When scientists from CERN announced “virtually irrefutable” evidence that the universe was a computer simulation, the world reacted initially with disbelief, shock, and despair. Detecting the anomaly was only possible using an apparatus combining extremely high collision energies and atomic timekeeping at a level of accuracy unimaginable twenty years earlier. While rumors of a major discovery pertaining to the granularity of space-time reached the awareness of sharp-eyed consumers of science news within a month of the anomaly being detected, the team carrying out the experiment, which consisted of close to five hundred physicists and engineers, did not officially disclose any information until they had repeated the experiment. The high similarity between the two experimental results, the number of particles involved, and the brain-numbing precision of the atomic clock used, a new instrument with an accuracy of one second in 25 billion years, as well as the diligent, fruitless search for a credible alternative explanation for the phenomenon raised the certainty of the experimental group’s conclusion not being an error to 5.4 sigma, well above the 5 sigma - standard deviation - threshold historically chosen to denote a result with a high probability of being genuine. It was five days past New Years, 2051 AD. Heralded as a major discovery, the results were taken as well as could be expected.
First there were a lot of suicides. This coincided with an unprecedented amount of soul searching on news programs, in living rooms, and in schools. The subset of the population that did not choose to kill themselves or their children nevertheless displayed a significant increase in incidents of depression across all age groups. One year later, a similar experiment conducted at the recently upgraded German HLFD Collider yielded similar results, boosting the confidence interval of the results to 5.9 sigma, just shy of 6 sigma, the latter representing a 1 in more than 506 billion chance that this was all some kind of aberration in the data. More suicides followed.
Over the next five years, a number of new religions emerged, built off of the foundation that the universe was made by a finite being or beings with capabilities that were impossible to know, with intentions and characteristics, laws of physics and fundamental constants that might be the same as humanity’s or vastly different but nevertheless, made of flesh and blood, as it were. Like many of the religions that had preceded the CERN and HLFD results, the hook of these new religions often centered around the idea of the afterlife. If the universe was a computer program, they assumed, all of the chemical reactions and physical phenomena that made the brain a self-aware thinking machine were playing out computationally using unknown rules and forces of nature that nevertheless, they alleged, probably operated upon data stored in some kind of memory or register. If so, all the information about you was stored in that medium and constantly being acted upon and evolved through computational operations. If you died, the ordered system of particles that made up your mind’s actual form in the Programmers’ universe would disappear. And yet, like a file deleted on an old fashioned magnetic hard disk, the data might not truly be destroyed, at least not initially. A remnant of the original order could remain. A ghost of you. In this sense, you would be immortal. Further, if the circumstances surrounding your death were emotionally intense enough, your ghost might leave a stronger imprint in the medium, perhaps even to the extent that it could manifest itself in the living world in a manner more truly reminiscent of the ghosts or poltergeists of occult lore. Seizing on this assumption, the objective of these religions was to attract the attention of the Programmer through significant impacts on the state of the universe, perhaps long in the future. Their “magnetic souls” as they came to be known could be deemed of value, retrieved through data recovery long after death, and restored to operation, perhaps thousands of human years later, where, presumably, they would live out a second life.
Physicists thought this was idiotic. Nevertheless, this line of reasoning became highly popular very quickly and by 2068, was an integral part of most major religions on the planet Earth. Immediately, this school of thought caused problems.
The issue was scale. Suppose some being was observing the universe every second, or had software that did it for it. The known universe was tens of billions of light years across. And it was anyone’s guess how much more there was that wasn’t visible. Compared to that, humans were a trillion trillion times less significant than an object a nanometer wide viewed by the naked eye. It was possible The Programmer was watching each and every person, among all the other points of interest and possible life in the universe. That was the notion the more moderate religions forwarded, fantastic an idea as that was. But the more radical ideologies were more pragmatic. Only slightly though. They argued that the only way to call attention to their practitioners was to create large scale anomalies in the course of events on Earth. Create a nationwide grassroots uprising. Start a war. Detonate the biggest possible antimatter bomb on the far side of the moon. Murder a few million people. Honestly though, this idea was still silly, so argued the smallest faction of the most extreme adherents. These individuals felt that odds were, The Programmer wasn’t watching the Earth and if that was true, there was no hope they could get its attention with conventional technology or human scale acts. Even the aforementioned nuclear beacon would only create a signature a few thousand miles across. A flash in the pan in cosmic terms.
As had often been demonstrated throughout humanity’s history, even the most extreme thinkers’ ideologies embodied some small kernel of truth. So it was for this last group as well. In order to make humanity noticeable against the background clutter of the rest of the universe, a truly absurd release of energy, on the scale of a gamma ray burst, but in every direction - unlike the two heavily collimated diverging beams of radiation from natural gamma ray bursts - would likely be needed to do the trick.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon one’s perspective, such energies were clearly unattainable. And so the notion remained dormant for another seventy years. Many lesser attention getting efforts were undertaken on Earth intermittently, including a fourth world war. But even as the initiators of these acts rallied their causes, several of them, including Brazilian dictator Javier Oliveira, chief architect of the “Equatorial Alliance” that would wage global war in an attempt to bring about the second coming of Jesus, the avatar of The Programmer by purging members of society who engaged in transhuman body augmentation – about a billion people – in their heart of hearts, feared that their acts, though symbolically meaningful, were ultimately insufficient. Others truly believed that they were attracting The Programmer’s attention. In any event, the course of world events continued to govern themselves, without obvious intervention by a higher power. If The Programmer was paying attention and saving souls, they weren’t bothering to reassure anyone in the solar system, not that it seemed fair to expect a being transcending the universe to do so, so argued more moderate “Programmists.”
Following World War IV, things were quiet for about thirty years. World prosperity increased beyond prewar levels. Human colonies on Mars carved out a gradually expanding niche on that planet. The asteroids were exploited en masse. Biological engineering achieved a level of sophistication that had an immense impact on human health. Clinical and preventive medical therapies were refined to a degree that enabled them to extend natural life by hundreds of years. Science eliminated brain wasting diseases and rendered obesity, viral infection and autoimmune disorders a thing of the past for about eighty percent of the human population. Sustainable agriculture, responsible cultivation of ocean food sources, abundant clean energy, cheap robotic labor, and inert aerosols in the atmosphere to mitigate the worst effects of climate change had eliminated many of the ills of humanity, and with them, an impressive amount of the chief cause of conflict, scarcity.
In other words, things were going pretty well for humans.
That is until the inevitable happened. Someone found a glitch in the universe.