Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
…until Oliver opens a black hole in Szymon’s head.
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Eighteen: The River Styx
It was Maria’s scream of anguish that finally made it real. Szymon’s mother sunk to her knees at the sight of her son, his head wrapped in bandages and his deadened eyes staring blankly at the wall. Reality hit Mathilde with the force of a baseball bat.
She barely remembered dragging Szymon’s limp body down the five stories of their apartment, or running onto the middle of the road and forcing the first car she saw to stop. Only flashes, like a blurred nightmare, danced in her mind. Szymon’s body on a gurney, being carted off for surgery. Sitting in the waiting room and praying that he would be alright. The voice in her head telling her there was no one to pray to. The nurse who handed her his phone and personal items.
She had called his parents, but didn’t remember a word she had said. She had been led to his room when he returned from surgery, and had been by his side when he finally opened his eyes.
But he hadn’t seen. He had just looked on dead ahead, one arm bunched up close to his broken body.
It took the scream to shatter the walls of numbness that surrounded her. She looked around, and recognized them: Szymon’s parents and his older brother. It seemed like just yesterday she had been at their dinner table in Poland with Szymon cracking jokes at her side. Now, tears came for the first time, a deluge of salt and water.
“We don’t understand what happened,” said the doctor, as Andrzej translated for his parents from English into Polish, “There was massive cerebral hemorrhaging. We drained out the blood, but his brain is,” he paused, searching for words, “It looks like a part just exploded. The damage is… beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”
“He will okay?” asked Andrzej in a heavily accented English.
“He’s stable now. We’ll need to keep him under constant observation for at least a week. But if you mean, will he ever be as he was…” The doctor slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry, the damage is just too severe.”
Andrzej’s voice broke as he translated. Mathilde saw pain carve itself into Maria’s face with a knife.
“Is there anything to do?” Andrzej pleaded.
“We’ve done all we can. The brain is resilient and it can fix itself sometimes, but here, I’ll be honest… He’s going to be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. He’ll never do anything on his own ever again.”
The doctor walked out as Andrzej and Szymon’s father hugged Maria, who cried and cried before finally breaking away and rushing to her son’s side. She stroked his face, and whispered soothing words in Polish.
Andrzej walked up next to Mathilde, who was standing silently in the corner. She wiped away the tears from her cheeks.
“You are Szymon’s girlfriend?”
She looked up at him, surprised by the question. “No, I’m… I brought him here. I’m… I’m just his friend.”
“Ah. Thank you.”
They stood in silence, side by side, watching Szymon. He was unrecognizable. His right hand, held close to his face, randomly spasmed and twitched, but every other part of his body was deathly still. The Szymon she knew wasn’t there anymore. His face was a blank and empty slate, his eyes hollow and unseeing. Maria dabbed at the saliva dripping from his lip with a courageous smile.
“We,” said Andrzej hesitantly, “We need time with family. You understand?”
Again, it caught her off guard, and she felt a pang of embarrassment at not seeing it before. Of course they would want to be alone in these terrible times.
“Yeah,” she said, and pointed to his phone, “I’ll give you my number. If there’s anything you need, any help, any problem with French, you call me.”
“Yes, okay,” said Andrzej as he handed it to her.
“If there’s any change, please, please, call me okay?”
“Yes.” He gave her a curt nod, and walked over to put a hand on his mother’s shoulder.
She took slow steps towards the exit, and with a long, last look at Szymon, she shut the door behind her.
Despite how far she was from the apartment, she found herself walking home. Her steps guided her forward robotically, and her eyes seemed unable to see anything but the tiny space in front of her. She couldn’t accept it. How could Szymon be gone?
She just wanted to be back at their kitchen table and see his silly grin plastered on his face. To see him dance with the Lilypop girls, or whoosh around like an idiot in the Mosverse. She felt a sudden pang at the thought of Disneyland Tokyo. She should have enjoyed that moment with him so much more.
She passed a bridge, and then another. She stopped right before the end and looked out over the Seine river. Just below was the long pedestrian stretch on which Szymon had taken her for wine while she pitched him a crazy idea. Tears welled up in her eyes again. How could this happen? How could her Szymon be reduced to a hollow shell of a body?
His eyes still haunted her, soulless and empty. When he had finally opened them, she had snapped her fingers in front of them, trying to get them to focus, to move, to do anything at all. She had begged him to wake up, grasping his sleeve as tightly as she could. He hadn’t seen her. He hadn’t moved.
The whole world was cold. She shivered as she walked, and felt her blood turn to ice in her veins. She climbed the steps to their apartment one at a time, each one heavier and slower than the last. She stopped halfway through, unable to move forward. She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, but finally found the mental strength to begin trudging up again. She turned the knob and pushed the door open, barely registering that she hadn’t even locked it.
The flat was empty. There was no noise, no sense of Szymon’s presence behind the door on her left. She walked to the kitchen and paused in the doorframe.
Her ashtray was on the floor, cigarette butts scattered amidst overturned chairs and a pile of ash. Streaks of dry blood stained the table. A half-gasp, half-sob tore from her throat. She gingerly walked in, bent down and started to gather the ashes with her bare hands.
A loud buzz erupted from the table, startling her. She looked up, and realized it was her phone, exactly where she had dropped it earlier.
She picked it up, and almost dropped it again when she saw the caller. Oliver.
It was him. He was the one who had done this to Szymon.
Curtains of sorrow broke open within her mind, letting loose a crimson nightmare. A flood of memories came back. The phone call she had pushed into the dark confines suddenly stabbed her through the heart, and the echo of Oliver’s voice roared in her ears, calm and cold as ice.
Her hands quivered with rage as she picked up the phone.
“You’re finally home.” Oliver’s voice was blank, emotionless. Hers was not.
“Where are you?”
“I’m right here. I mean, obviously not right here,” he added as she twisted around, “I’m in the Mosverse, in the kitchen. You’re right in front of me. Or I guess it’s New Mathilde I’m seeing, but it’s pretty much the same thing.”
She could barely move. His tone chilled her. It was almost relaxed and casual. She could feel he was forcing it, pushing down the tension, but a fresh flood of rage drowned the thought. Only one word managed to escape her lips.
“Why?” She heard him force a chuckle, “You know why, Mathilde. It was only a question of time. Either I did it or you guys would. We were going to fight for control of the Mosverse eventually. I just acted before you could. A preemptive strike.”
“WHY? WHY SZYMON? Why did you… why did… you could have just deleted the accounts and stopped there…”
“Oh, that. Well, just knowing about the Mosverse is a risk you know? Szymon was a risk. So I took care of him and now he isn’t.”
Mathilde backed up, hit the wall behind her, and slid down until she was sitting on the floor, her knees held tightly to her chest.
“Although technically I guess that’s not true,” he continued, his voice distant, “I just knocked out New Szymon from the dimension below. But since everything’s mirrored, Oliver from the dimension above took care of my Szymon.” He paused. She could almost hear him think. “Interesting. I wonder if it’s a homicide if I just kill someone inside the Mosverse. Because technically I didn’t do anything to Szymon here.” He laughed, a hysterical cackle that stopped abruptly.
“Shut up,” she said softly, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”
“NO!” he yelled, startling her, “YOU SHUT UP. You don’t get to say that to me anymore. You listen to ME now. Unless you want me to go pay Szy a visit and finish the job?”
“No,” she whispered through tears, “No, no.”
He didn’t say anything more, and she sat there, curled up and sobbing.
“Why am I still here?” she finally asked, “Why did you have to take Szy? Why didn’t you take me?”
“You haven’t figured that out yet?” He chuckled again, and each sound tearing a new hole in her heart, “Maybe I should have kept Szymon after all. He would have understood by now.”
The mention of his name brought out another sob.
“It should be obvious. I still need you Mathilde. You’re a better coder than me, and no one knows the Mosverse like you do. I mean, after all, you’re the one who gave me the key to being able to interact with it.”
“Your Google Earth 3D box. Brilliant. For weeks, I’d been looking at how to interact with the Mosverse, and the biggest obstacle was figuring out where stuff was in the code. It was impossible. Everything was distributed and kept moving around. And then suddenly you go and invent a way for the machine to just tell us! Brilliant! But of course, you just used it to get to the Taj Mahal.”
“How did you-”
“How did I create a black hole? Easy. I duplicated your 3D box, and I added in a few things. First, the extra dimension of time, so that time is synched too. That was simple: we know how old the Mosverse is, and we’re stuck on ‘play’.”
“And then,” he continued, “I added the ability to plug in any fundamental particle I wanted. Choose this point, boom, add a quark. And I had all the code for them too, because you did such a good job of creating it. I only modified one thing: the ability to set mass. So instead of plugging in a normal quark, I can put in a quark with the mass of Jupiter. Or the sun. Or infinite mass!”
She frowned. It felt like her brain was rebooting, and her coder mind was taking over. Oliver had created a parallel box to the Mosverse, in which he could throw modified quarks. But that didn’t explain how he had managed to create a black hole. The box shouldn’t have had any more impact on the Mosverse than when they were visiting it. As far as Mark II was concerned, those quarks didn’t exist; they were stuck in a 4D box in Mark III.
“You’re still confused?” he asked at her silence, “It’s easy. I added just one thing to Mark II to make it work.”
He paused for effect.
“Mark II feels the gravity of the box. The quarks I add aren’t in the Mosverse, but all the particles act as if they were.”
She gasped. It was so simple.
“That’s what I did to Szy. I added a quark with a huge mass in the box, right where his brain was. All his neurons felt the gravity, and rushed towards it. I deleted the quark a split-second later, but that was already more than enough.”
“And to think, all thanks to your 3D box idea.”
“SHUT UP!” she yelled, and curled tighter into her ball. She couldn’t take his voice anymore. She didn’t want to listen to him. She wanted to roll up in her bed and have the whole world disappear.
“Stop being a child Mathilde. I know you’re upset, but you need to get over yourself. We have work to do.”
“Never. You’re crazy. You’re not Oliver.”
“Do I have to create a new black hole to teach you a lesson?”
“Do it. Kill me,” she was shocked at how true the words rang. This wasn’t a world she wanted to live in. “I’d rather die than work with you again, asshole! Do it! DO IT!”
“No, no, that would be counterproductive,” he said soothingly, “As I said, I need you. I was thinking of something else. If you refuse to cooperate, I’ll just finish off Szymon. Or your mom. Or your family. Or Charles.”
Her heart skipped a beat, and Szymon’s empty eyes floated in her mind again. She imagined her mom looking at her that way. Never, she swore to herself. Anything but that.
Even if it meant helping Oliver? Another voice spoke up in her head.
No. Not that either. I need to fight him. He had clearly gone completely over the edge.
“Oh, better yet, I’ll kill Charles’ wife and kids, but not him. Would you like that Mathilde? You would finally have him all to yourself.”
I’m stuck, she realized. Oliver held all the cards.
Unless… Her mind raced. This was still Oliver. He might have become psychopathic and angry, but it was still fundamentally Oliver. And the one thing that she had learnt after a year of living with him was that Oliver could be manipulated. She needed to stall for time. She could figure this out.
“What do you want?” she croaked.
“There we go!” he said cheerfully, “I knew you’d finally see reason. First, go into your room.”
She pushed herself up with one hand and walked out of the kitchen. She didn’t need to see him to know he was there, floating behind her.
“Now, take out your VR contacts,” he said, and waited until she did. “Put them on the floor.” She placed them on the wooden floorboards.
“Crush them with your foot.”
“Crush them. Step on them.”
She placed her foot over them, and shifted her weight until she heard them crack. “Really crush them,” he insisted. She twisted her foot a few times and lifted it, looking at the small shards of glass-like material on the floor.
“Now go do the same with Szymon’s,” he said.
She almost dropped to her knees when she opened Szymon’s room. Working past the pang of pain, she opened his desk’s top drawer and removed the contacts. She dropped them on the ground and crushed them as well.
“Good,” he said, “I’ve already deleted both of your Mosverse accounts, but there’s no such thing as being too careful right? Okay, so let’s go over the ground rules.”
He began to list them. How long has he been planning for this? she wondered.
“One. You don’t leave the apartment without me agreeing to it first. I’ll be watching you anyway, but I want total transparency here.”
“Two, you don’t tell anybody about the Mosverse. Pretend everything is as it always was. And three, you don’t try to gain access to any of the Marks, beyond what I provide you with. If I see you try to mess with anything or go against the first three rules, even if it’s just once, Szymon dies. Understood?”
She nodded, aware that he would see her do so.
“Good. I’ve created a read-only account for Mark II and III. You can use that one to go over the code, see what’s happening and figure out how to modify it. Any code you write though, you send to me first so I can check it. No funny business.”
“What code do you want me to write? Stuff to help you take over the world?”
He chuckled again, that awful sound.
“No, I can do that on my own. I don’t even need the box for that.”
“Being Emperor of the world sounds awesome, I agree. But then, I asked myself the same question, the one you taught me: Am I thinking too small?” he paused, “And you know what? I was.”
She heard a smile spread across his lips.
“See, I’ve shown you our world can be manipulated from the Mosverse. But you’re going to work on a different type of interaction. You, Mathilde, are going to make me immortal.”
~ End of Chapter 18 ~
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