This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
What the hell had just happened? Felix was far from the only person asking that question. At observatories around the world people were asking the same question. What the hell had just happened and where had the stars gone?
Or, more precisely, what was stopping the stars from being observed. Stars didn’t just vanish. Not all of them at once. So the only possible explanation was that something was in the way.
Within a few minutes a conference call with the great and the good was underway. Many questions were asked. What had happened? Was it some sort of danger? Was it a threat? Was it down to humans? Aliens? God? Something else altogether? Did it require a response?
And the answer to all those questions was the same. We don’t know.
Wild theories were thrown about, of course. One was that something had happened to the atmosphere to cause it to suddenly block all the light. That theory lasted all of twenty seconds – it didn’t explain how the moon was still visible, and the sun on the side of the planet facing it looked no different. But those were the types of straws people were clutching at.
Before long someone patched those on the international space station into the call, realising it was a way to tell whether the effects were limited to the earth’s atmosphere.
But those orbiting the earth had seen the stars vanish as well and now looked out upon a completely blank sky. They were scientists, highly trained to cope with a huge variety of different dangers and disasters, but underneath their calm tones was an edge of fear. Not surprising as they had a front row seat for… whatever was happening.
So whatever had happened had to reach far enough beyond the earth’s surface to impact the space station as well. And, it was soon confirmed, far enough to affect the Hubble space telescope too, which was half as high again as the station.
Still, it wasn’t impossible that both were within the impacted area. Both rushed around the world far closer than most people imagined, almost brushing the tops of the atmosphere, so maybe they were orbiting within whatever the effect was.
That still left the question of why the moon was still visible, but it was soon pointed out that the moon was far brighter than the stars. It didn’t seem to be being dimmed, but there was at least a workable argument for the earth having moved into some strange sort of dust cloud or other event which was reducing all light. The theory ran that the light from the stars was completely absorbed while the moon’s far stronger light made it through… as did the sun’s.
It wasn’t a perfect theory. For a start it didn’t answer the question of why the cloud hadn’t been seen approaching, blotting out a few stars, then more, then even more. Some suggested it might not be much larger than the Earth so its impact just hadn’t been noticed as it approached.
It took another ten minutes of arguing for someone to have the thought that they could test the theory. They had images from far beyond the earth constantly being sent back. Images from the Mars orbiter were pulled up, images which should show the stars.
It didn’t take long to see that the stars had disappeared from those feeds too… and at exactly the same moment the same phenomena had occurred on Earth. Down to the sub-second.
This was becoming more troubling by the moment, though it did fit in with what astronomers were now reporting. All of the planets of the solar system could still be seen in telescopes. Only the light from stars seemed to have been effected. So whatever the problem was it now appeared to exist beyond the solar system.
Which brought them back to the impossibility of something which spanned the entire solar system having just appeared in a single moment.
The possibility that this was some form of attack was now becoming a likely answer, in the minds of some people at least. But that just led to more questions. What was the point of it? Who or what could be behind the attack? And what should humanity do about it?
Before any progress could be made on those questions something new happened. Something which changed everything! The stars came back.
* * *
The stars came back. All of them. All at once.
Well, stars came back. Not the stars. Not the stars humanity had been used to seeing for so many millennia.
For most people the difference wasn’t immediately obvious, but to astronomers and stargazers it smacked them in the face immediately. The constellations were wrong. Missing. There were stars in the wrong places and stars missing from the right places. Some of the stars were even the wrong colour, colours that no unaided human eye had ever seen, colours which had only ever been visible through powerful telescopes before.
Less than a minute later the stars flickered off again and then back on for a few seconds. Once again all the stars went out and reappeared at the same moment… and they had jumped to different positions.
Still wrong positions, and several stars were so large and so close that they appeared as bright spheres in the sky rather than distant pricks of light. So close their gravity would tear at the solar system, disrupting the dance of the planets and moons.
Before that could start to happen the stars flickered out, then reappeared in new positions. Then they did it again. And again.
It went on for nearly five minutes, with the stars barely staying in one position for more than ten seconds at a time before abruptly flashing out and settling into a new configuration.
And then, finally, the stars jumped again and settled into the configuration everyone was familiar with. Across the world people held their breath — watching the sky where they could see it, glued to screens showing the stars where they couldn’t. Watched and waited to see what the stars would do next.
The seconds stretched into minutes without anything further happening. The minutes dragged on into hours. And the stars stayed where they should be, only seeming to move as the world turned.
Everything looked right again from the space station. And from Hubble and the Mars orbiter. As the sun came up in some locations, obscuring the stars, it went down in others revealing the same glimmers of light humanity had always seen. Before the insanity of flickering stars, at least.
Many people, most even, would never have given the night sky much thought. Some had grown up in cities and never seen the stars directly, but even for most of those who’d seen them every night the stars were… well, just there. Fixed. Unchanging.
Oh, occasionally they’d hear a scientist talk about a distant star vanishing to be replaced by a blazing supernova, but that was always one star amongst uncounted billions. But what had just happened… what had just happened was completely unfathomable.
* * *
And it remained unfathomable. Hours turned into days, days into weeks. And still the stars continued to reel through the sky as they always had. No. As they almost always had.
Scientists scrambled to find explanations. Some religions proclaimed what had happened as a sign that the end of the world was beginning. Other religions claimed it was a warning to mankind. Still others said that a god or gods had judged mankind and found them worthy. Of course even those religions said it was important for mankind to continue to worship, as there would likely be more tests in the future.
Then there were the conspiracy theories. That the government had stolen the stars. That there never were any such thing as stars, just a government hoax involving floating points of light. That what happened was a natural consequence of the world being flat. That interdimensional beings ruled humanity and their transport route back to their own dimension had experienced a problem. And those were just the plausible conspiracy theories.
But as time went on most scientists realised the facts painted only one picture. The fact every single star had gone out at the same moment, from the point of view of the earth, was one key element. Allowing for the speed of light, what seemed to have been an instantaneous event would have had to happen at totally different times for each star. The light from some stars had travelled so far the events had to have happened billions of years in the past, while for the closest stars it would only have happened a handful of years ago.
And it was realised that not every star had been affected. One had stayed shining as it always did. Our sun. Why would that one star have been unaffected?
Then there was the way stars had been seen in different places than they should be. No theory involving known scientific principles could explain that, or the fact stars of types never before seen even in the deepest star surveys had turned up.
One of the jumps had revealed an exploding supernova scarily close to the earth at just a few light years away. In the few seconds it had been visible the energy from it should have scoured all life from the side of the earth facing it… and yet it hadn’t. There had been the light, not as bright as it should have been, but none of the searing radiation.
Then there was the way everything had snapped back to normal. Not just in appearance, but in behaviour. None of the stars showed the slightest sign of having been affected by whatever had happened. Nor did the cosmic microwave background radiation, not even on our most sensitive measurements.
Gravity had been unaffected too. The ultra-sensitive experiments set up to detect gravity waves haven’t detected even the slightest ripple. Surely if stars were appearing, disappearing, and changing position, then something should have been detected? But nothing was.
The explanation was actually obvious, but no one wanted to admit it to begin with. Or even consider it. It was obvious… and it changed everything. Once it reached the general population it triggered the reality riots, and all the death and destruction those brought with them. As many violent deaths in a six month period as the whole of both world wars put together paired with a suicide rate tens of thousands of times higher than usual.
It was the only explanation which fit, and it was chillingly simple. The problems with the stars had all happened because of a computer error. A glitch. Something wrong in the program… the program which simulated our universe. The program which we must exist within.
The glitch, as it came to be known, could only have one cause. The universe was a simulation, and one with a bug. The various different arrangements of stars had either been the system trying to recover when things went wrong, or some unknowable being having a good poke around to try and fix the problem.
And then, after a short period which had still been long enough to devastate humanity’s self-view, the problem had been resolved and everything had gone back to how it had been before.
For the universe. For humanity nothing would ever be the same. We now know that we live in a simulation, which is terrifying in many ways. But what’s far worse is the knowledge we live in a glitchy simulation.
That’s what did the most damage. People could probably have learnt to live with the thought that reality was running on hardware. In some ways it meant there truly was some reason to our existence.
But to know that the programme was glitched, that at any moment you might be wiped out of existence because of a bug in the code? That everything you’d ever known or understood might end up in a big electronic heap and be discarded? Shut down and never restarted? That was truly terrifying, and it left humanity scarred.
Some argued that even the fact humanity has been scarred by the events was a sign the program was faulty. Surely it should have self corrected and wiped the knowledge of the glitch from our minds, or even reset to a backup from before the issue had happened.
Some argued the fact neither of those things happened was positive. They said it means there wasn’t someone watching closely over what we do who might decide to rewind the past few weeks or months without warning, or even decide to terminate the simulation completely.
At least we don’t think there is. For how would we ever know? Maybe they consider the glitch an interesting phenomena, one to leave running. For the moment at least. Maybe they don’t care at all one way or the other.
Or maybe rather than being part of one unique simulation, or one of just a few, it’s more like those computers we use to predict the weather. Hugely powerful computers running millions of almost identical simulations then aggregating the results to work out what’s likely to happen.
Whatever the truth, we can now be certain that we live in a simulation. Which leaves us with the last and most important question… if you live in a simulation, is life worth living?
A lot of people decided the answer was no – suicide rates increased massively, as did rates of those who simply… stopped. Gave up. Laid down and never got back up. Others decided it meant there were no consequences for anything they did, that they could steal, murder, and commit any other acts without consequence. Many more lives were lost that way.
But, eventually, what was left of humanity adapted. It always does. Disbelief had become terror, but then terror became numbness, and numbness became acceptance.
Those of us who survived those times take quite a stoic view. We still live, even if we now know we live digital lives. We still love. We still celebrate the birth of each new life and mourn each death.
Drink helps, of course. Everyone drinks a lot more these days. Well, everyone who was alive before we knew the truth. For those born after it’s just how life is. They’ve never known anything different.
But one thing is true for all of us. We never wonder whether we’re living in a simulation. We know we are. And we have ever since the night the stars went out.