Seconds

Fiction. Some weird sci-fi about time or something.

Ship Log

Galactic date: 3427.118.12
Nearest Stellar Base: MACS J1149 Lensed Star 1 (Icarus - Alpha)
Sector: Q60N

Z: If my calculations are correct, given the increasing toxicity of the cabin’s air, the average human person’s lung capacity relative to our various body masses, our respective resting heart rates and oxygen requirements, performance of the cells in altered gravity and pressure and so on, as of right… now, we’ve got about thirteen minutes and… twenty-six seconds before we die.

B: And how many of your remaining minutes of life did you waste fiddling with that calculator, Zek?

Z: Eighteen minutes and forty-one seconds from the time I began computation until I began this sentence. It may also be worthwhile to note that, since there are now only three of us competing for oxygen, the temptation to kill one another to maximise our respective access to non-toxic air will be very high.

B: Fucking hell.

A: Let him finish, Boh.

Z: I am finished.

B: Wow. 

Z: I am quite happy to divide the oxygen evenly, though.

B: Hey Ard, should we kill him?

A: No, Boh. Don’t even joke about it. And Zek, you’ve got to relax! A rescue shuttle has been dispatched. We sealed the airlocks. And, if we are to die, at least there’s a spectacular view. How many humans get to die looking at a sun on the verge of a supermassive explosion? 

B: That’s exactly your problem, Ard, you always see the beauty in things. It’s very tiring to be around. Hey don’t you dare pick up that calculator, Zek. He’s being rhetorical.

Z: I just wanted to see how long is left. Eleven minutes. 

A: Eleven minutes, eh? That’s not so bad.

B: Don’t patronise us, Ard.

A: You can do a lot in eleven minutes, I mean.

Z: About 630 seconds, if that helps.

A: Ah, not really, Zek.

B: It actually makes it way worse, Tin Man.

A: Hmm. You know, I can’t help but wonder, what is a second anyway? Who decides how long a second is? And who decided there’d be sixty of them in a minute? Our measurements of time are archaic, aren’t they? They predate galactic colonies, warp drives, AI decision cores—hell, I think seconds were standardised before even computers. 

B: What’s your point, Ard? Who cares?

A: I think it’s interesting is all.

B: What’s interesting about it? The Original Earth would have gone around the sun in a measurable tropical year, around its own axis at some repeating interval, and someone at some point came up with a series of numbers to make logical, mathematical sense of it. Easy. Boring.

Z: Not quite, Boh.

B: Oh fuck here we go.

A: How then, Zek?

B: You sure you wouldn’t rather just kill him, Ard?

Z: 60 is the smallest number divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and is easily divisible by bigger numbers like 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30.

B: I’m going to kill him.

A: So a minute is sixty seconds because it’s divisible by lots of things?

Z: No, I was just explaining why the Bablyonians used sixty as their base.

B: The who?

Z: The Babylonians. An ancient civilisation from Original Earth. They used a sexigesimal system.

B: A what?

A: Even I can work that one out, Boh. We use the decimal system - base ten. The baba… babawhatevers used sixty. Sexigesimal.

B: I hope this sun explodes right now and the last word you say in this life is sexigesimal.

Z: That’s right, Ard. The Bablyonian astronomers believed that the stars were omens and messages from their gods, and meticulously studied the patterns of movement. They realised the night sky completed a full revolution, what we would call a year, every three hundred and sixty days, which was ideal for their sexigesimal system. This was thousands of years before the first computer by the way. Or even the most basic telescope. Babylonian astronomy sets human knowledge on a certain course, which is taken up by the Greeks who are—

B: The who?

Z: The Greeks. A collection of mathematicians, philosophers, astronomers, drawing on Babylonian findings. And so the repository of human knowledge continues to expand with strange, seemingly awkward sexigesimal numbers at its core, and then when we have the machinery to mechanically keep time, we have sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour.

B: How many minutes until my suffering ends?

Z: Eight.

A: ...

B: …

Z: ...

A: So why are there not sixty hours in a day?

B: Maybe I should kill you for enabling this idiot, Ard?

Z: The Egyptians were fascinated with the number twelve.

A: The who?

Z: The Egyptians.

B: You making these names up, Tin Man?

Z: The Egyptians used a sundial to measure the time of day, dividing sunlight hours into twelve intervals. By tracking the appearance of certain stars of the horizon, they could do the same thing for night. Again, this sets the repository of human knowledge on a certain course, and eventually is combined with sexigesimal numbers when mechanical time keeping is possible. That’s why our ship uses a twenty-four hour cycle period, it’s called Earth Standard.

B: Ugh. I’ve thought about it some more. I want you two to kill me first.

A: Boh, he’s just trying to take our minds off—

B: A swift blow to the head should do it.

A: It’s an interesting history lesson, it’s not so—

B: Actually, just eject me into the vacuum of space.

A: He’s not trying to personally or even deliberately deny you a peaceful—

B: At least there I’ll get some quiet.

Z: Boh, if we eject you, your suit’s internal pressure allows sound waves to travel and you’d still hear us through the inbuilt comms.

B: Eject me without a suit then.

Z: This close to an exploding sun? Even with rudimentary calculations and some estimation, there is a… 90% chance that if we eject you without a suit your brain would explode or at least melt almost instantaneously. Before you’ve even conceived the soundlessness. If you want silence, your best option would be to right now perforate—

B: For fucks sake, Zek! Shut up! What’s the matter with you? Are you a robot or something?

A: Boh!

B: Do you even realise that we’re about to die?

Z: Of course, it was my calculations that first—

B: Shut up! Oh my god shut up! I had twenty minutes left in this galaxy and you… you ruined them! You’ve wasted my time with information I didn’t want, or care about, when I should have been… I should have been… I don’t know, reflecting! Answering unanswered questions! Being truly honest with myself and just exactly what it is I learnt and achieved in life. How did I live between coming from nothing and going to nothing? Zek you bastard! Just let me die!’

A: Boh, no one’s going to die.

Z: Boh you’re being unreasonably high-minded, human beings aren’t capable of fully realising—

B: How long?

Z: Almost four minutes. 

B: ...

A: ...

Z: About two hundred and fifty seconds.

A: ...

Z: ...

B: ...

Z: ...

B: ...

A: Zek?

Z: Yes, Ard?

A: How does everyone know how long a second is meant to be?

B: Maybe I’ll just blow the ship up.

Z: For a long time, a second was defined as a fraction of the mean solar day, relative to the tropical orbital year. But now a second is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 energy transitions of the Cesium atom. This atomic timekeeping is galactic standard. Everywhere in the universe, every second is the same. It’s quite beautiful, really.

A: Yeah.

B: Not really.

Z: ...

A: ...

B: And how many of these “beautiful” atomic seconds do we have left?

Z: No more than one hundred.

B: And why don’t you seem at all concerned by that Zek?

Z: ...

A: ...

B: Because you really are a robot?

Z: No.

A: ...

B: ...

Z: It’s because everywhere in the universe every second is the same. My last… fifty-ish are no more special than any other fifty. Seconds cannot in and of themselves be good or bad. But they are important. The passage of time brings a fourth dimension to the physical reality of our universe, and so I think that every second—irrespective of where I might place it on my own personal spectrum of emotion—like every atom, is inconceivably special. Think about it. Coded within each second’s tick, as with each individual atom, is proof of the miracle of my existence. Of our collective existence as well. And the existence of this sun that’s about to explode. The entire universe is made up of matter that is granted meaning by temporal continuity. And the gargantuan, inconceivable entirety of physical existence is in this way reducible to the passage of time that gives it life; reducible to eons, to millenia, to centuries, to years, to weeks, to days, to hours, to minutes, all the way to seconds. A human construct. An arbitrarily defined moment, an in and of itself meaningless second, from which everything else is born. And everywhere in the universe, every second is the same.

B: ...

A: ...

Z: ...

B: What the fuck are you talking about?

A: Hey Boh?

B: What Ard?

A: Sexigesimal.


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