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. After months of hard work, their project is complete: the Mosverse. Only one problem remains – how do you debug a universe?
Listen to the audiobook podcast here! Want to make sure never to miss an episode? Subscribe to the podcast RSS feed by clicking just below:
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Seven: Concarneau
A second later, a line of text crawled across the screen. She smirked.
“Well that was fast. Failed.”
She bit her lower lip in disappointment as she called up a status report on the tablet.
“What did it fail on?” asked Oliver.
She scanned the read-out. “No hadrons.”
“How long did it run?” Szymon crowded over her shoulder.
“1000 seconds in Mosverse time.”
“You mean SzymonSeconds.” Mathilde gave him a look, but he was so absorbed in the read-out that he didn’t even notice.
The three of them had decided on a total of four checks to control whether the Mosverse had succeeded or not. If a given Mosverse failed any one of these checks, Mark III would stop the simulation, make micro-changes in the inputs and rules, and relaunch a new version of Mark II.
All four checks were based on Szymon’s knowledge of the chronology of their own Universe’s creation, and were to be performed at different time points. The first check was the fastest by far, and they had dubbed it the Hadron Check. It was the one their current Mosverse had failed on.
In the real universe, between 10-6 and 1 second after the Big Bang, the quarks had begun to join up into groups of three, forming hadrons. In the Mosverse, Mathilde and Szymon had decided to do the check a full 1,000 seconds later, in case the process took longer in the simulation. That was the check their first version had failed. It was disappointing, especially since they had expected that one to be a mere formality. The following three were far more difficult to achieve.
The second, nicknamed the NS Check, short for Nucleosynthesis, was done after 2,000 Szymonminutes. Again, they had given it more time than their own universe: most physicists agreed that nucleosynthesis had first appeared after 3 to 20 minutes. In this step, two types of hadrons, protons and neutrons, had to combine under the effects of nuclear fusion to form a nucleus. It still wouldn’t be an atom, as it didn’t have any electrons, but it was a big step in the right direction.
Actual atoms were the third step, named the Recom Check after the process called ‘Recombination’. 377,000 years after the Big Bang, when the density of the universe had begun to fall, the nuclei that had formed in the nucleosynthesis step had started to grab electrons and become full-fledged atoms. They had Mark III perform this check at the 10 million year mark, and it was by far the most interesting one: Mark III looked for the presence of the lightest atoms, Hydrogen and Helium.
The final step, the Heavy Check, was the most important, and according to Szymon, the most difficult. If all worked out perfectly, astronomical amounts of Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium would come together, creating a star. The nuclear fusion of the star would start to combine the lighter atoms into heavier ones. At the 2 billion year point, Mark III was tasked with looking for any atom with an atomic number over 3. If they found one, it meant they had probably created a star.
These four checks were designed to allow Mark III to interrupt the simulation earlier rather than later. If it was going to fail, it was better that it fail fast. Mathilde had run the numbers, and discovered that the fastest the simulation could run was 500 million years a day. For any given Mosverse, it would take four full days to reach the final check, but only five nanoseconds to perform the first.
If any check failed, Mark III took over. The only uncertainty left was how long Mark III would take to analyze the outcome, tweak the parameters, and relaunch the Mosverse. As soon as they found that out, Mathilde would know just how many versions of the Mosverse they could run per day.
“Alright,” said Mathilde, completely focused on her tablet, “Looks like Mark III took only five seconds to analyze the data. Mosverse 2 is about to run!”
Both Szymon and Oliver edged in closer to look over her shoulder as she tapped on her screen. As one, their faces fell as the result popped up.
“Failed,” Mathilde reached for her tobacco pack.
“Well, we expected this,” said Szymon helpfully.
“Yeah, I know. But still.”
“This is actually good. We need at least a hundred Mosverses before the genetic algorithms start to kick in,” added Oliver.
The genetic algorithms were simple in concept. They looked at batches of Mosverses, and analyzed which ones had worked best, based on how long it had taken for a given Mosverse to descend into predictable patterns. The slower, the better.
The algorithms took the top ranked Mosverses and either tweaked them slightly, or mashed them together in the manner of genetic reproduction. They then ran this new batch, and analyzed those results. Run, rinse, repeat. Mathilde set the launch of new Mosverses on automatic, and let the machines run.
Over the course of the next hour, they generated another 720 simulations, which all failed at the Hadron Check. Mathilde went through 6 cigarettes, Oliver was on his third cup of tea, and only Szymon remained relatively optimistic.
“Guys, this is how physics works. Trial and error. Do, modify, repeat. It’ll take time. It’s normal.”
Mathilde blew out smoke in a short, frustrated puff.
“Can we go inside the Mosverse to see what’s going on?” asked Oliver.
“You won’t see anything at this stage,” said Szymon, “Everything is just plasma. All you’ll see is pure white.”
“What about not looking with light? I mean, go down to the quark level and see-”
“Then all you’ll get,” cut off Mathilde angrily, “Is a bunch of quarks floating freely around.”
Szymon took the tablet and locked the screen.
“In Polish we say: ‘Time goes slower for those who wait‘,” he said, “I don’t know how to say it in English. But we need to stop looking at it.”
“A watched pot never boils,” Oliver said, nodding in agreement.
“It’s been ages since we played Chronicler,” said Szymon, “Come on Mathilde. Just let it run. We’ll get a notification if anything happens.”
She grudgingly agreed, went back to her room, and put on her VR contacts. Logging in to Chronicler, she used Szymon’s tag to jump to his location. They embarked on a basic raid, looting a goblin fortress, but her heart just wasn’t into it. She kept calling up the results from Mark II, only to find it failing, over and over again, at the Hadron Check. Eventually, with an apology to Szymon, she left before the raid was complete, logged out and went to bed.
I hope at least one Mosverse passes the Hadron Check by tomorrow morning, she thought as she fell asleep, Maybe one will even make it to the Recom Check.
When she woke up, Mark II had gone through a total of 6,840 Mosverses, and not one had passed the Hadron Check. The next few days did little to improve her mood. She steadily watched the count rise, reaching 20,000 and then 40,000. With each new Mosverse failure, the genetic algorithms should have been providing better and better inputs, but none seemed to be able to generate hadrons.
They decided to let it run for a full week before trying to tinker with it. For what felt like the first time in ages, Mathilde, Szymon and Oliver returned to class. None of them could focus, and kept repeatedly accessing Mark III’s status reports.
When they talked, it was only about the Mosverse and where they might have gone wrong. Szymon spent every night poring over Physics textbooks and scientific articles, looking for a key detail he might have overlooked, while Mathilde and Oliver went through every line of code they had written, looking for bugs.
“What the hell man?” asked Mathilde, bursting into Oliver’s room, “You used a quadratic sorting algorithm?”
“On Mark III, while sorting out the best Mosverses, you’re sorting in quadratic instead of nlog(n).”
Given that they were now running batches of 1,000 Mosverses in one go, the difference was a huge one. Under a quadratic algorithm, sorting the universes took one million operations. With nlog(n), that number could be reduced to three thousand.
“I’d never do that!”
Mathilde showed him her tablet, and saw Oliver’s face drop. She turned on her heels without a word, went straight to the kitchen, and within an hour had changed the sorting algorithm. The result was beyond her wildest expectations: Mark III was now running its analysis in 0.01 seconds instead of a full 5, which meant they were now able to test out 8 million Mosverses per day.
Not that it made much of a difference. That just meant more Mosverses were unable to clear the Hadron Check. The tally of non-functional universes passed 25 million, and Mathilde could do nothing but shake her head and wait for a miracle.
“I think we should take it offline, and just rebuild entire sections,” she finally blurted out one evening as they were all eating pasta in the kitchen. Her tablet, playing Mark III’s readouts, was propped up on the counter where all three of them could see it. The total tally of non-functional Mosverses stood at over 40 million.
“We don’t even know what to fix,” objected Oliver, “I mean, we can tweak this and that, but the slightest change will mess with Mark III.”
“We have to do something,” she toyed with her food, “Clearly this isn’t working. At all.”
“Still, better to let it run a while longer. You never know.”
“I’m going to get rid of the reinforcement learning,” she said, “I’m not sure what they’re adding to the genetic algos anyway.”
“What? But I coded that!” said Oliver.
“Exactly.” She knew she was just venting out her frustration on the easiest target, but at this point, she was too annoyed at the whole situation to care or apologize.
Removing the reinforcement learning sped up Mark III even more. It began to run close to 300 million Mosverses per day – all of which repeatedly failed the Hadron test. It was beyond frustrating.
There was a glimmer of hope however. Diving deep into the data, Mathilde discovered that it wasn’t as bad as she had thought. Progress was minimal, but there was at least some improvement. On average, each iteration was taking slightly longer than the one before it to devolve into predictable patterns. Unfortunately, that still wasn’t enough to create a hadron.
“I’m giving it three more days. After that, I’m taking it offline. Szy, you agree?” she asked a few days later.
Szymon looked up, cheeks full of food. He shrugged.
“Three more days,” she said resolutely.
It only took two to change her mind.
When Szymon burst into her room, jumping up and down excitedly, she had been dreaming of presenting her findings on the Mosverse to an academic committee. They hadn’t been impressed. She opened her eyes with a yell of fear, which somehow only made him yell louder.
“NS CHECK! NS CHECK BABY!” he screamed.
“SZYMON WHAT THE FUCK?” Mathilde sat up wide-eyed, holding her quilt tightly to her naked chest.
“Sorry – I,” he turned his head away, and immediately back, “Get dressed! Come out! A Mosverse passed the Hadron check!”
He raced out, and seconds later she heard Oliver’s scream of fright next door as Szymon barged into his room. She quickly put on a hoodie and a pair of shorts, and turned on her tablet.
Szymon was right.
She ran into the kitchen. The two boys were already seated at the table, excitedly looking at their tablets.
“I was logging out of Chronicler when I noticed it! 20 minutes ago! A Mosverse made it past the Hadron Check!” Szymon excitedly stabbed at his display.
“It failed on the NS Check half a microsecond later, but it made it past a Hadron Check!” he stared at them wildly, “It made it past a Hadron Check!”
They all started to yell excitedly. All they could do was scream their happiness louder and louder, feeding off each others’ enthusiasm.
“Shots!” cried Oliver, taking out a bottle of whiskey from a cupboard and pouring them each a small sliver at the bottom of a glass. They drank it in one gulp, and started yelling and slapping themselves on the back all over again. Oliver whipped out his phone and insisted on taking yet another selfie to mark the occasion.
Mark II passed the Hadron Check a total of seven more times before finally running a Mosverse version that made it past the NS Check. It had been over two weeks since launch, and the current tally was at 1.8 billion non-workable Mosverses. With every run that passed the Hadron Check, their excitement grew. They had yet to see a universe make it through Recom, but it was finally starting to feel as if it was only a matter of time.
“I call shotgun!” yelled Szymon as they approached the car.
“What?” asked Oliver, “You can’t do that!”
“Come on,” said Mathilde, “Let him. You can drive part of the way.”
It was 6 a.m. on a Friday, and they were heading to her hometown of Fouesnant, in Brittany, five and a half hours away. Her mother was celebrating her 45th birthday that weekend, and Mathilde had invited both Szymon and Oliver to join her. She had pretended that it was a good opportunity for them to discover another part of France, but mostly this was for her. What better way to avoid dealing with family than by bringing two foreign exchange students?
“Why can’t Szymon drive for part of the way? I want to be shotgun.”
“Szymon doesn’t have his driver’s license.”
“You don’t have your license?” Oliver asked him incredulously.
“Why would I? It’s all going to be self-driving cars in a couple of years anyways.”
“Not in France it won’t,” Mathilde entered the car and buckled her seatbelt, “Every major carmaker is pressuring the government to ban them.”
“Well,” said Oliver, noisily settling in the back, “Wait until Lenovo-Citroen finally manages to build their own self-driving car. Then there’ll be a push for legislation to authorize it.”
She pulled out of the parking space and headed towards the highway. The mood in the car was electric. Two days ago, after reaching 3.2 billion no-goes, a Mosverse had finally passed the Recom check. They still had slightly under two days to wait before Mark III ran the Heavy Check, the final test to determine whether or not they had achieved a functional universe. They couldn’t wait for the result. All three of them were jittery with expectation, and there was an unspoken agreement that this trip was the perfect way to avoid spending that time glued to their screens.
They drove straight through the morning, stopping only for coffee and Mathilde’s occasional cigarette breaks, and reached Brittany at half past noon.
“My mom is still going to be at work now,” said Mathilde as she checked the time that floated in a corner of the windshield, “I’m going to bring you guys to do some tourism first, and we’ll meet up with her later.”
She parked near the port of Concarneau, and they piled out of the car. Oliver stretched his shoulders while Szymon strutted around on stiff legs, trying to get the blood flowing again.
Right in the middle of the port’s bay stood a fort, huge stone walls rising directly from the water and towering over the boats floating beside it. It was over 500 years old, but somehow still had an intensely modern military look, with small slit windows and cannons pointing out over the parapet.
“Woah,” said Szymon, “Cool.”
“This is la Ville Close,” she said with a grin, “The Closed City. It’s even better inside, you’ll see.”
The Ville Close had been her go-to destination growing up. Her mom had worked until late, and friends had been few and far between, so she had spent most of her late afternoons here instead. It was on the ramparts that she had read her first thriller about hackers, and decided to look more into code. Pretty soon, she had found a snug and covered place locked in a corner of the fortified city, and spent every free hour coding away on her tablet.
It was also here that she had first dreamed of leaving Brittany for Paris. It felt odd coming back. There was a satisfaction there, but it was curiously tinged with a pang of nostalgia.
They headed down a narrow stone walkway that fed directly into the wall of the fort and emerged in narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants and tiny churches. Each sported bright awnings of vibrant blue, red and yellow, with large blocky lettering. The goods on display were just as colorful, ranging from rainbow arrays of jackets to shimmering tables covered with fantasy jewelry. None of the buildings, topped by traditional narrow roofs, were over three stories tall.
“Feels like this hasn’t changed in centuries,” said Oliver.
“Yeah,” she answered, “Welcome to my childhood.”
She took off down a narrow street and waved at them to keep up. “OK, follow me. You’ve never had a real crêpe if you haven’t had one in Brittany!”
They stopped in a small crêperie with a blue slanted awning, and let Mathilde order. She insisted they get a bottle of cider, served in little bowls. Their crêpes arrived, golden brown and folded up into squares with only a small island in the middle through which poked out melted cheese, copious amounts of ham and a bright yellow egg yolk.
“Why do we have to drink cider out of a bowl?” asked Oliver, “It feels like the most inconvenient way to do this.”
“Don’t say that when you meet my uncles, they’ll go haywire.”
“I might just ask for the kick of it,” he grinned.
“They’re 2 meters tall, and their arms are bigger than your head – which is saying something,” she attacked a piece of crêpe with knife and fork, “Your call, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“So wait, how many people are going to be at this birthday?” asked Szymon.
“Well,” she waved her fork in the air, counting them off, “My mom, her two sisters, their husbands, and my five cousins, three boys and two girls.”
“Are they pretty?” asked Oliver.
“My mom and her sisters? They’re ok, but probably a bit too old for you, don’t you think? ”
He rolled his eyes as Szymon gave an amused snort.
“Yeah, both my cousins are super pretty,” she continued, “Total blondes though. I’m pretty sure they share a neuron.”
“Oh, and also, don’t try to explain our school, say you study computers and keep it at that. I tried and…” she smirked, looking for words, “Let’s just say that my uncles’ biggest preoccupation in life is having a bigger TV than their neighbors’. Half their kids didn’t finish high school. They don’t exactly get it.”
“So you’re the weird one?” asked Szymon.
“In their eyes, absolutely. Speaking of which, if I ever do this,” she opened her eyes as wide as she could and shook her head slightly to the side, “Come help me get away from there. It means I’m stuck listening to someone tell me that I should find a good man.”
“They might have a point,” Oliver teasingly prodded her shoulder with a finger and she slapped his hand away.
“So how did you end up being the weird one in the family?” he asked.
“I’ve spent my entire life asking myself that very question,” she answered, and dug back into her crêpe.
“Simon, Olivier, come in, come in!” said Nathalie as she ushered them in through the rusty metal door of the apartment.
“Uh, it’s Szymon,” said Szymon hesitantly. Oblivious, Nathalie powered on in her heavily accented English. “Put your shoes here. I’m happy to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you! Mathilde tells me about you two every day!”
“Really?” Oliver looked at Mathilde with wide eyes. She gave him an angry frown but was interrupted by Nathalie dropping two wet kisses on each of her cheeks.
They took their shoes off in the small hall crowded high with boxes, and were forcefully pushed into the living room on the right. A rectangular table sat at the center of the room, its floral tablecloth echoing the wallpaper all around them. Szymon immediately jumped onto the pastel purple couch, its color faded from use, while Oliver started to look at the picture frames hung up on the wall.
He starting laughing. “Szy, come check out baby Mathilde!”
“Oh, those pictures,” cut in Nathalie, “Everyone said Mathilde looked like a little boy. I had to force her to wear dresses. She was so angry, never a picture where she smiled.”
“Mom…” moaned Mathilde.
“She hates it when I talk about when she was small. Do you want a drink, boys? Tea? Coffee? Chamomile?”
“Tea for me, please,” said Oliver.
“Coffee,” said Mathilde, “For Szymon too.”
Nathalie ran off into the kitchen. Oliver continued looking around the room, at the bookcase filled with DVDs, the cathode TV in the corner, and the pile of magazines on a small stand beside them.
“Man,” he said, “You are nothing like your mom.”
It was true. Side by side, no one could have guessed that they were related. Mathilde’s mom was a short blonde, grown plump with the years, but radiating femininity and charm. Next to her, Mathilde looked hard and dark, her auburn hair almost black.
“Yeah,” she said quietly, “I look like my dad.”
She turned to face the window. “A fact that neither of my aunts have ever forgiven. They’ll compare me to him any chance they get.”
“What do you mean?” asked Szymon.
“You’ll see tomorrow,” she said, just as Nathalie came back in the room carrying a tray loaded high with Breton biscuits.
“She has her dad’s blood,” whispered her aunt to Szymon, “Temperamental. Not stable,” she turned to Mathilde, “You need to be careful or you’ll never find a man.”
Two hours. That’s how long it had taken before one of her aunts mentioned her dad. Ever since he had left her mom, eighteen years ago, he had become persona non grata. And with each passing year, as she grew to resemble him more and more, all that animosity had shifted to her.
The night before, all three of them had slept in Mathilde’s old room. Szymon and Oliver had shared a mattress on the floor, and Mathilde had taken her old bed, made up with freshly washed lavender-colored sheets. They had woken early and gone to visit the beach, and by the time they had returned, soaking wet from the ever-present Brittany rain – a steady drizzle that locals called spittle – the living room had been transformed. Chairs had been brought in, and all of her relatives were now tightly packed together, talking in loud voices.
Lunch with Szymon had been more fun than expected. The moment the first plate was brought out, piled high with smoked ham and other charcuterie, he had begun to talk non-stop about how similar it was to Polish specialties. Oliver, meanwhile, had decided to use all of his charm on her eldest cousin. From the wild way he was moving his hands with every sentence however, Mathilde could tell that her cousin’s poor English was fast becoming an obstacle to communication. Or whatever else Oliver’s end goal was.
When her mother finally brought out the cake, on which shone a lone candle, they all sung happy birthday. Mathilde helped cut it, and handed Szymon a slice.
“Mathilde, why does my cake look like it has acne?”
“It’s kouign amann. You’ll love it, trust me. It’s like Oliver – looks like shit but deep down it’s really good.”
Szymon laughed. He carefully took a bite, and his eyes lit up.
“It’s the most amazing cake I’ve ever had…” he immediately shoved a bigger piece into his mouth.
“Yeah, no shit. It’s basically only butter and caramelized sugar.”
“It looks like poop, but it’s so good,” said Szymon, busily munching away, “What’s it called again?”
“Too complicated. I’m calling this ‘The Poop of Happiness’.”
Mathilde’s laugh was interrupted by her mother suddenly rubbing a napkin on her face.
“MOM! What are you doing?”
“Your lipstick is smudged honey,” she said, licking the napkin and trying to reach Mathilde’s face, “Honestly you need to take better care of yourself. I worry about you up there, all alone in Paris.”
“Mom, stop it! Leave me alone.”
With a hurt look, Nathalie got up and walked to the kitchen. Szymon stopped chewing and looked at her.
“You’re mean with your mom.”
“Yeah well she always does this!” Mathilde stared, fuming, at her empty plate, “She’s so focused on my looks, and my makeup, and my clothes… I don’t care! Is it that hard to understand? ”
Szymon didn’t reply.
“Stop giving me that look. You don’t know her like I do,” she said, “For the first ten years of my life, she kept telling me that she was sacrificing her own happiness for me. That because of me, she couldn’t date. Ten years Szy! You don’t burden a ten year old girl with that kind of guilt!”
She pushed her plate away.
“The problem with my mom,” she continued, “Is that she’s convinced she needs a man to be happy. My aunts too. And look at the men they’ve found.”
Across the table, both her uncles were pouring themselves yet another glass of wine, laughing uproariously and showing their satisfaction with resounding burps. Their red noses shone bright of alcohol and sunlight.
“My mom’s weak Szy,” said Mathilde, suddenly unable to stop the words from pouring out, “She needs someone to help define her happiness. She completely and solely depends on them. She wants to be the weak woman by a man’s side, taking care of the house but being treated like a princess. And then she meets some douchebag and it’s the love of her life, until he hurts her and it starts all over again.”
“She’s dated a lot?”
“Well eventually, when I forced her to, yeah. But she always ends up miserable, because she only chooses the ones who are terrible for her.”
Szymon hesitated. “As opposed to Charles Simonetti?” he finally asked in a quiet voice.
Mathilde’s eyes grew wide with shock. “How the fuck do you know about that?”
“He’s on SzymonChat,” Szymon stared guiltily at his feet.
“What the hell Szymon?” she fought to keep her voice low, “That’s private! You’re reading through my messages?”
“No, no! It’s all encrypted. I just get a notification when a user signs up. Add that to your late night escapades, and it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.”
“Still,” she turned away from him, equal parts angry and embarrassed, “It’s private stuff Szy. ”
After a long moment of silence, she finally spoke.
“And just for your information, it’s not like that at all with Charles. The rules are clear, and there’s no attachment there. He’s using me and I’m using him. I could stop seeing him tomorrow and not care.”
Szymon raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously. I’m not like my mom at all. I don’t care. I don’t need him, and I’m happy that he doesn’t need me,” she said.
Before Szymon could answer, her phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her pocket. Her pulse suddenly quickened. Szymon, phone in hand, wore a look of disbelief. As one, they sought out Oliver across the table, who was staring at his phone with wide eyes and a gaping mouth.
Mathilde checked it again, making sure she had read Mark III’s notification correctly.
“Holy fuck,” said Szymon beside her in a low voice, “It passed the Heavy Check. Mathilde, it passed the final check. We did it.”
~ End of Chapter 7 ~
Enjoy the chapter? Make sure to subscribe to my Facebook page here for updates on new chapters, or sign up to my newsletter (I don’t spam, only once a book is complete or for cool free stuff like my short stories!)
Thanks for reading!