(From ‘The Competition for Immortality’)
This was what she did for a living, she created computer simulations in which virtual animals she called ‘beasties’ could move around and eat food. If the beasties ate too much food it would run out and they would starve, so their numbers seesawed up and down as they cycled through periods of feast and famine. The latest innovation that she’d added to the beasties’ world was to give them another type of food, so they now had grass that needed to be cultivated and meat that needed to be hunted. But although there was plenty of food, the beasties’ behaviour was rather chaotic and they didn’t seem able to feed themselves very effectively. They moved in random directions, as if confused by what was on offer. She always pictured them as lumbering animals that worried about sudden loud noises or hidden predators. Even though there weren’t any noises or any predators in the code, the beasties might have a whole hidden mental existence. After all, they did in her imagination.
And when she left this department, she was going to have to leave them behind. Even though she’d written the code that created the beasties, it was the intellectual property of the department. They weren’t really hers. As the lab-people laughed at the pixellated biscuit-eating she felt a pang of nostalgia and she wondered how the beasties would cope. There was still one more variable that she wanted to introduce to their world before she left them for good.
The lab-man standing next to her by the laptop, who grinned at her sometimes when the boss was being excessively verbose in seminars, suggested they all go to the pub. She’d worked here nearly three years and only been invited to the pub a couple of times. So she ran to get her coat and when she found them again they were halfway down the street, with their arms linked like some long chained molecule. In the pub they shoved up to make space for her so she was able to settle down next to the man, and a few drinks later he spoke to her, ‘Do you ever compare your computer simulations to the real world?’
‘Other people do that.’ The beer was slipping down smoothly and the man’s hand was resting very near to hers on the sofa. She fancied she could feel the warmth of it.
‘Have you ever looked through a microscope?’ he asked. ‘At real things?’
She shook her head, she didn’t do microscopes.
‘Come and have a look. I’ll show you a whole new world.’
She said she’d think about it and then she fell quiet again, she wanted to listen to some more of the lab-people’s talk because they were all so easy with each other, it made her feel comfortable too. They were talking now about the annual ‘Fruit Fly Olympics’ where different strains of fruit flies competed for the honour of being set free in the boss’s office.
‘Come and look tomorrow,’ the man spoke to her more quietly and more insistently than before. Then his hand came down on top of hers as if they’d both planned it, and maybe they had.