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Worlds of Words

29 July 201010:43AMfiction

or, How I Met A Beautiful Woman At A Party Who Showed Me Her Basement Full Of Universes.

I met her at a party once. You know, those parties which are really boring and you end up standing in the kitchen drinking glass after glass of coke while everyone else gets progessively more drunk? Yeah. One of those parties. Anyway, she seemed normal enough. We got to talking, like you do with a fellow kitchen-stander at a party. She asked me what I did for a job, I told her I was an engineer, I build bridges. No kidding, she says, I'm sort of an engineer too. I build universes.

Wait, what?

Yeah, universes. I know, right? She asked me if I wanted to ditch the party and come and see. What did you expect me to say? No, sorry, one universe is quite enough for me, and besides, I'm really enjoying my seventh glass of flat coke? Of course I went. Anyway, as we walked down from this apartment and across the street to the uni campus, she told me that we technically weren't allowed in after hours, but that since she headed the project, it'd be fine. She fumbled with this massive keyring outside the physics building and opened the door.We're going to the basement, she says, cause all the funding goes to projects which are actually useful. Fair enough, I guess.

We trudged down something like three stories of stairs before we got to her lab, which was this dingy little room full of computer racks and dusty old microscopes. The newest thing in the room was a laptop sitting in a pool of light in the corner on top of a stack of complex looking notes. As she waited for it to boot up, she turned to me and told me that actually, what she said before about being an engineer wasn't strictly true. She said she'd rather think of herself as a writer. I know, a bit weird, but I played along. I asked her if she didn't build universes, why was she in the basement of a physics building? And she grinned this crazy little grin, and she says - get this - she says to me, You don't build a universe, you write it.

A bit nuts, right?

Anyway, the computer finished loading and she pulled up this plain black window, and starts typing into it. At first it looked like computer code, but the more she typed, the more it started to look like actual words. Which is just insane. I mean, you don't do anything in physics with words, especially not programming a computer. So I took a closer look. Turns out its not just words, it's poetry. Yeah, I know. What's it mean, I asked her, and she tells me the weirdest thing I've heard yet. She tells me that a bunch of physicists wrote this piece of software which could simulate an entire universe from the big bang, down to the tiniest atom. They ran them forwards, they ran them backwards, they ran them sideways, but they never developed any kind of life. They were dead, as dead and sterile as the numbers which made them up. They lost interest in the project, moved on to bigger things.

So then one day, an undergraduate, for a practical joke, got the idea of feeding The Complete Works of William Shakespeare into the simulator's paramaters, and it worked. Suddenly, they had life evolving inside this machine, in a universe which they could manipulate at will. With a number, they could switch off the sun, but with a few well placed words they could control entire races, sending them shooting off into the stars or plummeting back into the dark ages. The physicists hated it. The most interesting part of their little experiment and they couldn't turn it on and off, so they stuck it in the basement and tried to forget about it.

Which is where she came in. She, it turns out, was a poet. And for some reason, the simulator worked best with poetry. Feed it Poe, and you would make a race of stumpy little things, deathly afraid of their own shadow. Feed it Coleridge, and you make cities of towering glass spires, filled with hopeless dreamers. And if, just if, you had a scrap of talent of your own, you could bend civilisation around your finger and make it entirely your own, shaping a billion minds with a single well-placed stanza.

Her words, not mine. I told you she was a bit nuts.

Anyway, I asked her which poem she had just put in. She tells me it's the most interesting one of all, and hits enter. The universe burst to life on the screen, spinning and burning and collapsing into stars and galaxies and the time rushed forward and everything cooled and a tiny hunk of rock spun around a newly born star and the chill of space set its surface into a sphere and the rain and the warmth and the life all came moments apart and the planet went green then dark then green again and pinpricks of light worked their way across its surface and it hung there, in space, glowing. She zoomed the view down into one of the pinpricks, and swooped across the city into an oddly familiar apartment where two oddly familiar people stood talking... except...

I told her she got my nose wrong. No, she says. No, it really is that big. And that really is that party and that really is that apartment, and in just a few minutes I'm going to take you out to the basement of the physics lab and show you the computer.

I just stared.

And the she goes on, and says I already know what you're going to say. I'd love to get a coffee sometime. And as we walked towards the door I opened mymouth to ask, and she smiled, and said, No, I won't show you that poem.

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