Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
Mathilde is locked out. Szymon is brain-dead, destroyed by Oliver’s use of the Mosverse. She is stuck, surveilled, and unable to fight back – except that she’s just realized there’s a backdoor. Floriane.
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Twenty: Backdoor
Mathilde walked down the Parisian street, arms at her sides and fingers catching the telltale summer breeze. Paris had never looked so beautiful. Fluffy white clouds hung low in the clear blue sky, and the leaves in the trees shimmered with each subtle kiss of wind. Even the cobblestones under her feet, knobby and imperfect, felt like a cushioned road of freedom. It felt so good to be outside again.
It had taken a lot of pleading, but she had finally managed to convince Oliver to let her out of the flat. She hadn’t been outside for over a month, and she took a moment to appreciate the warm glow of the sun on her face.
“You’re the one that said ‘when you ask someone a favor, you should go to where they are’,” she had told Oliver.
“Floriane is coming over to you. I don’t want you to leave the flat.”
“Come on Ollie,” she had pleaded, “I’m going crazy locked up in here. I’ll just go to her place, ask a few questions, and head straight home.”
He had hesitated.
“What am I going to do? You know there’s nothing I have access to. Please, just let me get some fresh air.”
He had finally caved, and set up the meeting. She smiled. Everything was going exactly according to plan, with the added benefit of finally being able to walk outside. She was almost able to ignore the insidious knowledge that a Guest was walking just beside her. Although for this, it’s probably Oliver himself who’s doing the watching, she thought.
She found Floriane’s door from memory, and knocked twice. She heard her move about inside, and the door cracked open.
“It’s me,” she said, and Floriane let the door swing open.
The flat looked nothing like it had months ago, for Floriane’s party. The memory of that night flooded her, and she felt a pang of pain as she once again saw Szymon, awkwardly standing in the corner with a glass in hand, looking to her for help. She shook her head and he disappeared.
A table had been moved to the center of the room, and it was littered with stacks of paper, handbags and accessories. Bits of clothing littered every piece of furniture, and Mathilde frayed herself a path through the innumerable pairs of high-heels, open top and open-ended shoes that clogged the entrance.
Floriane, true to form, looked stunning in a short light-blue dress. Her long blonde hair was made up in a simple braid that tossed to and fro as she headed towards the white leather couch in the back of the living room.
“Thanks for having me over,” said Mathilde as she sat down on a small ottoman opposite Floriane.
Floriane shrugged nonchalantly. “Oliver asked me to help.”
“Have you seen him recently?” She instantly regretted the question – it was bound to make him angry.
Floriane raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “He said you’d ask that. I’m not supposed to answer.”
Mathilde shrugged, dismissing it. He’d been careful. Which meant she needed to be as discreet as possible if she wanted to pull this off. Her eyes scanned the room, trying to find where Floriane might have put what she needed.
The windowsills were cluttered with flowers and small potted plants. The small table in front of her held nothing but decorative baubles, from small ceramic horses to a vase filled with multi-colored glass marbles. She noted that Floriane’s tablet was nowhere to be found either.
“So, let’s cut to the chase,” said Floriane, “I have an appointment in two hours, so I’d like to wrap this up as quickly as possible.”
Floriane was being blunt to the point of aggression. Clearly, she wasn’t happy at having her there. I wonder if she’s mad at Oliver or mad at me. Perhaps there’s something to exploit here, thought Mathilde.
“Could I have a glass of water?” she asked innocently, “It’s really hot outside.”
Floriane rolled her eyes visibly and walked to the built-in kitchen in the corner of the living room. As she took out a glass, Mathilde rose and walked over to the cluttered table, trying her best to do so as disinterestedly as she could.
She went over the items one by one, and grimaced. They weren’t there either. Nothing but lipstick, earrings, and hoards of stuff. Floriane probably kept them with her tablet, and if it wasn’t here, then there was only one option.
They were in Floriane’s room. Now she needed to find an excuse to enter it.
She spun around in surprise as Floriane tapped her on the shoulder and handed her the glass of water. She followed her back to the couch.
“So Oliver told me you had biology questions again?”
“Yeah. I’m trying to understand how immortality works.”
“What?” For the first time, the anger on Floriane’s face dispersed, leaving place to surprise.
“Well,” stammered Mathilde. Why was it always so hard to get her point across without revealing anything? “From a biological point of view, why do humans die?”
Floriane’s eyebrows rose in a small shrug. “Lots of reasons. Cancer, degenerative diseases, muscle failure… you name it, we have it. People grow old and their bodies start to let go.”
Mathilde tapped her fingers on the table distractedly. As usual, she had to dance around the forbidden topic of the Mosverse, which meant that it was going to be hard to get past the generalities and straight to the parts that could actually be useful. She suddenly felt a strong rush of longing. Szymon. He had known how to talk to her, how to explain physics in a way that was practical. Here, Floriane was doing nothing that could be acted upon.
“Are all those linked with age? With growing old?”
“Kind of,” said Floriane, to Mathilde’s growing annoyance.
“Yes, in a way, they’re all a part of something we call senescence,” said Floriane, “Biological ageing. Our cells age along with us, and they become less and less effective. Sometimes, they go haywire and start to reproduce crazily – that’s cancer. In other cases, they stop reproducing altogether and just stop working correctly from exhaustion.”
“So what causes that?”
“We don’t know.” This time, Mathilde sipped from her glass and patiently waited for her to go on. Eventually, she did.
“There are lots of theories. One of them is that the sun is slowly cooking us with radiation, and after a while we just end up dying from it. Another states that we just accumulated genes that are harmful later in life, but that used to never activate because people would die before that anyway.”
“What?” asked Mathilde, “How does that work?”
“Well, imagine you have a gene that makes it highly likely that you’ll develop some type of cancer. Technically, that gene should get wiped out pretty fast right? People die early, so they have less kids as a result, and the gene isn’t carried by as many people, and slowly disappears from the general population.”
“Now imagine you have the same gene, but it only becomes active at the age of 45. Early humans rarely lived past 45 anyway, so this gene wouldn’t really be a problem for them. And by the time the gene showed up, they would already have had ample time to make lots of children. So what happens is: the gene ends up being carried by a huge portion of the population.”
“OK, so basically we’re just carrying a ton of genes that are mortal, but activate late?”
“That’s one theory,” said Floriane, “They call it the selection shadow.”
“Which theory do you think is right? This one?”
“Me?” she looked up in surprise, her mouth a perfect ‘o’.
“Well, you’re the expert. What’s your expert opinion? I’m coming here as a novice asking for your help.” Mathilde opened her palms in a peace offering.
Something fluttered across Floriane’s face. Mathilde wasn’t sure what it was, but suddenly her features seemed a little less stern. Gone was the harsh facade, and in its stead appeared a hint of a gentle but proud smile.
“Honestly, I think it’s mostly due to DNA damage.” Faced with Mathilde’s questioning look, she explained further, “Our DNA takes damage all the time. It can be due to anything: radiation from the sun that causes mutations, errors during cell reproduction, reacting to oxygen… If it’s just in a few cells, they get identified and wiped out by our immune system. But if it starts changing too much, we enter a point of no-return where the whole system just collapses.”
“So would it be possible to keep it from changing?” However much she despised the reasons for which she was here, learning something new always drew her in.
“Ever heard of Henrietta Lacks?” asked Floriane. Mathilde shook her head. “She was a woman who died of cervical cancer a long time ago. Some of her cancer cells were collected by a researcher, and he discovered that they were almost immortal. They kept reproducing, non-stop, with no damage whatsoever. He spun them off into a line of human cells for research which he name HeLa, after the patient.”
Floriane looked about the couch, as if trying to find something, then gave up and went on.
“Since then, it’s basically become one of the world’s most important research tools. Over 25 tons of her cells have been grown for testing, and they’re still being used today.”
“So wait, the woman is dead but people are still using her cells? That’s creepy.”
“Yeah. Her cells are immortal.”
“Can all cells be made immortal?”
“In theory, yes. There are already lots of these immortal cell lines,” Floriane answered, missing the real question, “There’s one from a rat, called 3T3, and another one from a monkey called…” She looked around her again. “My tablet’s not here. Wait, I’ll go get it.”
She rose from the couch and daintily made her way towards her room in short dancing steps. Mathilde immediately followed her, and stopped in the doorway.
If she had thought the apartment was messy before, Floriane’s room made it look spotless. It was chaos incarnate. Clothes, books, papers and magazines were piled up so high on the bed that Mathilde couldn’t even make out the bed sheets below them. Pillows lay strewn haphazardly on the floor, half-eaten bags of chips covered part of her desk, and the closet was wide open, with just as many dresses in a heap on the floor as there were draped on the hangers. It was at complete odds with Floriane’s perfectly controlled appearance – and that irony wasn’t lost on Mathilde.
Floriane dug around her desk. She picked up a bright red scarf, two white tops, threw a packet of promotional leaflets to the floor, and turned over a book before her tablet finally emerged from the mess.
Mathilde’s breath caught in her throat. They were right there, beside the tablet, in the black box shaped like two partly-merged circles. She barely remembered to tear her eyes away lest Oliver notice something was amiss.
Floriane unlocked her tablet and began to recite a long list of immortalized cell lines, but Mathilde could barely pay attention. Mathilde sat down on the bed, forcefully looking at her feet as Floriane continued talking.
How am I going to get them without Oliver noticing? she wondered. She hadn’t thought this through. She had been so focused on finding them, she had given no real consideration to how she might be able to pluck them away safely.
Stall for time, the voice in her head murmured, You’ll find a way.
“What I meant was, if you could make every single cell in someone’s body immortal, would that person be immortal?” she asked Floriane.
Floriane moved three slender fingers to her cheek in thought. “I suppose,” she said, “But then I have no idea how you’d do that. It’s hard enough to make even one type of cell immortal.”
“How do they currently do it?”
“The most common method is finding cancer or tumor cells that are already immortal. Sometimes scientists will use viral genes, that act like viruses, to deregulate parts of the cell. Or they’ll add in artificial proteins that prevent degradation of the chromosome ends, and preserve the DNA strands.”
“So if the DNA strands are kept intact, the cells become immortal?”
“Yeah, I guess that would work,” Floriane shrugged, “Not that it’s really possible large-scale or anything.”
Mathilde’s brain roared away on its own path. If what Floriane had said was true, then she didn’t need to worry about what was and what wasn’t part of the human body. All she needed to do was identify which cells carried Oliver’s DNA, and make sure that those DNA strands remained unaffected.
Not that that was necessarily easy to do. If the cell copied imperfect DNA, how was she to find it with trackers that only looked for perfectly identical DNA? She needed to fix mistakes, but she would only be able to find the DNA strands that didn’t need fixing.
With a flash, four possible solutions popped up in her mind and she picked what appeared to be the best one. If she was looking for imperfect DNA, she could always look for parts of a DNA chain, and then compare the whole chain to what it should be. That would be easy enough: set up 5 trackers, each with a small portion of a person’s DNA chain. That way, even if a change happened on one of the parts, four of the other trackers would pick it up, and mark it as a strand that needed fixing.
But what if the trackers picked up a similar part that didn’t belong to Oliver? Maybe someone living in China would have, by utter coincidence, an identical part.
Her mind flashed again with an answer. It was a simple one, and made her previous work useful. All she would need to do was to confine the trackers to the space she had mapped out within a person’s body. That way the trackers wouldn’t be wasting resources on looking at other people, or pieces of shed skin.
But then once she identified the broken chain, how could she fix it using the Mosverse?
She shook her head, stopping the roaring train in her mind. I’m not trying to solve this. My mission is to get that black box. A quick sideways glance confirmed that it was still there. It was within reach of her hand. She fought the urge to just grab it; Oliver would notice that, and her entire plan would collapse.
Maybe I can pretend to fall, and grab them on the way? But that was so cliché, and it was bound to raise his suspicion. He’d be all over her for weeks, and she’d lose her golden opportunity. Think, she urged herself, What can I do to make sure that Oliver is distracted while I act?
“Mathilde?” Floriane looked at her worriedly. Mathilde realized that she had been silent for far too long.
“Sorry, I, just,” she stuttered, “This is great, I don’t know how to thank you.”
Floriane leaned back against the desk, and blushed softly at the compliment.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said softly.
“I’m serious,” said Mathilde, “This is the second time you’ve helped me out, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. You’re incredibly smart.”
Floriane’s blush intensified, her perfect porcelain skin turning a beautiful shade of pink. “You’re really smart too. I’ve always admired that,” she almost whispered, turning her face away and fiddling with a pen on her desk. She’s so beautiful, thought Mathilde, surprised to find admiration but not the least trace of envy, No wonder Ollie fell for her.
She rose from the bed and slowly walked over to Floriane. She waited until Floriane’s ocean blue eyes rose to meet hers, and held the gaze. Then, gently, she leaned in and pressed her lips to hers. A small shiver ran up her spine, and she felt it mirrored through Floriane’s body. Floriane’s lips parted for a fraction of a second under the kiss, but then she turned her head and pushed Mathilde away.
“I need to get ready,” she said without meeting Mathilde’s eyes, “Do you need anything else?”
“No,” Mathilde paused, “That’s it.”
“Great. You know the way out.”
Mathilde bit her lip hesitantly, unsure, and walked to the door. She stopped in the doorway, and looked at Floriane, who was intently staring at the floor to avoid her gaze. “Thanks,” she whispered, and closed it behind her.
She had barely made it onto the street when her phone rang. She picked it up without even looking at the caller. Moment of truth, she thought, Did he catch it?
“What was that?” asked Oliver.
“What was what?” she asked innocently.
“Why did you- How- What was that kiss?”
“I don’t know, I just felt like it.” Relief flooded her. He had missed it. “Are you jealous Ollie?” she teased, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Are you still seeing her?”
“Did you learn what you needed to?” he ignored her.
She briefly explained what she planned to do, agreed to talk more that night, and hung up. Her fingers quivered, and she suppressed the urge to plunge them into her pocket to feel if the black box was still there. She could feel it dig gently into her thigh as she walked, and that would have to be enough.
She almost smiled then. At the end of the day, Oliver still had the same weakness. He had been so surprised – if not intrigued and angry – by the kiss between two girls he liked that he hadn’t even noticed her hand swiping in behind Floriane to grab the black box and quickly slipping it into her jeans.
It was the second time Floriane would be his downfall. It had taken her so long to remember that, at Oliver’s prodding, she had built a Guest account for Floriane to visit the Decapi world. A Guest account that she had hid from his profile, back when she had full control of the Mosverse, so that she could surprise him with it. And then the Darkpi had showed up, and she had forgotten all about it.
But she had never told him, or made the account public. Oliver might think he had deleted all accounts save his own, but she trusted her coding skills on this one. Floriane’s was still open, accessible from Floriane’s VR contacts only.
Those exact VR contacts now rested gently in the black box in her pocket. It wasn’t much, but Mathilde finally had something to look forward to. She had a way back into the Mosverse.
~ End of Chapter 20 ~
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