King Of The Fountain

Though the word "nerd" has not exactly survived, the King of the Remaining World is an aging, rotund, scrubby-faced nerd. He slouches awkwardly across an oversized black and neon green chair. It's not entirely certain how this man came to be the King of this vault, and in the near future, this may change.

It's the early meeting, also known as the "waking meeting". At one point in history, this could have been termed the "morning meeting", but... that's kind of the reason why everybody is here.

One of the King's secondary advisors stands up. He gathers some files together on a tablet, clears his throat, and speaks.

"It is eighteen million, seven hundred thousand seconds since the great nuclear exchange. As we do every one hundred thousand seconds, we pay our respects to the King, who, along with his most trusted colleagues, saved the lives of all six hundred and thirty-eight surviving humans, all of us either employees of or visitors to the FVTE Mountain Laboratory, by leading us to the classified nuclear vault excavated into the mountain. We are grateful that the King's illicit... 'urban exploration' uncovered the existence of this vault, and for his advanced lockpicking and hacking skills, which opened the vault door in our hour of most urgent need.

"We also pay respect to our King for further discovering the immense long-term cache of medicine, food, water purification supplies and other equipment, which... according to our latest projections, will last us for the next..."

The King, who had given every impression of dozing off in his chair, stirs in his seat at this fractional hesitation.

"...one billion, two hundred and two million seconds, if managed correctly," the advisor continues.

The King waves a hand at an attendant.

"The King asks that you repeat yourself," the attendant barks.

Stiffly, the advisor says, "If managed responsibly, the supplies will last us for one billion, two hundred and two million seconds. We believe."

The King sits up. "Use the prescribed terms."

"Ah." The advisor's face betrays great revulsion. "One point two oh two gigaseconds."

The King relaxes, and nods.

The room is a substantial, well-air-conditioned underground meeting room, built from green metallic girderwork, with fading plaster walls. It is an ugly, old room. There is a long, oval table in the middle, and the King slouched at one end. Far down the oval on a far side, someone leans forward and says, "Sire."

"I wouldn't, Joyce," the advisor says. He hurriedly picks his report up again. "Progress on the construction of a redundant atmospheric scrubber is proceeding well and will be completed within... two million, six hundred and seventy-eight thousand seconds. The wheat oxygen plant is growing normally although the ultraviolet lighting requirements have caused excessive deterioration to our electrical systems. The nuclear pile generates more than enough energy for all our needs, but the cabling can't handle the voltage. We need to plan for a vault-wide outage in the next w— seven hundred thousand days. Seconds! Seven hundred thousand seconds. I didn't say that. Well, ah..." He produces a little calculator from his pocket and does some arithmetic. It is a teeny, ancient slab of metal, powered by a watch battery and intended to fit in a wallet. It makes a tiny bip every time he presses a button with his lengthy fingernail. "More like six hundred thousand seconds. Six hundred thousand and five."

"A 'week'," the King rumbles.

The advisor opens and closes his mouth a few times. "Look, sire, I... I am performing all of the conversions you've asked me to perform, to better aid in your planning. I am doing all I can."

"It's a facade," the King informs him. "It's a surface level of correctness in front of a heart of analogue mistruth. You haven't accepted our reality. You are still performing your estimates in the old units."

"Why shouldn't he?" Joyce says. She is forty or fifty and honestly too smart to put up with any more of this nonsense. "I can't let this stand. Kevin, it's been too long. We need to start using a proper calendar again."

The King shakes his head.

"We can't live like this until the fallout decays! We can't just forget what time was and used to be, where we came from. And also, it's driving me crazy that this is the biggest problem we're still having."

"How many fingers do you have?" the King asks her.

Joyce glares at him.

The advisor, who is named Dave, shoots her a pained look, a just answer the question look, a look with severe I would very much like to be having any other conversation than this one overtones.

"Ten," Joyce says.

"Eight fingers and two thumbs, for a total of ten digits!" the King shouts. "The same ten digits all of us were born with! The same ten digits all of us are accustomed to doing all of our mathematics and reasoning with, and have been since we were infants! Maybe you don't know what it was like in the old days. Maybe you had the luxury of never being forced to engage with the entire pantheon of human calendar systems. Maybe you never had to get your ten pretty digits dirty with these depraved, lunisolar, sexagesimal 'systems', with their inconsistent-length months, and their ludicrous, proliferating, bureaucratic, eternally shifting time zones. You don't know what it was like to deal with their asinine daylight saving."

"Kevin, this was seven months ago! You and I were both there! Stop talking like this, you dimwit, I moved my clock twice a year just like you did, just like everybody did. It was not that big a deal."

"When I saw the ash clouds start to rise," the King says, "I saw all 'technological' civilisation being incinerated... clearing the way for a better way. A singular way. A way of life beneath the ground, where the fuzzy, unpredictable, frictional, analogue whirling of the Earth and the celestial bodies is the arbitrary irrelevance which it should always have been. Where the Sun is just another star, and the time it takes our Earth to spin once beneath it is a piece of trivia, and seasons are dead, and days are dead, and we can set the timekeeping we want the most. And years are dead too. I have given you the best excuse to adopt pure metric time. 'Greenwich' no longer exists. 'Eastern Standard' no longer exists. Even the imposter, Coordinated Universal Time, is dead!

"We are finally able to live the way Science always intended — inside a sunless bunker with only an atomic clock, counting time from the vibrations of a caesium atom. There is only atomic time. Waking and sleeping every hundred thousand seconds."

Joyce says, "One hundred thousand seconds is too long for a day! I hate it! My body won't adjust to it and nor will half the people in the bunker! We need a seven-day week because otherwise we can't have a weekend."

"There is no such thing as a day down here!"

At that moment, someone bursts into the meeting room. He is wearing miner's overalls and a bright yellow hard hat, and filthy. "Sire, I bring news!"

"What news, Gloucester?"

Joyce confusedly mouths Gloucester? to herself. People are getting altogether too far into this.

"Sire, our tunnelling has connected with another underground vault. There are two hundred other people who survived the nuclear exchange. They're from the other branch of the Lab, just as we suspected."

Kevin seems legitimately interested by this development. His first question is, of course, "What are they using for timekeeping?"

"That was the very first thing we asked them, sire," Gloucester states. "Fascinatingly, despite our fears, it seems they, too, are using decimal multiples of... Atomic Time seconds, as tracked by their own caesium fountain atomic clock as their primary reference clock."

"And does their clock agree with our own?"

"Yes, sire! To the last decimal place!"

There is a mildly stunned pause. The advisor says to Gloucester, "Seriously?"

"Yes!"

The king relaxes. "Establish diplomatic relations with this other vault. Send them a gift of unpunched punch cards."

Gloucester leaves.

The advisor scrolls through his files a little, wondering if now might be a good time to pick up the thread of the actual meeting. There are some fairly important things further down the list.

But another man, this one a blonde fellow named Matteo, leans forward. "Your highness, might I ask you to consider something. You stated that we are liberated from astronomical reality, though we still use base ten. Why not base two?"

"We are still not liberated from biological reality," the King says.

"Then let me ask you this. We still adhere to the S.I. second. That is, nine billion, one hundred ninety-two million, six hundred thirty-one thousand, seven hundred seventy oscillations of a caesium-133 atom."

"What are you insinuating?"

"My friend, doesn't that number seem like the most arbitrary of all? Why not ten billion oscillations? Ten to the power of ten oscillations, would be nice."

The advisor says, "You're suggesting adopting a metric second about nine percent longer than the S.I. second."

"Well, as the King says—"

"His name is Kevin," Joyce mutters.

"—'there is no "I" in "S.I.".'"

The King adds, "Nor in so-called 'International Atomic Time'. Nations are gone, except for ours."

"And the other vault," someone adds.

"I say we should use binary multiples of caesium vibrations," Matteo says. "I have some paperwork here which you might find quite interesting..."

"Guards!" the King cries.

Guards appear.

"Oh, my," Matteo says. "I really didn't think things were going to go this far. Kevin, slow down some, yes?"

"Take him away," the King says to his guards.

Matteo asks, more perplexed than anything else, as the guards lead him away, "And what?"

"Decimalize him!"

"What does that mean?"

"We'll work something out!" the King says. The meeting room doors close. "It will be suitable. Apposite. Probably not painful. Human rights were first on the charter, everybody here remembers. Above even the calendar thing."

Everybody at the table nods. They had been a little anxious for a moment, but yes, they now remember why Kevin won some approval early on. His commitment to human rights issues is commendable. Maybe irritating calendar discussions are the best possible choice for the worst problem in a bunker.

Joyce twiddles her thumbs. This one might be a wash.

Still, Christmas is coming. Winter or no, solstice or no, if the King doesn't do something about that, he's going to have an uprising on his hands.

Next: Optimæ

Discussion (9)

2020-11-05 19:56:58 by qntm:

1,984 words. Running total is 10,280 words. Wasn't able to think of a good title for this one. "Fallout Ten Billion" was a possibility I guess.

2020-11-05 20:10:08 by Jerf:

So He Wanted To Just Use Seconds - ref https://qntm.org/continuous Which I'm not serious about as a suggestion, because it moves the revelation to the wrong place.

2020-11-05 20:56:33 by rpresser:

How about "After the first thing" ... with "second" implied?

2020-11-05 22:21:46 by Dystopianist:

Only 1.22 gigaseconds? That’s barely more than forty years. Jeez, these people are doomed.

2020-11-05 22:22:53 by Dystopianist:

Correction, 1.202 gigaseconds. Less than forty years, that’s a sorry state for the “scientific utopia” that’s going down.

2020-11-05 23:35:19 by -dsr-:

You couldn't get it to 2048 words? For shame! Though 1984 has a different, also appropriate significance.

2020-11-06 08:47:19 by Emmett Brown:

This might be treason, but I converted everything to the old system, just for clarity. "216 days, 10 hours, 26 minutes and 40 seconds since the great nuclear exchange" "every 001 days, 03 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds, we pay our respects to the King" "medicine, food, water purification supplies and other equipment will last us for the next 38 years, 042 days, 00 hours, 53 minutes and 20 seconds, if managed correctly" "progress on the construction of a redundant atmospheric scrubber will be completed within 30 days, 23 hours, 53 minutes and 20 seconds" "we need to plan for a vault-wide outage in the next 006 days, 22 hours, 40 minutes and 05 seconds" "001 days, 03 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds is too long for a day!"

2020-11-07 12:25:54 by thatoneguy:

honestly, i could really really go for a 28 hour day.

2020-11-10 00:28:56 by Felipe:

A 28 hour day does sound pretty nice, actually. I remember reading a study that a person living in a cave with no timekeeping will eventually adjust to a day about that long.

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