Abysme – Chapter 9 – SETI


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

Mathilde, Szymon and Oliver have finally managed to simulate an entire universe – and it is beyond their wildest expectations. But now the real fun begins – the search for life.

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Chapter Nine: SETI

 

Mathilde reached for her beer as the waiter set it on the metallic table. She was with Oliver, at a café nestled against a plaza of cobbled stone and surrounded by unremarkable grey buildings with small stores on the ground floor. Images of their goods flashed by on the smartglass display windows.

“Why did we have to meet her here again?”

They were on the other side of the river, in the North-East of Paris, lost on a tiny street called Rue St. Maur.

Oliver took a slow sip from his beer. “Again. First, because she lives nearby, and if you’re going to ask someone a favor, the least you can do is go to where they are.”

Mathilde rolled her eyes and took out her tobacco pack.

“And,” he continued, “Because I promised her we would go for a walk in the Père Lachaise cemetery afterwards. Did you know Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried there?”

“And Molière, La Fontaine, Edith Piaf… but you not knowing the French ones doesn’t really surprise me.”

“I know the important ones.”

“Sure,” she finished rolling and was about to light up when it hit her, “Wait. You’re going on a romantic walk with Floriane? I didn’t realize it was getting serious between you two!”

“It’s not, we’re taking it casual.”

“The French don’t date casually Ollie. If they start seeing someone, it’s exclusive from the get-go.”

“Well… Maybe that’s ok.”

She choked on her drink then, and began to cough and hack, half-caught between a laugh and suffocation. “Are you serious?”

Oliver settling down was not something she had imagined would happen anytime soon. She had a running bet with Szymon that he would only get serious when he started to go bald.

“Yeah, she’s cool. Why? You don’t like her?”

“I don’t know,” she smirked, “She’s just… She can be a bit much, you know?”

“Mathilde doesn’t like girly-girls huh?” he grinned, delighted, “I do know what you mean. But that’s kinda what I like about her. And, to be honest, sometimes it’s just a nice feeling to wake up next to someone you know.”

“Plus,” he gave her a sly smile, “The morning sex is amazing.”

She pretended to gag as Oliver laughed at his own joke.

“So when is she getting here?” she asked, “It’s been 25 minutes.”

“The prettier the girl, the later she’ll be. Given Floriane’s looks, I’d say we’ll still be waiting here at least ten minutes,” he leaned back in the thatched-straw chair and pulled his Ascot over his eyes, “Relax. It’s nice to be outside without Szymon freaking out next to us.”

She looked around – the weather was indeed perfect. It was nearing the middle of spring, and the trees had all turned a vibrant green, creating a dappled border to the clear blue sky. The Parisian sun shone brightly with rays of light piercing through the leafy canopies and covering the ground in speckled shadows that moved like orbiting constellations.

She had to admit Oliver was partly right. A break from Szymon’s unrelenting enthusiasm, which had somehow only grown in intensity since they had first entered the Mosverse a week ago, was kind of nice. Szymon was spending every single waking minute logged in, and when he wasn’t, it was all he could talk about. He went on about all the different types of black holes and stars and planets he had discovered, while Mathilde was already focused on trying to find life.

They spotted Floriane as she was crossing the road. She was wearing another one of her white summer dresses, with an open beige leather jacket, and her hair was done up in an elaborate braided chignon. Mathilde found herself unconsciously touching her own ponytail. How do you even do that? she wondered.

Floriane gave a quick bise to Mathilde and a peck on Oliver’s lips, and flagged down a waiter. She ordered a glass of red wine, then pulled out a slim cigarette and lit it.

“Hi sweeties,” she said, “What’s up and how can I help?”

They had rehearsed their lie beforehand. It had taken some convincing, but she had managed to wrangle a promise out of Oliver that he wouldn’t mention the Mosverse – yet.

“Well,” said Oliver, and Mathilde leaned in to make sure he stuck to his script.

“I told Mathilde that you’re an Anatomy major at l’ENS, and she had a few questions for you.”

“Oliver!” she playfully punched him on the shoulder, “It’s Biology and you know it!”

“Ah, I always get confused. I don’t know why I keep thinking you’re an expert in anatomy too,” he said in mock confusion, drawing out another laugh.

Obviously, he had opted for corny improvised lines instead. She rolled her eyes.

“Sure,” Floriane finally said, turning to Mathilde, “What do you need to know?”

Mathilde thought it over one last time. How do you explain to someone you’re looking for life, without telling them about the Mosverse? This was the reason why she hadn’t wanted to bring Floriane in. It was too difficult to explain. But at this point, she didn’t have much of a choice left.

She had grilled Szymon on how astronomers looked for life on other planets, but the results had been disappointing. Most agreed that for life to appear, planets needed to be in what was coined the “habitable zone”: far enough not to burn, close enough not to freeze. However, coding that into Mark III’s tracking functions had turned out to be a nightmare. The habitable zone was completely different from star to star. For smaller stars with low luminosity, such as red dwarves, it was located 7 to 22 astronomical units away. Meanwhile, supergiants, such as the one they had first encountered, had a habitable zone a staggering 2,000 AUs away.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the habitable zone kept changing as the star evolved. If, for example, a red dwarf hadn’t stabilized, its habitable zone needed to be farther away to protect planets from the occasional giant stellar flare.

She had been tearing her hair out trying to code in all the individual variables when Oliver had innocently asked Szymon how astronomers calculated the habitable zone.

“Oh, that’s simple – you’re looking for the zone in which planets can support liquid water. Too far and it becomes ice, too close and it’s vapor.”

She had almost strangled him. All she actually needed to do was set Mark III to look for liquid water – which was far easier than the billion parameters needed to define each star type and the phase it was in.

Liquid water was just a specific combination of hydrogen and oxygen particles, set at a certain density range. Mark III already had programs looking for different atoms – that’s how they had done the Heavy Check. All she needed to do was tweak it slightly.

But that alone wasn’t enough. Water did not necessarily mean life. Again, she looked at what astronomers used, and rigged Mark III to search for high concentrations of methane as well. Methane had a few advantages: it disappeared quickly, and it was highly likely to be of biological origin. 90-95% of Earth’s methane was of biological origin (or as Oliver had put it, ‘farts’). If a planet showed consistently high levels of methane, it was highly probable that there was a biological force constantly replenishing it.

She coded both the liquid water and methane trackers into Mark III, and let the simulation run at half speed to be able to look at methane concentration over time. She had hoped for a few dozen matches, but was astounded at the result. Ten million. Ten million matches, each potentially containing its own ecosystem and unique form of life. It was staggering, and a bit frightening.

That notion had quickly been dispelled. The first thirty planets they visited were nothing but barren wastelands of dust and rock. A cursory examination revealed huge patches of methane, without Szymon being able to explain how they had formed. He theorized that it could have been volcanoes or asteroid strikes, or that there still might be life at a microbiological level, but it was too far removed from what they were looking for.

After fifty planets, she began to lose hope. All the planets were empty rocks floating in the dead of space. And given their current speed, if they kept at it, it would take decades to go through even a fraction of their list.

Even though Szymon was happy to run through the ten million hits one by one, she and Oliver quickly concluded that they needed to refine their search somehow. And that was what had brought them to Floriane. They needed someone who understood life in its biological sense. An expert.

“So, like,” Mathilde asked Floriane, “What is life?”

God that sounded stupid, she thought, Great job Mathilde. Even now, she could tell Floriane was assessing her. She seemed relaxed and calm, with her arm casually draped over a chair, but Mathilde knew she was trying to figure out whether this tomboyish girl was a threat to her relationship. Nothing to worry about there, trust me.

“I mean,” she tried again, “If you look at the elements that define life, chemically speaking, what would they be?”

Floriane tapped her ashes onto the ground.

“It’s hard to say,” she said, “And it really depends on what you mean by ‘life‘. Would a computer that’s achieved sentience be life? Are we referring to carbon life forms? What about theorized forms of energy-based life?”

“Let’s stick to carbon life forms, I guess?”

“Even then. We used to think it was RNA, but we’ve developed stuff like XNA that can do all the things RNA can, but that doesn’t exist on Earth.”

“RNA?” she racked her brain trying to remember her high school biology classes, “That’s like DNA, but the messenger version that pushes information from place to place right?”

Floriane smiled condescendingly, and Mathilde’s face turned crimson.

“That’s mRNA, a type of RNA. RNA itself is responsible for way more: anything that has to do with coding, decoding, regulating and expressing genes – that’s RNA.”

“And that’s the basis for life?”

“Life as we know it,” Floriane insisted, “It’s one of the four macromolecules that are deemed essential, along with DNA, proteins and, um, how do you say it? Glucides?

“Carbohydrates,” Mathilde helpfully added, mentally high-fiving herself for scoring a point.

“Yes. That. But RNA is the most important. Scientists talk of Earth as being an RNA world.”

“So how does RNA appear?” asked Oliver.

Floriane groaned. “Lots of hypotheses, no one really knows. Some say it was created in a kind of primordial soup, where excess energy and a ton of compounds led to RNA. Others that it’s due to ultraviolet rays irradiating large deposits of iron-sulfur. Or that it appeared because of deep-sea vents. Or through thermosynthesis. And then there’s-”

“Not that important,” cut off Mathilde, “The key question is, what is RNA made of?”

Floriane glared at her silently and Mathilde ignored it by sipping on her beer.

“Imagine a long chain,” she finally picked up, “Where the links are four types of nucleotides, A, C, G and U. That’s RNA.”

“What’s in a nucleotide?” She was beginning to sound like a three-year old with an endless string of ‘whys’. It might work fine with Szymon, but she reminded herself that if she kept it up, Floriane would get annoyed.

“Three things,” Floriane said, raising a finger as she enumerated them, “A base, like adenosine or cytosize – that’s where they get the letters from – a ribose sugar and a phosphate.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

That was all she needed to know. She knew she could easily find the chemical formulas of each nucleotide, split down into individual atoms of carbon, hydrogen, etc. If she had that, she could break those down into quarks, and then feed the whole contraption to Mark III. An RNA tracker.

“Just to confirm one last time – where there’s RNA, there’s life?” she asked.

“Highly likely,” Floriane answered, “But Earth-style life. Again, there might be different types…”

“Good enough for me,” said Mathilde, standing up suddenly, “Alright, I have work to do. Floriane, thanks so much for your help. Ollie, cover my bill and I’ll pay you back ok?”

Floriane gave her a surprised look, but Mathilde threw her a quick wave and rushed off towards the nearest subway station, Oberkampf. As she waited for the light to turn green, she sent Oliver a quick SzymonChat: Don’t forget to use protection! Turning back, she saw him check his phone, look at her, and give her the finger. She typed in another: And tell her that her hair looks stupid. She slipped it into her pocket and skipped down the steps toward the subway.

 

 

“Szy?” she asked, as he stared off into space. Or rather, at a gigantic white planet floating in front of them.

“Hey,” he said, suddenly noticing her, “What’s up, how did the meeting go?”

“It went well. We’re going to look for RNA. I just figured I’d come check up on you and see whether you found anything first.”

Szymon looked lost in thought. “Well, I did find this one: look, it’s a gas giant. Class II.”

It didn’t look like any gas giant Mathilde had ever seen. It was a planet obscured in white clouds, through which she could sometimes glimpse other, bluer clouds below.

“Number 345. No life that I can tell. The clouds you see are water vapor, and they probably condense into rain from time to time, which is what tricked Mark III into thinking there was water. Don’t know where the methane came from though.”

“Well, maybe you should lay off the search for a while. Just have fun. I’m hoping the RNA strategy will lead to better results.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said absent-mindedly.

“Ok…” she made to leave, and turned back, “Hey Szy, make sure you get enough sleep ok?”

His eyes lit up. “I can’t. This is… this is way too cool. It’s a physicist’s dream. Distance is no longer a problem. You can see how stuff evolves. It’s incredible Mathilde, it’s simply incredible.”

She smiled. The planets, stars and galaxies had quickly become repetitive to Oliver and her, but to Szymon, each one was more fascinating than the last.

“Oh, wait,” he said as she turned to leave, “I actually need your help.”

“Yeah?”

“Can you help me set up a few shorthands?”

“Shorthands? For what?”

“Well, like, if I want to put a pin on a location so I can find it again. Or just faster ways to go 100 million kilometers forward. Could you just give me a few empty slots, and I’ll code in functions and associated hand gestures?”

“Sure,” she said. She had already set up a dozen empty slots, but hadn’t had time to code any functions for them, “How many do you need?”

“99.”

“99? What are you going to do with 99 shorthands?”

Shorthands were the equivalent of hotkeys or keyboard shortcuts, but for haptic gloves. Specific hand combinations would call up an action to be performed. Amateurs rarely used them, whereas hardcore gamers usually had anywhere between 10 to 30. 99 was high by any standards. Coming up with that many unique combinations was near impossible, and remembering what each was even harder.

Szymon noticed her reaction and winked. “I have a system,” he explained, “But you’re going to need to code in some special hand positions.”

“Okay?”

“When I was 12 I got really into Go, you know, the Asian game with black and white stones?”

“Yeah, of course.”

She had played Go quite a bit when she was younger. At first the game had appeared ridiculously simple, with far fewer rules than the usual strategy games, but she quickly discovered that the size of the board actually made it incredibly complex. Developing a computer program able to beat Chess world champions had been achieved in the 90s, but it had taken over twenty years to be able to duplicate that feat in Go, and required radical improvements in AI research.

She had given up on Go when she realized that to be great at it, she would need to dedicate years of her life to the game. And when there were so many other fun games to be played, it didn’t seem like it was worth it.

“Anyway,” he continued, “Go got me hooked on other Asian games, especially Chinese ones. I taught myself Mahjiang, and Xiangqi, and even a couple weird dice games that have more to do with poker than actual strategy.”

“Your point being?”

“Well one of those dice games had a lot of numbers involved. And its players used an ancient Chinese way of counting with their hands. Look, how far up can you count on one hand?” he asked.

She stretched out her hand, fingers extended. “Five fingers, so to five. 6, if you include the zero.”

“Well, with the Chinese way, I can go up to ten. Look,” he made his right hand into the shape of a phone, thumb and pinky extended, “This is six.”

Seven was the thumb, the index and the middle finger extended and pressed together, with the other two curled up. Eight was a gun, with the thumb and index finger at a right angle while nine was a hooked index, and ten a fist.

“Alright,” she said, “That’s kinda cool but… That’s only ten. Twenty with both hands.”

“No. You see, your right hand represents units, and your left hand is the tens,” he made a gun in each hand, “This is 88!” He switched to three extended fingers on his left hand and a hook on the right. “And this is 39!”

Mathilde laughed. It wasn’t like Szymon to come up with simple solutions to complicated problems, but there were exceptions. Each of his shorthands was a number – the easiest way to remember them.

“Sure,” she said, “I’ll code that in, just for you. Send me a description of the different hand symbols though, I’ve already forgotten half of them.”

Leaving Szymon to his exploration of the Mosverse, she logged out.

 

 

In nothing but her underwear, she walked out of the bathroom, scampered across the wooden floor and slid back into bed next to Charles. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her forehead, squeezing her just a little tighter.

“Missed you,” he said.

“What, all five minutes I was gone?”

He pulled her tighter against him. “Yes.”

She snuggled against his shoulder and closed her eyes, listening to the slow pounding of his heart. In those moments, time seemed to disappear. Mark III’s slow search for RNA, which was going on four days now, was but a distant memory at the back of her mind. She breathed in Charles’ raw scent and sighed.

“I might add that I miss seeing you in class, but then I’d just look clingy,” he said with a self-deprecating smile, “Guess you have better stuff to do than listen to stuffy old professors.”

“I’m working on something.” For a heartbeat, she hesitated. She wanted to tell him more. But, she reminded herself, it would be fairly hypocritical if she forbade Oliver from doing so and then went right on ahead and told Charles.

“It could become something huge, but it’s too soon to tell,” she said instead.

“I see.”

He paused.

“Well, not that I don’t enjoy watching you without any clothes on, but if you ever find time to show up, I’d like that… it’s a special pleasure having you in my class without being able to touch you.”

She bit his shoulder, and he howled with a burst of laughter and mock pain.

“If you miss me that much, let’s spend the night together, and get breakfast in bed tomorrow morning. I promise I’ll rock your world with amazing morning sex…”

She regretted it as soon as she said it. A painfully awkward expression spread across Charles’ face.

“Mathilde, you know the rules…” he said hesitantly, “No sleepovers. I can’t.”

“I know,” she said, “It was stupid, forget it.”

“I still have a few hours though… maybe we can go a second round?”

She slowly pushed herself out of his arms. “No, forget it, I need to get back to work anyway.” The moment was gone. The last thing she wanted was to dance around the subject, bathing in her humiliation. It was easier to simply leave. She sat on the side of the bed and pulled on her jeans. He propped up on one elbow, trying to catch her attention.

“Mathilde…”

“I’m fine,” she said, “Just really busy. Forget what I said ok?” She took his face in one hand and gave him a quick kiss.

“Really, I’m fine.” He looked at her, eyes filled with worry. She hated that look. There was pity in there somewhere, and she wanted none of it.

“I’ll text you later ok?” she said, and shut the door behind her.

She walked home with brisk, angry steps, furious at herself. “Stupid!” she shouted out at no one in particular. Reaching the bottom of her building, she aggressively crushed her cigarette under a heeled shoe and stormed up the stairs. Swiping her phone on the smartlock, she let herself in and grabbed her tablet on the way to the kitchen to check on Mark III, looking for something to distract her.

Stupid Charles, she thought angrily, Why did he have to make it awkward? It was fun and he ruined it by getting all serious. Urgh.

She had barely sat down when her phone buzzed. Half a minute later, Szymon opened the door with wide eyes.

“Did you get it?” he asked.

“Mark III found a match,” she answered in a whisper. Excitement was slowly seeping in, replacing the anger, “First one in four days and what, two billion SzymonYears?”

Szymon grinned.

“Is Ollie home? Wake him up. Let’s go see it together.”

After lots of excited shouting and the obligatory selfie, they all logged in. The first thing Mathilde noticed was the red dwarf, shining brightly in front of them. She swung her head around.

“Is that it?” she asked, pointing towards the strange planet in front of them.

“Yeah,” said Szymon.

“Why does it look so weird?” asked Oliver as he glided in between them for a better look.

Szymon shook his head.

In front of them was the oddest celestial body she had ever seen. It looked like someone had taken two completely different planets, cut them in half with a knife, and switched them up.

Half the planet was a deep, dark blue and hidden in shadows. Jagged snow-covered peaks and giant glaciers covered the surface, as if an ice pole had slowly enveloped half the world. The other side, however, was the complete opposite. It shone a bright orange, enhanced by the red dwarf’s rays, and was covered in gigantic swirling spirals of yellow clouds. It reminded Mathilde of aerial views of hurricanes, with the small exception that instead of one, there were dozens of them, each spreading and moving around with violent force, colliding and fusing together. It looked surreal – a planet of perfect polar opposites.

“Cool,” said Szymon quietly, “I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Expecting what?”

“This,” he answered, and waved towards the ball of rock, “A tidally locked planet.”

 

~ End of Chapter 9 ~

 

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