Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
When Mathilde discovers that her world and everything she has ever known is just one layer in an infinity of simulations, shock overtakes her. Only Szymon is able to see the silver lining to their discovery – and drag her along with him.
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Sixteen: Gdansk
Mathilde lazily kicked her legs as the Earth zoomed past below her.
“I didn’t think it was moving this fast,” she said.
“7.66 kilometers per second,” said Szymon. “They get to see a sunrise every hour and a half.”
“Cool.” She tried to make out countries and cities through the cloud cover, but quickly gave up.
“Szymon?” She asked after a long pause. He looked up. “Thank you for bringing me here,” she said softly. He gave her a small nod.
She turned her head, and looked back at the International Space Station behind them. Szymon had brought her to the top of one of its eight dual solar panels, and they had stopped there to admire the Earth.
It had been only two days since the discovery – the mind-blowing realization that their entire reality was nothing but a simulation, and it had sent all three of them into various stages of shock and trauma.
Oliver had gone into complete denial. Pretexting the need to focus on their upcoming exams, he hadn’t re-entered the Mosverse once. It was easy enough to understand: realizing one was nothing but code was something anyone would have a hard time accepting. She certainly hadn’t. It was a slippery path that led to questioning the very meaning of existence – if any.
She herself had only gone in a few times, hesitant explorations that never left the confines of their apartment. Each visit had devolved into an uncomfortable introspection, where she spent hours staring at New Mathilde, trying to bring clarity to the maelstrom of thoughts that blew inside her head.
As for Szymon, well… Szymon was Szymon. He tore off into scientific exploration and lost himself in a race forward. From what she had pieced together, he had already been to every corner of the Solar System and a dozen places on Earth. Once again, he was spending every waking minute in the Mosverse.
He had found her a few hours before, still stuck in the apartment, and convinced her to follow him up to the ISS.
She had been hesitant, but he turned out to be the perfect guide: calm, graceful, and adept at keeping her busily distracted. Before she knew it, she had been asking him the purpose of each module, and listening intently as he dove into a passionate explanation of how the radiators prevented the ISS from becoming a gigantic oven. He had shown her his favorite astronaut, Louise de Pégomas, the French biochemist, who had been happily snoring away in a sleeping bag tied to the wall.
When he had finally felt her warming up to the Mosverse, he had brought her outside to admire the Earth. She hadn’t wanted to at first, but the moment they settled down she found it oddly soothing. Time disappeared as she watched the planet circle past beneath them. It reminded her of the endless idle screensavers on the old computers of her high school.
“How come you’re so calm?” she finally asked him.
“I know, right?” he grinned, “I’m the second Polish citizen to ever reach space, and unlike Hermaszewski, I get to go to the ISS. We should be celebrating. ”
She smiled. “I’m serious though. It doesn’t freak you out?”
“Why would it freak me out?”
She looked down to her hands. “I keep thinking about what Oliver said about the Decapi. ‘They’re just code’. The words haunt me Szy. They were just code. But then, that means… that so are we.”
“You and me,” she continued, pain carved into her face, “We’re just a string of qubits coded by Mathilde and Szymon from one world up. We’re just code.”
Szymon remained silent for a long moment then, and she once again lost herself in the spinning globe beneath her.
“Honestly, I find it reassuring,” he finally said.
“What?” she toppled off her seat.
“Careful,” he waited until she settled back in place and continued, “Look, at least it makes sense now. We know. There’s no need for discussion about religion or the afterlife. We figured it out,” he looked up towards the stars, then back to Mathilde, “This is it. This is how the world started. Thanks to us.”
Jumping off the station, he floated in a slow arc until he was facing her.
“And to be fair, it means something even cooler,” he grinned.
“Mathilde. Do you know how many Physics theories I’ve been able to prove and disprove in the Mosverse? Before, I just thought it was cool that our model would create that, but I knew it didn’t mean it was true in our world. It was logical that we would find a white hole because we had coded in the parameters which would lead it to appear. But if the Mosverse is identical to our reality… then everything we saw exists. In real life. I could win the Nobel Prize in Physics every year for the next decade. Easily.”
“If they believed you, and if you weren’t lynched first.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on Szy, it might be reassuring to you, but how do you think 3 billion Christians and 2 billion Muslims are going to react when you tell them their entire religion is a lie?”
He thought about it. “Ah.”
“Yeah. When we go public with this, we need to do it carefully. I haven’t even begun to wrap my head around it. I’m all over the place.”
Szymon began to chuckle. “Just imagine,” he said, “Hi, I’m Szymon, and I created your world.” He smiled and shook his head. “My poor Catholic mother would have a heart attack if I told her the God she prays to every Sunday is actually me.”
“Dude,” said Mathilde, “It’s the Trinity! Mathilde, Oliver, and the Holy Szymon!”
“In the Beginning,” said Szymon, catching on and mimicking a preacher, “They created the frameworks and the 22 dimensions… and it was good.”
She began to laugh, a refreshing sound that made the little ball of tension in her gut grow looser.
“Mathilde,” Szymon continued, “My mom is called Maria! Mary!”
“So you’re actually Jesus Szymon?” She began to laugh harder, her abs aching and tears forming at the corner of her eyes. It wasn’t even funny, and yet she couldn’t stop. It wasn’t joy and it wasn’t sadness that made her laugh, but not knowing somehow made it that much funnier.
“Oh God,” she said, wiping the tears from her face, “Just don’t get yourself crucified, okay Jesus Szymon?”
He smiled at her, and suddenly his eyes lit up. “Oh! That gives me an idea! Follow me.” She saw his fingers scrabble at invisible controls, and he suddenly plummeted straight down to Earth. Mathilde slipped off and shot down behind him, her heart lighter and a grin plastered on her face.
“Hi Mom!” he yelled, waving his hand in front of his mom’s face while she stared blankly ahead. He turned to Mathilde with a silly smile. “She can’t hear me at all.”
Szymon had brought her to the outskirts of Gdansk, to a large compound filled with row after row of identical 8-story buildings, and into a cramped apartment stocked high with books and magazines. “I figured since you brought us to your home, it was my turn to return the favor,” he said, “And since it’s Saturday evening, chances are everybody will be home for dinner.”
They entered right as his family was settling down at a large rectangular table. At the head was a bulky man with a heavy gut and balding white hair. “Dad,” said Szymon, pointing to him “Doesn’t say much, ever. Used to be a manager at the docks. Got fired. Retired-ish now.”
He proceeded to dance around his mom as she brought food onto the table, and yelled out the name of each dish, pointing excitedly to Mathilde.
“I wish we could taste these,” he repeated for the tenth time, “I miss the food. I can almost smell it.”
When not a single additional dish could fit on the table, the whole family tore into the food, talking in rapid-fire Polish that Mathilde couldn’t understand. Szymon moved around the table behind the tallest of his siblings, and began the introductions.
“This is Andrzej, he’s a pharmacist. He’s the oldest, so we’re not too close,” he moved around the table, “That’s Hanna, my sister, and her husband. I don’t know where my nephew is… and these two are my twin brothers, Gabryjel and Jakub.” He grimaced, “I hate them.”
They all looked incredibly similar to Szymon, with straight black hair and green grey eyes, but every single one was bulkier and tougher, complete with wide shoulder spans and darker eyes. Even his sister somehow looked more masculine, and his two twin brothers were a team of brawny rugby men.
“And this is my mom!” he exclaimed, trying to put his hands on her shoulders as she pointed her fork, enraptured in conversation. She wore her dark hair short, but the round curves of her body spoke of maternal softness. I’m willing to bet anything he’s her little favorite, she thought with a smile.
When the novelty of the family dinner wore off, Szymon guided her down the hall to his room. Like the rest of the apartment, it was small and cramped with a bunk bed, a smaller bed and a wide desk with two chairs. “I used to share it with Gabry and Jakub,” he said, “But they always gave me the bottom bunk. Dicks.” She looked around at the overflowing bookcases, an old poster of the Lilypop Girls on the wall of the lower bunk, and stacks of weights and workout mattresses.
“You were three to a room?” she asked.
“Well, yeah, but now there’s no one here,” he ran a hand through his hair self-consciously, “Gabry and Jakub both moved out. Not that they spent a lot of time in this room anyway. They were outside more often than not.”
“What do they do now?”
“Construction I think. My dad’s biggest disappointment,” he grinned, clearly enjoying how fate had worked out, “I’m still surprised he’s forgiven them for dropping out of high school.”
“What does your sister do?”
“She’s a nurse, married a doctor, the usual thing,” he waved his hand distractedly as he scrunched up his eyes to examine the bookcase. “There it is!” he exclaimed.
“My first tablet!” Mathilde walked over and looked at the fat device wedged between two books, “An Acer. It was soooo slow. But it was awesome. I worked all summer on the street cleaning crews to be able to afford it.”
She smiled. She knew the feeling. Many a summer had been spent doing side jobs for the tech she wanted. Her full haptics suit had taken three whole months of non-stop work.
“Man,” he exclaimed again, “I’m so happy I’m able to show you all this! Come on, let me bring you to where I used to hang out!”
“Gdansk?” she asked.
“Better. The docks.”
He brought her to a giant sculpture of three towering iron crosses, with sharp steel anchors hung in the place of Jesuses.
“This is where I really grew up,” he said, “Every afternoon after school I’d come here to see my dad and explore the docks.”
They toured the riverside, threading their way between empty rusted containers and ageing steel cranes.
“Why is it so empty?” she asked him.
“The economy went to shit. Every year there were more people yelling, and less people working. Russian trade froze up, German ports took over, nobody invested in rejuvenating the equipment. My dad was part of the last round of layoffs.”
He shrugged. “But you have to imagine it fifteen years ago. There were containers stacked everywhere, of every color. Dozens of languages written on them. I used to climb up and jump from one to another, and spend the afternoon reading in the sun. Everybody here knew me. It was fantastic.”
She smiled at that, and let him have a moment. They floated around the docks until the night fell and the streetlights turned on, and he finally offered to log back out.
Rising from her bedroom chair, she discovered a spring in her step that hadn’t been there before. She went to the kitchen, cracked the window open, and lit a cigarette.
Her mind was still a mess, but her thoughts now came tinged with a smudge of pink. The shock of being just another layer in an infinity of Mosverses had retreated somehow. Sure, it was impossible to accept that their life was nothing but a line of code, and that nothing mattered, and everything was just a simple simulation that could disappear in a flash. But it was also easier to ignore that, and focus on how beautiful the Earth looked from the ISS.
After all, wasn’t that what life was anyway? Carpe Diem. A gigantic species-wide denial to avoid confronting their own mortality. Drinking, working, living – all of it but a gigantic distraction from the unfathomable. The Mosverse simply confirmed what she already known. Nothing mattered, and everybody dies eventually.
But it also offered an incredible silver lining. The Mosverse was the ultimate exploration tool. This was miles ahead of the Decapi. Szymon had seen it right away, she realized, and today had been an effort to show her that too. How to appreciate it, rather than to fear it.
She stood up, walked into the hall and knocked on Oliver’s door. It was time to return the favor.
“Yeah?” he asked as she opened it.
“Hey,” she leaned against the doorframe, “I know you’re kind of freaked out right now -”
“I’m not freaked out,” he said defensively.
“Right,” she shrugged, “Look, tomorrow morning, do you want to come into the Mosverse with me and Szy? We did it today and it was super fun.”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Really?”
“Yeah, you’ll see. Join us.”
“Okay. Maybe I will.”
She turned, and paused halfway.
“Oh, and before that, do you want to help me out with something? I’m going to try and code in a fun feature for tomorrow.”
“What is it?”
“I want to try to improve navigation. Maybe we can link the Mosverse to Google Earth. That way, all we’ll have to do is type in an address and it’ll jump us there directly.”
“Is that even possible? You can’t find a point in the Mosverse. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“You’re right – technically you can’t. But I have an idea. I’m going to set up a parallel 3D box in Mark III, in which I’ll put Google Earth. Then I’m going to put a few pins in the Mosverse on key places like our apartment, the White House, whatever, and put the exact same pins on Google Earth.”
“Okay,” he said hesitantly.
“Then we send an address to the Google Earth box. It figures out where it is, relative to the pins, and passes that information on to Mark III. Since Mark III has all the same pins, it’ll know where to take us, even though it can’t identify where in the code that place is.”
“Huh,” he said, “Smart.”
“Well, as long as it doesn’t touch Mark II it’s doable. I’m going to try at least. Want to join?”
“Sure,” he said. He slowly rose from his bed and followed her into the kitchen. She smiled. Work was the ultimate distraction. A mad race forward indeed.
It worked. When they logged in the next morning, the address bar function was fully operational. It had taken a little bit of fumbling around, as Google Earth didn’t fully reflect the earth’s real curvature, but with Oliver’s help she had figured out a workaround.
“Alright, how are we doing this?” asked Szymon.
“I think we each say a destination in turn, and spend thirty minutes max in each. Seems fair?”
They all nodded. Oliver still looked slightly uncomfortable, shifting his weight from side to side, but Mathilde was certain he would loosen up quickly enough.
“Szy, you start.”
“Hadron Collider. Go.”
Mathilde typed in the address, and all three of them popped up right in the middle of the facility. Clear sky-blue walls surrounded them while scientists in white coats moved around busily.
Szymon tore off down a corridor whooping with joy. She exchanged a look with Oliver, and they dashed off in pursuit.
A routine soon emerged. Szymon, true to form, focused on normally inaccessible scientific areas. They explored the ITER nuclear fusion reactor in the South of France, near a town named Cadarache, followed by the Boston Dynamics R&D center, where Szymon geeked out over unreleased prototypes of robots.
Mathilde went for famous landmarks she had always wanted to visit. They floated over the Taj Mahal, toured Easter Island and its giant stone heads, and roamed through the Australian Outback looking for kangaroos.
Oliver was hesitant at first, but something clicked after the visit to the robotics R&D facility. Mathilde winked at Szymon when Oliver finally began suggesting destinations. They followed him to his first choice, Buckingham Palace, straight into the residential quarters that were usually closed off to the public.
“Guys!” he yelled out excitedly, “Come check this out!”
She walked through a tall door, and immediately groaned in disgust at the sight of a white-haired man sitting on a toilet and defecating loudly while scrolling through the news on his tablet.
“Ollie, why would you call me over here?” she yelled.
“It’s King Charles!” he said with a stupid grin plastered on his face, “He’s pooping!”
“You’re an idiot.”
At his request, they tried to get to Area 51, but the Google Maps function landed them on an empty strip of road with a giant sign that read Area 51, Viewer’s Guide and nothing else. Giving up, they followed him to London’s financial district, where he began to float up through the different skyscrapers, marveling at the opulence of the boardrooms.
“Oh, can we go check out celebrities?” he said, “Maybe we’ll manage to catch one in the shower!”
“Oliver!” she protested.
“No, that’s a great idea!” said Szymon. Mathilde gave him a half-surprised, half-angry glare. “Not the shower. Let’s go see a concert!”
A quick search revealed that Szymon’s favorite band, the Lilypop Girls, were due to play in Seoul half an hour later. Szymon squealed excitedly as they floated into the arena, and stopped at the fenced-off security area between the stage and the crowd.
The whole arena lit up as the girls came on stage. The audience went berserk amidst a pyrotechnical display of pink unicorn fireworks. They danced and jumped along as the band rolled into their first choreography, and Mathilde shook her head. They were all sixteen-year old girls, screaming their lungs out and wiping tears from their faces.
“Szy,” suggested Ollie, “What are you doing down here? Get up on the stage!”
She glared at him, but then saw that Szymon had followed Ollie’s suggestion and was halfway towards the dancers already. To Mathilde’s complete amazement, he began to follow the Lilypop Girls’ choreography, singing along with his eyes closed. The sight of Szymon, in the middle of a group of 8 Asian girls dressed in scanty pink bikinis with fox tails poking out the back was more than she could handle. She burst out laughing and began to whoop and cheer him along.
Making it even funnier was the fact that Szymon was terrible at it. He didn’t know the words and he kept messing up the choreography, but he threw himself into it with a laudable passion. He was having the time of his life, and they had to drag him away when the third song ended.
“Come on man,” said Oliver once they logged out, “You’ll be able to see them again whenever you want.”
“I guess,” said Szymon sheepishly.
Much to Mathilde’s delight, the plan had gone exactly as she had hoped. Oliver was in a great mood.
“So,” she said, “Not bad huh?”
“Right? There are so many possibilities.”
“There really are,” he said with a glint in his eye, “There really, really are.”
Two days later, on the eve of their Databases exam, Oliver came up with a possibility she hadn’t considered. He strode into the kitchen, and proudly dropped a sheet of paper in front of her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“The first half of the Databases exam.”
“I followed Kogej home through the Mosverse, and found the exam out in the open on his desk. I memorized it and copied it down when I logged out.”
Incredulously, she scanned the sheet, trying to decipher his scrawled handwriting. Her eyebrows cocked up. The questions were what she had more or less expected. This was the real deal.
“I could only see the first page though,” continued Oliver, “The second one was covered, and when I tried zooming in between them I was too close and it was too dark, even with the luminosity jacked up to the max and-”
“Ollie,” she said, handing him back the sheet and rolling her eyes, “Really?”
“What?” He crossed his arms defensively, “You’re going to go all moral high ground now? I shouldn’t cheat, it’s bad, blah blah blah?”
She turned back to her tablet and began typing away. “I couldn’t care less. But look, we managed to replicate our universe to perfection, and you’re using it to cheat on…” she pointed towards the paper, “A Databases exam?”
For a second, her brain caught up to her. It had taken them so long to patch things up, and here she was towering over him condescendingly. She grimaced and looked up, about to apologize, but instead found Oliver smiling gently.
“You’re right,” he said softly. He pointed to the paper. “You want it?”
“No, I’m good,” she said cautiously.
“Great, I’ll see you later then,” he said, and walked off to his room.
Mathilde rolled up a cigarette distractedly. That was weird, she thought. Condescending remarks usually brought out Oliver’s vindictive side, not his kind one. I’m overthinking it, she thought, He probably didn’t even realize I was being mean.
She lit her cigarette. The problem was that it was so out of character for him to admit that anyone was right, especially her. He had looked so proud of his discovery, but then suddenly dropped it. Her eyes strayed across the table, and snagged on a sheet of paper. Oliver had left behind the answers.
That made it even weirder. It was handwritten, which meant it was obviously his only copy. Had he forgotten it?
She frowned. Something didn’t add up, but she couldn’t tell what. Or maybe she was simply building mountains out of molehills. She crushed out her cigarette and turned back to Mark III and the task at hand.
But try as she might, she couldn’t find her flow. A nagging pulled at her from the back of her mind, calling for her attention, and whenever she tried to focus on it she found herself grasping at mist. She didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t identify what was wrong.
Frustrated, she slammed her tablet on the table, got up and went to her room. The itch was still there as she stripped down to her underwear and pulled on a big t-shirt. It followed her into bed as she began to toss and turn, looking for sleep. She still couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but one thing was finally coming into focus.
Somehow, somewhere, she had missed something important. She just didn’t know what.
~ End of Chapter 16 ~
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