Hello, Ed. I don't know if you'll ever find this message, or how old you'll be when you do. I'm half-hoping you never find it at all. This whole business seems... well, sickening would be the word.
My name is Eduardo Frank MacPherson. I am you, from another timeline.
This isn't the history module, that comes later, so I'll be blunt. Our Earth has fallen. We were thrust into interstellar war and we lost. Badly. So badly that right now, over a decade after the end of hostilities, we still don't have a clear idea of the full extent of the damage. Your job is to change the course of that war. We are giving you all the information you need. Unfortunately the system we're using to do this is complicated and difficult and... less untested than untestable. If you've found a way to read this now, you should be able to access the rest of the data in the same way. Otherwise... information may only be able to surface gradually, as flashes of inspiration, or dreams, or feelings which I'm told are something like deja vu. You will have the information you need at the time you need it. Whether you will be able to use it is down to you. We can't guide your actions from here, or alter your personality. We know you're going to be smart, hard-working and scientifically-inclined. We're hoping you'll also be tough, and... well, if you figure out a word which is like "patriotic" but applies to your planet instead of your country, then we hope you'll be something like that, too.
To be honest, a lot of people are secretly hoping you'll turn out to be the next Alexander the Great.
That's what I don't like about this. What we've given you is a greater burden than anybody ever carried, and we didn't ask your permission. Certainly, I volunteered for the project - because my life is the only life I'm remotely happy messing with. But you and I, I have realised, are two different people. I took away your life and replaced it with a mission.
For that, I'm sorry.
Mount Kerrig Research Facility, Nevada, USA
"I don't understand," I say. "What does that mean?"
"In their universe," says Ed, slowly and patiently, "the Eridanians won the war. They EMPed the entire planet Earth back into the stone age and neutron-bombed what was left. We fought back, but our technology was a century too slow to keep up with them. Because it was under a mountain, the Kerrig facility - a time travel research base in their universe just like ours - was one of the few places which was shielded sufficiently to have any working electrical technology after the attacks finally ceased.
"They deconstructed downed Eridanian drones and took scientific and tactical information from the few intact data structures they could scavenge. They constructed entire libraries - all the information about the enemy they could find, along with ready-made guides for the design and manufacture of weapons, nanoassemblers, unbelievably strong metal alloys... even spaceships. They put all the information they could fit into a tiny data package. And they asked for a volunteer. Turns out, in that universe, I was still pretty good at physics; I was one of the ones at Kerrig at the end of it all. I volunteered to be the subject. My mind was scanned and we moulded the data to fit it.
"We took a piece of highly sophisticated medical equipment - somewhere in Japan-plus-ten, someone is drawing schematics for it, right now - and hooked it together with our time machine and projected the data backwards in time, to me.
"And the irony is - we got it as right as we possibly could have. But we didn't fully understand time travel. We had no guiding lights. We thought that by sending someone back in time to stop the war we could change history. It would all have been so perfect. To disappear and be replaced by a better world. I don't want to guess how many times we repeated the experiment when that didn't happen. Or what we did when we realised we were going to have to see our war through to the bitter end, alone."
"You can... remember everything now? All that data is there?"
"Yes," says Ed.
And there is a moment of silence.
"So... what happens now? How do we stop the war?"
"Don't you get it? We knew why the Eridanians attacked us. We knew it would be impossible to coexist with them. Even if we could find a way to talk with them, the damage has already been done. The level of radio output coming from Earth-minus-ten of 1998 is already high enough to permanently brain-damage these creatures. That's not to mention the fact that in eleven years' time, the signals from Earth-plus-ten of 2008 begin to arrive, more than doubling the volume in an instant. Even instantly ceasing all radio activity on Earth right now wouldn't save them. No, the war is unavoidable. The plan, all along, was to win the war for Humanity. I'm supposed to wipe them out. It's them or us."
"There has to be a third option."
"The only third option would be to block the signals somehow. But if I knew how to do that, it would have been part of the plan to start with. You'd need godlike powers. You'd need to... to build a wall across trillions of kilometres of space, or something. A wall, or a force-field, or a... chasm. Wait a minute." Ed turns to the robot avatar of the Hotel Infinity, whom I had forgotten was even there. "The energy virus," he says.
"The last piece of the puzzle," says the robot.
"Can you do it?"
"It's already been done."
We request a window, some way to see the event as its light - or absence thereof - reaches us. In response, the Hotel Infinity instantly teleports us to an invisible force-shielded bubble of air on the exterior of its hull.
Standing in it, entirely comfortable, but apparently directly exposed to hard vacuum, is one of the most unnerving experiences imaginable.
The exterior of the ship is a burnt orange-red, and has the approximate texture of a field of rocks strewn with crushed circuit boards and radio equipment. Its hull (shell?) is vaguely conical but very irregular, and stretches for five hundred metres ahead of us and another five hundred behind. To the left and right it curves precipitously downwards - it feels like I could step off into space any time I wanted.
Dominating the "sky" above us are two of the ship's eight wings - enormous red bat-like structures which ring the fatter end of the ship. These have apparently evolved as a means of dumping heat into space, a process vital to survival in the hot near-sun habitat from which the Hotel Infinity's race hail.
We rotate away from Epsilon Eridani and the orange glare is replaced with a glittering star field.
"I was given the technology to beat the waves of robot drones that the Eridanians sent to us," says Ed. "But when the Eridanians realised they were losing, they changed their strategy, something nobody in the other timeline could have accurately predicted. They conceded that they would never shut us up, and instead they began working on this. You see, there's more than one kind of energy virus.
"They weren't trying to cut an infinitely expanding sphere out of the universe. That was a mistake. They were trying to create a spherical shell; a virus which eats up spacetime in two dimensions, curving around slowly as it expands, then meets itself as it forms a complete sphere and stops completely. They just hit the wrong combination first. And the Andromedans, in their infinite wisdom, know the right combination.
"It'll block out every piece of incoming electromagnetic radiation in this layer of the universe - light, radio, microwaves, ultraviolet. Light will still be able to escape, though, so the star won't be hidden. And because the higher layers aren't affected, we can still pass through the barrier with the tunnel drive, which means we can leave... and come back."
Eight minutes pass silently. Then, as we watch, our home star is blotted out, cut out of the sky as if by some cosmic holepunch. As time passes, the dark circle begins to expand, eclipsing more stars. With its edge advancing at the speed of light, it'll take about nineteen hours to enclose the whole solar system.
Around us, although we can't tell, blissful radio darkness falls. "Well," says Ed, "that's my purpose in life fulfilled."