Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
The way back in was so obvious – Floriane’s VR contacts – and Mathilde now has a key to the Mosverse. Unfortunately, it’s a key with limited access, she’s still under constant surveillance, and she can’t find Oliver anywhere.
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Twenty-One: The Scientific Method
Just to be safe, she waited two days before using Floriane’s VR contacts. Oliver hadn’t noticed her stealing them, she was sure, but there was no sense in taking useless risks. Most likely, he had upped surveillance after her trip to Floriane’s, and two days of business as usual would likely reassure him.
So instead, she worked on the DNA tracker. It took her quite some time to fully explain it to Oliver, and she still wasn’t sure if she could use the Mosverse to ‘fix’ broken DNA, but it kept her looking busy, distracted and loyally working away.
He agreed to her approach, but flatly refused to give her his DNA mapping. That was smart. If she could build trackers for his DNA, finding him in the Mosverse would take milliseconds. And if she could also figure out how to modify DNA directly, well, she could plug in DNA that stopped his heart, or swap it all out for the DNA of a worm. Obviously, given his refusal, he had thought it over as well.
He was proving incredibly diligent. He forced her to build a container instead, into which he could plug any DNA he wanted. He also reminded her he would be conducting all tests on her mother first. It was unnecessary, but if it gave him the illusion of control, Mathilde could take it. Because he doesn’t know about the VR contacts. She smiled ferociously at the thought.
On the third day, at 2 a.m., she finally decided to use them. She walked to her room, stripped to her underwear, made sure the blinds were closed as tight as could be, and got into bed. She turned off the lights with a press of her phone, and laid back in bed, eyes wide open.
Good, she thought after a full five minutes. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but her room remained pitch black. No light made it through the blinds – which meant that no matter how high the Guests jacked up the luminosity, they wouldn’t be able to see anything. She rolled onto her belly and pushed her face into the pillow.
And now to break out the waterworks. She pretended to cry, with small muffled hiccups. They were just loud enough for the Guest to hear. She had cried at night before, truly cried, and hoped this performance would further lower their guard.
Slowly, she snaked a hand under her pillow, popped open the black box, and pulled out both contacts. In an awkward movement that she hoped the darkness concealed, she slid her hands between the pillow and her face, and managed to put in first one contact, and then the second.
Face still pressed tightly against the pillow, she opened her eyes.
God it felt good. Like an old friend welcoming her with open arms, the screen loaded. Before her floated multiple windows with Floriane’s favorite apps and destinations. Half of them were shopping and fashion, three were for messaging, and one for porn. She smiled, duly ignored them, and focused her eyes on the navigator icon at the bottom right of the screen.
This would be so much easier with gloves. She hadn’t yet managed to find a way of sneaking them under her pillow without the Guests noticing, and until she was sure the contacts worked, hadn’t really bothered. For tonight, she would have to make do with awkward eye-commands, mostly involving long three-second stares and blinking. Now that she knew it worked, she would find a way to smuggle them into bed tomorrow.
She was halfway through typing in the address to the Mosverse portal when a realization struck her. Floriane’s VR contacts weren’t just giving her unrestricted access to the Mosverse – they were a window to the internet as a whole.
All things considered, that was probably the easiest way to find Oliver.
She loaded Google and typed in ‘Oliver Reynolds’. The results popped up, and she suppressed a groan. There were hundreds of Oliver Reynolds on the planet. Even refining it to Paris resulted in over a dozen hits. She paused, reloaded the search engine, and types in ‘MOS Corp’ instead.
He’s bound to have an office or something, she thought.
The only address she found was the one registered in the Virgin Islands, a virtual office building designed to dodge tax. MOS Corp wasn’t mentioned anywhere else, which meant that either Oliver was playing it safe and staying under the radar as much as possible, or he wasn’t using the company he had set up.
She also found over fifty pages of legal documents relating to the incorporation of MOS Corp, and scanned them all for a secondary address. Although she didn’t find one, the last document caught her attention.
‘MOS CORP Short Position Disclaimer – EURONEXT PARIS‘, it read. It was a document from the Paris Stock Exchange. Quick research revealed it was part of a legacy law aimed at curbing the power of legendary short traders like Soros and Melikian, forcing them to disclose short-selling positions that exceeded 10 million euros.
Her eyebrows jumped in surprise. MOS Corp had shorted over 35 million euros worth of Orange Telecom’s stock a week and a half ago. Barely two days later, a gigantic, European-wide corruption investigation was launched against all of its upper management, and Orange’s stock had plummeted. She ran the numbers in her head. Oliver had made over 12 million euros in three days.
Clearly, he had been spying on the European anti-corruption agency.
He’s been keeping busy, she thought wryly.
When the MOS Corp search reached a dead-end, she returned to looking for Oliver himself. She pulled three photos of him from various social networks and fed them to a tin-eye bot. The bot pieced together a 3D rendering, and ran a search for matching pictures and videos.
It took ten minutes for the results to appear, and again, Mathilde held back a sigh of disappointment. The only results were Oliver’s threadbare social media accounts, and his student profile page on l’ENS’ website. She clicked through, expecting very little, and suppressed a fresh surge of anger as Oliver’s smiling face popped up. Slimy weasel.
L’ENS had very little valuable information on him. It listed his student ID, his birthday, his major, and his address in Paris, which, much to Mathilde’s dismay, was their the flat she was in.
But right at the bottom of the page, she found another address. A London one.
Is that where you’ve been hiding?
Finally. A lead. She loaded the Mosverse portal, typed in Floriane’s account details, and held her breath. The screen went black, paused, and then flashed white. Text scrawled across her eyes, asking her where she wanted to enter.
She was in.
She selected default, and was about to confirm when danger signals blew up in her mind. Default was the stupid choice. If she popped up in their flat, the Guest would immediately see her, logged into the Mosverse, her profile conveniently outlined in red.
You have to be more careful, she chastised herself. She typed in the London address instead, and waited. A whole new world opened up, and she felt a surge of adrenaline rush through her veins. She was back in the Mosverse.
In front of her rose a white building, three stories tall, its windows framed by ornate carvings. Right and left, going the whole length of the street, were similarly shaped houses, forming a wall of elegant architecture, dimly lit by streetlights. She turned around, and was surprised to find there were no houses on the other side. From behind a tall iron fence lay a massive park, with giant trees growing out of bushy shadows.
Facing the park, she thought, A posh area indeed.
She walked up the three stone steps that led to the heavy oaken door with a hand-shaped brass doorknocker, and floated through it. It was dark inside, but the windows were uncovered, letting streetlight seep in. A carpeted corridor spread out ahead of her, with beautifully carved wooden tables, glass figurines and oil paintings on either side. At the other end was a wide staircase leading to the second floor.
She toured the ground floor first, going through a gigantic marbled kitchen, a cozy dining room lined with row after row of shelves, each holding hundreds of leather-bound volumes, and a small office with plush leather armchairs and a cigar collection.
It was only when she looked at the pictures running through the digital photo frames scattered around the house that she understood where she was. Oliver was in most of them, but it wasn’t the Oliver she knew. He was younger, sometimes much more so. She saw him as a toddler, sporting a proud grin as he sat on a pony; as a teen, dressed smartly in a black blazer decorated with a school crest, and as a young adult, caught smirking between an elderly couple.
This was his family home.
She had known his family was well-off, but she hadn’t expected this level of luxury. Every room unlocked a new level of opulence. There were four bathrooms in all, each decked in marble with taps and faucets gleaming silver and gold. The house held six bedrooms, two studies, and an incredible sunroom on the third floor with a giant bay window overlooking the entire park. Poking out through the trees, she recognized the telltale shape of Buckingham Palace. Damn.
She knew Oliver’s room as soon as she entered it. A row of trophies decorated a wall, proudly boasting of his successes in polo and lacrosse. His desk was empty of all clutter, his clothes hung in the closet, and his bed was neatly made. Wherever Oliver was, he wasn’t here.
Nevertheless, she diligently checked every single room to make sure, but found the house completely empty, with the exception of the master bedroom. There, Oliver’s parents snored softly in a massive bed, and more digital pictures adorned the walls. She paused to look at them when a sudden beeping stopped her in her tracks. Spinning around, she saw Oliver’s mother reach out sluggishly to turn off a bedside alarm. The window shutters rotated automatically, and a hint of daylight crawled into the room.
She froze. It was the light of the rising sun – which meant it was much later than she had thought. Panicking, she checked the clock and discovered she had spent a full five hours online. More worryingly, if it was dawning in London, the sun would be even higher in Paris – which meant the Guest would be able to see her now.
She logged out as fast as she could, slid her hands back in between her face and her pillow, and pulled out her contacts. The room was brighter, but still dark. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she forced herself to lay as still as she could. Had the Guest seen it, or had he tired of watching her, immobile in the dark? She waited for what felt like an eternity, and then as silently as she could, slipped the contacts under her pillow, and tossed around until she was facing the ceiling.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her phone resting on the bedside table. Over the next hour, she silently willed it not to buzz. If it did, it meant it was all over. She fought to keep the panic from showing on her face. She had been careless.
Eventually, she decided she was safe. For now. She pretended to yawn, stretched her arms and got up. Her legs still wobbled with fear, and she struggled to control the slight tremor in her fingers, but it was better than the alternative of staying in bed. She wasn’t going to be able to sleep after this much adrenaline. Might as well get up and make some coffee.
She spent the day in a hazy daze, struggling to hide how tired she was to the Guests who spied on her. Halfway through the afternoon, unable to keep it up, she took a short nap, and woke two hours later, feeling refreshed. As she went back to work, she ran over what she had discovered the past night.
Oliver was busy building a fortune. That was no surprise. He wasn’t at his parents’ place, and there was no other information as to where he might be. She chewed on her lower lip. If she wanted to defeat him, she needed to know where he was – and that was looking to be harder and harder.
Then it struck her. The ID tags. She could just jump to his location in the Mosverse. Most likely, Oliver was default loading his Mosverse persona next to the real Oliver. All she had to do was call out the tags and follow him there.
But if he also just logged in, he might see me, she thought. Maybe I can jump in for only a split-second, then jump out and try to piece together where he was?
She debated on how to do that for the better part of a half hour, until she remembered the last time she had modified the Mosverse. Her hands froze on the keyboard, and it took all she had not to roar with frustration. Jumping to his location wasn’t possible anymore – and it was all her fault. She had torn out the code for the ID tags when he had followed her to Charles. That function no longer existed in the Mosverse.
Or did it? Maybe Oliver had reinstated it when he had taken full control. She resolved to check it as soon as she logged back in that night.
The sun seemed to take forever to set, and she repeatedly glanced out of the window until it was dark enough, then forced herself to wait another hour before heading to bed. As she had the night before, she tightly closed the blinds, pressed her face against the pillow, and entered the Mosverse.
From now on, she had resolved, she needed to be more careful with her Mosverse entry point. Earlier, she had settled on the Decapi world, Janus, as her loading spot. There was no reason Oliver, or anyone else for that matter, to ever return there.
When it loaded, she barely recognized it. What had once been the inside of a Decapi tower, and a home to her favorite Matriarch, was now nothing but a bare canyon of orange stone. The icy mountains had disappeared, replaced by a flat and barren landscape of black ice, shadowed in eternal darkness. The entire horizon seemed to have been smoothed out.
She immediately called up the ID tags, but nothing happened. He hadn’t reinstated them. She tried again, just to be safe, and was met with the same disappointing result.
Damn this limited account, she swore. If she had had access to her own account instead of Floriane’s, it would have been child’s play to reinstate those functions. She shook her head and dismissed the idea. There was no point to dwelling on ‘ifs’ or ‘could haves’ – she was now stuck with a Guest account, and would simply have to fight her way out using only the functions that remained.
Which prompted another lightbulb to go on. What exactly were the functions at her disposal? By design, any function someone coded in was automatically shared across all users. Which was important, because Szymon had built in a ton of his own functions, and she had no idea what was in there. Perhaps there was a useful one.
With a swipe of her eyes, she opened up the function panel and went through the list of all possible user interactions. She immediately recognized the first few; she had coded those in herself. Time manipulation, zooming in and out, moving forward, back, and sideways. Scrolling down, she found all the actions linked to Surface Mode: walking, jumping, crouching and hearing. She kept going until she hit Szymon’s list, identifiable by the hand gestures that represented numbers.
There were 99 slots, and 93 had been filled. She almost whistled – Szymon had been productive. Her heart began to beat a little faster. With that many functions, there was bound to be one or two that would help her find Oliver.
But as she went through the list, her hopes slowly fell. Szymon, true to form, had only added in two types of functions: physics-based ones and geeky ones. The first were evidently linked to his exploration of the Mosverse. One function allowed him to measure the temperature of an object, another to calculate relative speeds, while yet more analyzed chemical compositions and activity. The geeky ones were of even less use: superjump, superspeed, and a mode called SpiderSzymon which allowed one to navigate through the Mosverse by throwing sticky strands of rope, just like Spiderman. She bit back a pained smile.
Her heart sank when she reached the end of the list. Not a single one of Szymon’s functions were useful. She was about to close the function list and go back to looking for him on Google, when she noticed one last function at the very bottom of the list.
BHF. She frowned. It wasn’t one of hers, and the shorthand wasn’t one of Szymon’s. She tapped to launch it.
A green sphere as large as a closed fist suddenly appeared in front of her eyes, floating in mid-air, with a small slider bar beneath it. Mathilde focused her eyes on the slider, and slowly slid the pointer to the right. Text appeared as she did so: ‘Quark Mass‘, followed by a number that slowly increased.
It took her a minute, but she finally got it. A wide smile broke out across her face. BHF: Black Hole Function. She had just found Oliver’s secret weapon.
She stopped the slider at ten tons, and pressed confirm. The sphere and the slider disappeared, replaced by a small blue 3D crosshair with six bars. She aimed it on the ground of the canyon, and confirmed again.
She waited. Nothing happened.
She waited some more, and tried it again. No change. Maybe this was his beta version? If Oliver had been smart, he would have made the final function available only to himself.
Wait. She glided in closer to the ground, and squinted at the smooth riverbed, her eyes having just caught the smallest of movements.
Is it just wishful thinking, or is that a small dimple in the stone? It was tiny, and almost invisible, but the more she looked at it, the more convinced she became that a small depression had formed.
She opened the function again, and this time set the mass to two gigatons. It was possible, she realized, that she had just set the quark’s mass too low to see any real effect. She aimed it at the same spot, and unconsciously braced herself as she pressed confirm.
The ground fractured with the wrenching sound of tearing stone. Cracks split out from the point she had chosen, and little pebbles tore down towards the center, massing into a compact and gooey mass. A crater slowly formed in the rock bed, digging itself deeper with each passing second.
Pure joy flooded her. This was the real function. She had just created a miniature black hole, which meant that Oliver had made yet another mistake. She fully intended to take advantage of it.
OK, now how do I delete it? she wondered.
She tried tapping on the spot to bring up a menu, but nothing happened. She opened the function list to see if Oliver had coded in a ‘delete’ function. He hadn’t. Confused, she looked around and tried to activate the dot from different angles, but nothing worked.
Checking the time, she discovered the sun was due to rise in less than an hour. As much as she wanted to stay and figure this out, it would have to wait until the next day. She logged out and removed her contacts in the full blackness of night, then giddily turned around and tried to catch some sleep.
I have him, she thought gleefully, I finally have him. All she needed to do was find him. She could kill him just like he had killed Szymon now – a black hole to the head.
She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Unfortunately, the next few days made it clear how far away that goal actually was. Finding Oliver was beyond difficult. She tried to stalk Floriane and Oliver’s parents, but that led her nowhere. The biggest problem was that she could only connect to the Mosverse late at night, and all three of them were usually fast asleep. She tried to follow Floriane anyway, hoping she would go out to see Oliver for a late night fling, but it rapidly became clear that Floriane wasn’t even texting Oliver anymore. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but they no longer seemed to be in touch.
She kept logging in each night, trying to find a snippet of news online that would lead her to Oliver, but with each rising dawn her hopes fell a little more. He was being too careful.
To add to her worries, she was still unable to delete the quark she had set on the Decapi world. Every time she visited, she discovered that the crater had grown. It was now over a kilometer wide, and expanding faster every day. She knew that Oliver had a way to delete heavy quarks, or else there would still be a black hole in the middle of her kitchen, but was unable to find it.
She dedicated an hour a night to experimenting with the black hole function in the hopes of figuring it out. On the Decapi planet, she created two holes of equal mass on top of each other, but it ended up creating only a slightly stronger attraction. She tried yet more holes, in different orientations, hoping to cancel them out, but nothing worked.
One night, just as she was about to create a new black hole, her phone rang. Panicked, her eyes snapped to the left. On her VR contacts, the floating green quark switched to red, but before she could register the change, she was already tearing out the contacts. The phone would alert the Guest, and he would wonder why she wasn’t waking up.
As she reached over, her heart hung in her throat. Was it Oliver? Had he discovered she was in the Mosverse?
She picked up her phone with shaking hands and looked at the caller ID.
Andrzej. Szymon’s brother.
With a mix of fear and relief, she picked up the phone.
“Hello,” he said, his voice as thick with emotion, “Mathilde, sorry for call so early. I just want to ask.”
“You need to say goodbye to Szymon?”
~ End of Chapter 21 ~
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