“So, what do you think?” I asked Dou.

He leant back, the couch’s chestnut-brown leather creaking beneath his weight. His glaring-white t-shirt strained over his ample belly. I could see his sigh, but the sound was lost in the clink of porcelain from the next table.

Why did these kinds of meetings always take place in coffee shops? Why not supermarkets, or swimming pools, or next to bubbling rapids high up in the pristine mountains?

Were coffee shops easier to render? Fewer polygons? It couldn’t be the smells. A pool was mere chlorine, a coffee shop a thousand different odours.

Maybe I was overthinking it.

“I think it won’t work,” Dou said and I loved him for it.

Not for the failure part, I had expected that, but for the fact that he didn’t call me crazy, or storm out into the street, or call the cops. Whatever good that would do.

“I’m not talking about a virus,” I said.

“A virus wouldn’t work,” Dou agreed. “The kind of resource use you’re thinking of would make everyone and their grandma notice.”

“That’s why they have to want to use it,” I said. “Or it won’t work.”

“It won’t work,” Dou repeated.

Was that him? Or was it a system glitch? Would I even be aware of it if it was? Would he? So many questions, and only one answer. If it would work.

“That’s where you come in,” I told him. “You’re the genius. So, genius, make it work.”

He leant forward, to another loud creak from the leather, his t-shirt folding inwards where it touched the table. The amount of computing power required for the seamless blend of shadows playing across his gut made my proposition ludicrous.

But I’d hooked him.

“You’ll need something massive,” he said. “I mean, simulating something like this …” He lifted his cup, hot cocoa sloshing inside, a tiny boat of slowly melting cream whirling through it.

“That’s why it has to be useless calculations,” I said. “Something that will put a strain on the resources, but not contribute to the simulation.”

“If it is a simulation,” Dou said. “You haven’t proved that yet.”

“What’s outside of the Universe?” I countered. “It’s unprovable until you’re standing there, looking in.”

He raised his hands in an I-surrender gesture. Fine hairs dotted his skin, blond, almost too tiny to see. I adjusted my glasses. Still almost too tiny to see.

Was that why human eyesight was getting worse over time? Too many observers, too much to render? Somewhere, the simulation’s capacity would be reached. Even the Universe had to be finite.

“If it’s unprovable, then you’ve got nothing to prove.” Dou said, forestalling my objections with a raised finger. The nail was badly chewed. “But I like you, and I like the challenge.”

“So you’ll help me?” I said. “Figure out a way to get the computing software onto enough computers?”

“No need to figure,” Dou said. “Just make it sexy.”

“Porn?” I said. That sounded stupid. There was an endless amount of porn on the Internet already.

“No, numbskull,” he said. “Sexy. Like money, or tech, or celebrities.”

“It’s already tech,” I said. I hesitated. “I could probably pay some celebrity to endorse it.”

“If you could, you wouldn’t need me,” Dou said. “Besides, paying isn’t sexy. You want people to pay you for it.”

Which, admittedly, sounded nice. But …

“How?” I said.

Dou gave me his patented shit-kicker grin.

“Make up a story,” he said. “A mysterious discovery, a shadowy inventor, a treasure. Think Indiana Jones, the opening where he’s chased by a giant rock. He’s found the treasure and then he loses it.”

I blinked. Lost treasure. It sounded …

“Brilliant,” I said. “You install the program on your computer, and you search for treasure.”

“But you don’t find it,” Dou said. “Only sometimes.”

“Gambling,” I said. “You have to be the first with your calculations. People will pour processing power into it like crazy.”

Dou raised his cup in the salute, then slurped the last dregs of chocolate, smacked his lips.

“You’ll need to make a few people really rich,” he said. “Make it easy in the beginning. Free money is sexy.”

“But hard later,” I said. “Require more calculations for every reward. Limit the availability. Like collectibles. Coins or ancient swords.”

People would go crazy for it. Throw all the processing power they had at it. If that didn’t shut down the simulation, nothing humanity was capable of would.

“Magic,” Dou said.

“What?” I said.

“Not coins,” he said. “Magic cards. Don’t forget the story. You’ve got to have a great story. And a sexy name. Something that says tech, and power.”

“I’ve got that already,” I said, picking up his cup and taking a deep breath, coffee and chocolate and cinnamon in my nose. “Gonna call it Bitcoin.”

The story behind the story

Filip Wiltgren reveals the inspiration behind The end of infinity.

I’ve always been fascinated by the belief people put on the economy — an entirely imaginary field. Contrary to popular belief, stocks, derivatives, even money itself, have no intrinsic value. All the value we assign to them, the ability to convert one dollar into a can of Coca-Cola, for example, is entirely imaginary and could shift at any moment. In reality, the only difference between the 2022 dollar and the 1923 hyperinflating German Papiermark is one of belief.

This view does not go down well with people less interested in the philosophy of value than me. I’ve incensed a number of stock-investing friends to the point where we had to stop talking to each other simply by claiming that all their stocks have no absolute value, and that at any moment, the perceived value of the stocks could turn to zero (or infinity, but that’s something people don’t complain about).

So when I got the idea for a story about how to discover if we’re living in an entirely virtual reality, going with virtual value on virtual coins seemed like the right way to go.

And if it happens to disparage a technology that’s causing some real environmental harm to our possibly non-virtual world, then that’s fine by me.