Everyone knew when time froze, and no one knew if it would start again.
Raindrops hung in the air. Cars had stopped in the middle of the road, puffs of smoke stuck to their tailpipes like cotton candy. Planes were fixed in the sky, the world’s largest crib mobile above the clouds. It was all very strange.
Stranger still was what wasn’t affected: people. Only people. Birds stopped mid-chirp, dogs and cats kept napping (and would nap forever), but humans were the one exception. They could move around, grab things, shake hands, dance, run, crawl.
The first reactions were panic and confusion. People reached for their smartphones, and then learned that smartphones don’t do very much if electricity doesn’t work, and electricity doesn’t work if time doesn’t work. Computers don’t do much either. Neither did phone lines, or trains, or even horse-drawn carriages. Transportation and communication had regressed to ancient times. There was moment of realization - and it stretched, further and further, carrying into eternity.
In the span of a few days, the other consequences became clear. It was now impossible to change the physical or chemical configuration of anything in the world. People no longer needed to sleep. They didn’t get hungry, or thirsty. They couldn’t hurt themselves, even if they tried. They simply were. Birth stopped, and death stopped. A few people tried to argue they weren’t technically immortal, and weren’t technically invulnerable, but it was close enough to immortality and invulnerability that those people gave up the fight for nomenclature.
There were a few attempts to use science make sense of the situation. Why were only humans unaffected? How did the freeze distinguish between a carbon atom in a human, and a carbon atom in a plant, when they should have been identical? If people could move about, where did the energy come from? None of these attempts went anywhere. There were plenty of ideas, but they couldn’t be tested, making them close to worthless.
That left one big question: what do we do now?
* * *
The President of the United States had a problem. He needed to give a speech to the public, to say something, anything. But how do you do so when nothing works?
After some discussion, Congress came up with a solution. They visited running clubs around D.C., and asked if they’d like to volunteer to literally run around the world.
It took about a week to recruit people and get them to memorize the speech well enough to deliver it. It took a few more weeks for the runners to make it across the continental United States.
By the time the first runner made it to the West Coast, it had been almost a month since time had frozen, and no one cared very much about what the President had to say. They had long since decided they were on their own, and had resolved not to pay too much attention to the noise outside.
* * *
For years before the freeze, some had advocated for the need to achieve a post-scarcity society. The world wasn’t exactly the post-scarcity utopia that they had dreamed of, but at least everyone had what they needed to live, even if it was done by driving all demands to zero.
Without work to do, people had a lot of free time. If anything is unambiguously true, it is that people need to find hobbies, and that’s what people did. Some gave math another try. Others went to philosophy, bringing several strange yet wonderful ideas. A few decided to devote their lives to Chess and Go, some of the few forms of entertainment that weren’t impacted by the freeze.
Travel got a lot more popular. It took a long time to get anywhere, but people had a lot of time to burn.
A family of four from Montana decided to go storm hunting. They planned a journey to Southeast Asia, where a great thunderstorm raged across the sky, flecks of lightning hanging in the air like stars.
A group of bridesmaids from South Africa decided to visit America before a wedding. In the middle of Kansas, they stopped by a tornado, and posed next to the funnel cloud, waving their arms around and laughing like chimes in the wind.
An elderly couple from Sao Paulo decide to climb Mount Everest. It wasn’t the most original thing to do, but it’s Mount Everest. How are you not supposed to climb Mount Everest?
The world was their oyster, and people realized there were pearls all around them, even in the little things. They just needed the time to appreciate them, and the chance to find them for themselves.
* * *
Years passed, then centuries, then millennia, all trapped in that moment of time. The world hadn’t changed, but the people in it had made the world a very different place. A lot of petty squabbles died off. People argued less and helped each other more. It’s funny how much people change, after they become immortal.
The one problem was that the world was starting to become boring. Yes, there were pearls all around them, but on a long enough time scale, you can see everything that you want to see. People were running out of things to do.
And then something new happened.
Long after people had stopped keeping track of the time, a man decided to spend a few months walking across the Atlantic. He had done this eighty times before, but it had been on his bucket list to do it again after a friend mentioned an island he’d missed all the previous times. Halfway through his journey, he spotted a glowing, pulsating wall of light - something that was changing, when nothing was supposed to change.
He made landfall in Morocco, and spread word to the first locals he could find. Independent expeditions verified his findings, and discovered that other walls of light had appeared across the ocean. A group from Australia started mapping the walls, and realized they were forming letters. With this news, they recruited a thousand people to form a human pyramid. The woman at the top of the pyramid looked down, and shouted out the message.
WE GAVE YOU GIFTS, AND YOU SQUANDERED THEM.
WE GAVE YOU CHOICES, AND YOU MADE ONES THAT BROUGHT YOU CLOSE TO RUIN.
IN FEAR, WE TOOK THEM AWAY.
BUT PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE THEM BACK.
PROVE YOU DESERVE THEM, AND WE WILL RESTART THE GEARS OF THE WORLD.
WE WILL GIVE YOU FIFTY YEARS TO DECIDE.
With the message delivered, the letters faded away, leaving just the frozen ocean waves.
* * *
It took a while for humanity to decide. It’s always hard to change things once people get used to them. Our adaptability is both a strength and a weakness.
There were upsides to living in a frozen world. But there were downsides too. People have so many ideas now, for things to build, things to try, and they can’t, because the world literally won’t allow them to do. We were given the chance to take back control over our own destiny. How could we say no?
It was unclear how we were supposed to signal our decision. Eventually we discovered five analog clocks, scattered across the world. They were all identical in shape and size, all bathed in the same pulsating white light, and all stuck at precisely five seconds to midnight.
The first was found in a classroom in Copenhagen.
The second, in an abandoned laboratory on the outskirts of Berlin.
The third, on a beach on the Bikini Atoll, lying next to a pineapple of all things.
The fourth, in a house near the center of Hiroshima.
And the fifth, in an editorial publishing office based out of Chicago.
Each clock had a second hand, and unlike everything else, the second hand was free to move backward and forward, as long as it didn’t move past five seconds to midnight. The leading theory was that if we could push all the second hands forward at the same time, that would be the signal to get things moving again.
I’m standing in front of the Chicago clock right now.
For synchronization, we have five runners, one for each clock, who have learned the knack of running at precisely a given speed. On a cue, they started running, such that they would arrive at each clock at the same time. In parallel, we’re running some backup runners in case something goes wrong, and some checksum runners to transmit data that verifies we’re in the correct margin of error. The system’s all very interesting. I’d explain the details, but I wouldn’t want to bore people.
As for why I’m one of the people pushing a second hand? It’s nothing special. We chose randomly. I just got lucky.
Sometimes, I wonder if we’re making the right call. If I wanted, I could sabotage the whole operation. But I won’t. It’s humanity’s decision and I have to respect it.
Right on cue, a runner enters the room, moving forward at a steady pace.
I nod, and start pushing the second hand forward. It starts to groan, making a loud, creaking sound that is far too loud for what should be an ordinary clock. I push, and push, and push - and then it starts moving.
Sometime in early July, I thought of the beginning and end of this story. I liked the idea, I knew what notes I wanted to hit, and I had ideas about how to write it. Best of all, it was an idea that worked best as a short story, which made it excellent writing practice.
I started a draft before ICML, and then forgot about it for several weeks, since I was too busy with conferences and travel.
By the time I revisited it, I had finished reading American Gods, and it almost convinced me to throw the story away. The storytelling in that book was so lyrical that it made mine feel like a tragedy. I then decided it would be okay if my story was worse than American Gods, because a lot of things are worse than American Gods. Besides, half the point of writing is to write things that look horrible to you later.
I needed to write this story, and so I did. Know that I did my best to steal the parts of that book's writing that I liked the most.
The bulk of this story was written while listening to Demetori's rendition of Eastern Dream on repeat. This has nothing to do with anything. I just like that song very much.