"Yeah, Les," I'd answer. "But selfish genes! Given half a chance, they'll take over a human cell, force it to make armies of new viruses, then burst it apart as they escape to attack other cells. They may not think. All that behavior may have evolved by blind chance. But doesn't it all feel as if it was planned? As if the nasty little things were guided, somehow, by someone out to make us miserable...? Out to make us die?"
"Oh, come now Forry," he would smile at my New World ingenuousness. "You wouldn't be in this field if you didn't find phages beautiful, in their own way."
Good old, smug, sanctimonious Les. He never did figure out that viruses fascinated me for quite another reason. In their rapacious insatiability I saw a simple, distilled purity of ambition that exceeded even my own. The fact that it was mindless did little to ease my qualms. I've always imagined we humans over-rated brains, anyway.
We'd first met when Les visited Austin on sabbatical, some years before. He'd had the Boy Genius rep even then, and naturally I played up to him. He invited me to join him back in Oxford, so there I was, having regular amiable arguments over the meaning of disease while the English rain dripped desultorily on the rhododendrons outside.
Les Adgeson. Him with his artsy friends and his pretensions at philosophy -- Les was all the time talking about the elegance and beauty of our nasty little subjects. But he didn't fool me. I knew he was just as crazy Nobel-mad as the rest of us. Just as obsessed with the chase, searching for that piece of the Life Puzzle, that bit leading to more grants, more lab space, more techs, more prestige... to money, status and, maybe eventually, Stockholm.
He claimed not to be interested in such things. But he was a smoothy, all right. How else, in the midst of the massacre of British science, did his lab keep expanding? And yet, he kept up the pretense.