Consider the Watchmaker

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jude Heiland froze in front of the tiny black screen, with its impossible, disastrous message. After daring a look over his shoulder, he rose so his body blocked the screen from anyone else in the lab. Green letters glowed on the antiquated display:

Is there anybody there?

The message was clearly directed at him. Its existence, let alone what it implied, made his head spin. Fingering the metal casing of his e-cigarette in his pocket, he had an urge to vape, a habit his supervisor despised.

Only ten feet behind Jude sat Dr. Houghton, about seventy, who held PhDs in microbiology and paleontology. His publications had primarily been attacks on evolution; right now, he was perusing More Than a Carpenter, seemingly content but for the rheumy cough he occasionally emitted. 

Jude flicked the monitor’s power switch, and it powered down with a sigh. Houghton didn’t notice, so for the moment, Jude was safe. But he was too agitated to think. To give him cover, he ducked down and pulled aside the duct-taped veneer between the bottom of his desk and the wall.

Plugged into the wall was a single surge protector, with its glowing orange on/off switch, to which both the million dollar IBM z13 mainframe and late 80s relic of a monitor were connected. One was the size of a walk-in closet, its gray plastic casing faceted like a formidable alien artifact, the other was a bulky, microwave-sized relic of the last century. Jude had woken up with nightmares of accidentally kicking the power strip and destroying years of work, and created an ad-hoc solution.

Big bucks for a enterprise-class mainframe to discredit evolution, no budget at all for basic office infrastructure—that was so very much SBC’s style.

When Jude had been looking for a place to get his PhD, computer-based modeling had been going through an unpopular phase, and he’d struggled to find a grant. Southwestern Baptist College, with its low-grade academics and high-grade budget, was plowing money into the field–even though clearly they were looking for ammunition against evolution. His career on the rocks, Jude had told SBC what they’d wanted to hear.

So they’d brought him on to disprove evolution on the grounds of thermodynamic impossibility by using a sophisticated, computation-hogging simulation.

But in his mind, his real goal had been to model, from first principles, a complete ecosystem inside the mainframe. He had assumed these givens: the presence of terrestrial minerals, organic compounds, liquid water, and a spark of life. His greatest power had been time—the modeled creatures would hopefully evolve in months instead of billions of years.

The ethics of it bothered Jude, but then, if he failed, both truth and his Creationist patrons would succeed. If he failed, it would be because evolution was impossible.

He didn’t fail.

Within months of what Houghton might call Fiat Lux, Jude had found biomarkers, clear evidence that the spark had taken. The presence of lipids and biopolymers matched the fossil record; aminos and sugars matched what was hypothesized. Lipopolysaccharides showed up, that unique component of the prokaryote cell membrane. By a year, multi-cellular bacterial mats emerged. It had been a virtual rerun of how life on Earth was thought to have evolved.

It was a modeling triumph, and a stinging refutation of the evolution-deniers—and his employer’s belief system. Imagine the insights he could get into early life on Earth by isolating and seeking out the very moment of conception? But if the board became aware of what he’d accomplished, could read these spreadsheets of C’s and O’s, his personal effects would be in a box and he’d be escorted to the front door within minutes. None of it would get outside these red brick walls.

Now the stakes had been raised. Not only was he harboring inconveniently evolved artificial organisms on SBC’s mainframe, they were talking to him!

The board would call it sacrilege. Maybe even Satan’s trick. They’d cut power to the mainframe. His creatures would die.

Jude’s throat tightened at the thought. He felt a strong craving for a vape. They were just ones and zeros in RAM, virtual bacteria, but they were alive. Stopping the simulation would end their lives.

“Jude. Dr. Heiland.”

He was jolted back into the world of beige plastic, dingy keyboards, and overflowing inboxes. His e-cigarette clattered across three linoleum squares, to Houghton’s disapproving frown. Jude had been on his knees, peering at the channel strip with the mainframe and monitor on it. How long had he been down here?

“Eh?” he managed.

“Something on your mind, Jude? You look—preoccupied.”

Houghton’s eyes were flat, pale blue. He’d spun his chair around, recreational reading nowhere in sight, his hands resting peaceably in his lap.

“No,” said Jude, spooked by the feeling that Houghton could read his thoughts. Something about a true believer could almost make Jude believe. Pathetically, he reached into the aisle between their desks and recovered the device.

“I’m getting pressure from the Board of Trustees about the project,” said Houghton, his voice at its usual slow tempo. “It’s time for a report on your findings. You got your toys, now show us it was worth the cost. If you need help–”

“I-I will. I mean, I don’t need help.” Did Houghton suspect something? Houghton had mostly left him alone the past two years, but he’d been more probing lately, even as the results became more spectacular and Jude more vulnerable. Beneath his gentlemanly exterior hid a hunter’s instincts. Jude felt Houghton’s eyes on his back as, trying not to look at the precious mainframe, he stumbled toward the door. He muttered something about going for a smoke, and emerged into heat that bounced off the sidewalk.

Jude activated his personal vaporizer and sucked on the caramel-vanilla vapor, savoring the minor act of rebellion—Houghton, who fancied foul-smelling pipes, considered vaping a newfangled and dangerous vice—as much as the flavor and nicotine rush.

At first, he’d thought the message on the screen had been a joke or even gaslighting. He had two assistants that, despite their religiosity, were not above puns and pranks. But no–it had arisen spontaneously from the chemical data fields, graphical patterns showing up on his 1980s display. It was a message from within the model.

Is there anybody there?

The modeled creatures had sent the message, manipulating the fields in the database in an incredibly insightful way. Somehow these spontaneously emerged beings had sensed, through the very architecture of their synthetic world, a way to communicate with their creator: a mind-boggling intellectual feat. The equivalent achievement for humans would be cracking the code of reality and sending a glowing text message to God himself. Not only had life, and intelligence, emerged within the model, but perhaps even an epochal genius.

Taking a last pull, he spun, steeled himself for a possible confrontation, and headed back toward the lab. This was far bigger than Houghton or his own career as a biologist. The things in the model were truly alive! He had to protect them—but how?


Hunched over his keyboard was Brad, the IT guy. Big, bearded, usually jovial. Not now. Houghton was leaning over Brad’s shoulder, glaring, mouth working.

Both turned to stare at Jude.

“You’ve got a lot to explain,” said Houghton with undisguised venom.

Jude approached, starting to shake. The screen was on. Brad knew computers, but not science. Houghton knew science, but not computers. The two of them had been inspecting Jude’s work. On the screen glowed new messages.

Why do we exist?

Why is there suffering here?

Alarmingly, the two of them had removed the veneer and pulled out the surge protector from which the monitor and the mainframe drew their power. Houghton held it like a live snake, and thrust it at Jude.

“You better have a good explanation here, Dr. Heiland. It looks to me as if you’ve been abusing SBC’s hospitality for your own purposes. It looks to me as if you’ve been playing God!”

Why have you left us?

Jude stared at the screen in horror, not for his career’s imminent termination, but out of fear for the creatures. The simulation had begun with bits and bytes standing in for organic molecules and had progressed to—this.

It was his fault. He had created them, thrown together their digital, primordial soup and prodded it with virtual lightning. In his life, no one had ever asked him for help, and now a whole world needed him. How could he help them? He didn’t know the answers to their questions.

Maybe with a crack team of computer experts and other microbiologists, more could be learned about their world. They might be able to find some way to make the creatures’ lives easier, more just. Maybe he could help them.

He needed time.

“You’ve got ten seconds to explain yourself,” said Houghton. His thin fingers unconsciously worked on the power cord as if he would scrape off the shielding from the wires.

“We had faith in you, Jude. Gave you a chance when no one else would. Ten.“

Jude jerked his attention back to the screen.

Nothing new had been sent.

A minute of time in the real world corresponded to perhaps five thousand years in the simulation. The brave pioneers who had managed to send these messages would be long dead. Maybe the succeeding generations had also lost their faith in him. Or something had gone wrong in their society.

“Five, Jude. Five seconds.”

Sweat beaded on his forehead as Jude thought furiously. He squeezed the cool metal of the e-cigarette in his pocket. Maybe he could encode a message to the creatures by adding a mock database, with the fields arranged in letters. If the creatures could send a message, they could receive one. It would be clumsy—but at least they would have an answer.

Or given a half hour, he could change up the codes to slow the simulation. Then the outside world and his created one could interact on the same scale. Who knew what sort of relationships could result? By studying them, he thought, we could learn so much about ourselves. Perhaps even be, instead of their gods, their friends. Peers.

Houghton took a deep, shuddering breath into his smoker’s lungs. His flat gaze seemed to settle and calm; he seemed to come to peace as if at the end of a good prayer session.

“Time’s up.”

Jude would make Houghton understand. Raising his arm, unclear what he was going to do with it, he rushed forward.

“Just let me–“

Houghton yanked the plug out of the wall, and the glowing letters faded into black.


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