Abysme – Chapter 15 – Into the Void


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

The greatest discovery of all time. Inside of Mathilde’s universe simulation, after almost 13.8 billion virtual years, appears something that should never have been there: Earth.

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Chapter Fifteen: Into the Void

 

Unable to move, she simply stared at it. It was beautiful, fragile even, cocooned in a slim and delicate bubble of atmosphere. She barely noticed Szymon’s gasp of surprise as he materialized behind her.

It was nothing like Europa II or Janus. Her heart pulled within her chest and her breath caught in her throat.

This was home. A strange and scary home that shouldn’t be there.

Continents poked through the clouds, weirdly warped with the curvature of the planet and yet intimately familiar. The terminator line stood over Eastern Europe, leaving France bathed in shadow, lights flickered where its major cities lay, connected to each other by a wispy spider web. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the moon, its bright face turned towards the Earth, both smaller and farther away than she would expect.

“Szy,” said Oliver, finally breaking the silence, “What are the odds that we…?”

He shook his head. “Zero.”

“But then…”

Mathilde didn’t hear the rest. Unconsciously, she glided towards Europe, drawn in by a mysterious force.

It seemed so small, hidden as it was above the massive African landmass. She dove further, heading straight towards France and a shining node that burnt brighter than the rest. Her heartbeat quickened as she approached. Paris. She adjusted her glide and stopped a few kilometers in the air above it.

The shape of the city was unmistakable. The dark mass of the Seine broke it into two curvy puzzle pieces. To the northwest, the roundabout of l’Etoile, with twelve different roads feeding into it, shone brightest of all. The Avenue des Champs Elysees burnt out of it in a straight luminous line that ended at the dark rectangle of the Louvre. To the northeast, a black landmass cut through the light: the cemetery of Le Père Lachaise, where Oliver had taken Floriane just a couple of months before.

As she dove again, the landmarks grew and took on depth. To her left, the Eiffel Tower rose steeply, while the hill of Montmartre emerged from the ground. She shivered. She’d done this before on Google Earth, but never in a VR environment that felt so real.

She flew above the Quartier Latin, saw the dark shape of l’ENS, and moved down into their street, heading straight to their building and into their apartment. She floated through the  window, and entered their kitchen. It was identical to how she had just left it, her tablet still on the table and the ashtray overflowing with crushed cigarette butts.

By reflex, she tapped her fingers to activate Surface Mode, and fell to the floor, her body on autopilot. She walked down the corridor to her room, moved straight through the door, and stopped, frozen in her tracks.

There, in the chair, was another Mathilde. Her eyes were closed and her fingers twitched faintly in their haptic gloves. She was identical, and yet she wasn’t. It was as if watching oneself on film. She noticed things she normally wouldn’t, like the small mole at the back of her neck.

A strand of hair had wiggled its way free to the front of her copy’s face. Unconsciously, she moved her hand to put it back, and reeled in surprise as the Mathilde in front of her did the exact same thing, only for shock to freeze her features.

She took a deep, calming breath and slowly advanced until she was facing her twin. Slowly and deliberately, she raised a hand, and held back a gasp as the other Mathilde did the same. As both Mathildes stood silently waving to each other, Oliver and Szymon floated in through the walls.

“Mathilde,” Oliver’s voice was a harsh and fearful whisper, “Log-out. Now.”

She saw them both disappear. With one quick look to the other Mathilde, she loaded up the admin screen and disconnected. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she tried to remove the contacts.

Oliver burst into her room. “WHAT IN BLOODY HELL.”

She stared right through him, glued to her chair.

“Is this your idea of a sick joke?” he yelled, “Coding us into the Mosverse?”

“I-, I…” She couldn’t focus. Her eyes roved around the room, looking for differences from where she had just been.

“Guys,” said Szymon, walking in silently behind Oliver.

Oliver snapped his fingers in front of her face to grab her attention. “Mathilde!” She jumped, and looked up at him slowly.

“No. It’s not me.”

“Well then- What – Who did this?”

“No one. The Mosverse runs alone. It’s been running alone ever since we launched it.”

“THEN WHY IS THERE ANOTHER ME BACK THERE?” he pointed wildly towards his room, “WHY IS THERE EARTH IN THE MOSVERSE?”

“I don’t know.” She stared down at her hands. Did the other Mathilde have these same hands?

Szymon moved between them, palms open in a soothing gesture. “Guys, calm down.”

“Calm down how?” Oliver asked, “Why are we in the Mosverse?”

“OK, first, we are not in the Mosverse,” said Szymon, “We are here. There is a version of us in the Mosverse, yes. But that version is not us.”

“What?”

“Szy,” said Mathilde from her chair, “She moved like me. Exactly at the same time.”

“Again, not us. It makes no sense for us to be both in and out of the Mosverse.”

“Well then what are we doing inside of it?” asked Oliver.

“Only one explanation,” said Szymon with a hint of a smile, “Parallel universe.”

“What?”

“We created another Earth, and that version has another Szymon, another Oliver, and another Mathilde. Now, we all need to calm down,” he said, slowly enunciating the last two words, “And relax a little bit. How about some tea?”

When no response came, Szymon gently opened the door behind him. “Come on guys,” he said, “Follow me?”

They moved behind him like robots. In the fog of utter confusion that roiled in her mind, there was an ease in letting Szymon guide her. He gestured her into a chair, and she watched him blankly as he set out three cups on the counter and put water to boil. With unsteady fingers, Mathilde tried to roll a cigarette and failed. She dumped the tobacco and paper into the ashtray.

“Parallel universes?” asked Oliver again.

“A well-known and widely theorized model,” said Szymon without looking up from the counter, “There are an infinity of parallel universes. We just happened to create one.”

“You mean, like, there’s a universe where everybody is blue? One where Russia wins the Cold War? One where I’m president of the world?

“There’s an infinity of numbers between 0 and 1,” Szymon poured steaming water into the cups, “But you won’t find a 2 there.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I don’t think there’s a universe where you’ll ever be president,” he grinned, and handed them their cups. Mathilde wrapped both hands around hers, savoring the heat filtering in through her fingers.

“More seriously,” he continued, “It’s the only explanation that fits. We created a universe where a different version of us exists. A parallel universe. I remember reading a book where there was a universe that only had one difference with ours: all coin-tosses gave the opposite result. Heads came out tails and vice-versa. Earth ended up being completely different.”

The tea helped. Words stopped being sounds and took on meaning. She turned to Szymon.

“But it’s not different. It’s identical. She moved just like me, Szy. She mirrored every single one of my gestures. Our flat was exactly the same.”

Szymon frowned.

“I’ll agree that that is unexpected. But wait. Let’s test it,” he said, and reached out for Mathilde’s tablet. He opened a news site, and pressed on the first link marked with a red ‘LIVE’. A video of a blonde journalist, standing outside the White House with a microphone and an umbrella began to play.

“-where, I’m told, protesters have been braving the rain for the past six hours.” The reporter’s voice filled the emptiness of the kitchen.

“Okay, put on your headphones so I can’t hear,” said Szymon, pulling out his contacts and pressing them into his eyes, “I’m going to go there.”

Mathilde plugged them in, and handed one ear piece to Oliver. He stared at it for a long moment, and then wordlessly took it.

“The president’s decision to veto the Big Pharma Control bill has the nation in an uproar after soaring price hikes this weekend,” the journalist continued. Mathilde glanced over to Szymon, whose fingers twitched as he moved through the Mosverse to the White House.

“A Sanofi spokesman commented earlier that ‘we are merely adapting our prices to our costs, and we are doing all we can to ensure fair and affordable healthcare for all-”

“-fair and affordable healthcare for all,” said Szymon. The words were a chilling rain. Mathilde’s eyes darted to Szymon, and back to the tablet: the headphones were still on. There was no way he could hear the broadcast. He was repeating it straight from the Mosverse – and it was identical.

“Meanwhile, prices have soared by an average of 150% in the last two days,” continued the journalist, immediately echoed by Szymon. Oliver sent her a look of panic.

Szymon took out his lenses. “Oh,” was all he said at the look on their faces.

“It was identical. To the word,” she said softly.

Szymon sat down at a chair, and tapped his fingers on the table. “We still need more tests,” he said, “But I’m starting to have a theory.”

At least someone does, she thought.Her mind was too much of a jumble to make any rational sense. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a momentous discovery, and yet couldn’t fully grasp why, or even what it was.

Szymon convinced them to log back in and experiment with their virtual twins in the kitchen. They followed his instructions robotically, eager for the distraction his orders provided. For every movement they made, their counterparts mimicked them immediately.

Szymon loaded up the news app again, and found a parade happening in Brazil, complete with a giant inflatable parrot floating above the crowd. A quick virtual trip confirmed that the parade was taking place in the Mosverse too. They loaded city webcams from around Paris and compared them with what they saw in the Mosverse. Every single time, they met the same result: identical.

“Alright,” said Szymon, thumbs pressed hard against his temple, “Mathilde, one last question. How many iterations of the Mosverse did we go through before we found one that worked? A billion?”

“3.2 billion.”

“Mhmmm,” he nodded, “Makes sense.”

“Really?” asked Oliver, “Because none of this is making any sense to me.”

“No, it does,” said Szymon, “Let me just think about how to explain this.”

Mathilde got up and made herself a cup of coffee. Movement was slowly returning to her.

“Do you guys believe in free will?” Szymon asked.

“What?”

“Free will. You know, that you have a choice?”

“Yeah,” said Oliver after a moment’s hesitation, “I believe in it. No God, no book that relates the full life of Oliver. I make my own choices.”

“Mathilde?”

“Kinda? I don’t know.”

“Care to explain?”

“I don’t believe there’s a book anywhere, but I don’t really believe in free will either. I’m the sum of my experiences, right? The people I know, the things I learn. If you put me in front of a problem, I might hesitate for hours, but I’ll always end up making the same choice. If it’s the same problem, at the same moment in time, with the same exact baggage…” she set her coffee cup down on the table, “Then I would make the same choice.”

Szymon nodded. “Following this reasoning, do you agree that if you knew all the facts about someone, every smallest detail, you could predict how they would act 100% of the time right?”

“I guess so,” she said, “If you literally had all the facts, yeah.”

“I don’t get it,” said Oliver.

“Look at it this way,” explained Szymon slowly, “Imagine another Earth, where everything is identical. Everything that has happened to Mathilde growing up, everything she’s learnt and everyone she’s met is exactly the same as our Earth. Would Mathilde be different? Would she make different choices?”

“No,” said Oliver, “She’d be exactly the same. Just like the universe.”

“Exactly.”

Oliver shook his head. “I still don’t get it.”

But Mathilde saw it. Like another éclair de génie, Szymon’s theory cut through the fog of her mind. It was so obvious.

“You’re saying we stumbled upon a configuration where everything is exactly the same. That when we launched the Mosverse, all the quarks and leptons were in exactly the same place as they were for our universe. All the rules were identical.”

Szymon nodded. “And if you have the same exact rules and the same exact initial layout… then all the quarks moved in exactly the same way and-”

“And you get the same exact universe.”

He beamed at her. “The Mosverse is a copy of our universe. An identical copy. We coded exactly what we have.”

Oliver nodded, then stopped and frowned instead. “But wait,” he said, “What are the odds that we stumbled across exactly the same layout?”

Szymon turned to Mathilde. “You want to answer this one?”

“I-” she hesitated, unsure, but suddenly remembered the question Szymon had asked her before. “Wait, wait, give me a second.”

She bit her lip, going over everything they had done in her head. How they had built the Mosverse, running through possibilities that failed again and again. How they had coded in the rules, adjusting them slightly as they went along.

“We didn’t stumble across it,” she finally said, “It was the only possible one.”

A proud smile spread across Szymon’s face.

“We went through 3.2 billion variations Ollie,” he said, “3.2 billion potential parallel universes. And only one of those worked. All the others collapsed.”

“Maybe,” he continued, “It’s because at the end of the day, with the rules we decided on, only one combination would ever work.”

“Ours,” finished Mathilde, “Our universe.”

Oliver stood up and paced around the kitchen. Mathilde could feel stress and confusion emanating from him. “You’re saying the us we saw are identical in every way because the Mosverse is a perfect copy of our universe. They lived through exactly the same things as us, therefore they’re identical to us. When we move, they move in exactly the same way, at the same time.”

“Yeah,” said Szymon, taking out the tablet and opening the Sketch app, “Let me show you.”

He drew three stick figures, one with long hair, one with blonde hair and one with dark hair. “This is us,” he said, “Mathilde, Oliver and Szymon.” He added a crude computer next to them. “And this is Mark II.”

He drew a long horizontal line under his drawing, and below that, another three identical stick figures. “Now when we connect to Mark II,” he said, and drew an arrow from the computer to the new stick figures, “We get to see New Mathilde, New Oliver and New Szymon. They’re in a universe identical to ours, but that universe is inside our Mark II.”

“Now here’s the fun part,” he continued, “New Mathilde, New Oliver and New Szymon are carbon copies of us. So for the past few months, they’ve also been creating and exploring a Mosverse.” He drew another crude computer next to the second trio of stick figures, “They also have a Mark II. A New Mark II. And they’re also freaking out because they discovered a universe below them as well. Identical to theirs. Right now, New Szymon is telling New Mathilde and New Oliver exactly what I’m telling you.”

“Which is why New Mathilde moves like me,” said Mathilde, “She’s tapped into their Mosverse, and she’s waving to New New Mathilde.”

“Who is waving to New New New Mathilde, etc, etc, ad infinitam,” said Szymon, twirling a finger in a loop.

“Woah,” said Oliver.

“It’s like those drawings,” said Szymon, “A kid holding a picture of himself holding the same picture. A picture in a picture in a picture, all the way to infinity.”

Mise en abysme,” whispered Mathilde.

“What?”

Mise en abysme. It’s the French term for a picture in a picture in a picture. It means to ‘put inside the void’.”

Szymon nodded distractedly. She could tell his mind was already racing through the consequences of their discovery.

“So we’ve created an infinity of worlds, completely identical to ours?” asked Oliver, “I mean, we’ve created one, that’s created its own identical one, to infinity?”

“Yeah,” said Szymon with a smile, “Cool huh?”

“Szymon,” said Mathilde. Something tugged at her thoughts. Something about the mise en abysme. “You were wrong before.”

“What? When?”

She took the tablet from his hands. Above the first three stick figures, the ones that represented their reality, she drew another horizontal line, and yet again, three stickmen and a computer.

“If it stretches downwards to infinity, to New Universe and New New Universe, then that means,” she paused for effect, and tapped the three figures one layer over them, “That it stretches upwards to infinity as well.”

Both of them looked at her with wide eyes. It was Szymon who first broke the silence.

“Holy shit. We’re in a Mosverse too.”

 

~ End of Chapter 15 ~

 

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