Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
Showdown. Enough said.
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Twenty-Two: 9106
“I… What?” Her breath caught in her throat.
“Mama does not want me to tell you,” said Andrzej, “But I know Szymon is important to you, yes?”
“Yes. Yes he is, yes,” she said. What was this? Were they pulling the plug on Szymon?
“Mama is not here today so that would be best time to come. Before five.”
“She won’t be there? What?”
“She will be packing. Tomorrow we go back to Gdansk with Szymon.”
Of course. They would want to bury him in Gdansk. Her heart froze in her chest at the thought.
“When is the burial?”
Andrzej paused on the other end of the line, confused.
“Ah,” he sighed apologetically, “No, Szymon is not dead. Doctors say he is stable and we can move him now. So we bring home.”
Tears of bitter relief welled up in her eyes as a broken smile spread across her face.
“Oh thank God,” she wiped her eyes with her free hand, “Yes, yes, I’ll be there today. Thank you Andrzej.”
He hung up. Mathilde sat down on her bed, exhausted. For a split-second, she had thought Szymon was dying. Or dead. Phone in hand, she silently waited for the call that was bound to come. Barely a minute later, her phone rang.
“Andrzej called?” asked Oliver, his voice sleepy but alert.
“They’re moving Szymon. He asked if I wanted to visit.”
“No,” he said sharply, “You don’t leave the flat.”
“I said yes already. I’m going to see him before he leaves.”
“Mathilde,” he warned, “You don’t leave the flat.”
She took a deep breath. It was time to push back. There was no way she wasn’t seeing Szymon before he left.
“Ollie,” she said calmly, trying to keep aggression from her voice, “I’ve done everything you asked. We’re making great progress on the DNA tracker. Now, I’m going to go see Szymon, and to reward me for my hard work, you’re going to let me.”
The line went silent.
“Ollie, I’m going insane cooped up in here. I need this, and if you want to keep me happily working away for you, you’re going to give it to me.”
She could almost see him, brow furrowed over narrowed eyes as he considered it. She wasn’t sure what was bringing about her sudden burst of confidence – but it seemed to be working.
“Fine,” he finally said, “You can go, but you don’t spend more than an hour, and you come straight back.”
“No funny business Mathilde,” he added, “I mean it. Or else your mom will pay the consequences.”
“What am I going to do, run away where you can’t find me?” she rolled her eyes, and listened to him hang up.
She took a shower, and after checking the weather on her phone, put on comfortable jeans, a white top and a black windbreaker. Summer weather with a high chance of rain. She poured herself a cup of coffee and looked out the window as she smoked her cigarette.
It was still early, so she decided to wait another hour and walk there, in order to arrive around nine. She wrote Andrzej a text to let him know and passed the remaining time staring blankly at Mosverse code.
The rush of cocky arrogance that had won over Oliver built into an unbridled happiness at the thought of seeing Szymon again. She had managed to ignore the gaping hole of his absence in the flat, but now it shone like a ragged wound. Focusing on beating Oliver had made it possible to avoid feeling the pain, but now that she was about to see him, her mind was a confused mixture of sadness and joy.
The walk felt short, a last cigarette burning up to fast. When she arrived at the hospital, Andrzej was already waiting for her in the lobby. It had only been a month since she had seen him, but it felt like years – and he looked it. There was grey in his hair when it had been jet-black before, and deep lines furrowed his brow.
She went to give him a bise and he extended a hand instead, leading to an awkward scramble that he diffused with a pained smile.
“Thank you for coming Mathilde,” he said and turned around, leading the way to Szymon’s room. She followed him with heavy steps, down two flights of steps and through a narrow corridor filled with gurneys and nurses. The smell of the hospital brought back the foggy memories of the last time she was here. Her nails dug into her palms painfully at the thought.
Andrzej opened the door and politely stayed outside as she entered Szymon’s room.
She took three steps in and stopped. Szymon was propped up against a bunch of pillows. His eyes were vacant, focused on a non-existent point on the wall. His right arm was curled against his chest, a limp claw that twitched at random.
He had always been thin and gaunt, but this Szymon looked like he had just survived a famine. His cheekbones were sharp enough to pierce through skin, and deep shadows hung in dark pockets under his dead eyes. His hair was plastered to his forehead, half of it hidden under a heavy white bandage.
She walked up to him, slowly, and as gently as she could, she hugged him. She closed her eyes against the well of tears, forced a smile and held him tight. He didn’t move.
“I miss you so much,” she whispered, “I miss you so much Szy. So much.”
His silence somehow made it worse. She stood there for a long time, breathing in his smell and the warmth of his skin. Finally, she took a chair and sat beside him, taking his left hand in hers.
She kept expecting him to turn towards her, to give her that silly lop-sided grin and laugh at how worried she was. Her heart tore a little every time he didn’t.
“I’m so sorry Szy,” she told him softly, “This is all my fault. This never should have happened to you.”
Unbidden, words poured forth, a dam broken.
“Oliver did this. He found a way to create black holes in the Mosverse, and he opened one in your head. This is why you’re like this. It’s all my fault. I should have seen it coming, and I didn’t. I should have stopped him before all of this even happened.”
For the past month, she had been living alone, without a soul to talk to. Everything suddenly slipped free. The what-ifs of how she could have prevented this, the constant edge of living trapped, the fear for everyone she knew. How hopeless it all seemed.
Through it all, the phone in her pocket stayed silent, and as much as she hated him, she was glad for Oliver granting her this moment.
“He’s gone crazy Szy. He wants to control the world, and the only reason he spared me is that he wants me to make him immortal. He’s completely locked me out of the Mosverse.”
“Now I don’t have a choice,” she looked down sadly, “If I don’t help him, he’s threatened to kill you, and mom, and everyone else I care about.”
She chuckled darkly. “Although I guess that means just you and mom.”
She told him about everything that had happened since she had last seen him. She carefully avoided any talk of Floriane’s VR contacts, conscious that Oliver was probably listening in. Szymon didn’t react to any of it, save for the odd twitch of the hand, but it didn’t matter. It felt so good to have him there, to talk to him and tell him about how she felt. Halfway through, she began to apologize to him, over and over again between sobbing hiccups.
“And now I’m stuck Szy. I have to help him. I can’t stop him, because I have no idea where he is. I can’t find him.”
She tightened her grip on his hand.
“I just wish you were here. You’d know what to do.” She laid her head down on his hand and listened to him breathe. She tried to lock the moment in her mind, conscious that this was likely the last memory she would ever have of him. She focused on how the cotton of the bed sheets scratched her face, on how his skin was dry and papery but warm and comforting, and how she could feel the small bones in his long hands as she held them tightly in hers.
He didn’t say a word. He didn’t move, save for the random jabs of his crooked hand and the almost invisible motion of his breathing.
Wait. What was that.
Her eyes locked on to his twitching hand, and adrenaline shot through her veins. A pattern. Szymon’s hand had been moving ever since she entered the room, but somehow, it was different now. Every second or so, it spasmed and changed shape.
I know these shapes.
A fist. A phone. A claw.
She quickly looked back to Szymon’s face, afraid that staring at his hand for too long would alert Oliver. There was something there. Szymon was still staring straight ahead, but the movements of his hand had become deliberate.
A fist. A phone. A claw. It was on repeat, over and over again. Fist, phone, claw, fist, phone, claw.
She knew these symbols. Just a few days ago, she had gone through them in the Mosverse. She held back a gasp.
His shorthand functions.
Each symbol was a number. The phone is a six, the claw a nine. She couldn’t remember what the fist stood for, but it would take seconds to find out at home.
She almost didn’t dare believe it. Was Szymon sending her a message, or was this just random? Or had he been doing this from the start, and she just hadn’t noticed?
She held her breath as a new thought hit her. If it was deliberate, if Szymon was sending her a message, then…
Then he was still in there.
Somewhere, deep down behind his dead face, the Szymon she knew and loved still existed.
Fist, phone, claw.
She stayed in his room for another twenty minutes so as not to arouse Oliver’s suspicions, and with a long last look at Szymon, walked out the door. Her eyes still red with tears, she gave a silent nod to Andrzej, and walked back home.
It took all she could not to dash to her tablet and look for the hand symbols. Minutes stretched past like hours, each second measured by her tapping fingers, and still she forced herself to wait until it was full dark before going to bed.
When she finally logged in to the Mosverse, she headed straight to the Decapi planet and called up Szymon’s function list. Fist, phone, claw, she repeated to herself, like a mantra. She found it easily. The fist was ten, the phone was six and the claw was nine.
So, she thought, 10, 6, 9. What does it mean?
She tried the hand combinations in that order, but nothing happened. She frowned, thinking back to what Szymon had been doing.
It didn’t necessarily start at 10, she realized.
She tried the hand symbols again, starting from the phone. 6, 9, 10. Nothing. 9, 10, 6. Nothing. She began experimenting doing a different symbol on each hand, but they only called up functions that she had already seen, and which definitely weren’t useful in finding Oliver: distance measurement, double speed, auto-rotate. This couldn’t be what Szymon was trying to say.
Doubt hit her then. Was he even trying to say anything at all? Maybe it was just muscle memory. Maybe she had convinced herself to see something that wasn’t there at all.
But it was all she had. So she kept playing with the hand combinations, unsure of what she was trying to achieve but determined to find something, anything, that could prove that Szymon still existed.
Another hour of fruitless tests left her drained and exhausted. She took a moment to float over the canyons, thinking, watching the growing black holes in the surface.
She suddenly remembered that there was something else she needed to investigate. When Andrzej had called her and she had still been in the Mosverse, her eyes had snapped left, and the quark she had selected had changed color – from green to red. She loaded up Oliver’s black hole function, and the green quark popped up, happily floating in front of her.
Deliberately, she flicked her eyes to the side.
It switched from green to red. She did it again, and this time it shifted to blue, then orange.
She recognized it immediately: it was the color scheme commonly used for elemental particle typology. Oliver hadn’t just plugged in one quark – he had coded in every single one of her elemental particles, from quarks to leptons to bosons. Black holes could be created with any type – be they an up-quark, a down-quark or a charm-quark.
This is how he did it. She selected a bunch of particles, and aimed them at the black holes. Immediately, the recent ones disappeared, and the bigger ones noticeably slowed down.
It was so Oliver. At once sloppy and elegant in its simplicity. He hadn’t just put in all the quarks and the leptons – he’d also added in the anti-quarks and the anti-leptons.
Whenever he wanted to destroy a quark black hole, all he had to do was throw in the appropriate anti-quark. He didn’t even need to put it in the same place – the gravity of the quark was so high it drew the anti-quark to it in a fraction of a second, and both auto-destructed as soon as they touched.
Exultant but exhausted, she finally logged out and went to sleep.
She woke up to the early afternoon sun streaming in from her window. Oliver, as usual, gave her a call to discuss progress, and she answered absent-mindedly before hanging up, picking up her tablet and going through the motions of pretending to code.
Yesterday had been a victory – she now knew how to destroy Oliver’s black holes, which partly negated his advantage. It still wasn’t enough to beat him though, as she had no idea where he was. Her mind instinctively returned to the remaining mystery on her list: Szymon’s message. Fist, phone, claw. 10, 6, 9. What did he mean?
The more she focused on it, the more convinced she became that Szymon was trying to tell her something. Using hand symbols was just like him. It wasn’t just that it was the only way he could talk with her – it was also a form of communication that he knew Oliver wouldn’t understand. Oliver had never known of Szymon’s shorthands.
10, 6, 9.
What did it mean?
It could be code. And code would mean a message, which would mean letters. What if each number represented a letter? She counted off the alphabet in her head.
10, 6, 9. That would be J, F, I. JFI. Did that stand for anything?
She shook her head. It didn’t match anything she knew. She changed the starting order, as she had before. Unfortunately, FIJ rang no bells, and IJF didn’t either.
It’s not that. And anyway, she reprimanded herself, ten numbers are too limited to go through the entire alphabet. Szymon wouldn’t be able to pass her a message that went farther than the letter J.
She almost slapped herself. Of course. What if the ten wasn’t a ten, but an indication that the number was bigger than ten? Then, 10, 6 and 9 would become 16 and 9.
She counted off the alphabet again. 16 and 9 formed ‘PI’. She frowned at that. Either Szymon was making an obscure math joke, or he was recommending she hire a private investigator. Not that a private investigator was a bad idea – she could always contact one anonymously at night, from the Internet. But there was always the risk that Oliver would catch on, and then she would lose everything. If he noticed the detective, Oliver could just spy on him 24/7 until he backtracked it up to Mathilde, and from there it was only a matter of time before he ransacked the flat and found Floriane’s VR contacts.
Instead, she switched the letters around. Her breath caught in her throat.
This was it.
It was so simple, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before.
- IP. The solution to finding Oliver had been in front of her the whole time. His IP address.
Mark, l’ENS’ quantum computer, had incredibly tough firewalls set up. The only reason she could access the Mosverse from their flat was because they had broken in and set up an exception for their IP, all those months ago. If Oliver was still visiting the Mosverse, but from a different location, he must have had to set up the same exception for his new IP.
More importantly, she realized as her heart suddenly jumped with happiness, it was definite proof. Proof that Szymon still existed, locked somewhere in that broken shell of a body. He had been able to pass her a message. She wanted to whoop with joy, to pump up her fists in the air, blast music from the Lilypop Girls and dance across the room.
Szymon had given her the key to finding Oliver. If she could get that IP, she would be able to reverse track it to his current address within seconds.
There was only one major problem. She no longer had access to Mark. The only way to Mark would be to actually go to l’ENS and plug into the quantum computer there. And that wasn’t exactly feasible.
Even if she managed to find a way to get an access pass to the computer room, which had proven difficult the last time they had done it, it was still going to take her at least fifteen minutes to simply walk there. Fifteen minutes was a long time. It was more than enough for Oliver to stop her, either by attacking her mom and Szymon, or simply by opening a black hole in her own brain.
Maybe she could run? If Oliver wasn’t plugged in at that exact instant, she would have a few minutes before he could act. But even then, it was too risky – in the best of cases, she would bring the total time down to 8 minutes. That was still much too long. Her mind blazed through option after option. The IP address was the solution, she knew it. But as of now, it was inaccessible.
She rolled a cigarette, cracked open the window and stared at the street outside. It wasn’t far. If only she had a way to protect herself from his black holes for a short period of time. She knew how to deactivate a black hole now, but couldn’t pre-emptively defend against one.
The only way to stop him from launching a black hole at her was to launch an anti-quark at the same time. But that was impossible to do. Not only would she have to choose exactly the right anti-particle, and launch it at exactly the right time, but she would have to be doing that while she was walking to l’ENS. Imagine having to throw anti-quarks in Szymon’s bedroom while trying to avoid falling flat on the sidewalk. It was impossible.
She shook her head. It was more than impossible. She would lose her connection to the Mosverse as soon as she left the range of her flat’s WiFi. That short walk to l’ENS was fast stretching out into an impossibly long and treacherous road.
She crushed her cigarette in frustration, and immediately rolled a new one. Laying back in her chair, she let ideas float around and come to her instead. Floriane’s VR contacts. The IP address. The quarks and the anti-quarks. Each was a bubble with tendrils waving around, latching on to one another in new and novel combinations. Everything was connected, like a group of Decapi playing a wrestling game.
She threw in more ideas. Oliver. His weaknesses. His desire for immortality and his story with Floriane. The stolen kiss that had left him confused. His horrible invention of black holes.
The bubbles built into a heavy mesh in her mind now, a ceiling of dark clouds. They tossed and twirled around, buffeted by strong winds that crashed them together into a whirlpool of conflicting ideas. She threw herself against it, time and again, looking for a crack in the logic, an approach she hadn’t considered. She was in the middle of the storm now, everything roaring and cracking around her, bending and breaking in a chaos of sound.
Her eyes slammed open. She had it.
Electricity coursed through her veins in rapid-fire pumps. The hair on her arms stood straight up, and every single detail of her kitchen seemed to glow with golden clarity.
There was a way to defeat Oliver. It was risky, but she had nothing else to lose.
As always, she had to wait until nightfall before logging into the Mosverse. Each minute passed with excruciating slowness, the seconds ticking like steady cannon booms in her mind. Her entire body ached to break into a run. Not yet, she thought grimly.
Her first stop in the Mosverse was l’ENS. She checked the paper outside of the computer lab, and almost pumped her fist into the air when she saw that Charles Simonetti would be teaching the summer classes the following morning at ten. Tomorrow. It’s tomorrow.
She set to work, retracing the way from Mark to her apartment in the Mosverse. She then flew over to Szymon’s hospital room, and it was all she could do not to hug him. She followed that by a visit to her mom’s apartment, her office, and her way to work. Racking her mind, she decided she had best go to Charles’ home as well. She went through the entire flat, and finally, exhausted and running on fumes, she logged out.
She checked her phone: 5:04 a.m. She still had about 5 hours before she could act. She turned around and tried to sleep, but her thoughts kept returning to her plan. Had she missed anything? Was there a gaping flaw she hadn’t considered?
Sunrise came and went, and unable to contain herself any longer, she jumped out of bed and into the shower. No matter how she looked at it, this was it. It was her last shot. She chain-smoked until 9:55, toying around with her tablet, and with one last look at her watch, rose from her chair.
It was time.
Her heart was beating so hard she could hear the blood pumping in her ears. Walking slowly, she made her way to the entrance of the flat and put on a pair of sneakers. Then, as fast as she dared, she opened the door and left the apartment.
She took the steps briskly, wanting to show the Guest determination but not panic. She barely made it to the end of the stairs when her phone buzzed. She put in her wireless headphones, and deliberately waited until the last ring before picking up. Any time gained was invaluable.
“Where in bloody hell do you think you’re going?” snarled Oliver.
“I’m going to fuck.”
She heard him pause in confusion. Good, she thought, a second of hesitation is a second gained.
“You’re going to what?”
“I’m going to see Charles, and we’re going to fuck. I haven’t had any action in over a month, and it’s time to release that tension.”
This was the perfect conversation topic to keep him busy and confused – her interaction with Floriane had been the proof of that. She turned right, onto the street that backed l’ENS. She was already a third of the way there.
“I’d rather you weren’t there, but seeing as how you’re a sick perv, I know there’s nothing I can do to keep you from watching.”
“Go home Mathilde. I didn’t approve this.”
“I don’t need your approval.”
To her right, a trashcan suddenly crunched up with the sound of shearing metal, and she jumped away in reflexive fear. She stared at it for a long second, trying not to imagine her body in place of the twisted metal. Had she misread Oliver? Had she not protected this enough?
Too late for second guesses. She picked herself up and powered on, sticking as closely as she could to the path in her mind.
“I said go home, or the next one’s in your head.”
“You won’t. Come on Ollie, I thought this would make you happy, you’ll finally get to see me naked.”
As if to answer her, another trashcan collapsed on itself with a shriek.
She ignored it and turned left, the last straight line until her university’s entrance. Oliver began to roar in her earpiece.
“Mathilde! I’m not kidding. Turn around NOW!”
“No. Look Ollie, I’ll keep working for you, I promise. But you need to give me some liberty as well.” Better to keep him convinced she was just testing his limits. “Haven’t you ever heard of workplace happiness?”
“Mathilde,” his voice was ice, “I’m not against you seeing Charles, but it has to be on my terms, when I decide. Now turn around right now, and we’ll agree on a time and place later.”
She turned left again, through the main entrance of l’ENS, and walked towards the fountain in the middle of the yard.
“No Ollie,” she said firmly, “I’m doing this now.”
She made it past the fountain, and entered the main door. It took all she had not to break into a run. Make him think you’re testing your limits. She took a hard turn right, towards the stairs that headed to the basement. Above her, three of the windows suddenly exploded, covering her in small shards of glass. She held her arms up to protect herself and scrambled down the steps.
“Mathilde. I’m going to count to ten. If you still haven’t turned back, your mom is going to lose an arm. I’m serious.”
She made it to the bottom of the stairs.
“Two. Three. Four.”
She walked quickly to the door of the computer lab, grabbed the heavy iron handle, and pushed it open.
She spotted Simonetti in the back, bent down over a student’s shoulder and looking at a screen. Surprise flickered across his face as he glanced up and recognized her.
“Nine.” There was stress in his voice now. She wondered if he understood her final goal yet, or if seeing Simonetti in the room convinced him that this was all she wanted. She strode down the main aisle, all the way to the back, motioning to Simonetti to join her.
A pause. “I killed her,” said Oliver, “You hear me Mathilde? She’s dead and bleeding on the floor of the kitchen. I’m going to do the same to Szy now.”
Her heart stopped. Had he really? Could he?
No, he has to be bluffing. She ignored him. He wouldn’t act yet, she could feel it. Not until he was sure of what she was doing. Not until he was sure he was at risk.
“Mathilde, what are-” Simonetti asked her as she moved towards Mark’s door.
“No time. I need you to open this door. Please.”
“What?” Confusion was writ large across his face. She didn’t have time for this.
“Charles, trust me. Just open the door.”
She could hear Oliver yelling in her earphones, but paid him no heed. Charles began to stammer something about regulations, so she grabbed the card dangling around his neck, and slapped it to Mark’s door, slamming Charles’ face to the wall in the process. She pushed him away and immediately ran in, jumped in a chair and slid to the main console.
It was now or never.
And Oliver finally understood. “Mathilde,” he said, suddenly calm, “You knew the risks.”
This was it. The black hole. She had brought him too far. It was his only choice now. She braced herself, scrunching up her eyes against fear of pain…
And nothing happened.
“What in bloody-?” she heard Oliver swear, followed by a fumbling with equipment.
“Are your Black holes not working Ollie?” she taunted. Jubilant. Ecstatic. It was working.
In seconds, she pulled out the network exceptions log. She scrolled down quickly, and found her own IP in the second to last spot. The last IP therefore had to be Oliver’s. In her ear, she heard him screaming as he kept trying to stop her. She could almost see him, aiming black hole after black hole at her head, and none of them working.
She smiled. Her plan had worked.
Unbeknownst to Oliver, she was actually swimming in a sea of anti-quarks. She had spent the entire night littering a narrow pathway with as many anti-quarks and anti-leptons as she could, and done the same for all her loved ones. Whenever Oliver launched a quark on her, the anti-quarks rushed to it, drawn by its gravity, and cancelled it out before it could affect her. Or, for that matter, her mom.
She copied the IP, quickly pushed it into a reverse search engine, and took out Floriane’s VR contacts from her pocket just as the results popped up.
The asshole’s still in Paris, she thought angrily as she saw the address. She slid the contacts into her eyes as fast as she could, logged into the Mosverse and jumped to the location.
She landed in a wide room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Seine. A row of computers and VR equipment lines the walls, dozens of screens showing stock information and trading programs. In a corner sat someone she didn’t know, slowly rotating in a chair, VR contacts in. Most likely her current Guest.
Oliver stood alone in the center of the room, his face a mask of fuming rage. He had let his hair grow out, and it was gelled back in a pale imitation of a 1980s trader. Too late, he realized what she was doing. Too late, his face contorted in fear and he raised his hands imploringly.
“Mathilde, no, wait…”
“Game over, Ollie,” she said, calling up the black hole function, and aiming the crosshairs at his head, “Oh, and Szymon says hi.”
She pressed the button. Oliver’s skull disappeared in a vortex of blood and gore.
~ End of Chapter 22 ~
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