Aptitude

By Cooper Shrivastava

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.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/08/04/aptitude-cooper-shrivastava/

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