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The Day and the Hour

The Day and the Hour

– a short story

Friday

A cold, hunched figure stood at the corner of St Matthew Street in Ecclesburn, Scotland. THE END IS NIGH, proclaimed his earnest placard for a blind world to see.

“Dad, what’s NIG?” asked Martin as they walked past. Always asking questions, was Martin, and his vocabulary grew daily in just this kind of way.

Nighnear”, replied Sean, laconically.

Young Martin persisted. “The end is near: the end of what?”

“That man thinks the end of the world is near,” explained Sean. “I’d pay no attention, if I were you.” They walked on.

“Dad, what’s apoplexy?”

Sean quickly figured out what had prompted this question, and he concealed his amusement at the malapropism. “A‑po‑ca‑lypse”, he enunciated. “It means the unveiling of the time when Jesus will come again.”

“But I thought that wasn’t going to happen until the end of the world. That cinema says, A‑po‑ca‑lypse Now. Does that mean…”

“No, it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s just a film. It’s about Vietnam. It’s only a catchy title.”

“Dad, I saw something on TV today about lots of Christians going to Jerusalem because they think the world will end at The Millennium.”

“Look, Martin. For thousands of years there have always been a few fanatics around, saying when the world will end. They’re always wrong. Every time. Nobody knows when the world will end. If it will end. It certainly won’t happen in your lifetime. Don’t worry about it.”

“And don’t call this weekend The Millennium,” he added, pedantically. “A millennium is a period of a thousand years. Talk about the end of the old millennium, or the beginning of the new millennium.”

“It nearly ended with Noah’s Flood, didn’t it?”

Some reassurance this boy needs, thought Sean. He explained that Noah’s Flood is probably just a story. And anyway, even in the story, there was a happy ending, and God sent a rainbow as a promise that no disaster like that would ever happen again.

And the pair continued their way towards the Hogmanay party at their local church on the last evening of 1999.

Saturday

Dr Ralph J Goldstein, Jnr, sank into his bed, exhausted. These have been eight months of pure Hell, he thought. Why couldn’t the President have minded his own business? What did he know about systems analysis?

Dr Goldstein worked for the US Government. He was the leader of the team of computer programmers responsible for the mission‐critical systems at the US Department of Defense at the Pentagon. For some time, his team’s most important task had been to ensure that all their systems were millennium‐compliant: in the words of the President of the United States, that when the new millennium arrived “the computers will know it is the year 2000”.

This was known to be a serious problem. Millions of computer systems worldwide, because of shortsighted programming in past decades, could not distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900, a failure known as the Millennium Bug. This had the potential to bring down worldwide infrastructures in computer‐reliant industries.

Eliminating the Millennium Bug from the mission‐critical systems of the Department of Defense had been no easy task for Dr Goldstein and his team. The systems in question had grown monolithically since the early 1960s. Dr Goldstein had played no part in their early development, and the documentation he inherited was rudimentary. The security aspects of the systems were antiquated, and Dr Goldstein’s work had been held up several times because parts of the software could only be amended with the personal password of the President himself. However, Dr Goldstein’s work had gone according to plan, and had been completed with over a year to spare. Or so he thought.

Parts of Dr Goldstein’s job were top secret, and that fact on its own had never given him any difficulty. However, he had never fully understood why he was considered to be directly accountable to the President of the United States, or why his salary was so unusually handsome: fully four times what he had been earning previously as Head of Computer Systems in a public company with a household name. Indeed it had on more than one occasion crossed his mind that his magnificent salary might include an element of… – no, let’s just say that if a man is well satisfied with his remuneration then he is perhaps less likely to quibble about such niceties as proper chains of command. And the President is, after all, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. With that thought, his conscience had been salved.

Dr Goldstein had at first been proud when the President had asked to meet him in April 1999, in recognition of the work he had done. Over a buffet meal, what a benevolent and personal interest the President had taken in his work!

Until the President mentioned DMH, that is. For reasons of security and confidentiality, Dr Goldstein had had to reprogram DMH personally. Only two men in the world knew of its existence, and they were talking.

“I take it that when the clock ticks over, DMH will know it’s the year 2000?”

“I didn’t actually do it that way, Mr President. It doesn’t need to know.”

The President visibly stiffened. “Last year it knew it was 1998?”

“Yes, sir. But the DMH software had become cumbersome. Too many calls to other, non‐critical, software. And since DMH only operates over a time scale of 48 hours at most, I was able to streamline it. Now it doesn’t need to know the year, or the month, or the date. Only the day and the hour. Much more elegant.”

“I don’t care about elegance, Goldstein. You’re playing with human lives here. DMH has worked flawlessly for the last 35 years using the year, the month and the date. I don’t like you changing it.”

“Believe me, Mr President, it was by far the simplest way to do it.”

“SIMPLEST?” the President exploded. “SIMPLEST? I engage one of the cleverest men in the world, I entrust him with one of the most important jobs in the world, I pay him one of the biggest salaries in the world, and he makes his decisions by choosing the easiest way out? Damn you, Goldstein, I don’t like your attitude. From now on, things will get done my way. You will go back to your lab, and you will reinstate the DMH system that has been working perfectly for the last 35 years, and you will change it so that when the clock ticks over it will know it is the year 2000. Or you can resign your position, here and now.”

Two men, two cultures. How could the President – brought up on politics, and power, and big is beautiful – how could he possibly appreciate that, in the field of science, the simple and elegant option is likely to be the most reliable one as well?

Protestations were useless. The most powerful man in the world had taken a dislike of Dr Goldstein. For his part, Dr Goldstein found the money too good to turn down. Some combination this, the President with his love of power and the scientist with his love of money. So he had returned to his desk with an almost impossible task: 80,000 lines of 1960s spaghetti programming to understand and revise personally and thoroughly in 8 months. But he had done it, and with just a few hours to spare. Or, rather, he hoped he had done it: for the work had been unbelievably messy and difficult to check, carried out as it was in accordance with the personal whim of the President. It was entirely possible that he had missed something.

But today, 1st January 2000, with Dr Goldstein in constant attendance in case of mishap, his work was vindicated.

If the DMH system was going to fail, he knew when it would fail: 1st January 2000, at 7 am. How strange! Here he was, working for a military organisation fighting an enemy – the Millennium Bug – and he knew the day and the hour when the enemy was going to strike! Just before 7 am he ran a little diagnostic test, which produced the following screen output:

Current day and hour: 1 January 2000 06:55
Last successful DMH: 31 December 1999 07:00
Gap 23.9 hours: acceptable

At this he breathed a sigh of immense relief. Another such sigh as 7 am came and went. All day DMH continued to run in the background, as it had done every day for the last 35 years, without producing any nasty surprises.

Now it was 11.30 pm. Dr Goldstein drove home, drank himself silly, slumped into his bed and fell asleep.

Sunday

The congregation gathered to worship God on the first Sunday of the new millennium. This was a service of looking back and looking forward: looking back over an age governed by Satan, and looking forward to an age governed by Christ.

If it had been preached the previous week, the sermon would have been over young Martin’s head. But something within him had been awakened in these few days: something to do with inheritance, something to do with responsibility. He listened intently:

“How puffed up is Man with his lust for power and his lust for money! How vainly has Adam appropriated to himself the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil! How arrogantly has this immature child called Man frittered about with the wonders of God’s Universe as though they were his toys!

“Chernobyl, 1986. Nuclear reactor explodes! Over 100 million Curies of radionuclides pollute God’s lands and rivers, seas and skies as the child Man plays his irresponsible games! Chernobyl, the Ukrainian word for Wormwood! Revelation Chapter VIII verses 10 and 11: ‘And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.’

“And what of the world’s great natural resources? Gouged out from the bowels of the earth and thrown away like so much Silly Putty! How long did it take God to lay down the great reserves of oil in His earth’s crust: two hundred million years? How long has it taken this petulant child called Man to squander them: two hundred years? So that there will be none left by the middle of this new century? Are you proud to belong to a human race of six thousand million people running out of oil – six thousand million foolish virgins?”

12 noon it may have been in Scotland, but meantime, 7 am US Eastern Time, it was when they started work that staff at the Pentagon received a screen message they had never seen before. It simply read:

DMH
No activity detected in last 24 hours
Press any key

Well, they had no idea what DMH was, and they were pressing keys all the time, and they pressed a key at random.

But, deep within the computer’s software, one bundle of spaghetti was puzzled. The DMH routine immediately ran a second time, and internally came to the same dangerous conclusion as before:

Current day and hour: 2 January 2000 07:00
Last successful DMH: 1 January 1900 07:00
Gap 876624 hours: unacceptable

The software was understandably nonplussed by this discrepancy of 100 years. So it reiterated the screen message, with the addition of the word “Urgent” in the heading.

This time the staff called up the Help file. Under ‘DMH’ it simply said, “All aspects of DMH are the personal responsibility of the leader of the Department of Defense mission‐critical programming team,” and gave a telephone number. They phoned the number. The call was automatically redirected to Dr Goldstein at home as he was on leave. But he was sound asleep, and still drunk, and his telephone remained unanswered.

Well, this was a nuisance, was it not. Every time they cleared the message it simply reappeared. They weren’t going to be able to get any work done all day.

At 7.05 am Dr Goldstein’s emergency telephone rang loudly at his bedside, and his personal terminal beside it issued an even stronger screen message:

DMH - Very Urgent
Last successful DMH: 1 January 1900 07:00
No response from Pentagon despite many requests.
Please press any key urgently to confirm that all is well.

Still 100 years out. And still Dr Goldstein was sound asleep and drunk.

At 7.10 am the emergency telephone of the President of the United States rang in the White House. He rose quickly and answered it, and a synthesised voice advised him that there was an extremely urgent message on his personal terminal. This time the screen message was in plain, brutal English:

DEAD MAN'S HANDLE - EXTREMELY URGENT

No keyboard activity has been detected at the terminal of any of the senior staff at the Pentagon for over 24 hours. Urgent requests for confirmation that all is well have gone unanswered, both from the staff at the Pentagon and from the mission-critical programming team.

The DMH system's default assumption in these circumstances is that China has successfully disabled all input to the US Department of Defense computer systems, in advance of launching a nuclear attack. Please now, as a matter of extreme urgency, press any key, to reassure the DMH system that its default assumption is false and that input is in fact still enabled.

Stupid fools, overrunning their Millennium holiday like that, thought the President, as he pressed a random key. Immediately his emergency telephone rang again and there appeared a further message:

DEAD MAN'S HANDLE - FINAL REQUEST
FINAL OPPORTUNITY TO COUNTERMAND
THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND IS AT STAKE

As you have not responded to the previous EXTREMELY URGENT request for reassurance, the DMH system must now assume that China has successfully disabled all input to the US Department of Defense computer systems, in advance of launching a nuclear attack. Therefore, in 60 seconds' time, strategic missiles with nuclear warheads will be automatically, simultaneously and irrevocably launched against the 400 targets in China that you have already predetermined, in order to neutralise any further threat from that country.

If this is NOT your intention, you MUST countermand by pressing any key NOW.

In mounting panic, the President pressed key after key. All that happened is that the message kept reappearing, word for word the same, except that the reference to 60 seconds was progressively replaced by references to shorter and shorter times.

The President struck his red emergency button, and Dr Goldstein’s emergency telephone rang again. He was asleep and drunk. Not that he would have had time to do anything about it.

And nation rose against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.

As the arsenal launched automatically and gained height over the west coast of the United States, the world below bore an eerie calm as though everything were blissfully normal. A couple of women worked at a mill, grinding meal. A couple of men worked in a field. The cattle and the horses grazed unperturbed. And the sheep, and the goats.

As the missiles began to spread out over the East China Sea, their onboard computer systems compiled their reports that they would radio back to the Pentagon. The first one read as follows:

Nuclear warhead #374 will be detonated in approximately 120 seconds.
07:31 Eastern Time, 2 January 2000
12:31 UTC, 2 January 1900
Irrecoverable system error, date conflict.
Mission aborted.
Payload jettisoned.

Irrecoverable system error, date conflict. One hundred years out. Again. And so the mission was aborted, the payload was jettisoned, and the missile with its 50‑megaton hydrogen bomb fell harmlessly into the sea off the eastern coast of China. And so did the 399 others, and all for the same reason, and all after transmitting similar messages. And one by one they sank slowly and safely to the ocean bed, like so many leaden albatrosses.

In Scotland it was indeed 12:31 Universal Coordinated Time on 2 January, but the year was 2000, not 1900. Young Martin hung on every word of the preacher’s conclusion:

“See ye not all these things? Be on your guard then, for no man knoweth the day and the hour.”

And over the East China Sea there unfurled the most beautiful rainbow that God’s Creation had ever seen.

Eric P Smith
28 December 1999