Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
Mathilde, a brilliant student at l’ENS, Paris’ best research university, wants to simulate a new Big Bang. How to run that complex of a system though? Enter her roommate – Oliver Reynolds.
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Chapter Three: Mark II
They caught sight of Oliver as he skipped down the stone stairs. As usual, he was wearing his long Burberry trench coat and a thick woolen Ascot cap. He loftily brandished a heavy plastic bag in the air as he approached.
“Roommates, fear not, for I bring booze!” he proclaimed.
He gave a quick two-finger salute to Szymon and a bise to Mathilde, the French double air kiss.
“For the lady, I bring rosé!” he took out a bottle, “For me, beer!” he placed three Guinness cans on the bench, “And for Szymon, his absolute favorite: Sprite.”
Szymon laughed and took the cans.
“Come on Ollie,” groaned Mathilde, “Don’t encourage him.”
“Have you ever tasted it?” asked Oliver with a sly smile, “It’s actually not that bad.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Coming from someone whose national dish is fried fish and potato slices, I’m not surprised you’d think that way.”
Oliver chuckled and sat down on the bench, popping open a can of Guinness.
“So what’s going on? How come you skipped out on Revel’s class?”
“Because it was stupid. I know it all already – it was just Conway’s Game of Life. What a waste of time.”
Oliver stared into his beer. “I found it pretty interesting,” he said softly.
She mentally slapped herself. She had forgotten that Oliver was struggling in that class. Wounding his ego right when she was about to ask him for a favor wasn’t the smartest move.
“I can show you some cool things about it if you want,” she added, carefully weighing her words, “There are tons of tricks that I’m sure even Revel doesn’t know.”
“Sure, that’d be cool,” he took off his Ascot, letting his semi-long golden locks tumble free, “Revel sucks at explaining shit anyway. Cheers!”
They clinked their glasses together and drank.
“So what are you doing away from your gamestation Szy?” asked Oliver.
“We’ve had an idea,” cut in Mathilde, “And we want you to be a part of it.”
“Sure, hit me,” Oliver laid back on the bench to listen.
Szymon and Mathilde launched into a lengthy explanation. Much to Szymon’s dismay, Oliver waved his hand through the physics talk, and only began to nod his head as they neared the detail of the gaming universe. He began to fidget excitedly.
“You could make the next World of Warcraft with this idea,” he burst out, “Subscription model. A game that never ages. You’d make millions.”
Mathilde smiled silently. Of course he’d think about the money over the awesomeness of the game. Not that it mattered – as long as she had him hooked, he would grant them his help willingly.
“If it’s good enough, no one’ll be able to build anything better. The only way to compete is to do the same thing!” he continued. “Do you really think you can pull it off?”
“Absolutely,” said Mathilde.
“Possibly,” said Szymon, “But it’s definitely worth a try.”
“So what can I do?”
“Well,” said Mathilde. Here was the tricky bit. “This is going to take a ton of computational power. There’s no way we can afford the servers for something like this. I honestly don’t even know how much we would need.”
“Well if you’re looking for a sysadmin, I’m definitely not your guy…”
“No,” she said, “But you’re the teacher’s assistant for Professor Kogej aren’t you?”
“So you could, potentially, get us access to the quantum computer?”
She saw Szymon’s eyes light up behind Oliver. He had just caught on.
L’ENS had one of the only 8 Gigaqubit quantum computers in the world. One was in China, and the other 6 in the US. In theory, a single one granted an almost infinite computational power. In practice, even if one wasn’t enough, all eight were linked up on their own private network, and could draw processing power from each other if needed. If one thing could support the creation of a New Big Bang, this was it.
There was only one problem. Access to the computer, named Mark, after Marc Mézard, another director of the school, was strictly controlled. A single hour of use cost upwards of 2,000 euros.
“No. No. No way,” Oliver shook his head, “That’s grounds for immediate expulsion.”
“Only if we get caught,” she urged, “Come on, you said it yourself. These guys have the best computer in the world, and they’re only using it to break shitty ciphers and run genome sequencing. It’s such a waste. I only want to take a tiny bit of that.”
“There’s no way. They’d catch on immediately. What’ll you do when they find you in the lab?”
“I don’t even need to be in the lab. We just have to open an access on Mark to our home connection, and then we log in from there.”
“Are you crazy?” Oliver stood up, “Do you have any idea what the security risks would be?”
Szymon held up a finger as he continued to stare into his glass of Sprite rosé. “Actually, between the three of us, I’m fairly certain we could build the most secure connection in Paris.”
Good one, thought Mathilde, Stroke Ollie’s ego a bit. Oliver was smart. Brilliant even. But there were varying degrees of brilliance, and without a doubt, his abilities were simply an order of magnitude below Szymon’s and hers. The worst part was, Oliver knew it, which often caused him to aggressively show his superiority in other fields, especially ones in which Szymon fared the poorest.
That dynamic had been clear from their very first interaction, when they had met online and agreed to look for a flat together. Even then, Oliver had been flamboyant, talking about all the parties they would host and already attempting to flirt with her using a mix of over-the-top compliments and backhanded teasing. Szymon had been the complete opposite, a meek and timid presence that Mathilde immediately grew fond of.
The difference between the two of them had only grown wider when Oliver realized that his Cambridge accent made any French girl swoon in moments. He spent every weekend trying to add new marks on his scoreboard.
“Even then,” said Oliver, “We’d be caught in moments. In order for the connection to work, we’ll have to use an unmasked IP address. If we hide behind a VPN or bounce our IP around, Mark’ll refuse the connection. And as soon as they detect network usage flowing in and out from there, they’ll be able to backtrack it to our apartment in minutes.”
She’d already thought of that. There was a solution, albeit an unorthodox one. All she needed was to gently guide him to it.
“How would they figure it out though? Didn’t you say Kogej was the only one who even remotely got quantum computers, and that even he didn’t really understand anything?”
“Yeah but he gets a daily and weekly log. Anything that goes in and out, or any project that’s run on Mark will pop up on that report.”
“And where is that report generated?”
“The machine generates it,” he said. And paused. Mathilde looked at him expectantly.
“Bloody hell, you want me to hack the report.”
There we go, she smiled.
It took three more hours to convince him. They discussed it back and forth as they walked home, kept arguing as they bought cheese and ham crêpes wrapped in paper, and finally broke him as they finished their meal in the kitchen.
The way she saw it, it was foolproof. Oliver would smuggle them into the secure room that hosted Mark, the quantum computer, and all three of them would set up a private connection to their home. All told, it wouldn’t take them more than an hour.
Mathilde would split the computer into two separate virtual machines. One, with 80% of Mark’s processing power, would continue to act as l’ENS‘ quantum computer. Given what l’ENS was currently using it for, they wouldn’t even notice the difference. Meanwhile, they would create a second machine with 20% of the power, running in the background, which would serve as their own private quantum computer. She decided to give it a name on par with the creativity of Physics’ usual topology: Mark II. It felt appropriate.
Szymon’s task would be to set up the exception in Mark’s network security. With their own private and secure connection from home, they wouldn’t ever have to break into l’ENS again.
And finally, Oliver would make sure that neither Mark II, nor the secret connection to their home network, would ever appear on the logs. It was a fairly simple task: he would code in a routine that erased any mention of their presence between the moment the log was generated and the time at which it was sent to Kogej.
“What do I win from this?” had been Oliver’s last stand.
“Well, you’ll be an equal partner in what might turn out to be the game of the century. You’ll become a millionaire,” said Mathilde.
“I want more.”
“Go on a date with me,” said Oliver with a grin, “A real one. Just you and me. No Szymon.” He turned to Szymon, “No offense.”
Szymon raised both hands, palms out. “None taken.”
“No. I don’t date. You know that.”
She had made that clear from the very first of Oliver’s overtures. He hadn’t been fully serious – his type was more the tall blonde than the short fiery brunette – but she knew she had to draw a clear line.
“Fine,” he said, thinking it over. “OK well then next Saturday, you and Szy come with me to Floriane’s party.”
“What?” asked Szymon, “Why?”
Oliver turned to him, annoyed. “Because I’m trying to get in her pants. And someone has to take care of the two lapdogs that stick to her like tissues stick to my trashcan.”
“You’re disgusting,” Mathilde groaned, but couldn’t help a shadow of a smile from crossing her lips, “Fine, if that’s what it takes. We’ll take care of the lapdogs.”
“Deal,” he extended a hand. Mathilde shook it. Szymon awkwardly put his hand on top of both of theirs, pumped it up and down, and grinned.
“Szymon what are you doing?” hissed Mathilde.
They were just outside of l’ENS‘ computer lab door, in the basement of the main building. It was already midnight, and all lights were off. Szymon had taken his black scarf and wrapped it around his face multiple times until only his eyes showed.
“In case of cameras,” he whispered back.
“You look like a terrorist. Knock it off. There aren’t any cameras here, remember?”
Szymon reluctantly unwrapped it. Oliver pushed his way past them and pulled out an access card from his pocket. He pressed it against the entry pad and the door unlocked with a triple click. He held it open, motioning for Mathilde to enter.
The computer room was a massive vault of stone. Muffled echoes of their footsteps bounced back from the sculpted stone arches that lined the walls as they walked down the central aisle, past row after row of computers, towards the opaque glass door at the back. Oliver scanned his card again, slowly opened the heavy door and ushered them in.
They found themselves encased in a dead-end corridor barely three meters long, surrounded by stacked layers of black machines imprisoned behind dark green grating. Mark looked no different than any other server farm Mathilde had seen, with the exception of being a lot smaller. The only sources of light came from the blinking green and yellow dots on each machine and the central console set up on a desk on the right.
“Alright, let’s get to it,” said Oliver, sitting down in one of the two swivelling chairs, “Quickly.”
Mathilde and Szymon pulled out their tablets and plugged in via USB to the console. For something like this, they always preferred physical connections over going wireless, as it handily bypassed multiple layers of additional security and made their digital footprint that much harder to track.
Oliver logged in to the admin console. He quickly showed each of them where to find what they were looking for and got to work.
Over the next forty minutes, they tapped away at their tablets in silence, stopping only to swear at the stupidity of the system, and more rarely, to ask each other for advice. Mathilde was the first to finish.
“Done. Where are you guys at?”
“I’m almost there,” said Szymon, “Don’t know which retard set up this firewall, but I got stuck on the stupidest thing.”
The light at the entrance of the computer lab suddenly turned on. As one, they swung their heads towards the black glass door they had left ajar and froze.
“Y’a quelqu’un?” asked a deep male voice. “Is anyone there?“
Mathilde spun to look around the tiny room. There was nowhere to hide. Oliver jumped up and motioned hurriedly to the console.
“Under the desk!” he hissed. Mathilde grabbed Szymon’s hand and pulled him down with her. There was barely any room. Oliver sat back down in the chair, and rammed it into them, trying to hide them from view. Mathilde bit back a yelp of pain.
“Bonjour!” he called out. She could hear the stress in his voice, “I’m here!”
The sound of muffled footsteps grew louder. From her vantage point, she could only see the floor right next to the desk. A shadow appeared as someone moved into the doorframe.
“Mr. Reynolds?” it asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Last minute check for tomorrow professor,” said Oliver, “We’re trying to break a new cipher and Mr. Kogej asked me to make sure everything was ready to go.”
“You’re not allowed to be here without a teacher Mr. Reynolds,” the voice rebuked him. Mathilde pursed her eyebrows. It sounded vaguely familiar.
“Well it’s a good thing you’re here sir!” replied Oliver. Ever the smartass, she thought, If you don’t knock it off, you’re going to get us caught.
“Very funny Mr. Reynolds. How much more time do you need?”
“Not very long sir, I’ll be right out.”
“Fine, I’ll wait. Hurry it up.”
Szymon looked at her with panicky eyes. If the professor didn’t leave, both of them would be stuck in the room. Her mind raced. With no access key, they had no way out. And given how suspicious the stranger seemed, Oliver definitely wouldn’t be able to come back for them. They would have to wait until the next morning, when Professor Kogej would discover them during his daily check on Mark.
Oliver hammered away at the keyboard above them. It felt like an eternity. She kept wishing that the teacher would leave, but his shadow didn’t even budge once. Her heart beat faster as she considered the consequences. Once they were discovered, Oliver was right – they’d be thrown out of l’ENS on the spot.
The chair abruptly rolled away from them and Oliver stood up. “All done professor!” He picked up his bag and Szymon’s, which were both lying on the ground in plain sight, and walked to the door. Mathilde anxiously looked around, and Szymon pointed under him. He had her backpack. She breathed a sigh of relief – which was cut short as the door closed shut and the monitor’s screen clicked off.
They were alone in the dark, surrounded only by little blinking lights.
“Is he going to come back for us?” whispered Szymon.
“He’ll try. But who knows. Fuck.”
“Well, I’m gonna finish my work,” said Szymon, opening up his tablet and beginning to type away. Mathilde looked at him disbelievingly. How could he be so calm? They had no way out, and she was certain Oliver wouldn’t risk coming back for them. Just as she was about to yell at Szymon when her phone buzzed: Oliver, on SzymonChat.
O: Mouse pad.
She gingerly rose from under the desk, stood up and looked at the console. On the right, even in the dark, she could make out the black square of the mouse pad. She moved the mouse to the side and picked it up.
Ollie, you magnificent asshole, she thought.
Under the pad was a small white rectangle. His access card.
~ End of Chapter 3 ~
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