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. With the help of her roommates, Szymon from Poland and Oliver from the UK, she starts coding it on Mark, the school’s supercomputer, all while trying to keep them unaware of her tryst with her algorithmic professor, Charles Simonetti…
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Chapter Six: The Mosverse
She put her ear to the door and listened. No sound. Either the boys were already asleep, or not yet back from l’Evenite. It was three a.m., and given how late Parisian nights sometimes went, both options were possible.
She let herself in and walked to the bathroom as quietly as she could. She didn’t have a lot to lose if Szymon and Oliver found out about her tryst – certainly not when compared to Charles, whose very career might be jeopardized. But she was worried about how Oliver would react. Szymon probably wouldn’t care, but Oliver finding out could jeopardize the dynamic they had built as roommates.
An older man, and a teacher at that, was sure to make Oliver see her differently. His flirting so far had been cute and without substance, but if she became a trophy to be conquered, she was afraid he would view it as a challenge. And knowing him, probably go overboard.
She cleaned off her makeup and ran herself a shower. Her mind was still on Charles – the smell of his cologne, the feel of his hands on the small of her back, his mouth gently biting her neck… Her legs were still wobbly, a faint memory of the spasms wracking her body an hour before.
She had never imagined this would happen when she had first seen him. For her, he had been just another professor. Sure, he was attractive, but that was his mind, not his looks. At 35, he was the youngest tenured professor at l’ENS. His knowledge of algorithmic, which she considered the backbone of any coder’s true ability, was unrivaled. It was the only class where she had felt that she learnt something new every time.
Which partly explained why she had been blind to his first advances. He stayed at her desk a bit longer than for other students, asked a few personal questions, made jokes about her boyfriend and acted surprised when she answered that she wasn’t really looking. She had mistaken it for him wanting to help develop her raw natural talent.
But he had offered to teach her a one-on-one class about Fast Matrix Multiplication, she began to suspect something was amiss. No other professor did such a thing.
After asking around however, and learning that he had been happily married for over seven years, with two boys aged 2 and 4, she had gone in reassured. Wrongly so. That first class had immediately proven her wrong. He had repeatedly nudged closer to her, put a hand on her shoulder whenever he explained a concept, and accidentally brushed against her time and time again. She had left convinced: he was interested.
It repulsed her at first. He had a family, a wife, children. What was he doing chasing after students?
She had wanted to call off the extra class. It was a bad idea, and nothing good could come of it. Especially since she kept catching herself with him on her mind, in thoughts tinged with an unusual pale rosiness.
She usually didn’t date. She hated the immaturity of her peers, and her past relationships had all ended quickly due to her boyfriends’ inability to understand that if she didn’t get in touch for a few days, it definitely wasn’t cause for a freak-out. Dating a professor felt like an accident waiting to happen.
But in a way, it was too late. He had set his hooks into her, and now she was attracted to him. He was brooding, mysterious, and unbelievably smart. Shivers ran through her with each accidental touch. The more she had tried to convince herself that she shouldn’t, the more she had wanted to.
The class had arrived and she still hadn’t made up her mind. She had gone anyway, trying to convince herself that she would do the smart thing and turn down his advances. Shoot him down by confronting him if she had to. She had to keep this purely academic, if only to get the knowledge he held.
“Do you want to grab a drink?” he asked at the end of that second class.
She looked up at him.
“I heard you were married?” she asked. It was the only way she could manage to turn down his advances, and yet she immediately regretted the question.
“We…” he hesitated, “We have an arrangement with Anne. We’re both ok with seeing other people, as long as it’s within certain rules.”
Of all scenarios she had run through her head, this had definitely not been one of them.
“Both of us have always been very… active. Sometimes it’s together, sometimes apart. But we have no secrets. She knows about you for example.”
“She knows about me?” Mathilde stepped back.
“She knows of you,” he laughed, “She knows that there’s a girl that I find mysterious, attractive and feisty. And she gave me the go-ahead, as long as I respected the rules.”
“The rules?” Somehow building sentences longer than four words was no longer an option.
“Simple things. Can’t see someone more than twice a week. Never Sunday night. No sleepovers – ever. Things like that.”
She looked up at him. He radiated confidence. She realized she probably wasn’t the first girl at l’ENS to fall under his charm. Or that Anne had heard of. But she suddenly found she no longer cared.
She grabbed the front of his leather jacket, and pulled his lips to hers. It had been electric.
From then on, they had started to see each other once every couple of weeks. He would usually book a hotel room for them, sufficiently far away from l’ENS that they wouldn’t run into anybody they knew. It had started as something raw and sexual, but they had gradually begun to open up to each other. Mathilde was especially curious about his marriage, and he had no qualms opening up to her about it.
“It’s all about trust. She knows everything I do, and I know everything she does. It’s a bond that’s stronger than anything else,” he said.
“So this is just sex?”
He smirked. “A little more maybe,” he said hesitantly, “But it will never be anything serious. You understand that right?”
“I’m kidding, don’t worry,” she kissed him, and meant it.
The concept of his marriage fascinated her. How independent he remained, despite the closeness he shared with his wife. And she liked her own relationship with him. It was independence and closeness as well.
She wasn’t looking, or expecting, anything more from him than their fiery meets, she told herself. And the occasional messages they would exchange on SzymonChat of course. She smiled at the memory – convincing him to install it had been fun. He had only agreed after she threatened to never respond on any other device.
She silently tiptoed to her room and went straight to bed. As she slipped under the covers, the memory of Charles slowly faded, replaced by the work that remained to be done. It had been a fun night, but as far as she was concerned, it had also been a complete waste of precious time. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.
“My head hurts so much,” said Szymon as he sipped coffee with closed eyes, “I can’t think.”
Oliver stuck his tongue out in a grin. He was sitting on the kitchen counter, knees up, towering over Mathilde and Szymon in the two chairs on either side of the small table.
“How’d it go last night?” she asked, blowing smoke from her cigarette out the window.
“Fun,” said Oliver, stirring his tea, “You should have seen Szy – he was dancing on the podium and everything.”
“You kept feeding me vodka…” he moaned.
“Just add a dash of whiskey to your coffee and you’ll feel better Szy” Oliver grinned again.
“I can’t think… It hurts… Is this what it feels like to be dumb?”
“Maybe,” said Mathilde, stirring her coffee, “Ask Oliver. He’ll know.”
Oliver gave her the finger.
“So did you get lucky last night?” she asked.
“What, you didn’t hear her?” he raised his hand and Szymon reluctantly gave him a high-five, still holding his head with the other hand.
“When I lost Szymon I thought I wouldn’t though,” he added.
“You LOST Szy?”
“Relax. He was just throwing up around the corner from the club.”
“I was NOT throwing up!” Szymon slammed a hand on the table and instantly winced at the sound, “I just went out to get some air. I was feeling dizzy.”
“That’s what I call throwing up too,” said Oliver with air-quotes, “Getting some air.”
“I wasn’t! I didn’t!” he protested.
Mathilde put a hand on his. “It’s ok to throw up Szymon. It just means you’re not very Polish.”
“I hate you idiots,” Szymon stood up, “I’m going to my room.”
He was followed out by laughter.
When Szymon eventually recovered, they got back to work.
It took them two more days to finish defining the interface. Using the Sketch app of her tablet, Mathilde drew up the framework of their universe, filling in each part with the functions she would need to get it to work. She worked closely with Szymon, drawing from his vast store of physics knowledge and trying to get it as perfect as possible. Changing it later would be a pain, so she forced them to be as precise and exhaustive as possible.
At Szymon’s insistence, they decided to operate in 26 dimensions, 25 of space and one of time, in line with Bosonic String Theory. After having set up the basic interface, Mathilde got to work coding each of the individual functions.
She got lucky with the Q++ repositories. A bunch of Silicon Valley engineers had experimented with basic physics simulations and uploaded all of their code, free of charge. She took most of it and tweaked it just a bit to fit the additional demands of their simulation. What she couldn’t find, she coded herself, and then made sure to upload it, in the form of individual functions, on those same repositories. From time to time, fellow coders from around the world would comment on her code, suggesting improvements and making her work that much stronger.
As the code progressed, she increasingly relied on Szymon to help her test it, mostly through unit testing. It was a basic but essential process where one ran a few examples through the code and examined the results to ensure that everything checked out. On classic computers, it was so easy to do that she had usually worked it out on paper, whether it be for an algorithm looking for the path of least resistance, or your basic run-of-the-mill sorting algorithms. But for their current project, she needed Szymon’s help to even begin to understand the results.
Together, they ran simulated quarks, leptons and bosons through each dimension, first individually and then in groups, and looked at how they behaved. If it was in line with Szymon’s expectations, they moved on to the next function. If not, then it was back to the drawing board, followed by yet more testing.
They worked their way through the month of February, and then half the month of March. All in all, between the both of them, they attended a total of five classes at l’ENS. Not that they particularly cared. With each addition to the platform, they grew more passionate and excited. They were beginning to create something that far outstripped anything they could ever do in school.
Time stopped making sense. She woke up, worked until she passed out, and repeated the process. Most of the time, both of them were unaware what day of the week it was. She only left the flat for late-night visits to Charles, and even those were few and far between. As always, she made sure to be back early in the morning before either Oliver or Szymon noticed her absence. She rarely sent him texts. Both worlds were separate. And when she was with him, she could completely disconnect. Which, interestingly enough, somehow made her even more focused and productive afterwards.
They didn’t see much of Oliver, who always seemed to be out and about. Mathilde suspected it had to do with Floriane or some other girl, but didn’t bother asking. As long as she could reach him on Szymonchat for questions or ideas, she had everything she needed.
And it helped that he took care of the groceries. Every week, he asked them what they wanted and made sure to have the pantries stocked with everything they needed. It was the perfect set-up, until Szymon had the bright idea to save time by texting Oliver what he wanted instead of telling him in person.
“Alright, that’s enough,” he said, “I’m taking you geeks outside. Remember the sun? Big floating luminous ball in the sky? Hurts your eyes when you look at it?”
“Noooo…” moaned Mathilde as he tried to pry away her tablet, “Can’t we go out tomorrow? I’m onto something here.”
“Nope. We’re doing this now. I swear, I feel like I’m living with vampires or something,” he said, tearing it away from her. He held her tablet out of reach. “Szy, in all your time here, I bet you haven’t even seen the Eiffel tower.”
“I did,” he said without looking up, absorbed in his own tablet.
“What about the Louvre? ”
“I saw the Louvre,” he said, “Too big. Hurt my feet. I’d honestly prefer a VR version where you fly around.”
Oliver sighed exasperatedly.
“I haven’t seen Montmartre,” said Szymon, slowly turning towards Oliver, “Is there a VR version?”
“Mathilde,” said Oliver, appealing to her, “Szy’s been in Paris for seven months. He still hasn’t been to Montmartre. He probably doesn’t know what bonjour means. Even you have to admit that’s sad.”
“Fine,” she groaned, “I guess we could use some time off. Clear our heads a bit.”
They showered, and followed Oliver outside. Szymon looked up at the sky quizzically, and took off his red Polska beanie.
“It’s warm out,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s spring,” Oliver rolled his eyes, “Or did you guys not get the memo? Come on, let’s go.”
Small green buds and leaves decked the trees that lined the roads, and bird songs floated through the air. The sun was warm and felt good on her face. She looked up, her eyes closed, and let it sink into her skin. Even the subway felt nice and clean, especially when they neared Montmartre and it rose above the ground.
Montmartre was the lone hill, north of Paris, that was topped by a giant white three-domed basilica towering over a steep grassy slope. On either side rose two rows of stone stairs. They showed Szymon around the inside of the basilica, and at Oliver’s insistence, sat down on the grass and basked in the sun.
“It’s beautiful,” said Szymon, looking at the city spreading out in all directions. Far off to their right rose the Eiffel tower, a steel dagger cutting through the sky. In the center was the Cathedral of Notre Dame, instantly recognizable with its twin peaks, while to the back a lone skyscraper stood tall amidst a sea of smaller buildings. “Where do we live?”
“See the big domed building over there?” Mathilde pointed slightly to the left, “That’s the Pantheon. We’re not too far behind it.”
Mathilde lay down, enjoying the scratchy touch of grass.
“See, I told you this was a good idea,” said Oliver.
“And you were right,” she said, her eyes still closed, “We needed this. Thanks.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Szymon, “You bring us to the one part of the city that has stairs everywhere. My feet hurt again.”
“Come on Szy,” Oliver propped himself up on his elbows, “This is Montmartre. This is where the artistic soul of Paris resides. Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, they all lived here at some point. You can’t live in Paris and not see Montmartre.”
Szymon grumbled, and Mathilde smiled. She knew he was enjoying this.
“That being said,” Oliver turned to her, “We need to talk.”
“You said this was a three person thing. But all I’m doing is reviewing your code. I want to be more involved.”
She realized she should have seen it coming. Oliver might have seemed perfectly content going out with his other friends and womanizing half of Paris, but she had forgotten the one thing that defined him: he hated being left out.
“Ollie,” she said, “Even if you don’t participate as much right now, it’s still a three person thing, don’t worry.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he tore out a piece of grass and began to play with it absent-mindedly, “I’m not talking about the split. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and honestly…” he dropped the blade of grass and rubbed his hair, “I think the idea is really cool. If this works… I want to be a part of it. Like really be a part of it.”
Mathilde thought it over. He was a good coder, and that could be useful. But at this point, no one knew her code like she did. Bouncing ideas off of him was great, but if she gave him a big portion to code, she wasn’t sure it would make them finish any faster. If anything, she might waste more time going over Oliver’s code than she would coding it herself.
Unless she could task him on something she hadn’t started on at all, and that was independent from the rest. She turned to him.
“Actually, there is one thing I could use your help on.”
“How good are you at genetic algorithms?”
He snorted. “Please. Better than most.”
“OK, well here’s the thing. I’m close to done on the main portion of the simulation, so you can’t really help me on that. But we need a part that analyzes whether we’ve reached a complex universe, or whether we’ve totally failed. If we get lucky, we won’t need it, but my guess is that we’ll have to go through quite a few iterations before it actually leads to something.”
“I need you to take Mark II, and split off maybe 5% into a new machine. Call it Mark III. Mark III is basically going to have to look at the output of Mark II, and decide whether or not it achieved a Class 4. You’re going to have to code in stuff like pattern recognition. Work with Szy as well: it needs to look at whether the quarks are forming up into hadrons, and whether those are grouping into atoms.”
“I can totally do that.”
“Yeah, but that’s the easy part,” she said, “If it fails, we need to give it new inputs and run it again. Basically change all the stuff that we’re unsure of. Some of the details on how quarks behave in special situations, some of the characteristics of each dimension… All the things that Physics isn’t completely sure of yet. We need Mark III to slightly alter these in Mark II, and run it again.”
“So Mark III is basically there to monitor Mark II, and then improve it?”
“Yeah, which is where the genetic algorithms kick in. Mark III needs to look at all the times Mark II failed, and try to learn which factors give it the best chance of success. For example, if we get to hadrons but not to atoms, that’s still way better than not getting to hadrons at all. The most important thing is going to be time to failure: if a simulation hits a pattern really fast, it’s not as good as a simulation that takes five times longer to do so. That’ll mean the inputs of the latter are probably closer to what we need. With each failure, Mark III will get smarter about optimizing Mark II, and we’ll get closer to a fully functional universe.”
“Are you actually trying to teach me how genetic algorithms work?”
“I figured you could use a refresher,” she nudged him with a shoulder and he scowled, “Oh, and you’ll have to add in some reinforcement learning too. So can you start coding that? Start on the analysis, and I’ll jump in to help as soon as I’m done with Mark II?”
“Totally,” said Oliver, a telltale shadow of a smile appearing at the corner of his lips, “Although I’ll probably be done with the whole thing before you are.”
She doubted it, but it was the answer she expected. And, she realized, his insistence on leaving the flat made sense on a second level now: he had wanted to discuss his involvement.
“Alright,” she said, and turned to her right, “You heard what I said Szy?”
“Help Oliver. Got it,” said Szymon, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand, “Can we go home now?”
Two weeks later, she decided that her work on Mark II was as good as it would ever get, and went to see how Oliver was doing. As expected, he had completed the analytical side of Mark III but had barely begun coding in the genetic algorithms. She tasked Szymon to run more tests on Mark II, and focused all of her attention on collaborating with Oliver.
Working with Oliver was completely different than with Szymon. She constantly had to check his code as he kept overcomplicating things, which affected Mark’s speed. Occasionally though, he did come up with ingenious insights from left-field that radically improved performance.
Oliver fully committed to their routine this time. As Mark III neared completion, he became more and more excited and even stopped texting what Mathilde could only assume was his harem. He began skipping classes just like the two of them.
Three weeks later, they stood silently in the kitchen, looking at Mathilde’s tablet.
“Wait, wait,” said Oliver, grabbing his phone and holding it up high, “We need to take a selfie. Immortalize the moment.”
Mathilde made a face, while Szymon held up two fingers in the V-sign.
“Great,” said Oliver when he looked at the picture, “Years from now, when they write about our success, they’ll wonder how I managed to build this thing despite being surrounded by two idiots.”
“It’s us at our most natural,” Mathilde smiled, “They’ll go: look at these guys. No wonder they managed to build what they did.”
“You know, we still haven’t given it a name.”
“Mark II doesn’t work?”
“Can we call it the Szymonverse?” asked Szymon.
They both gave him a look, and he shrugged.
“No but Szy might be onto something,” said Mathilde. She pointed at herself, then at each of them in turn. “Mathilde. Oliver. Szymon. M, O, S.”
She walked over to the tablet on the kitchen table with slow and measured steps.
“Gentlemen,” she said solemnly, and with a flourish, tapped the ‘Run’ button, “Welcome to the Mosverse.”
~ End of Chapter 6 ~
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