Short Timers

“Quick! Tell me what day it is!”

Michael burst into my office just as I was putting down my briefcase, his Einsteinian hair even wilder than usual. “Mike, I haven’t even had my coffee yet. Besides, what are you doing here? Your shift ended thirty minutes ago.” I powered on my workstation.

He just stood there, staring at me. Okay, I’d humor him. “What do you mean ‘what day is it’? It’s Thursday.”

“Are you sure? Are you absolutely certain?”

“Of course I am. Why?” Michael was starting to worry me. He had always been a bit eccentric, but he was one of the best physicists we had at Atoms, Inc. We supply atomic clocks for governments and industries and we are 100% accurate. Even the World Council listens when we say it’s time to adjust something. Michael was reliable, always on time, willing to work long hours—all the stuff that goes with someone who didn’t have a family to go home to at night. He wasn’t given to wild fantasies.

“Look at your screen. What does your calendar say?”

“My calendar?” Certain of what I would see, I opened the calendar menu. “It says that today is…Friday? Friday? That can’t be. It’s Thursday.”

“That’s what I thought, too. And so did every one else. But it’s not. It’s Friday. At least, electronically, it is. Atomically speaking it’s another story.”

“Okay, suppose you tell me what’s going on. Obviously you have an idea or you wouldn’t be up here.” I poured a cup of coffee for both of us. Michael looked like he could use one, and I had the distinct impression I was going to need one.

“Have you ever had one of those days where you got up one morning feeling it was one day, only to find out later that it was another? Then you go to work or school or someplace and find out it’s actually Friday and you go through your entire day disoriented because you know it’s Thursday, only it’s not.”

“Of course I have. Everyone has.”

“What if I were to tell you that, today at least, you’re right, even if the calendar says otherwise? I know it sounds crazy, but I can prove it.”

“It was Thursday, or so I thought. I knew in my heart it was Thursday. I remembered the other days of the week and it felt like it had been a long week. I clocked in at midnight and went over the notes from the previous shift. All this time, I was certain it was Thursday. I didn’t notice the difference until I powered on my workstation and my daily calendar announced it was Friday. I was understandably upset as I thought someone was playing with my station. I made a note to inform security – and not for the first time – that they should put a camera in my cubicle to see who was using my area. This was the fourth time in as many weeks. Then I checked the time logs on an experiment I was conducting and they confirmed that it was, indeed, Friday.”

That surprised me. Someone possessing the necessary skills could corrupt a pc, but not the time verification logs. They were sealed and needed several levels of security to even look at; access was only at the highest levels.

Michael continued. “It was indeed Friday, even though it felt like it was Thursday. In order to be certain in my mind, I requested a hard copy of my data, including the time verification logs so I could see all the data at one time. The first few pages, everything looked fine. The graphs were straight as an arrow, as they are supposed to be. It was, indeed, Friday. Then I saw it. A break in the data. It was so small as to be almost invisible, but it was there. Right between 0100 and 0101. The graph hiccuped. It was precisely a one millisecond gap.”

“I assume you confirmed it?”

“I ran a hard copy of the data for the past week, then the month. One millisecond every night for twenty-four nights. Twenty-four milliseconds. Gone.”

“What about other sources? Is it only our data that’s corrupted?” My stomach knotted up. I had built this business from scratch. In ten years, we had never had so much as a whisper of a problem. There were too many security protocols in place. What did it mean?

“I checked. I called Crazy Ivan and had him check his data.” Crazy Ivan was an independent, and a good friend of Michael’s. He was almost as brilliant as Michael, but too eccentric for regular work. Often Michael collaborated with him and we tolerated it, because it usually meant something better for the company.

“According to Ivan, it seems that at the same time as my data hiccups, there were simultaneous hiccups all over the globe, affecting everything. It’s as if the entire world jumped. If you were awake, you might have noticed it as an interruption; a minor power fluctuation; not enough to really disrupt things, just cause them to waver for the briefest of moments.”

I started making phone calls, pulling in everyone I knew who might have an idea on this. I also called security and had them start running Level-I checks on everything and everyone, down to the the sewer system and the mail-clerks. “Michael, get all your data and take it to the auditorium. And call Crazy Ivan and get him here. And anyone else you can think of. I’ll have the chopper pick them up if necessary. I want everything yesterday.”

Thirty minutes later, we had a small crowd of puzzled people in the auditorium. After I explained what was going on, we got down to work. We started compiling our data; pulling time records, calendar records, medical records, and geographic data. We checked release rates at several nuclear reactors. It took us some time, but we kept looking; we just didn’t know for what. Finally, instead of looking at all the pieces of data, we compiled them and looked at them as a whole. It’s kind of like looking at a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece only gives you a portion of the picture; it’s not until you have all the pieces together and stand back from it that you can see it in its entirety. What we saw made us plenty nervous.

The world and all that it encompasses is getting older at an increasingly rapid rate.

Yes, I know, we all age; but we are aging more rapidly now than a month ago and it is increasing by a power of two each month. We checked our data down to the sub-atomic level and that’s where we found the anomaly. Everything – organic and inorganic – is decaying at an increasing rate. The organic data was easy to find – and dismiss. We all know the population is aging. Geriatric wards and retirement homes are filling up at an incredible rate. And what parent hasn’t looked at her child and wondered at how quickly he is growing? Things like this we dismiss with a casual nod and shrug off.

But what about inorganic matter? Things like silicon or quartz crystals or nuclear isotopes; they are all decaying at faster rates and it’s getting faster everyday. You have to understand. It is impossible for decay rates of isotopes to change. It breaks all the known laws of physics. It just doesn’t happen.

We are now twenty-four hours older than we should be. By next month, that will be three days gone; then seven; and so on until in less than a year and a half, a lifetime will be measured in minutes. We figure it started happening about the time that comet appeared. You know the one – you didn’t even need a telescope to see it. Some nut cases thought the end of the world was coming and killed themselves because of it. Maybe they weren’t so crazy.

Those of us who know about this problem can’t agree on whether to tell the public or not. In most cases, we’ll be dismissed as crackpots like those poor fools who walk around with signs portending the end of the world. Only we know it for a fact. What we don’t know, is why. And we don’t have much time to find out.

So, quickly, tell me what day it is.

c2000 Vicky Burkholder

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