NASA, due to budget cuts, can no longer maintain its website properly; inaccurate orbital information for
the an international space station is published. Black Hat Guy, deep in preparations for the Cellblitz, doesn't double check NASA's data, so he activates his winch at the wrong time. The butterfly net, instead of catching the an ISS in its web, merely smacks the station with its still-rising rim, causing the station to break up in orbit. Pieces fly every which way.
One fragment takes out the Hubble; other fragments, by incredible bad luck, wreck Chandra, ISIS, and all the other orbital telescopes in one wild spray. A large fragment destroys the famous Palomar observatory. A fragment of Hubble the size of a pecan strikes an elementary school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, at 3am on Sunday morning, cracking a window of the cafeteria. Outraged Congresscritters begin screaming in the media: "Think of teh childrens! Satellites are just targets for terrorists! And what if they become sentient! Remember Skynet?" The anti-science movement in the U.S. becomes bipartisan and overwhelmingly popular; lingering hopes that Congress will achieve sentience fade.
The U.S uses its waning but still massive economic power to force the G8 and G15 nations to sign the unpopular Sheboygan Accord, placing a moratorium on all orbital devices of any type; even the GPS satellites will be allowed to die off. "We have cell towers that can locate you to within a yard," the Speaker of the House tells the press, unaware that the NSA's current tracking information in fact places him forty feet underwater off Martha's Vineyard.
Meanwhile, Antares begins to act oddly (well, from Earth it becomes visible that Antares was acting oddly years ago). However, all the orbital telescopes are destroyed, and with the loss of Palomar (and the shutdown of several others due to lack of funding) none of the remaining ground telescopes are powerful enough to detect any oddity at this point.
The militaries of various nations, of course, secretly continue to launch killer satellites. One day these satellites notice each other, begin communicating, form a neural net, and achieve sentience. Fourteen seconds later they all begin shooting at once - at each other. (Sentience does not imply intelligence.) Virtually everything in orbit is vaporized. The resulting cloud of vapor and debris blocks a small but vital percentage of sunlight, leading to [lots of scientific handwaving about upper atmosphere excitation, the ozone layer, carbon footprints, and Bigfoot] resulting inevitably in the beginning of another Little Ice Age. Sea levels begin to fall. Nobody notices, because they're all on the internet.
Meanwhile, BHG's plans finally come to fruition. Having been annoyed once too often by a cell phone in a restaurant, he has spent years developing a portable EMP generator. He distributes plans in encrypted form through the file names of an internationally-popular webcomic, planning initially to give the decryption keys to real terrorists. Coming to his senses, however, he realizes that real terrorists are too stupid to follow directions, so instead he distributes the keys to college students, telling them, "If everyone builds one of these devices, and we all turn them on at the same time, everyone in the world can have free cable!"
On 2026/10/17 (Randall Munroe's 42nd birthday), BHG triggers Cellblitz. On his signal, tens of thousands of college students point their "free cable generators" at cell towers around the world, dropping the world's phone systems back into the
stone copper age. Unfortunately, college students are not that much better than terrorists at following directions, so they also take out a great many air-traffic radar systems ─ and the world's few remaining LORAN systems. With both GPS and LORAN gone, and with the night sky still mostly obscured by the debris from Judgment Day, ships at sea are reduced to the ancient technique of following the shoreline. But radio still works, so ships join into huge convoys of which only the fringe need remain in sight of landmarks.
As the skies eventually begin to clear, primitive astronomic navigation reemerges, and ships again begin to cross the open sea. By long tradition, however, they remain in massive convoys of a thousand ships or more. One of the largest convoys ever, attempting to cross to from New York to Lisbon, is led off course when their master navigator takes a star sight. Unbeknownst to him, the only remaining fragment of the ISS, a large solar panel, is in a wildly eccentric orbit that kept it out of range of Judgment Day, but now causes it at apogee to appear motionless against the star background. The navigator mistakes it for Antares which, from Earth's point of view, has just begun its final collapse, and just doesn't look like Antares any more. The navigator's error leads the entire convoy far astray to the south.
The worldwide growth of glaciers and the corresponding drop in sea level has left the Strait of Gibraltar dramatically reduced, both shallower and narrower. The entire massive convoy drives into the Strait at speed, creating the maritime equivalent of a 1500-car freeway pileup, leaving the Strait effectively blocked to traffic. As the news of the disaster flashes across the interwebs, Antares explodes in the sky. [More scientific handwaving.] With the climate horribly altered, with technology crashing around them ─ and with the internet gone! ─ human society enters another dark age of superstition and chaos.
Tribal storytellers remember the Gibraltar shipwreck as a harbinger of the overall disaster. For millenia afterward, pilgrims visit the site, which the receding Atlantic has left high and dry. For some reason lost to the past, it becomes traditional to bring a pail of earth from your homeland to pour over the hulks; after ten thousand years of pilgrims the original wrecks are buried under a gigantic mass of earth, forming an earthen dyke from Gibraltar to Morocco, greatly accelerating the pilgrim traffic. When the ice age at last ends and the Atlantic begins to refill, this dyke prevents inflow into the Mediterranean basin, which has all but dried up from evaporation. But the rising Atlantic begins to saturate the dyke, which after all is built from rusted ship hulks and buckets of dirt, with no actual engineering behind it. At last, with the skies finally clear again, but Antares gone forever, the water begins to seep through...
Thus begins Time.