Kieran Greene knew that in a moment, Doctor Albert would clear his throat and say, “Tell me again about doomsday.” It was the same every time, and Kieran was tired. So tired of knowing how this would play out.
Doctor Albert steepled his knotty fingers and pursed his lips, raising his eyebrows at the patient across from him. His coiffed white hair gleamed under the LED bulbs that dotted the ceiling of the conference room.
The doctor cleared his throat and said, “So, Kieran, tell me again about doomsday.”
Kieran sighed. He’d explained it so many times now it was almost rote. The boredom and pointlessness dripped from his words. “The first thing we noticed was the clocks.”
“Yes, I recall. You said they stopped, worldwide, at … hang on.” The doctor flipped through his notepad. “At 12:27 and 38 seconds, correct?”
“On July first of this year. Yes.”
“And even though it’s June twentieth, you still assert that July first is in the past.”
Kieran shrugged. “For me, it is.”
“Because … you’re from the future.”
The doctor’s condescension hung in the air like a rotten odor. Kieran turned away.
“Right,” said the doctor. He jotted something on his pad — probably apocalyptic delusions or something along those lines. “Let’s say it’s July first now. Walk me through what happens.”
Kieran rolled his eyes. “Doctor Albert, we’ve been over this.”
“Please.” The doctor leaned closer. “Indulge me.”
It was a normal summer day at the office. I’d just finished scheduling the next three blog posts marketing had sent me, when my neighbor, Geri, said, “Huh. The clock stopped.” Sure enough, the second hand on the wall clock was stuck at 38 seconds. I checked it against my watch, and it, too, had stopped at the exact same time.
Before my curiosity had time to percolate, Geri swore and slapped her computer. She’d gotten the Blue Screen Of Death. I felt sorry for her, until I noticed all the other screens in the unit were also blue — including my own.
That’s when the power went out, and the mayhem kicked in.
Five stories below we could hear the screeching and crunching of countless car accidents — and the ensuing horrified screams. Just as I peered through the blinds, a commuter train came rumbling through the loop about three times too fast and derailed from its elevated track. It careened towards a swath of lunchgoers below, as thick as Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras. I turned away, unwilling to bear witness to the certain carnage. But sure enough, I heard it.
As it turned out, that massacre was mild compared to the devastation from the airplanes that rained from the sky like missiles. One cratered the ground three streets away, exploding with such force that it blew out several windows in our building. We couldn’t decide whether we were safer there in the highrise office — well above the ground-level chaos — or if that just made us sitting ducks for some other jetliner with the wrong trajectory. In the end, we decided it was safer to get out of the city altogether — if we could. We plunged into the pitch-black stairwell, descending by touch alone, beneath the soundtrack of a thousand tormented souls.
Kieran sipped from his paper coffee cup. He had relived that day dozens of times already, to almost as many doctors, but recounting that bleak moment in the stairwell still choked him up. Something about those voices — the anguish and terror of them. The words clawed at his throat each time he tried to pry them out.
“I — I can’t do this anymore,” said Kieran.
“We’ve still got thirty minutes left,” said Doctor Albert.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Doctor.” He walked to the conference room door and knocked for his escort. “You — and everyone else here — are already dead.”
On July first, Kieran sighed at the falling summer afternoon outside the minimum security inpatient center, where he’d been detained for the last week.
The peaceful world outside was such a contrast to what he’d expected from the day. In the hours that had followed each previous cataclysm, the world would go from shocking to bizarre. The handful of his office mates who’d managed to escape the city would learn each time that it was not only the clocks and electronics that had failed. Even the sun would remain centered in the sky between dawn and dusk. Time itself had stopped. After some immeasurable period in that apocalyptic landscape, Kieran would wake up in his own bed — with his calendar reset to February fifth, almost four months before the end of the world. An end that he alone remembered.
It was now well past the moment of doomsday, and the world had, in fact, not ended. For the first time in what to Kieran had been years — cumulative years of the same loop of four months — the clocks had not stopped at 12:27:38. Instead of despairing in witness of a burning civilization, he bathed in the crimson and eggplant glow of the sunset. By any other account, this would seem perfectly ordinary — but to him, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
A nurse popped her head into Kieran’s open door. “Mr. Greene, you have a visitor.”
He expected it was Doctor Albert, coming to bask in how wrong Kieran had been. He steeled himself for the I-told-you-so that was sure to hide behind the doctor’s words. But it wasn’t Doctor Albert who walked through the door.
She strode into the room with a disarming command, her bobbing salt-and-pepper hair struggling to keep up with her broad shoulders. She wore a three-piece houndstooth suit, perfectly tailored to her body. At the lapel, a black turtleneck ascended her long throat, around which dangled a glittering silver chain and amethyst pendant. She scraped a chair next to Kieran and straddled it backwards like a saddle.
“Kieran, my name is Bia,” she said, “and I owe you an apology.”
Kieran’s mouth flapped like a fish on land.
She snapped her finger in his face. “Stay with me, Kieran. Have you ever heard of the Epochalypse?”
“N-No,” said Kieran.
“Back around 1970 — in your timeline, that is — some brilliant folks dreamed up a clever way of storing a moment in time as a numeric value. This made it super easy to compare two dates in a computer system, because you could just use basic arithmetic and then convert it back into a date and time when you needed to display it.”
Kieran nodded and swallowed. He couldn’t see how this had anything to do with him.
“You see, the problem with that is that your computers have a maximum numeric value for this time storage. When you count all the way up to that maximum … that’s it. You can’t keep counting. Time — for lack of a better word — stops. Well, either that, or some really weird shit starts to happen. Seen any weird shit lately, Kieran?”
“You might say that.”
“I thought so. Back to the Epochalypse. Your Epochalypse will occur at 03:14:07 UTC on January nineteenth, in the year 2038. That’s when a whole lot of computer systems that deal with comparing dates and times will run up against that maximum value.”
“Wait,” said Kieran. “Didn’t we just go through this back in 2000? The whole Y2K thing? I thought they fixed that.”
Bia smiled. “Oh, you sweet thing. Comparing the Epochalypse to Y2K is like comparing a hurricane to a dust devil. There are 32-bit embedded systems everywhere around here. If everything were converted to 64 bits, you’d be safe until the end of time — there would literally be capacity to express time for twenty times longer than the age of your universe. But nobody’s doing anything about it. They’re going to wait until the last minute, just like they did with Y2K, and it will be this great big doomsday scenario.”
“OK,” said Kieran, “doomsday I can relate to. But what does that have to do with anything? 2038 isn’t for another sixteen years.”
Bia glanced at the door and leaned in close. “You ready to have your mind blown?”
“After what I’ve been through?” Kieran scoffed. “Good luck.”
Bia pushed to her feet and held out her hand. “Walk with me.”
In the lush courtyard of the asylum, Bia motioned for Kieran to sit with her on a wrought-iron bench. “It’s more private out here,” she said, “and there’s more room to pitch a fit if you do end up losing it.”
Kieran sat, tapping his heel, wringing his hands.
“So the thing is,” said Bia, “I’m not from around here.”
“That much I gathered.”
“Let me finish. Where I’m from, we recently had our own Epochalypse. To put it in terms you might understand, we’ve got an elaborate computer system, with a whole bunch of inter-related processes. Most of these processes are, let’s say, 64-bit, but there was one process we missed that was still 32-bit. So when our Epochalypse rolled around, that one process crashed and burned. That’s a simplification, but are you with me so far?”
“I think so. I still don’t see what this has to do with me though.”
“Kieran,” said Bia, taking his hand, “that elaborate computer system I mentioned … is your universe.”
Kieran raised an eyebrow and one side of his mouth, waiting for Bia to crack a smile. “So, what, is this where you offer me a choice between a red pill and a blue pill?”
Bia sat back. “Well, I don’t know what you’re referring to, but … no, I don’t have any pills.”
“Look,” said Kieran, “I realize I’m in a mental ward here, but I think it’s pretty crappy that you’re pranking me with this right now. I just spent the last, oh, ten years or so reliving the destruction of civilization on instant replay every four months, so you’ll forgive me if I’m not really in the mood for jokes.”
Kieran stood up to leave, but Bia grabbed his arm. “Wait Kieran, please. Sit down. Let me explain.”
“You’ve got ten minutes,” he said, “and then I’m leaving.”
“Got it. Now, as I was saying, the process that crashed — it was the process that controls the relative perception of time in your universe. When it crashed, the rest of your universe’s processes could no longer perform any calculations pertaining to time. You might have noticed the sun?”
Kieran had never told anyone about that. A potent brew of terror and intrigue sloshed in his stomach. “Go on.”
“Your civilization’s technology is all intricately enmeshed with the interfaces provided by our system’s time process. So when it crashed, nearly all your technology would have malfunctioned simultaneously. But not only that, the rotation of your planet, its orbit around your sun, and even your sun’s orbit through the galaxy — all of those celestial motions would also have ceased to function, because they depend on our time process. That’s why the sun stopped moving.”
Kieran could either chalk this up as an elaborate prank, or give Bia the benefit of the doubt, and unfortunately, she was coughing up stories that were closer to explanations than anything he’d dreamt up, since falling into his doomsday loop.
“Let’s say for a minute that you’re telling the truth,” he said, “and you’re not just another patient here. What was the deal with the looping back to February?”
Bia looked contrite. “That’s part of what the apology is for. You see — in your world — February fifth of 2022 was the last restore point. So when our primary system detected the crash of its time process, it initiated an automatic shutdown and restore from that moment in your timeline. But since the issue on July first was a concrete limitation — it just kept advancing through to that point in time and then crashing again. Until someone noticed.”
“It was looping for ten years! How could someone not notice?”
“Ten years to you.” Bia brushed a leaf from her sleeve. “One understaffed night shift for us.”
Kieran’s eyes wandered across the blossoming shrubs of the courtyard. Insects buzzed to and fro. A sparrow tweeted and darted through the branches of a young maple. Was all of this just a computer program, in some other plane of existence he could not fathom? If so, what was the point of it?
“It’s a lot to process, I know,” said Bia.
Kieran nodded. “Wait a minute. If I’m part of the system that was looping, why am I the only person who remembered every doomsday?”
Bia winced. “That’s the other half of the apology. You’re running on a separate server that was remotely networked with your universe, for compatibility testing. I guess you could say you’re a beta version for a whole new generation of SALFs. ”
Bia took a deep breath. “Sentient Artificial Life Form.”
Kieran ran his hands through his hair. Bia’s story just kept getting more and more twisted. “What do you mean by artificial? I’m still an actual human, right? Lying in a pod or whatever, plugged into the Matrix?”
Bia stated blankly.
“You know, the movie called The Matrix?”
“We don’t generally keep up on your popular culture — ours is usually more of a macro observation. But to answer your question, no, Kieran. There’s no such thing as an ‘actual human.’ Each of you is a pattern encoded in electronic storage, on computers that to you would seem impossibly magical.”
Kieran stumbled to his feet and started pacing, muttering, “This can’t be real. I’m insane. That’s what this is. This is just the latest manifestation of my doomsday delusion.” Mania forced a strained laugh from his throat. “I need to find Doctor Albert.”
“See? This is why I wanted to be outside for this.” Bia got in front of him and patted his cheek. “Kieran! Hey, snap out of it. There you go. Now, listen to me. On behalf of my entire species, and the institute I represent, I want to make a formal apology to you, for the thirty-three system restores you suffered through. The problem has been corrected, and regular backups are once again ….”
“An apology? Well, that’s just great. That’s super. You come here and tell me that my universe doesn’t really exist. That I myself am not real. I’ve been the lone witness to suffering on a scale you can’t possibly understand — simulated, allegedly, but real to me. I suppose now you’ll just bid me farewell and leave me to stew in existential doubt for the rest of my so-called life. You’ll excuse me if I don’t take any comfort in your ‘apology!’”
“Are you done?”
“Because if you’d have let me finish, what I wanted to say was, I have another option for you.” Bia took Kieran’s hand in both of hers. “You see, in my world, I’m an advocate for SALF rights. Your story is such a compelling case study for why SALFs need to be a protected class. There are those who feel like your lives are insignificant. Since we created you, and you exist on our hardware, there are some who wouldn’t think twice about pulling the plug on you. They think because your suffering is simulated, that it’s somehow lesser.”
“We’re a petri dish to you.”
“In a sense, yes,” said Bia. “But not to me, and not the others like me. Once humankind evolved self-awareness, we believe your lives have become as valid as our own. Because in a very real sense, the enlightenment you’ve just experienced could very well happen to any of us as well. Who’s to say that I, too, am not some complex algorithm running on a computer system that to me would seem mystical? Once you accept that possibility, human rights are a foregone conclusion.”
Kieran sat back down on the bench, and Bia joined him.
“Kieran, what if I told you there was a way for you to join me in my world?”
“Are you telling me that?”
“My institution has developed advanced cybernetic technology that would allow us to install you in an artificial body, giving you the ability to exist amongst us. With me. In my world. Due to your … unique circumstances, during this tragic mishap, we thought you would be an ideal candidate for its inauguration. You could be our first human ambassador.”
Kieran thought back to that first doomsday in the darkened stairwell. Those agonized echoes would burn in his ears for the rest of his days. If he walked among these creators, he could advocate for his kind in a way that Bia alone never could. And with his newfound awareness, he couldn’t see how he’d have any semblance of normalcy in his own world.
Then again, Bia could very well be a figment of his imagination. Perhaps after one too many doomsdays, his mind had finally snapped and embraced its insanity.
But either way … being the first human ambassador to a race of superior intelligence sounded pretty damn cool.
“OK,” he said. “What do I have to do?”