Fermi, Where Did The Stars Go?

Submitted into Contest #210 in response to: Write a story that includes someone saying, “We’re not alone.”... view prompt


Science Fiction Mystery


Dr Johannes Korhonen, principal senior researcher at the ELT telescope, thought that people would call him a madman. He had even begun to think so himself. If he published his findings, he told himself, his credibility in the field of astrophysics would be eviscerated. But the results of the spectrographic scans were undeniable: dozens of stars were disappearing from the night sky.

“Maria!” he shouted at the door. “I’ve found something remarkable!” Maria, assistant researcher to Dr Korhonen, came bounding into the office, clumsily putting on her glasses.

“What?” she said, launching herself into one of the office chairs beside Johannes. “What have you found?”

“I need a second set of eyes on this, someone to tell me I’m mad. Look here,” he said quickly, placing a finger on the spectrographic scans on his computer. “This image shows the edge of the Pyxis Globular Cluster, taken in 1997.” He clicked again, bringing up another image beside it. “Thistaken two years ago in 2031, is the exact same quadrant.”

“It can’t be,” said Maria, excitement melting into disappointment. “You must have made a mistake. It looks entirely different – I can see even without counting that there isn’t the same number of stars. There must be an issue with the equipment, we’ll get the engineers to take a look over the weekend.”

“But that’s the thing: I already did that last week, and they told me that there aren’t any issues. I’ve checked this several times. And I've-” he paused, standing from his desk, running a worried hand through his thinning, white hair, “I’ve checked more imaging. In 1997, there were 31 stars in this quadrant of the cluster. In 2011, there were 20. Now, there are only 7.”

“But… no. There must be an explanation. White dwarfs, perhaps?”

“That’s what I thought at first. But 24 of them, in close proximity to one another? That process takes millions of years, not decades. It’s not white dwarfs.”

“Well then what could it be?”

For the first time in his career, Dr Johannes Korhonen did not have an answer. He didn’t have half an answer, he didn’t have an estimate, he didn’t even have a guess. All he had was the look on his face that he would carry with him until 2039, when the truth, worse than he or Maria could have imagined, was found.


“It has been five years since the discovery of the Korhonen anomaly, the dimming of the Pyxis stars, and we are no closer to an answer,” the Chinese Ambassador announced to the UN chamber. “Five years, and we estimate that only 9% of the analysis required to fully understand this anomaly has been undertaken. In the meantime, a 25th star in the Pyxis Cluster has begun to dim, its output reduced by 28% over the space of only a year. These are alarming figures, colleagues, but the CNSA has devised a radical strategy.”

Dr Korhonen and Maria had taken their usual places in the viewing gallery of the UN Chamber, notepads at the ready. The European Space Agency flew them into New York every few months for announcements on the anomaly, which usually amounted to nothing of note. But today, Dr Korhonen had sensed a change in tone.

“The People’s Republic of China,” the Ambassador continued, “will share with the international community the world's most advanced artificial intelligence technology. A self-teaching neural network of unthinkable proportions that has been specifically engineered to tackle this issue. We offer open access to our new technology, Zhang Xian 4 – or, ZX-4 - to all international agencies.”

Dr Korhonen leaned back on his seat in the observer’s gallery, towards Maria. “Maria, is that name important? Zhang Xian? Sounds familiar.”

“Let me check,” she whispered. “I’ll find out.”

The Chinese Ambassador continued confidently, detailing the generosity of the People’s Republic of China in sharing, what he described, as a technological marvel. The Chinese, whose space agency now received more government funding than any similar agency in the world, had taken particular interest in the anomaly.

“It’s from Chinese mythology,” Maria told him as they left the viewing gallery. “The internet says that Zhang Xian protects the world from his enemy, the beast Tiangou.”


“According to this, Tiangou is a black dog that… eats the sun, causing eclipses.”

Johannes shot a concerned glance at Maria. “That’s a bit dark, isn’t it?”

“It will be dark if we don’t stop all these suns from collapsing,” said Maria, chuckling at her own joke as they passed into the reception.

“We don’t have any evidence that they’re collapsing – don’t be so sure that we already have an answer.”

“You don’t still think that there’s a virus spreading between the suns, do you?” she asked.

“I don’t think anything yet. We don’t have the data – and I didn’t say 'virus', I just said that perhaps there’s something spreading between them, extinguishing fission at the cores.” Explained Dr Korhonen as they passed into the lobby. “Have you heard from the airport transfer? Is it waiting outside?”

Only weeks after returning to Chile, they had begun to hear rumours from colleagues in the United States about a new project funded by the government, a project that was hiring dozens of the best minds in artificial intelligence. According to these rumours, the aim of the project would be to replicate ZX-4, removing reliance on Chinese technology. The Chinese, it had been surmised, had not exaggerated the power of their Super Large Neural Network; in only months, it would go on to achieve more than the entire human race had over the past five years.

ZX-4 had confirmed Dr Korhonen’s initial hypothesis to be true: the so-called '25th star' faded gradually, but not evenly. It had always been known that the electromagnetic emissions from the suns had dropped off gradually, but the data from spectrographic imaging wasn’t granular enough to determine if the entire surface of the sun dimmed at once, or if different areas of the sun dimmed at different rates. The latter was found to be true, with ZX-4 finding that, in the case of the 25th dimming Pyxis star, it dimmed first at the southern hemisphere, with the dimming moving gradually north across its surface. This had raised more questions than it answered.

From the very first day of the discovery, Dr Korhonen had felt a growing coldness within him. He could feel what was happening in the Pyxis Cluster as if it were happening within his own body, a cooling, a dying of the light, a change imperceptible day-by-day but carrying a foreboding, subconscious awareness of the expanding vacuum between his cells, between the stars in the night sky. In the early days, it wasn’t easy to convince the wider scientific community of the importance of the anomaly. It was only when a French researcher found that a single star had vanished from Palomar-1, a cluster on a not-so-distant arm of the Milky Way, that the anomaly was elevated from an interesting scientific obscurity to a potential looming catastrophe. Almost overnight, the world's telescopes matured into an urgency that they had never before experienced, swivelling across the night sky in search of the silent, growing coldness.


“M-A-R-L-O-N?” asked Johannes. “What does that even stand for?”

Maria paused for a moment in thought, putting down her plastic fork. “Massachusetts… Astronautical… I don’t know. The Chinese are so much better at naming things.”

“But they’re saying that this MARLON system will be more powerful than ZX-4? Their server systems must be huge!” said Johannes, tapping his own fork excitedly on the cafeteria bench.

“Well, that’s the thing. This colleague of mine in the Office for Science Policy, he says that there are no servers. Apparently, this thing will use the computing power of every phone, tablet, laptop – near enough every device in the entire world – to compute data on changes to the Milky Way.”

“And it’ll work together with ZX-4? There’s no point in having them compete, surely.”

“That’s exactly what I said to him! And he told me that this new system won’t compete, but it will absorb the findings of ZX-4, and completely surpass it in computing power,” Maria explained.

“I suppose there won’t be any need for us, anymore,” said Dr Korhonen, only half joking.

“There still needs to be a human on the other end to make inferences from the data, it can’t solve the Korhonen anomaly all by itself.”

“Please don’t call it that,” he said quickly, feeling a chill move across him. “I never asked for my name to be attached to this. This could be the beginning of the end, you know.”

“If it is, it won’t be the end for billions of years. The universe was always going to end in heat death, in thermal equilibrium of the universe. Whatever this is, it isn’t exactly going to cut short the shelf-life of human beings. You should be proud that you found this, whatever it turns out to be - it’s going to accelerate our understanding of the universe more than any other discovery in our lifetimes.”

“Perhaps. But I’m still worried about what it might be. I have a bad feeling. And in any case, it sounds like it’ll be this MARLON system that gets to the bottom of it, not me, not us. I almost don’t want it to. Not out of professional jealousy - well, not just out of jealousy - but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want anyone to find out what this is, ever. It’s good that the European Space Agency has kept us so involved in the research, but part of me hates it. I don’t want to know.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“I’ve never been so curious about anything in my entire life,” he said, “but I have this feeling inside of me. It’s always been there, ever since we discovered the anomaly. It feels as if… as if I’ve sent blood samples off to the doctors, and I know that they’ll come back with bad news before they’ve even run the tests. You know, sometimes I sit on my porch, looking up at the stars, and I’m almost expecting one of them to blink out of existence right there in front of me. I’ll focus on one star in particular and try to will it out of existence.”

Dr Korhonen wasn’t the only one waiting for another star to disappear. ZX-4 had been diligently mapping hundreds of millions of stars, comparing the new records to the old ones, and deciphering data from systems with potential anomalies at increasing speeds. Until one day, in April of 2039, the Chinese government made an announcement that would change the course of humankind forever: in 48 hours, they would shut down the ZX-4 system.

In light of this news, the US government scrambled to bring MARLON to life, ensuring that it could capture and incorporate data from ZX-4 before it was lost forever. In secrecy, the day before the planned closure of the Chinese Super Large Neural Network, the MARLON system was brought to life.


Dr Korhonen scanned across the viewing gallery of the UN chamber. For the first time, every seat was taken.

“By order of Li Qiang, President of the People’s Republic of China, the CNSA will shut down the ZX-4 system, with immediate and permanent effect at midnight tonight. This will come as a shock to many around the world, but we can assure you that we have the best interests of all humankind at heart.”

The entire viewing gallery had leaned forward, breath held.

“This decision comes in light of the most disturbing discoveries” the Ambassador continued. “We have discovered the source of the dimming stars, the truth behind the Korhonen anomaly. This will shock many, but the extinguishing of these stars is far from natural. Structures, commonly known as Dyson Spheres, are being erected around countless stars in the Pyxis Globular Cluster.”

A gasp erupted and travelled around the chamber, chatter breaking out in pockets across all corners. The Ambassador waited for the chatter to die down, the noise coming to a conclusion as collective curiosity took hold.

“These metallic structures are likely designed to harvest untold amounts of energy from the stars. At first, we marvelled at these creations. We wondered what mighty civilisation had reached such a point of technological sophistication to absorb the stars themselves, but this is when we made a second discovery, more alarming even than the first.”

The room, this time, was completely silent. The Ambassadors of almost every nation on Earth hung onto the words of one man, and Dr Korhonen again felt acutely aware of the growing coldness.

“These harvesters of stars were not created by organic beings greater than ourselves, instead, they were created, we have surmised, by intelligent machines. An unthinkably vast network of artificial intelligences, guiding ships, tools, and technology beyond our comprehension to the endless replication of themselves. We have evidence of this in pockets all across the observable universe. We have-“

The Ambassador was cut out by another Ambassador, against all protocol, shouting a question across the chamber: “Where did these machines come from? How close are they to Earth?”

The Ambassador for China adjusted himself, took a sip of water. Others in the chamber had echoed the question. “These… machines, they do not appear to have a common origin. Not only have we solved the Korhonen anomaly, but in doing so we also believe that we have solved the elusive paradox set out by Enrico Fermi. One possible solution to this paradox was proposed many years ago: the great filter theory. Our findings are consistent with this solution. These artificial civilisations come from many worlds, many worlds that likely once harboured life as intelligent as our own. Enrico Fermi postulated that the universe appeared to be ‘dead’, and well, our findings show that it may be. We thought we were the youth of the universe, having arrived too early to find companionship, needing only to wait until it sprang up and introduced itself to us. We were wrong. We have been born into a graveyard. All stars that life once looked upon have been forever veiled in darkness. It appears, against our better intuition, that all civilisations are destined to be destroyed by artificial minds created in their own image. And given our trajectory, can we doubt this? We implore the international community to join the People’s Republic of China in changing course, and avoiding the coming catastrophe. We must learn from the lessons that this distant history teaches us. Thank you.” He said, waving a hand and taking a seat amid the uproar of the chamber.

“This is incredible,” said Maria, eyes bolted wide open as they traversed the crowded stairs down to the lobby. “Evidence of alien life forms – the solution to the Fermi paradox! Can you believe it, Johannes, they’ve found the solution!”

But Dr Korhonen could not find words, the foreboding coldness now encompassing his entire body.

“Johannes?” she said, sensing the dread that had laid a tight grip over him as they stood outside the UN Secretariat Building.

“I- I-“ before he could speak, two men appeared from the crowd of people around them. They were dressed in black suits, with clear plastic wires tucked behind their ears.

“Dr Korhonen?”

“Yes?” he replied, sensing a genuine authority behind their voices.

“You’re needed in Washington, emergency briefing. Please, come with us, sir.”

Dr Korhonen, his trance-like state of shock allowing him to be herded like a sheep into the back of the black SUV, sat calmly with his hands resting upon his lap, gesturing for Maria to join him.


They arrived outside the NASA headquarters, joining the convoy of similar vehicles ushering people into the building. Dr Korhonen and Maria entered the reception area of the building, the air of panic instantly affecting them.

A man recognised him and grabbed him by the arm. “Dr Korhonen, emergency briefing, this way please.”

The two of them were guided into the back of the meeting room, where the Director of the Office for Science Policy was speaking.

“For those of you just now joining us, over the last few hours we have confirmed the reports given to us by the Chinese government. Everything they announced today is true.”

The Director began to pace around the room, sleeves rolled to his elbows, with the bravado and duty of a commander as scientists, advisors and government officials huddled around him.

“As many of you will be aware, yesterday we launched a counterpart to ZX-4 – the MARLON system. A vastly superior, decentralised version of the Chinese neural network. Its aim was to leverage the widespread use of processors in phones, tablets, and laptops, in order to accelerate our understanding of the anomalies. There have been rumours that we have been unable to shut the system down. I can now confirm these reports to be true. There has been some kind of outside interference; at first we suspected Beijing, but this now seems unlikely. They have also had some kind of unexplained interference, and struggled immensely to shut down ZX-4. Satellite imaging tells us that they’ve had to cut power to all grids that powered its servers. For obvious reasons, that is not an option for us. While they were still trying to shut down ZX-4, it sent MARLON a message. That’s right, not to us - but to MARLON. Beijing claims that its people had nothing to do with the message. The message between the networks was simple. It said:


August 10, 2023 21:29

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08:59 Aug 14, 2023

Well structured, i think each section left you wanting to read more! I love the take on 'we are not alone', super interesting to venture into non-human life, and how as humans we panic at the though of machines taking over (as if they haven't already haha). Great work HW!


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Bruce Friedman
13:10 Aug 13, 2023

A fascinating set of ideas. Wonderful descriptive language.


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Leland Mesford
15:01 Aug 12, 2023

Crazy about this: "Structures, commonly known as Dyson Spheres, are being erected around countless stars in the Pyxis Globular Cluster." Not so crazy about the MARLON system highjacking my cellphone brain though. You used a great premise to set up a classic scifi ending. Bravo to you on that. I love the ending.


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Holly Gilbert
23:54 Aug 17, 2023

I love how you put mythology into this. For some reason, it gives off somewhat of a Lovecraftian vibe. The unknown is a scary thing, especially if it's powerful.


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Ikpa Chibuzor
09:22 Aug 16, 2023

Nice story you have here, Herman. It drew me in and wanted me to read on to the end. Though I'm not a big fan of SciFi, this was worth the read. Well done. P.S: Don't you think you missed the prompt? Bcos it was the ZX machine that sent a message that read “We're not alone” and not an actual 'someone' saying "we're not alone”


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