Aptitude

Alena has momentarily escaped her world and its imminent gravitational collapse by cheating her way into the selection process of the Board of Cosmogamy. By passing this stringent exam, she may finally learn the secrets of building a universe from first principles. But the competition is smarter and better prepared, and even Alena’s cunning and mathematical talents may not be enough to uncover the answers she has been looking for. The appearance of a strange competitor reveals that Alena may not be the only candidate with hidden motives.

 

One may ascend to godhood in the same way one attains any other competitive position: a series of rigorous standardized exams.

 

9:00–9:30: Registration & continental breakfast

Alena appeared in the white room, in front of the registration desk, with her hair neatly combed, wearing formal business interview attire. As far as she knew, she was the only person in the universe to be invited to the Practical Assessment. She wasn’t the only candidate in the reception room though, which meant the others must be from somewhere other than the universe.

There was a list of names. She scanned it, noting each candidate’s profession. Mostly mathematicians, with strange specialties like “reality theorist,” “meta optimalist,” and “stochastic botanist.” Alena knew she was underqualified for this position. She had resorted to connecting her mind to the ship’s computer, illegally tapping into some of humanity’s last remaining resources, just to access the brainpower she would need to understand the test. Hopefully the connection would last to the end of the interview.

She pressed the pad of her thumb next to an entry near the bottom of the page: Alenagutnarsunurassttir, recycling processor.

 

9:30–10:00: Meet and greet

In the waiting area, candidates clustered together around the danishes, probably being judged on their ability to make small talk. No one wanted to work with a socially awkward nerd, no matter how good they were at building universes. Alena searched for loners to help demonstrate her ability to smile through her teeth.

On the far side of the room, a woman was sitting down, sipping a cup of coffee and waiting without looking like she was waiting for anything. She was gorgeous: smooth skin, thick hair, lips that were probably naturally that color. People liked to pretend that good looks wouldn’t get you ahead, but there was no way this woman’s beauty wouldn’t be a huge advantage in the face-to-face interview.

Where Alena came from, people didn’t look like that anymore. Why invest resources into making your children beautiful when they would spend their whole lives on a slowly sinking ship with only the same few descendants for company? When you were the only people left in the world, who were you trying to impress?

Farther down was a candidate even more obviously from a different universe. His face, a map of ancient racial markers and organic asymmetries, looked like something out of a history book. His clothes were a style she had never seen before: a black, knee-length robe with a wide belt tied at the left hip, a white shirt, and black pants underneath. She had read somewhere that a color contrast interview outfit projected power and confidence.

Alena decided on the beautiful woman as the one to speak to, primarily because she was closer to the danishes.

“Feeling nervous?” Alena asked, trying to lean in conspiratorially, and judging by the woman’s face, missing the mark.

“I’m happy with the results of my test preparation. I’ve run through so many practice simulations, I could build my model in my sleep,” the woman said like she had a table full of job offers lined up for her at home. She certainly looked it, sitting there, cool and still. Alena shredded a danish with her fingernails.

Alena hadn’t run through a single practice simulation. She didn’t have the resources for it, for one thing. For another, she hadn’t been able to hold conceptions as large and complex as a model universe in her brain until she had boosted off the ship, and that was after a full year of taking performance-enhancing drugs. She had mostly studied from the test preparation book.

Alena tried to compare the woman to the list of professions on the sign-in sheet. She didn’t look old enough to be a professor.

“What’s your name?” Alena asked, but before she could answer, the Proctor arrived.

 

10:00–1:00: 1st simulation session

“Hello everyone,” the Proctor said with a big, impersonal smile. Her eyes lingered on the beautiful woman at Alena’s side. “Thank you all for your presence here today. I know this is a long and challenging process, and you should be very proud of yourselves just for making it this far. In the current hiring cycle we’ve had over a hundred thousand applicants, and less than one percent were invited for a—” Alena stopped paying attention.

She had little desire to become a Builder and even less ability. It was killing her to listen to this woman smugly congratulate them on being candidates for such an elevated and prestigious position when the Board of Cosmogamy had made such a fucking mess of Alena’s universe.

At least that was her suspicion. Maybe all universes had to come to a seizing halt at some time or another. Maybe there was nothing special about the slow-motion gravitational collapse they were going through. Maybe her whole universe was in the middle of a planned obsolescence, and afterwards, when all the light and energy and matter there was had been crushed back into a single point, the scavengers of the Board would come and scrape up what was left for their new terrarium. There was only one way to find out, and that was why Alena had spent the last few years cobbling together the ability to handle the simulation: to get answers for her swallowed world.

The Proctor launched into the specifics of the universe simulation exam. They would have three hours to complete the core stage, where they would run their own first principles on authentic universe-building technology. They could write any laws and make any physical adjustments they wanted in that time.

During the second simulation session, each universe would run through a full time scale. Their work would be judged on the technique and process used during session one and the results of session two. Each session would be scored out of thirty points, with five points awarded in each of the following categories: consistency, completeness, resolution, determinism, transitivity, and habitability.

The reception room changed. They were now inside the simulation, which was inside whatever space-outside-of-time-and-space she had already been in, her real body lying quiescent in her real home. She looked down at herself. Her physical form looked the same, interview outfit and all, as did the Ancient Mathematician’s form she had seen in the reception room.

The candidate she had just been speaking to, on the other hand, was almost unrecognizable. She had aged, for one thing, and aged in a way people didn’t really do anymore in Alena’s world, her face wilting in on itself into a soft map of wrinkles, her red lips thinned and deflated, even her hair was now short and curly, like she was trying to hide hair loss. Her aged body was fatter too, but dressed in a simple long-sleeved shirt and pants made out of some thick and tough material, rubber boots, and gloves that looked, well, that looked a little bit like the ones Alena would sometimes wear to dismantle complex bits of physical waste when the ship managed to haul in something that hadn’t been totally compacted during its fall towards the black hole.

She caught Alena staring and wiggled her fingers.

“My gardening outfit,” the third candidate whispered, ignoring the proctor’s sharp look. Alena thought back to the registration list.

They were each handed a blue test booklet. Alena opened it. There were no questions, just empty space to write.

“How does the simulation start?” Alena asked, snagging the Proctor’s attention before she walked away.

“This is the simulation,” the Proctor said with a smile clearly designed to hide the fact that she didn’t consider Alena to be a serious candidate. “Just write down the rules you want to start with, and the interface will expand as you develop your universe.”

She smiled again, even less sincerely, and then walked out. Alena frowned at the empty test booklet. Her pen from the reception hadn’t made it into the simulation.

The Ancient Mathematician, and the Beautiful Gardener were both already scribbling away. The Mathematician cleared his throat, and then he held something out to her. A fountain pen. The same ornate, custom fountain pen that sat on the Captain’s desk at home, which he loved, but almost never had occasion to use anymore, now that theirs was the only ship left.

“Thanks,” Alena said. She held the pen in her hand, and even though there was no reason to believe that any of this was real, she felt the metal warming from the heat of her fingertips.

The clock was ticking. The test prep book advised beginning by building a universe with similar rules to what the test taker was already familiar with. Alena wrote down axioms for extensionality, pairing, union, powerset, infinity, and separation.

Nothing like an interface opened up for her. Meanwhile, the Ancient Mathematician had already moved his universe off the page into the room, which was now the void. Glowing lights in the distance made Alena certain that some of the other candidates had breathed life into theirs as well.

Alena gritted her teeth and added an axiom for choice. She didn’t see anything change per se, not like the universe a few people to her left that was toggling between matter and antimatter, but somewhere in her brain she did feel a sudden cohesion, an engine revving, a light turning on in a far-off room. Alena’s heart sped up, and she scribbled down the definitions for some base elements.

It wasn’t even hard at first, at least once she had added enough information for the universe to be visualized. It lifted off the page and she added some shape. Topologically smooth, 3-manifold space, all things that could be described in the test booklet without drawing on the extra resources her body was connected to in the real world. But it turned out, adding space before adding time was difficult. The model had to be homogeneous in order to be isotropic. It had to be path-connected in order to be homogeneous. It had to be not just path-connected, but simply connected in order to get the minimum passing “habitability” score. And those were just the mathematical implications of her chosen topology; they had to be analogous to her chosen physics as well.

Alena hadn’t realized how much of the model was taking place in her and how much was being observed by her from the outside until it collapsed in her face. If she had a heart in here, it skipped a beat.

She glanced around, trying to move just her eyeballs and not her head, to see if anyone had noticed. The Ancient Mathematician was standing inside some sort of torus, and the Beautiful Gardener was nowhere to be seen. Alena crumpled the used sheet in her fist.

She decided to try something a little simpler. She established the same mathematics, and this time gave the universe positive curvature. This forced her model to be finite. But, it also made the energy density way too high. The universe kept sprouting new dimensions every time she tried to lift it from the page.

When the booklet started smoking, Alena was forced to give it up. She scribbled out the words this time, and as she did so her monstrous creation dismantled itself. There were only a few sheets left; even if Alena had been a master Builder she didn’t know what she could do in such a short space.

Well that was fine, to hell with it anyway. She wasn’t here to score a perfect 30, Alena reminded herself, and a marble was a universe too, from the right perspective. She started writing, and the elegant fountain pen tore through cheap standardized test paper. Forget the axiom of choice, we’ll get by with first order arithmetic. In a finite Euclidean metric space. Antimatter? No thanks. Elements? All hydrogen, all the way down. Speed of light? She paused. The pen hovered over her paper. 100 miles per hour.

It was surreal, and Alena found herself stifling laughter. With the speed turned down so low, she could hold a lump of solid hydrogen in the palm of her hand. A whole universe.

With only an hour left, Alena had to admit this tiny sphere wouldn’t win her any prizes. But then again, they were ranked in order and there wasn’t any cutoff score. As long as her ball of hydrogen made it into the top 20 percent, she could at least move on to the interview phase.

Alena was a recycling processor by profession. She spent her days taking the complex junk of formerly advanced civilizations and breaking it down, figuring out how to prize out the most valuable parts, and how to pulverize the rest back to raw material. Maybe she did have the skill set to move on after all.

She peeked over at the simulation next to her. The candidate had made their universe homogeneous and isotropic as well, and Alena, who just had something blow up in her face over the same structures, knew how to handle that.

When she thought they weren’t looking, she grabbed the closest thing she could reach in the simulated universe. It was some sort of accretion disk, and in the partially constructed universe the other candidate was building, it simplified itself in her hands to a unit circle in ℝ2.

Alena slipped it into her test booklet so no one could see what she was doing. She dragged a thumbnail from the center to the edge to create a line the radius of the disk, and then scribbled down a basic definition: let γ be a counterclockwise rotation of, say, 1/24 radians.

She spun the radius she had created through all the positions γ^n (r) and let n spin out into infinity. They were in a simulation beyond reconciling time and space, so the set ∪^(∞/n=0) = γ^n (r) immediately sat in her palm, and when she licked a fingertip and pressed it to (0,0) she could lift it off the disk like a wheel with infinite spokes.

Perfect.

Together the set of all spokes of the wheel and the set of all points in the circle that were not spokes made up the entire unit disk. Alena rotated the spokes clockwise , so that a new spoke appeared. She had cut the disk into two pieces, moved one of them, and now had the original set plus an extra spoke, all within the simple mathematical rules that the candidate had agreed to.

She tossed the disc back into her competitor’s universe, where it settled down into the filament like a bomb hiding in a sea crater, creating matter from nothing as it ticked clockwise through endless new rotations.

Emboldened by her success, Alena scanned the other universes that were popping into existence under the invisible hands of her competitors. Some were easy to disrupt. This one hadn’t put up any walls between its physics and its math. A simple sphere eversion was enough to break it. That one’s dark energy pressure was too low compared to its dark energy density. It was already heading for a Big Rip.

The clock was still ticking down, and Alena needed to wipe out at least one more person if she wanted her shitty lump of universe to qualify for the next stage. There were still many simulations beyond her reach. In front of her, the Ancient Mathematician’s ever-expanding universe had reached the point where she could stand on the other side of it and be obscured from his vision by compressed superclusters and cosmic voids.

He had done a wonderful job, too. None of the tricks she had used on the others would work here. Alena put her hand out and rubbed some superclusters between her fingers. It felt like fine white sand, and through that sensation the simulation provided comprehensive data about the structure between her fingers. His resolution score already looked like it was going to be maxed out.

His universe had grown so large and so complete that it was no longer appropriate for the simulation to render it inside the test center. It was just unfurling in front of them like some sort of primordial fern, and now she understood what the Proctor had meant when she said that “the interface will expand as your universe develops,” because she could see within each quasar and tidal tail a whole load of information that grew in depth and complexity as he worked.

At the center of it, the Ancient Mathematician stood tinkering with a galaxy cluster. The bursts of nuclear fission were visible to her in this medium, as the star on his fingertip went supernova again and again with various tweaks. The light pulses lasted anywhere from milliseconds to hours, but the information received about how much time was passing was controlled by the timer that ticked down to the end of the test. To Alena’s eyes, his face was bathed in periodic flashes of light.

With each adjustment, the Mathematician’s universe grew in both size and density. There weren’t any weak spots that Alena could see.

The creator would be the weak spot, she decided.

Working under time constraints, he had been using a shortcut. As he worked on the local phenomena, he applied changes he wanted across the universe, which was unbounded. The unboundedness was going to earn him extra points, but it was also making the thing difficult. So, he had underpinned the first three dimensions with a simple tiling of one triangle, two squares, and one hexagon that extended out in all directions.

It made things easy for him because after he changed a patch of the honeycomb, he could apply those changes to any congruent patch, easily extending it out over the infinite universe. It made things easy for her because he was relying on the universe’s regularity, and that was something she knew how to break.

Alena took her book, and the pen he had lent her, and sketched out a few iterations of the pattern. She took the two squares and pinched them into diamonds. She bisected the triangle and decomposed the hexagon into three equivalent rhombuses.

She redrew the triangles so that the ratio of their sides was equivalent to the ratio of their sum over the longest side, which made them glow golden. She overlaid these on the rhombuses, which she sorted into thick and thin shapes. The golden half of each thin rhombus could be laid next to the golden half of each thick rhombus so that their sides were aligned left to right. The shapes reformed themselves along this matching rule, which allowed unbounded expansion.

She let it spill out across his whole universe, changing the regular tiling to the aperiodic one as it churned along following her set of rules.

His shortcut had relied on its underlying periodicity. If he tried to use the matrix to apply changes to the whole universe, he would never be able to reach all of it. That is to say, while any segment he chose could be found in the complete pattern an infinite number of times, the whole pattern itself could not be shifted to produce the same tiling. She had sabotaged its translational symmetry.

The Ancient Mathematician continued playing with the galaxy cluster. He made an adjustment and applied it to a local part of space overlaid on her new grid, but this time his change wasn’t instantaneous across the universe. It spread out infinitely far, yes, just like the pattern, but was unable to cover his entire infinite plane.

The Ancient Mathematician frowned. He chose a bigger area and applied the same changes. Again it spread out to infinite identical areas, and again he failed to apply the changes to the entire universe. He zoomed outwards and selected a larger area. And then a larger area again.

He could tell that something wasn’t right and checked back with the underpinning grid. But when he pulled one out, it was still the basic set of shapes he had started with.

The universe might be infinite, Alena thought as she watched him struggle. The more he expanded his range, the more of his own work he destroyed. The universe might be infinite, but the human mind is apparently not.

That left her with just over seventeen minutes of time in the simulation, and there was still one candidate she couldn’t crack. But high on the elation of knowing she had destroyed enough of them to advance to the next stage, Alena turned toward the garden.

The Beautiful Gardener was as good as her word, or at least her outfit. The space around her was nothing like the work of the other candidates. It didn’t look like an array matter spread out through the void, it looked like she was on her knees in the dirt.

Alena even imagined she could smell it, something earthy with a pollen-like sweetness. The last time she had smelled something so clearly organic it had been a cup of real peach juice she had drank celebrating her mother’s promotion to Assistant Director. That had been about eight years ago, in the very last moments before they fell out of contact with other motherships.

The two of them had sat on the observation deck at the ship equator to drink and contemplate the view. It was just possible to see the last remnants of the Plancius star cluster smeared across the empty dark as it fell into the black hole. In a ship traveling near the speed of light, away from the black hole, they would watch that majestic sight for all of Alena’s natural life.

“Aren’t you going to congratulate me?” Alena’s mother had said.

“Congrats, Mom,” Alena said. “I knew they’d give it to you.” She put a hand on her mother’s head like she was the older woman and her mother was the child.

Actually, she had just been glad her mother still cared enough to celebrate. As the end became clearer and clearer, just generations away now, many people on the ship lost interest in pursuing anything at all. There was no means of thinking about the future, no possibility of having a legacy or preserving their past. When Alena was a child, caring for her had provided some outlet for those feelings, but now that she was a grown adult with no future, even her mother was slipping farther and farther into this anhedonia.

Before she found the Board of Cosmogamy’s application guide booklet, Alena too had sleep-walked through each day of work, breaking down the debris that flashed past the ship on its way into the black hole.

Finding that test prep booklet had changed everything. She couldn’t escape the black hole, couldn’t save her universe, but finally there was someone to ask, someone to hold to account. Participating in this exam could be her chance to meet that secretive cabal responsible for putting things together the way they are.

Unlike the other candidates, the Beautiful Gardener turned her head when Alena stepped into her simulation. She looked pointedly down at Alena’s feet.

Alena thought she was just on the “ground,” the sandy soil that had sprung up at a few strokes of the Beautiful Gardener’s pen, but looking closer she saw that a shrub with wide coin-shaped leaves was beginning to sprout under her feet.

“Sorry,” Alena said. But the shrub didn’t seem affected by her intrusion until, intrigued by its presence, she squatted down near the thing and the simulation offered up more information about its true nature. The shrub was a type of information map, growing out of the sandy basin of foundational theories. When she picked up a handful of the soil, she could see that it was made up of facts, and the roots were soaking up parts of the soil to form a coherent body of physics.

Alena moved forward to her hands and knees. She held the test booklet up behind the leaf, where it clarified into what at first she thought was an deterministic algorithm, then quickly realized was actually a stochastic process. It was gene mutation and expression, played out on the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

The plant died. Alena stood up and whipped the test booklet behind her back, but the Beautiful Gardener didn’t chastise her; she was entirely wrapped up in what could only be called weeding.

The Beautiful Gardener pulled out plants by their roots and flung them at a young tree with smooth pale bark and wide, deeply lobed leaves. As they landed, the weeds decomposed into their component parts, which Alena could grasp through the interface momentarily before they melted into the ground.

Alena stared upwards. Above them should be void, waiting to be filled according to the candidate’s rules, but here there was only blue. It was, according to the information the simulation offered, a sky. Alena, like all of the human beings left in the universe she came from, had never seen a sky in person before.

She clenched the cold hydrogen marble in her fist and turned her attention back to her competition. This was only a simulation, she reminded herself. She still had never seen a real sky.

“What are you doing?” Alena asked. Maybe she didn’t need to break it; it seemed that the Beautiful Gardener hadn’t managed a full universe at all. This was the top candidate that the proctors had been eyeing?

“I’m taking advantage of a process called cosmic orthogenesis. Or more metaphorically”—the Beautiful Gardener waved a spade at the small tree— “I’m waiting for this tree to fruit.”

That was more information than Alena had expected, or even felt she deserved, considering they were competitors. Not to mention that if she was really so smart, surely the Beautiful Gardener knew what Alena had done to the other candidates.

Alena looked around almost hesitantly for any weaknesses in the system; it would be pleasurable to break the favored candidate, but to be honest, the creation was rich and deep, all encompassing in a way that the others hadn’t been.

And anyway, unless someone could live in this garden of random walks, she wasn’t going to score in any of the five categories.

 

1:00–2:00: Lunch

Without any jarring motion, they were back in the reception room. The number of candidates was less than half of what it had been during the meet and greet. The Ancient Mathematician looked dizzy.

The Beautiful Gardener was back to being beautiful again. Even though she hadn’t produced anything as far as Alena could tell, she looked extremely content.

There were plenty of empty chairs, and the Ancient Mathematician was doing the complicated calculus of where to sit that was close enough to show enthusiasm but also wasn’t awkwardly in the front row, near enough to his competitors that he wasn’t being antisocial, but still far enough that they wouldn’t have to necessarily speak to each other.

The Beautiful Gardener returned to where she had been seated earlier in the morning, and as if remembering that this problem was reduced to one that had been previously solved, the Ancient Mathematician collapsed into the same row, two seats down. Alena remained standing.

There was something touching her hip. Alena reached down and felt around in her pocket. It was hard, and cold, and shaped like a marble. She rubbed her thumb against it, tried to dig in with her nail, but it was solid and almost frictionless.

The Proctor returned to tell them to help themselves to lunch and that they would be pulled out one at a time for individual interviews.

This was it then. Finally she could sit down face-to-face with one of these so-called gods and demand to know. Were all universes destined to end horribly, or had hers just pulled the unlucky straw? The simple marble in her hand seemed to prove otherwise; she didn’t think that the application of any amount of time would be able to break it. But then, anything complex enough to be livable had been beyond Alena’s abilities to create.

She clenched the marble in her fist. If only she had been able to create a universe as complex as the Ancient Mathematician’s or as detailed as the Beautiful Gardener’s. Or at least something that could score a single point for habitability. She didn’t have a smoking gun, proof that they should have done better for her universe. She couldn’t use this to demand answers, only to beg for an explanation. And if they admitted it to her and told her it was all just a big mistake? Or that it wasn’t, and for whatever arcane reasons the Builders had chosen her universe for death, what was she going to do about it anyway? Alena didn’t know. She was just angry.

Her plan had only extended as far as preparing herself for the test by connecting to the mothership’s resources. Once she had figured out how to do it (breaking dual pole low-phase encryption, and smashing a deadbolt with a hammer), she lay back in the warm pocket of the ship testing out her new mental functions. The next thing she knew she was here.

Alena inspected the room-temperature lunch spread thoroughly, but her stomach felt high and tight, like a fist under her ribcage, and she didn’t want to put anything in it. She hadn’t noticed feeling nervous during the exam, but now she felt the sensation of coming down from nervousness, like air being let out of a balloon leaving her deflated and gummy. She would have liked to drink something hot, but the coffee from earlier was nowhere in sight.

The Beautiful Gardener interviewed first; somehow it seemed she was still the favorite.

Across from Alena, the Ancient Mathematician was devouring a sandwich. She didn’t lean over and say something like, I hope they didn’t find your performance disappointing but she could have and not felt bad about it one bit.

 

2:00–3:00: Individual interview

“Alenagundarsunurassttir?” the Proctor called, horribly mispronouncing Alena’s name.

Alena raised her hand.

“Please follow me for the individual interview portion,” the Proctor said, redundantly, because they were in a beige office with a wide desk. One empty chair sat across from a severe woman with a gridded score sheet.

The Proctor closed the door on her way out, but not before Alena caught a glimpse of someone else passing down the hallway to who knows where.

The Interviewer cleared her throat to let Alena know how hideously unprofessional she had been to take her eyes off the interviewer for even one second. Alena sat down.

“Hello. I’m an associate coordinator, and I’m on the training and selection committee. If you’re approved by the Board of Cosmogamy, I’ll be your supervisor for the first training session. Thanks for coming in today, I know this can be a pretty long and grueling process. Do you have any questions about the process so far?”

She cocked her head as if she were listening for an answer. Alena was about to respond but the Interviewer continued on, unheeding: “I’m not one myself, I wouldn’t even know where to begin! I’m part of the support staff, but if you’re selected, you’ll have the opportunity to meet some Builders after the simulation ends. They always like to approve new people personally.”

Alena’s posture crumpled. There was no way she would make it through the second round. The Interviewer was already talking again.

“Alright. This interview is not meant to be a recitation of your background and skill set, we feel the information we’ve already collected on you, along with your exam results, give us a good picture of your abilities. We’re more interested in whether you’re a good ‘cultural fit’ with our organization.”

People always said things like that to cover the fact that they had already made up their minds about you. What does “cultural fit” even mean? What culture? Was this woman just here to decide whether or not she liked her? Alena wished she had eaten something earlier.

“‘Cultural fit’ in this context means we’re looking for someone who embodies the values of consistency, completeness, resolution, determinism, transitivity, and habitability in their approach to problems.”

Those were mostly mathematical properties. How was someone supposed to embody the values of say, transitivity, in their everyday life?

The Interviewer’s brows dropped. “Surely you knew this and came prepared for this interview,” she said.

Alena opened her mouth to claim that yes, surely she had, but the Interviewer raised a hand to stop her and continued,

“Well, that’s disappointing but not altogether unexpected.”

Alena’s head jerked back in surprise. She and the Interviewer regarded each other with equally displeased expressions.

“No, I’m not reading your mind. This is a temporary pocket of spacetime we call a ‘sandbox’ that was constructed with specific parameters in mind. One of which is that I, as the creator, have near-simultaneous knowledge of all of the contents of the sandbox, including whatever goes through your mind, as you are right now a construct of the sandbox. Yes, sort of like reading your mind. No, nothing so extreme. Yes, you are. Well you knew that much when you signed up,” the Interviewer said in rapid response.

All that just fucking added up, didn’t it? Sure. Fine. Whatever. Sandwiches, danishes, the ability to read foreign names and mysterious professions on the sign-in sheet. Alena immediately started brainstorming all of the things she shouldn’t think about.

For example, she probably shouldn’t think about how she had just cheated her way through the first round of simulations. Wouldn’t they know about that already with their so-called near simultaneous knowledge? Definitely she shouldn’t think about how she had been studying from a stolen test preparation book, or how she had been taking neuroplasticity-enhancing drugs for the last year in preparation.

“Yes, that was not ideal behavior, nor fitting with the type of character we are looking for in Builders, but there are some special dispensations. You know most of the other people here are from places and time periods where human life is flourishing, and have been born and bred to excel at cosmostatic reasoning. We can occasionally turn a blind eye to someone playing neurophysical catch-up.”

“I’ve never heard of cosmostatic reasoning,” Alena said, and it came out of her mouth because she said it before she thought it.

“You’ve been thinking of it as ‘modeling,’ because you never studied it formally. That’s all right, we’re trying to be more welcoming of candidates from…underprivileged backgrounds.”

Even though this was an unembodied space beyond time, and her real body was lying in a nest of connective tissues deep in the belly of her mothership, Alena’s face heated up. So that was why she had made it this far, despite struggling with every element of the exam. She was the diversity candidate.

The Interviewer’s smile faltered. Maybe she had expected Alena to be happy about that news and was put out now that she wasn’t. Maybe she thought Alena should feel privileged to hear a tidbit from behind the curtain, to have her time wasted by the august Board in this moment outside of time and space.

Joke’s on you, Alena wanted to say, I never thought I had any chance of passing. She didn’t have to say it of course, since thinking was enough.

The Interviewer pursed her lips. The rest of the interview consisted of tedious mathematical problems Alena did not know how to answer.

 

3:30–5:00: 2nd simulation session

They were back in the simulation. Alena was steaming. She was gripping the ball of universe so tightly it was probably going to lose a dimension.

The application of time apparently required a different user interface, because the back of her mind now contained a switch and a dial. The switch moved in two directions, forward and reverse. The dial was shaped like an infinite double cone with the apex at the origin of an n-dimensional space. She toyed with the dial first without touching the switch.

It was pretty fucking cool actually, but didn’t fit the aesthetic or the goals of her lump universe. Alena reluctantly collapsed the double cone into its projection on the xy-plane and labeled the clockwise direction with an unbounded sequence of speeds.

She tossed the grey marble up and down a few times. The switch only had two directions, forwards and backwards. Once she turned time on, there wouldn’t be any stopping.

Alena flipped the switch to “forward” and cranked the dial clockwise one full turn. The grey lump didn’t seem to show any effects whatsoever.

Alena rolled it between her palms a few times. Time was certainly passing in the model universe; she could tell from the interface. Time was also probably passing in the simulation. The simulation was built in a sandbox, and that sandbox existed somewhere inside a universe subject to some measure of time, forwards or backwards at some speed, somewhere.

She felt around the dial a bit—simple one-dimensional time for a simple spherical universe—and then looked around to see where she could scavenge more time from.

Now that her eyes were open to them, Alena saw the total carnage wrought by the passage of time on the remaining few universe models around her. Those that were left had expanded so much that they filled the simulation’s available space, each layered over the next.

She could see photons become ancient, frozen, wavelengths so long she lacked the imagination to measure them. Layer upon layer of stellar remnants sifted down from one universe to another until they formed an icy sediment, studded through with iron stars which collapsed into black holes which evaporated into nothing she could see or understand.

Simultaneously and in the same space, other universes were coming apart. Galaxies unraveled and planets splintered, victims of their creators’ wantonly unbounded cosmological constants. Dark energy, left to grow at an ever-accelerating pace, split atoms in front of her eyes. Universes surrounded her, each dying their own death. Alena wanted to look away but wasn’t quite sure how.

She closed her eyes and crossed her arms against her chest, hugging herself, and tried to pull back. When she opened them again, the garden was around her, now lush, dense and overgrown, drinking richly of an unknown light. The Beautiful Gardener was standing next to her.

They were both looking at the tree at the center of the garden, which now revealed itself to be a fig tree.

“—and here you are,” the Beautiful Gardener said. “I take it this means the other candidates have already been eliminated.”

Alena didn’t say anything. If the Beautiful Gardener wanted to know about the other candidates, she could look for herself.

The other woman didn’t seem put off by the lack of response, she just copied Alena’s pose, regarding the fig tree as well. Alena huffed and put her arms down.

She couldn’t see it, but if she closed her eyes again, Alena could feel the sun on her face. In the back of her mind, another dial existed, untouched, the one belonging to the Beautiful Gardener. The switch hadn’t been flipped, but regardless, the garden was still growing around them.

“Are you going to steal that?” the Beautiful Gardener asked. Clearly she could feel Alena’s groping at the fabric of time. She smiled and crow’s feet appeared at the corners of her eyes.

“Why do you look like that,” Alena demanded instead of answering her. “I’m sure they pretend otherwise, but those proctors would definitely look more favorably on you if you were still gorgeous.”

“I’m not sure I’d call my real body ‘gorgeous,’ but thanks,” she said dryly. “I look the way I do because where I’m from that’s how they want people to look. Our bodies are carefully edited as we grow to enhance our intelligence and health, but also for symmetrical features, an attractive body, a full head of hair.” She pulled off a garden glove and inspected both sides of her broad hands and short, callused fingers. “A certain long and elegant bone structure. I haven’t had my original nose since I was thirteen,” she said, tapping the nose in question.

She dusted off the baggy gardening clothes.

“My world made me beautiful. I made myself a botanist,” the woman continued.

“So what, you put on wrinkles and sunspots out of spite?” Alena asked.

“I feel fine. This is just an image; my body works well here and feels good. I just thought—” She paused. “Well, if I were going to wake up every morning and look in the mirror, I’d rather see this face than their face.”

That didn’t make sense. They were only in here for another hour. Or something. Another finite unit of time with the usual magnitude and direction, at any rate.

“Still,” Alena said, then trailed off.

The Beautiful Gardener reached up into the lowest branches of the fig tree and plucked a fruit.

Alena wanted to say something sarcastic, but she was distracted by the ringing in her ears, and the sudden recall of her attention to the void outside the garden. Outside the garden, all the other simulated universes had died, but somehow, Alena thought she could hear voices. She frowned and refocused on the woman in front of her.

The Beautiful Gardener handed her the fig. The skin was sap green, and it felt sunwarm and heavy in her hand. Vascular bundles made thin veins just underneath the surface, and it gave softly under her fingertips, at perfect ripeness.

Alena rubbed her thumb around the ostiole, before pushing her nail in and splitting the fruit apart. The inside was dewy and ruby red, and she even thought she could smell the milky-sweet juice. It was hard to believe it wasn’t a real fruit.

But it wasn’t. What she was actually holding in her hand was a mathematical statement that had been converted into a symbol. She looked around the garden. The mapping worked because no two formulas would ever have the same symbol, just like now two figs and no two blades of grass would ever be exactly the same.

The Gardener’s cosmic orthogenesis was a map of statements about the simulation into the simulation, a mapping that allowed the universe to talk cogently about itself.

And that meant that Alena knew how to break it.

The pressure from outside the garden grew stronger at that thought, and the strange ringing cohered into the voice of the Proctor but she brushed it off.

It wasn’t even a trick actually; it was just the nature of the garden. The universe she had built must contain only those fruits and leaves that had been birthed through the process of cosmic orthogenesis. That is, they must be a universe of mathematical statements consistent with each other, and yes, she thought back to the first simulation, so the garden grew subject to the constraints of her weeding. Even the gardener’s actions had been a member of the set of all statements within the universe.

And if they stood in a universe of consistent statements, then that universe itself could never be fully written. The garden could never stop growing; this was a garden of forking paths. Down one path, the inconsistent state, all fruits were possible because they grew from a statement that was both true and untrue. Infinite proof by contradiction, unlivable, that would grind the delicate machinery of the simulation into dust before ever creating a real universe. A universe in which anything, right or wrong, could be proven.

It would be so easy to break it; she had the key in the palm of her hand, in the tiny grey marble. This was a formula that hadn’t been produced by the garden itself, but which the garden could easily talk about. Introduce it to the system and with a few tweaks she could prove both its truth and untruth, bringing the whole thing to a crashing halt.

Down the other path, the incomplete state, the garden could flourish, infinite figs on infinite fig trees, myrrh and Mecca balsam, root and vine; one day she would even see the sun.

And all it would take is the acceptance of the core flaw of the Beautiful Gardener’s creation: that there was knowledge outside the scope of what the garden could generate.

There was sugar on her tongue. Pulp oozed between her fingers. Alena realized she had eaten the fig. Nothing had ever tasted more real.

Somewhere, the Proctor was trying to stop them. She was reaching for the untouched dial and switch that controlled time in the garden. The Beautiful Gardener couldn’t touch it herself without changing it; Alena pushed the Proctor’s hands away.

The Beautiful Gardener handed her another fig, and Alena ate it in one bite, skin and all, and her eyes were closed but she felt like she could see the whole garden, and that the garden was compact and twisted in space, and she was standing in her own line of sight, eating fruit after fruit.

To accept that the universe was consistent but not complete was to accept there would be things beyond the garden’s ability to prove. There would be true things about the garden that could never be revealed by the churning wheel of orthogenesis.

But more specifically, she knew, clutching the cold grey marble, there was one thing that she herself would never get to know, would never have another chance to ask.

She couldn’t see beyond the garden anymore—the simulation was getting stronger—but she could hear the Proctor’s voice screeching in the void, demanding to shut it down and to pull it apart. Alena wondered if the Beautiful Gardener could hear it too.

Come out, the Proctor was saying, come out and we’ll tell you everything you want to know. The Beautiful Gardner was gazing at the sky. There was nothing she would be able to do. She was within the system, and Alena was the crack that they would use to prize open this cocoon. Trust us, the outside voices demanded as one.

She couldn’t. She wanted to move on, to move forward, to walk under the sun, but—

She held up the blue test booklet, which was creased and crumpled from her death grip. The Beautiful Gardener’s smile made her look young again. She gently pulled the paper out of Alena’s hand.

She took up Alena’s pen and struck out the curvature, struck out the field equations, the matter, energy, density, light and dark, and every axiom and base definition on the page, and as she did so, the tiny cold ball in Alena’s hand loosened, dissolved, and then finally was no more.

And as it dissolved, the garden became a closed form, infinite but bounded, self-contained, and the voice of the Proctor, and the Interviewer, and Others which Alena couldn’t place cut off.

The sudden quiet startled her; it was like she had been surrounded by shrieking cicadas and had not noticed until they were gone. Now there was total silence, waiting to be filled. Not even a rustle of leaves disturbed the quiet; there was no wind to move them. But there would be.

Alena turned to the expectant face of the Beautiful Gardener.

“Do you know how to make birds?” she asked.

The woman handed her a pair of gloves, and together they disappeared into the foliage.

Story copyright © 2021 by Cooper Shrivastava
Art copyright © 2021 by Kellan Jet

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