Arjun tapped away at his keyboard, changing a few model parameters, and started the simulation. He was testing out a new powertrain configuration, the result of months of research. The electric vehicle startup he had joined a year ago had ambitious goals, but he liked his work and the general company culture. He was surrounded by people smarter than him, and learnt a lot every day.
He waited for a minute and glanced at his watch — 5.56 pm. He had dinner plans soon, and it would take a while to get there in Bangalore traffic so he’d need to wrap up. He shut down his PC, grabbed his bag and waved goodbye to his teammates with a quick “Happy weekend!” before heading to the elevators.
He was looking forward to today. He and some friends from university had set up a new weekly tradition — dinner every Friday night, taking turns to choose the location every week. Today it was his turn, and he had chosen a new Nepalese restaurant that just opened in Indiranagar, but the real treat was what would come after — a famous dessert spot that he’d been dying to go since he moved to the city. He got out of the elevators and waved bye to the doorman before heading to where his bike was parked.
A few seconds later, at exactly the moment his watch ticked to 6 pm, the equilibrium of the world shifted.
Arjun nearly tripped and fell, and stopped in his tracks to regain his balance. He felt… weird. Sluggish, almost imperceptibly heavier in some way, like he was holding a pair of dumbbells. He shook his head but the sensation remained. He didn’t understand what exactly had just happened. Was it just his imagination?
Then his focus returned to his surroundings, and he noticed that a number of people around him had fallen down. Those who hadn’t had a dazed expression on their face — probably the same one he had on his own face a second ago. He helped a couple of people up, but everyone just seemed confused.
That’s when he heard it, a sound he would never forget. A loud creaking back the way he had come from. He spun around and gaped, unable to believe his eyes. The building that housed his startup and a number of other companies, all 25 stories of it, was wobbling. He heard panicked shouts but he couldn’t look away. The building shook for a few more seconds and then it happened. It started to collapse.
The shouts turned into screams and people started running away. He snapped out of it and joined them, adrenaline propelling him despite the new sensation of heaviness, as the deafening sounds of a collapsing building continued behind him. Once he had made it to the entrance of the complex, he finally stopped running and turned around. He could barely see anything, a huge dust cloud obscuring his vision and forcing him to shut his eyes. About a minute later, it cleared enough for him to open his eyes again.
The space where his office building had just been was completely empty, with only a pile of rubble and the remnants of the dust cloud indicating that it had ever been there. He stared in disbelief, not comprehending what had just happened. Most of his teammates had still been inside. The adrenaline started to wear off and the shock and nausea hit, making him feel faint. He leaned against the gate to support himself.
He had to get away from here. He stood up and started walking back to his home, still in a daze. How could this be happening? He felt like he was stuck in a nightmare. He paid no attention to his surroundings, his mind shutting down to avoid thinking about what had just happened. If he had been paying attention, he would have seen chaos on the street. Vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, people collapsed on the ground, and more dust clouds like the one he had just witnessed off in the distance.
After he had walked for about ten minutes, his phone rang, snapping him out of his reverie. It was his parents.
“Hello?”, he said.
“Oh you’re okay, thank God!”, exclaimed the voice of his mother on the other end of the phone.
“Yes Ma, I’m fine, but my office…. The entire building collapsed.”, he said, barely able to believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. “My whole team, the company…”.
“Your office building collapsed?! Are you okay, Arjun?”, his mother asked, her voice full of concern.
“Yes, I’m okay, I’m walking home now.” And then it dawned on him. It had only been about ten minutes, and his parents lived in Mumbai. How had they found out about something happening in Bangalore so soon? Had the news spread that quickly?
“How did you even know that something happened here?”
“Haven’t you seen the news? It’s happening everywhere. Your father and I were at home when the house suddenly started shaking! It settled down quickly, and we thought it was an earthquake, but the news says it’s been happening all over the world. Shaking, buildings collapsing. And your father and I have been feeling strange since then, almost like we’re…”
“Yes, exactly! Do you feel it too?
“Yes, I think so…”. Then he broke into a cold sweat. “Wait, all over the world? Have you talked to Didi?”
His mother’s voice wavered. “Not yet, your father is trying to get her on the line now but we aren’t able to reach her phone”.
A wave of dread overcame him. “Okay, be careful! Don’t leave the house until we know more, and be prepared for more earthquakes. I’ll also try to call Didi.”
“Okay Arjun, you be careful too! Message me when you reach home”
He hung up, and immediately tried to call his sister. She had moved to New York for work a little over two years ago, but she was still one of the closest people in his life. He talked to her every other day and they told each other everything about their lives. If something had happened to her…
The call didn’t go through. He tried again a few more times but couldn’t get through to her.
He quickly looked up news about New York. It didn’t look good. Every picture he saw was one collapsed skyscraper after another. He tried to call his sister one more time, and when it failed again the feeling of dread intensified.
He continued looking up the news while he walked home. He could barely believe what was happening. Every major city in the world had been hit simultaneously. Mumbai, Beijing, Seoul, San Francisco, London, Paris, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Moscow, Johannesburg — the list was endless. The exact thing he had witnessed before his very eyes was happening all over the world. No one understood what was happening, and the governments of the world were yet to make a statement about the global calamity.
He looked up to see his house in front of him. He had made it back. His eyes snapped back to his phone as it started to ring, showing the one caller he was desperately hoping to see — “Didi’.
He picked up immediately. “Hello? Asha?”
“Arjun! I’m so happy to hear your voice! Are you okay?”
“Yes Didi I’m fine. What happened to you? Ma and Pappa said they couldn’t reach you.”
“I was taking the subway into Manhattan when the train stopped in the middle of the tunnel! It took a while for them to rescue us and there was no cell signal inside. I’m heading back home now though.”
“How is everything there? The pictures I was looking at didn’t look good.”
“It’s not great here, but from what I heard, Brooklyn is still doing way better than Manhattan. A few of the subway tunnels in the city collapsed too! I think I’m lucky I didn’t leave for work ten minutes earlier…”
“Yeah, I’m just glad you’re okay.”
They talked a little longer until Asha reached home as well, and then they hung up after promising to each other that they would be careful, and would keep each other updated if anything happened.
Arjun then went up to the house. The family that owned the house lived on the ground floor, and he lived in the 2 bedroom flat on the first floor with a friend from university. The family wasn’t home at the moment, having left to visit relatives in Hyderabad a few days earlier. He hoped they were okay.
He climbed up the stairs to his apartment. Everything looked all right from the outside. He opened the door and switched on the light. There were a few books strewn on the ground, probably from the shaking earlier, but it looked mostly all right.
“Sai?”, he called out. There was no response. His roommate wasn’t home yet.
He took a moment to reply to all the concerned messages on his phone from friends and relatives asking if he was okay, and sent out a few of his own. He then turned on the TV and flipped it to the news, and put the displaced books back on their shelves. In half an hour, he heard a lot of raised voices and confused opinions, but no one seemed to have any more idea about what was going on than he did.
He went back to his phone and opened WhatsApp. World governments and the media may not have any idea what was happening, but his WhatsApp groups were already ripe with theories and speculation.
“This is a COSMIC EVENT that happens once every TEN MILLION YEARS. The alignment of the sun and the moon make all matter on earth BRITTLE for 24 hours! Avoid all large buildings and stay outdoors when possible. Please share this with friends and family and stay safe during this dangerous time!”
Normally Arjun paid no attention to forwarded messages like this, but considering the sheer scale of global events over the last hour, who could say what the real explanation was?
He heard the sound of the door opening. “Sai?”
“Arjun! Are you okay? Have you seen what’s happening out there?
“Yeah I’m okay, but I was barely out of my office building when it completely collapsed! I just made it back home a little while ago.”
“Your office collapsed?! Wow, I’m glad you made it out okay!”
“What happened to you? Did you have trouble getting back home?”
“I was on a bus on the way back from work when the buildings started collapsing. The street was absolutely chaotic, people panicking and crashing into each other. The bus driver rammed into the median! I had to get out and walk back home. I’ve never seen anything like it! It’s crazy!”
“Yeah, I still can’t believe it…”
They lapsed into silence for a minute. On a whim, Arjun asked “Sai? This may sound a little weird, but have you been feeling a little strange? Like you’re… heavier?”
Sai looked at him in shock. “How did you know that? Have you been feeling it too? I thought it was just my imagination!”
“Yeah, I’ve been feeling the same way. My mom mentioned it too. I wonder if…”
He almost felt foolish doing it, but got up and walked over the weighing scale they had in their bathroom. As he stood on it, the display lit up. “70 kg”.
He stared in surprise. He had happened to measure his weight at the gym just a few hours earlier. He had been around 68.5 kg at the time. How had he gained 1.5 kg in 4 hours?
Sai measured himself, and also noticed a surprising increase in his weight since the last time he had measured it.
Now even more confused than before, Arjun and Sai went back to the couch, spending the rest of the evening watching the news unfold. The government was setting up temporary relief shelters to house all the people displaced by the disaster. There was one not too far from their house too. Over the hours, the TV stations brought on everyone from an environmental scientist to an ex-military general to give their opinions on the crisis. But while the theories got wilder and wilder, no one could say for sure what was happening. No one seemed to bring up the apparent weight increase though. It wasn’t clear if no one else had noticed it, or whether they were too skeptical to bring up the topic on the air.
After a few hours, they decided that they needed to get some sleep and went back to their rooms. After checking on his family again, Arjun settled in for the night, his mind still racing from the events of the day. What could possibly be happening? What could explain something this catastrophic and… weird?
It took him over an hour to fall asleep, and his sleep was riddled with nightmares. He found himself back at his desk at work. He looked up to see his family on the other side of the floor. He stood up and started walking towards them, but the whole floor seemed to lengthen so that the distance between them stayed the same. He started running but that didn’t help either. He became more and more desperate, and as he reached out a hand, he felt the earth start to shake. The building began to crumble around him…
He jolted awake, drenched in a cold sweat. A nightmare, just a nightmare. But wait. It was barely noticeable, but he could still feel mild tremors. He ran out of his room and barged into Sai’s room, yelling “Wake up!”.
Sai snapped up out of bed, his eyes still half-closed from sleep. “What’s going on?”, he mumbled.
“Do you feel that? The shaking?”
“What are you talking about dude? I don’t feel anyth-”. Then Sai abruptly stopped talking as the shaking seemed to intensify slightly.
“Let’s get out of the house, quick!”.
There was no time to debate it. They both ran outside, still in their pyjamas and slippers and bolted down the stairs and onto the street. Just as they got there, the shaking intensified to the point that it was unmistakable.
It kept growing in intensity, until they could no longer stand and had to drop to the ground. Arjun closed his eyes. It felt like his brain was vibrating in his skull. A tremendous crashing sound came from right ahead of them. They watched in despair as the roof of the house came crashing down. The same thing was happening to most houses on their street.. Telephone poles and street lamps crashed to the ground around them, some narrowly missing them. They heard the panicked shouts of other people who had run out onto the street.
After another minute or so, the shaking came to a stop. They gradually stood up and looked around in disbelief. Their street was in shambles. The buildings were crumbling, poles and wires strewn across the ground, people on the road in a state of shock. The last time Bangalore had suffered a large earthquake was in 2001. This was one of the strongest earthquakes in the city’s history.
Arjun and Sai sat on the ground, slowly recovering from what they had just experienced. They didn’t have anything on them except for their phones, and they obviously couldn’t go back into their apartment. After talking about it for a bit, they decided to walk to the government shelter nearby. It was only about ten minutes away.
On the way, Arjun saw on his phone that the disasters were intensifying around the world. Earthquakes everywhere, and coastal cities being hit the hardest with tidal waves. He tried to call his family, but he couldn’t get through to any of them. Apparently cell towers were being knocked out everywhere, and cellular connectivity was taking a hit. He was lucky to still be able to use mobile data to read the news.
They made it to the shelter soon enough. It was a large abandoned warehouse. It was sturdy however, and though parts of it had caved in from the earthquake, it was mostly intact. Inside, there were blankets laid out all across the floor, but the earthquake had woken everyone up. People were clustered in little groups, not saying much, apparently still in a state of shock at what was happening to them. Everyone’s meagre belongings were strewn across the floor of the warehouse in a jumbled mess.
Arjun and Sai settled into a corner and sat on the floor, not saying anything. It wasn’t comfortable, but exhaustion overtook Arjun and he dozed off, sleeping fitfully. He woke up a few hours later, and Sai told him that they would be handing out breakfast in an hour.
Arjun went back to his phone. All of the news was pointing to the same thing — an announcement made by ISRO about ten minutes ago. “Have you seen this yet?”, he asked Sai.
“No, my phone died a little while ago”, he replied.
They sat together to look at the video. The ISRO chairperson stood at a podium in front of a room full of reporters.
“We have spent the last 12 hours working tirelessly to understand what has caused the disasters around the world. The collapsed buildings, earthquakes, tidal waves. Some of you may have also noticed feeling heavier. All of these occurrences have the same cause — the Earth’s gravity has increased”.
Arjun and Sai gaped at the little screen.
“But the issue is even more fundamental than that. It’s not just the Earth’s gravity. At exactly 6pm IST last evening, the universal gravitational constant appears to have increased by precisely 2%. The Earth’s core and crust are now adjusting to this change, causing massive tectonic shifts and earthquakes around the world. The moon’s orbit around the Earth has started to tighten, increasing tidal forces. This along with the earthquakes has caused the tidal waves wreaking havoc to our coasts”
“The repercussions of this are more far-reaching than just on Earth. If this change continues, the equilibrium of the cosmos itself will shift. The Earth’s orbit around the sun will change, along with all of the planets in our solar system. It’s hard to predict exactly what the universe will look like after it has stabilized from this change.”
“We will continue to investigate this shift, and will provide a more comprehensive analysis soon. For now, all we can advise is that you stay inland, and remain outdoors and avoid large buildings as far as possible. Keep your loved ones close. Thank you.”
Arjun and Sai looked at each other, eyes wide and disbelieving. Arjun inadvertently looked upwards. He had never been very religious, but… A change like this? And the precise numbers. Exactly 2%, at exactly 6pm…
Panicked shouts started from around the warehouse as the ground started to tremor again. Arjun closed his eyes, and for the first time in a long time, he prayed.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Kass let it keep going for another week, and then shut it down. He took down a couple of notes from this run:
“Time until collapse of human civilization: 6 days
Casualties within first 24 hours: 217 million”
He checked the time — 11.37pm. He had just about enough time for one more run. He set the gravitational constant perturbation parameter even higher this time — 5%. He kicked it off and went back to his assignment.
Kass sighed. He had signed up for the “History of Computing” course because he had heard that it was interesting (and it was supposed to be an easy A). The professor had decided to increase the workload this semester though, and he’d spent way more time on the course than he had expected. Thankfully this was the last assignment.
They had to choose a specific sub-field within computing and write a detailed history of it. Computing itself was broad enough that he could choose basically any topic he was interested in, so he decided on one that he had wanted to learn about for a while: high-resolution simulations, or HRS.
Simulations, broadly, had been around for as long as computers had existed. They were typically used to model specific systems however. The first HRS had been run by the ENIAC 7 supercomputer 22 years ago to simulate the whole planet. It had broad models for the ecosystem and environment, but it modelled 10 billion humans individually.
It became a hot field after the first supercomputer simulation, generating plenty of academic interest and military funding. The field progressed rapidly, with the resolution increasing to model every living being on the planet, and the scope broadening to include the entire solar system. Computing power had continued to grow exponentially under Moore’s law for long enough to bring high-resolution simulations to personal computers 10 years ago.
It was around then that interest in the field started to decline. The simulations were a stunning technical achievement, but it became increasingly clear that they had no real practical value and funding dried up. Academic pursuit continued at a slow pace for a few years until the human modeling element became precise enough for ethical questions to start cropping up. At what point did the humans in the simulation stop being just pieces of code and start being actual beings with feelings and rights? Finally, a study hinting that the human models in HRS had achieved sentience ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the field. It was never proved definitively, and so it was still legal to run a HRS. It was, however, looked down on by most people, and academic interest and funding turned to more relevant (and less controversial) problems.
The field may no longer be relevant, but Kass found it fascinating that there was a complete solar system running on his computer at this very moment. To complement the history, he had decided to run a few simulations varying some universal physical parameters to see their impact on human society. Broadly speaking, he wanted to show human civilization’s dependence on these parameters. However, this was a widely accepted fact and not particularly novel. In all honesty he just wanted an excuse to try running a few simulations.
He ended the last 5% perturbation simulation a little earlier than the previous one, and entered the details in his assignment:
“Time until collapse of human civilization: 3 days
Casualties within first 24 hours: 1.42 billion”
He wrote a quick conclusion and submitted the assignment with just a couple of minutes to spare. As soon as it became midnight, the auto-grader evaluated his assignment and gave him comprehensive feedback. He scored well on the history itself, but he actually ended up being docked a few points for running the simulations when it was generally discouraged. He received a B- overall. He sighed again. Eh well, he’d take it.