where are you going?”

“To check out the planet. Where are you going?”

Szymon grinned. “Mathilde, that’s a gas giant. There’s no life there.”

“The RNA tracker says there is,” she frowned, “And it hasn’t been wrong yet; it was right about the Decapi.”

“Yeah, but I guarantee you there’s no life there,” he said, the same sly smile pasted on his face.

“Szy,” Oliver rolled his eyes. “Just spit it out already.”

Szymon pointed off to the side of the planet. “And since I saw it first, I get to name it,” he said as Mathilde squinted her eyes to see it. It was tiny, hidden in the shadow of the blue gas planet, and only visible from a slim sliver of light that rode across its surface.

“No life on the planet,” repeated Szymon with a grin, “But on the planet’s moon however…” He extended an arm towards it and took a grandiose bow. “Mesdames, messieurs, I present to you… Europa II.”

 

 

Finding water on Europa II was the opposite of difficult. As they glided around the moon, touring it from above just as they had Janus, water was pretty much all they saw. It covered every inch of the surface, save a few archipelagos scattered left and right and a long mountain ridge that stretched out in a semi-straight line for hundreds of kilometers. The moon was one giant ocean.

“It’s a water planet!” said Oliver excitedly, “Fine, water moon. Whatever,” he added to Szymon’s frown.

“I’m not seeing anything from up here though,” said Mathilde, “Doesn’t look like there’s any vegetation on the islands. Nothing but rock, rock and more rock.”

“You think it’s in the water, like the Decapi?” asked Oliver.

“Where else? ”

They chose a spot near a group of islands and plunged in. Jacking up the luminosity, she did a slow spin, hoping to see giant schools of swimming aliens. Instead, all she found was barren rock and an empty seabed.

“Nothing here.”

“It’s just one spot,” said Szymon, “Let’s split up and keep looking.”

“Put priority on shallow water near the islands,” said Mathilde, “The pressure is lower there, so that should increase chances of life. But make sure to give any deep spots a quick check too.”

They floated off in different directions, each eager to find the new civilization first. Mathilde hopped from island to island, looking for life. Each one was like the one before it: rock, sand and silt. Her hopes rose when, after having looked at over thirty islands, she found little sprouts of brown algae near the equator. She called the others over, only to discover that they had already noticed similar patches but nothing else.

“Okay, this planet officially sucks,” said Oliver as they sat on top of Europa II’s highest mountain, overlooking a dozen smaller mounts that poked through the ocean’s surface. “We’ve been at this for six hours, and all we’ve found is bloody seaweed.”

“Seaweed is a start,” said Mathilde, “It shows there’s some life. We just have to keep looking. Maybe it’s in the deeper areas. Maybe there are vents on the ocean floor we haven’t found yet and life is concentrated there.”

Szymon was staring off in the distance, oddly thoughtful. “Szy?” she asked.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” he said, “This universe is, what, 8 billion Szymonyears old now?”

“More or less.”

“And we’ve found two planets with RNA? In a universe with a billion galaxies, each with a billion stars?”

“Yeah,” she said, “So what?”

“Nah, nothing. I just guess life in the Mosverse is much rarer than I thought.”

“Well that doesn’t really solve our problem right? We know there’s life here, we just haven’t found it.”

Szymon smirked. “We did find it though. It’s the algae. The only problem is that it’s the most boring life imaginable.”

Oliver stood up from their perch. “You think this is all there is?”

“I have no idea,” he said, “I’m sure there’s way more than the little algae. Microbial life, plankton type stuff that we can’t see without a microscope. But it wouldn’t surprise me if we just came to this planet too early.”

“Intelligent life hasn’t had the time to appear yet?” she asked.

“Evolution takes time,” he said, staring off at the horizon where one of the two suns was rising.

“How much time?” prodded Oliver, “We can always just speed it up until it reaches that point, no?”

“I’m not sure, but you might want to ask Floriane. All I know is that the dinosaurs were around for a hundred million years, and no intelligent life appeared then. We might be here for a while.”

“A hundred million years is nothing,” said Mathilde, “We can cover five times that in one day.”

“Good, because if this is all there is, we might have to.”

They toured the planet for another two hours before giving up and admitting the obvious: the most advanced form of life on Europa II was the brownish algae. They chose a spot where it was particularly dense, and floated above it.

“Alright, let’s speed it up a little,” said Mathilde, hand on the virtual dial. She turned it.

Time sped up, and the algae began to move as if in a stop-motion movie. Patches grew denser, transformed into wide fields, suddenly grew smaller again and repeated the entire process. They progressively grew greener, then turned brown, and slowly faded to grey.  Suddenly, the algae disappeared completely. Mathilde snapped her hand back, pausing the Mosverse.

“What happened?”

Szymon floated around the empty seabed. “It completely died out,” he said, “Let’s check out the other patches.”

They discovered that the algae hadn’t completely disappeared from Europa II. It was still present near some of the other islands. They sped up time again, watching the algae change and move around, but nothing more appeared. Twice more, the patch they watched suddenly vanished, prompting then to pause the Mosverse and go find it somewhere else.

Oliver groaned. “This sucks! We’re literally watching plants grow.”

“Life has to start somewhere,” she said, “What else are we going to do?”

“We wouldn’t have to do this if we still had the Decapi.” She looked straight at the plants and ignored the barb. He was just trying to get a rise out of her.

“Look, let’s stop here for now,” said Oliver, “This is just way too boring. I’m going to call Floriane, see if she knows anything that can be helpful.”

“Sure,” said Mathilde, “Me and Szy are going to stay here for a while. We’ll let you know if we find anything ok?”

“Whatever.” He logged out.

Mathilde looked over to Szymon, who just shrugged and slowly accelerated time again. “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s back to work we go,” he chanted as the algae began to move around them.

It was four more hours, or 70 million Szymonyears, before they finally logged out. Nothing had changed on Europa II. Szymon kept insisting that the actual amount of algae had increased, but she wasn’t so sure. It looked exactly the same.

Oliver’s news did nothing to raise her spirits.

“So according to Floriane, the move from multi-cellular plants to animals took close to a billion years on Earth,” he said, “But it could easily have taken longer. Single-celled life lasted almost 3 billion years before evolving into multi-cellular life. We’re going to be stuck here for a while. It might not even lead to anything.”

“It’ll work. It worked for the Decapi didn’t it?”

“Szymon said life was rare in the Mosverse. What if the Decapi were the only thing?” he paused, “Maybe we should reboot it, and try to get back to them again?”

“No, that’s stupid,” she said, and immediately regretted her choice of words as Oliver frowned, “I mean, it could work, but it might lead to the exact same situation we have now. Better to just wait. We’ll go forward 500 million Szymonyears a day. A billion years from plants to animals? That’s only two days.”

“We can’t do that,” cut in Szymon.

“What? Why not?” she asked. She felt a flash of annoyance – he was supposed to side with her, not make the situation worse.

“If we go full-speed, we might miss it. Look at humans. We got interesting what, 10,000 years ago when we developed agriculture? And in those 10,000 years, we managed to come up with technology that’s advanced enough to wipe us out completely.”

He began to pace around the kitchen, calculating. “If we’re moving at 500 million years a day, that means we’re doing close to 21 million years an hour. Divide that by 60… that’s 350,000 years a minute, which means about… 6,000 years per second.”

“What’s your point?”

“Blink and you’ll miss it. We might get an awesome civilization that develops agriculture, but 18,000 years later, nukes itself into a wasteland. If we’re moving at 6,000 years per second, that entire process is going to take exactly 3 seconds. Not even enough time to pause the Mosverse. We have to control how fast we go.”

“But weren’t the dinosaurs around for 100 million years? When we start to see more complicated life, we pause it. Then we move slower.”

“So what, you’re going to remain fully-focused looking at algae for hours and days until it does something interesting?” asked Oliver angrily. His tone was fast devolving into the angsty teen he had been the week before. She picked up a pen and bit it, thinking.

“Life might also work differently on Europa II,” said Szymon, “It could be way faster in developing than on Earth.”

“I doubt it,” grumbled Oliver.

She ignored him. “Fine,” she set her pen down, “This is what we’ll do. I’ll change the code in the RNA analysis just for Europa II. If anything shows up with a longer RNA chain than the plants, it’ll pause automatically. That’ll allow us to run the Mosverse at full speed.”

Oliver and Szymon thought it over.

“That could work,” Oliver finally said, “How long will it take you?”

“Not too long,” she said, “Two or three hours?”

“Can I help? I’d like to see how it’s done.”

Mathilde smiled. If Oliver was helping her out, it would be a great opportunity to mend fences. I just need to make sure I drop him a compliment or two. Deserved or otherwise.

“Absolutely,” she said.

The changes didn’t help. She and Oliver both stared at the monitor as it ran through another 120 million Szymonyears without pausing. Oliver stood up without a word, and slammed the door on the way out. She groaned in frustration.

Over the next few days, the simulation didn’t pause once. With Szymon, she popped in to check on Europa II from time to time, but all she ever found was algae, algae and more algae. The only thing that ever changed was the algae’s color and shape, and that did little to raise her hopes. At one point, she was certain she could make out multiple species of algae, but then they all disappeared by the time she logged in again.

With each passing day, Oliver made her life more miserable. He moaned, complained, and took every opportunity to remind her how she had traded the perfect and complete Decapi for an empty moon.

“I wonder if it’s due to the system,” Szymon ventured on their fourteenth visit to Europa II. They had slowed time enough to appreciate one of the suns setting.

“What, the two star system? That’s why there’s no life?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

Mathilde looked at the horizon. The supergiant star was setting, but the sky was still bright blue from the red dwarf behind them.

“Would that really make such a huge difference?”

“Maybe,” he repeated, “And the fact that it’s a moon doesn’t help.”

“Why?”

“The seasons are all messed up. Sometimes you have two suns, sometimes you have one sun… You also get the regular eclipse from Jupiter II over there. It must be messing with the temperatures quite a bit – maybe that’s why the life here is stuck.”

To illustrate his point, he sped up time to x300. The sky suddenly went black as the red dwarf disappeared behind the blue planet, lit up again when it popped out on the other side, grew incredibly bright as the supergiant rose as well, then darkened as the red dwarf set.

“Huh,” she said, surprised that she hadn’t seen it sooner.

“I didn’t realize it for a while either,” said Szymon, “We’re going full-speed, spending all of our time in the water, and we keep messing with the luminosity settings.”

She slowed down time, and took a moment to appreciate the beauty of a bright flare of light at the edge of Jupiter II’s horizon as the red dwarf dawned from behind it.

“Szy, do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t mention your theory to Ollie yet.”

“Sure.”

Two days later, a Mark III notification caused all three of them to log in excitedly to the Mosverse: it had finally detected a form of life more complicated than the algae.

They found it almost immediately. Thin transparent tubes swam lazily between the plants, joining up in schools of five or six before splitting off again.

“Worms?” asked Oliver, “This planet is terrible.”

“Life started with worms!” exclaimed Mathilde, “This is how it all began on Earth!”

“Move it forward then,” said Oliver, “We’ll see.”

They braced themselves as Mathilde slowly accelerated time. Under their watchful eyes, the worms began to multiply, growing longer and more numerous with each passing second. The water around them was soon swarming with the creatures, covering every inch of the algae.

And then there were none.

“Pause it! Pause it!” yelled Oliver. She fumbled for the controls, and finally managed to stop it. The algae bank they had been watching was completely empty. No worms, and no plants either.

“What happened?” asked Oliver angrily.

“I don’t know!”

“Well where did the worms go? Where’s the algae?”

“Ollie. I. Don’t. Know.”

“Calm down,” cut in Szymon, “Let’s go check it out.”

In the few millennia they had just gone through, the algae had almost completely disappeared from Europa II, save for a few dark patches scattered around one archipelago. The worms, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found. Try as they might, the first steps to animal life had evaporated from the moon’s surface.

“Where are they?” asked Oliver as he kept rushing forward along the sea floor, looking left and right.

“They’re gone.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. The water got too cold? The water got too hot? Extinction event like an asteroid or something? Maybe they ate through their environment. No predators, so they just multiplied and multiplied until there were so many that they ate all the algae and ended up starving to death.”

“Since when are you our resident expert in biology?” asked Oliver angrily.

“Ollie, this is a good thing,” said Mathilde soothingly, “If worms developed once, they can do so again.”

He sighed angrily. “Just reactivate the tracker already.” He swiped his hand, and disappeared.

“Rage quit,” grinned Szymon, but Mathilde didn’t smile. He was beginning to worry her.

The next few days reassured her somewhat. Oliver started diligently attending class, and even admitted to her that exams were starting to stress him out. Occasionally, he asked her for help on specific database or algorithmic problems, and she gladly spent a few hours tutoring him. Any opportunity to bond outside of the Mosverse was a good one, especially since any mention of it was now near taboo.

She didn’t blame him. They had built something incredible, but she had stuck them with an empty moon and boring life.

Thankfully, Szymon didn’t seem to mind at all. As he put it, a universe moving at 6,000 Szymonyears per second made for great astrological observations. He analyzed orbits, looked at how the galaxies interacted, and tried to find obscure phenomena.

She spent that time confined to the flat, pacing back and forth and smoking compulsively. She tried to refine the RNA tracker more than once, but frequent checks on Europa II confirmed it was working just fine. Besides algae, it still hadn’t developed anything interesting.

It wasn’t until a week and a half before their exams started that her phone finally buzzed with a Mosverse notification – three long vibrations and a slow one. Excitedly, she pulled it out.

Error 305: RunSpeed Stopped.

What? She logged in, unsure of what Error 305 meant.

The Mosverse had reverted to normal speed. She scoured the planet looking for animal life, but everything was exactly the same as she had last seen it. Despite billions of Szymonyears, Europa II hadn’t changed a bit.

Maybe it stopped because it detected complex life, but by the time I showed up it had already died out? She groaned. What a waste of time. Calling up the user display, she turned the dial to speed time up again.

Nothing happened. Instead of accelerating and jumping to a stop-motion type of vision, Europa II remained still. The algae swayed gently in the current. She rotated her hand around the dial again. Nothing.

That’s strange. She tried turning it slowly, and then fast. The Mosverse didn’t budge.

This is a pretty big bug. Frustrated, she pressed the pause button, but instead of freezing, the Mosverse kept playing. The indolent movement of the algae transformed into a taunting one.

She logged out, logged back in, and tried again. Still nothing. Time in the Mosverse was stuck on ‘play’. ‘Fast-forward’ and ‘Pause’ did absolutely nothing. She called in Szymon, who popped in next to her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Time. I can’t get it to accelerate anymore,” she said, demonstrating by rotating the dial to no effect, “Can you try on your end?”

“Sure.” He twisted his hand, but time stood still. “That is weird. What did you do?”

“Nothing! I wasn’t even logged in when it happened!”

“Huh.”

“This has to come from the code. Let’s log out.”

She carried her tablet into the kitchen, settled down with coffee and a cigarette and began poring over Mark III’s logs. The only sign that something had gone wrong was the Error 305: RunSpeed Stopped. She tried relaunching the RunSpeed function, but the same error popped up. She went over the last 24 hours, but found that there had been no changes at all on either Mark III or Mark II.

Three hours into her search, Oliver walked in, made himself a cup of tea, and looked over her shoulder.

“What are you doing?”

“The Mosverse is stuck on ‘play’. I can’t figure out what’s wrong.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing!” She grabbed her forehead with both hands and stared at the read-out, “It just stopped out of nowhere.”

“Stuff doesn’t just stop out of nowhere. Did you mess with the RNA tracker?”

“No! It’s running just fine.”

“Well what’s Europa II like right now?”

“Algae and more algae. What do you think?” she ground her teeth together, eyes locked to the read-outs.

Oliver took a deep breath. “So you’re telling me, we have nothing in the Mosverse, and now we can’t even fast forward?”

“I’m working on it!” she yelled, “Either help me or get out of my face!”

He walked out, tea in hand.

She ignored it. There were more pressing problems. She began to backtrack all changes she had made over the past three weeks, hoping one of them had caused the bug. She rolled back the RNA tracker to each of its previous versions, ran the RunSpeed function, and groaned in frustration when the same error message appeared. From the window, she saw the sun begin to set, and made herself yet another cup of coffee. It was going to be one of those nights.

For five hours, she backtracked all changes, and ended up taking out the whole RNA tracker, and replacing it with the original one, that looked for simple RNA throughout the Mosverse instead of complex RNA on Europa II. She ran the function again, and angrily slammed her hand on the table when the result came up.

She started to roll herself a cigarette when she felt her phone vibrate. Three long buzzes and a short one. I know! she rolled her eyes, Error 305: RunSpeed Stopped. Stop bugging me!

She pulled out her phone to mark it as read, but stopped, eyes fixed on the screen. It wasn’t an error notification. It came from the RNA tracker, the original version that she had just reinstated.

True to its purpose, it had scanned the Mosverse, and was now alerting her that it had found RNA life. But this time, Mark III had found not one, but two instances of life. She scanned the read out. The first instance was Europa II – but the second was hundreds of millions of light years away. She frowned.

“Szy?” she called out, and heard him open his door and walk to the kitchen.

“I got a notification?” he asked, running a hand through his rumpled hair.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Did you fix the RunSpeed problem?”

“No. I figured it might be because of the modified RNA tracker, so I reverted it back to the original version. And as soon as I ran it, it gave me this.”

Szymon stifled a yawn and slowly stretched. He sat down at the table, and glanced at the phone. His eyes widened. He shook his head sharply and blinked his eyes twice to wake up.

“Wait, it’s been what, two weeks at full speed?”

“More like 12 days.”

“So six billion years in the Mosverse, and you had the RNA tracker deactivated the whole time?”

“It wasn’t deactivated! I repurposed it to look for complex RNA on Europa II.”

“It wasn’t looking for life anywhere else? Just on Europa II?”

She bit her lip, suddenly realizing her mistake.

“Mathilde. Six billion years. Life was bound to pop up again somewhere else. You haven’t been looking at all?”

“I… I got carried away with Europa II okay? I needed it to work for Ollie…”

Szymon leaned back in disbelief. “That was incredibly stupid.”

“Hey!” she protested.

“Just saying,” he raised his hands, “It was stupid.”

“Well whatever,” said Mathilde, “The problem now is the RunSpeed. It’s still stuck on play.”

“Who cares about the RunSpeed? We have another planet with life!”

She hesitated. Yes, it was a whole new world with brand new life. But on the other hand, fixing the Mosverse was important. What if it was a bug that escalated and brought Mark II crashing down?

“Fuck it,” she said, “Let’s go check it out.”

“Yes!” shouted Szymon victoriously, and ran straight to his room.

She rose painfully, her limbs stiff and rigid after hours spent on the little wooden chair. She waddled towards her room, stretching her arms and back as she did, and pulled out her VR contacts. Still standing, she logged into the Mosverse.

The first thing she saw was Oliver, floating in space and looking down over a blue planet marbled with white clouds.

“Ollie?”

He snapped around, shock etched on his face.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” she said, “I guess you got the notification?”

Oliver didn’t respond. He didn’t even nod. Slowly, he extended an arm to point towards the planet. Mathilde’s eyes followed it, and for a second, she almost rubbed them to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. The planet was one she had seen hundreds of times, from every possible angle. It was unmistakable.

Her jaw dropped open, and she found herself unconsciously gliding closer to it. The most important planet she knew of. The place she called home.

Earth.

 

~ End of Chapter 14 ~

 

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