Ed took a week to figure it out.
"Epsilon Eridani does not exist."
"How much have I told you about cosmology recently?"
"Not a lot."
"Right. This universe, our universe, is constructed in layers. A bit like a person in the Antarctic wearing a dozen different layers of clothing, a bit like a heavily insulated wire, a bit like a book of carpet samples. Each layer could in theory be considered the 'top' layer depending on what angle you look at it, each layer is intrinsically connected to the all the others to various extents, each layer affects the others to various extents, and each layer has different properties. There are seventy-nine layers in total."
"And you discovered this how?"
"Magic. So for example we live in one layer, and there's another layer 'above' this one which contains what I guess is best described as our layer's config file."
"I remember you telling me about that one."
"Yes. It was the first one I found. I've found more since then. Anyway, I found a hole in one of the layers."
I stare blankly. Ed taps a button on the nearest computer and a projector attached to the basement ceiling starts shining an image on one of the walls. The image is a render of a translucent sphere - it looks like a cross between a map of space, an onion, and an ultrasound image of an unborn infant. A tiny label at the centre of the rotating diagram marks Sol. Other stars in the stellar neighbourhood are also marked.
Epsilon Eridani, if it still existed, would be at the centre of a spherical chunk missing from one side of the sphere - like a stone removed from a mutant, lop-sided peach. Judging by the scale, there's no data - whatever the data happens to be - from anywhere within roughly half a light-year of Epsilon Eridani.
"A spherical hole," said Ed. "As you might guess, light speed varies by layer. These readings come from analysis of a layer where light travels roughly a billion times faster than in ours. I checked again and got the same response back. There's nothing there, just a gap. I took readings from several more layers," he adds, pressing keys and cycling through several different, more alien-looking diagrams, all with the same black hole. "Same result every time. Every layer I investigated. Something has somehow punched a light-year-wide hole in the universe. When we tried to jump to Epsilon Eridani, which looks like it's still there because this event was less than eleven years ago, we just glanced off the outer edge of the hole in almost the opposite direction... and kept going almost forever.
"But there's a problem. The hole is getting bigger."
"Light speed. Our light speed, one light year per year. Which means that sometime around the start of 2013, it'll reach Earth. And maybe destroy it."
"Maybe? You don't know?"
"...Can we stop it?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what is it? Do you even have an idea?"
"I... I don't know." Ed looks around at the white walls of the basement, looking at who knows what. Then he opens a drawer, pulls out a small pen-shaped object and pushes a button on it. It starts emitting loud white noise. Ed holds it up. "You know the CIA are always listening," he says over the noise; his voice is distorted, difficult to make out. "I don't mind that most of the time. But the concept of an energy virus is one I never want to leave this room. Can you imagine the consequences of... of implementing a... you know that Game Of Life thing? 2D grid of cells, ones and zeros, breeding or dying according to a tiny number of rules. Each part of our universe affects every other part of the universe according to rules: more complicated rules than the Game but rules, nevertheless. So, what if you could make a pattern, not at the cellular level, not even at the molecular or atomic level, what if you started writing ones and zeros on the quantum foam? What if you built a pattern that could reproduce, with or without matter, with or without vacuum? What would happen if it began reproducing? Can you imagine how fast it could reproduce, how fast it could expand? Could you stop it?"
"I don't know," I reply. I can barely hear my own voice.
"Nor do I," says Ed. "I've deliberately tried not to know. Never thought about it, never wrote down theories or equations or diagrams or even put the word 'energy' and the word 'virus' in the same paragraph. This isn't splitting the atom, this isn't antimatter refineries, this isn't even a nanotech grey goo nightmare, if this is possible, if this is what I think it is, then this thing could eventually consume the whole universe."
"You always said if it was possible to destroy the universe then somebody would have destroyed it by now."
Ed smiles without humour. "And I still don't know who exactly I was trying to convince. Anyway... it's just a theory. And we have about a decade to figure out what to do about it."
"Correction. We have a decade to figure out what to do about it, and then do it."
Ed turns off the white noise generator, and puts it away. "You're right. In fact, I've put it off for long enough. I think it might finally be time for me to call that conference."
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