In a science fiction setting, what can explain an electronic calendar's date jumping around, backwards or forwards for days at a time, starting from a whole number like 01/01/2000, and bad things happen if it goes before that? The calendar is supposed to be in a sealed shelter after an apocalypse and, as far as I understand, the true date when the story happened is much later than year 2000.

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I dreamed of reading a short story about an apocalypse shelter. It was presented in the form of one protagonist's diary apparently, and no direct interaction with other survivors were mentioned. He/she(I'm not sure) doesn't know what's the date that he entered the shelter, but at first the big calendar on the wall showed 01/01/2000 which was obviously wrong. He seemed to be trapped in a room alone with supplies and nothing to do. The weird thing is every morning when he wakes up, he sees that the date jumps around, backward or forward, for a few (up to 15 or so) days. If the date decreases an alarm rings that wakes him, and the number flashes red. Sometimes when the date goes before 01/01/2000, he thinks he can hear screams somewhere(he tried but could never talk with anyone), and the next day it would be back to 2000. If it jumps forward the number flashes green. Sometimes the date increments by 1 normally and doesn't flash in color, but it seems to never stay the same as yesterday. Over time he gets more and more afraid, not knowing what the date means, and thinks of wild possibilities to explain them. I don't remember what are his explanations - they don 't make a lot of sense, but are getting more and more horrible. Then I woke up, very scared, because in the dream I was immersed in and seeing the scenario as the story went on. I was relieved that it was not real, and regretful when I realized that I've never read any such story in real life. The ending (from impressions of blurbs of critics before the story) seems to be that everyone dies, but I'm curious what really went on and why that may happen.

What is a plausible science fiction explanation of this story scenario?


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    $\begingroup$ Hi, this is a fascinating story and I encourage you to write it down in some way. However, this is not a very good question for this forum, and in a sense, a scientific explanation may not be very helpful to the story, it may even trivialize the atmosphere of the story itself. You may consider writers.stackexchange.com instead $\endgroup$ – user289661 Jan 25 '17 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ You are framing the question as, 'how can I make this story work,' which is basically asking us to write part of your story. A better way to ask this question might be 'what phenomena could cause a clock in a sealed bomb shelter to ask as described.' $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 25 '17 at 23:33
  • $\begingroup$ I tried to ask a general question, but sorry if the description only applies to my own story.(or is that really mine?) I am worried that the best explanation(s) would need tricks that only work under some assumptions. For example I thought the date was incorrect and was a clue to be solved, but it turns out there are many different ways of looking at the scenario. The flashback idea was a pleasant surprise. $\endgroup$ – alices_and_bobs Jan 26 '17 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion I think Alice's question does boil down to a question about the phenomena with the clock. Potential answers should concentrate on that, and ignore unnecessary details. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 26 '17 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Alice, thanks for asking an interesting question. May I suggest that you edit your question by deleting the science-based tag and substitute a science-fiction tag instead. You asked for a plausible science-fiction explanation, not a scientific one, at the end of your question. @user289661 is probably right, a scientific explanation might not help your story, whereas a science-fictional one might do the trick. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 26 '17 at 1:54

The simplest explanation is the most boring: He's a part of a social experiment. He's in a room with a calendar controlled via computer outside the room, with scientists experimenting to see how humans handle the very time disjunctions you are talking about. The poor protagonist basically becomes very pavlovian, reacting to the calendar.

Here's a better one: he is in the control of a human or alien intent on controlling him. I would almost suspect that some people would decide they're in the hands of a wrathful god, and maybe start praying to make it stop. Following "god's" commands would lead to a reward (time going forward), disobeying leads to time going backwards (as a threat). The screaming is a warning to obey. I don't know what useful work you may get from somebody stuck in a shelter, but the shelter may just be the "training room" to prepare their holy warrior.

The thing isn't that the date is changing, you see, but that his perception of the date is changing. This is Twilight Zone level mindgames here. "Rational Explanations" will most likely involve the calendar being operated externally; because your protagonist has no other method of tracking time, he must trust the calendar.

If you are a fan of Fallout, you'll love this one. Like before, he's a subject in a social experiment, in an underground laboratory. The lights in his cabin and the calendar are controlled via computer; automated machines provide food and water on schedule to ensure that the experimenters don't accidentally provide any outside time references (it's OK to feed on a regular interval, but any deviation may break the illusion of the DAY itself changing.). The sad twist is this: he volunteered for the project to do research for underground nuclear shelters to help the scientists understand how to keep people sane in bunkers, but the scientists and everyone else on the planet annihilated themselves in atomic fire, leaving him to be the last surviving human, trapped in a psychology experiment driving him insane.

Want an even sadder story? He's trapped in a psychological hell created by psychic aliens in a desperate attempt to keep him alive. The aliens discovered him on the burned out cinder of Earth, trapped in his fallout shelter. Intent on keeping him alive, they "beam him up" and put him in a facsimilie room. Having dived into the shelter as the bombs started to fall on Dec 31, 1999 (alternate history, of course), he's wracked with guilt and flashing back to the destruction he just survived. Unfortunately for him, his mind is too alien for his rescuers to understand (yet) and they have a completely different concept of the flow of time. As such, his "shelter" reflects his current state of mind. Flashbacks have a calendar on the days the bombs fell, with the destruction and screaming and all that. More peaceful days have the calendar move forward. The fluid shifting of time is just not a natural state for humans, and therefore he gets more and more concerned about the shifting dates leading to the aliens picking up his worries and fantasies, and reading it as his expected reality! He worries that the calendar will start going backwards, it goes backwards, which causes him to worry about the firestorms outside which causes him to hear firestorms, and unfortunately his rescuers have no idea they're torturing the poor man.

How's that?

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! These are softer than I expected (I forgot to mention that I thought the date reflects a real threat, and the apocalypse is probably not before 2000) but I will accept these if no better explanations come up. $\endgroup$ – alices_and_bobs Jan 26 '17 at 1:38

There are two possibilities (other than the comprehensive set of possibilities suggested by Zoey Boles [see her answer for details]).

The simplest explanation is that his clock has simply gone haywire. Assume there is an automatic reset for the correct time and date every twenty-four hours, and the mechanism keeps getting it wrong.

The other explanation is that the apocalypse involved a time distorting catastrophe. The clock is correct, but he is being continually shifted random amounts of displacement backwards and forwards in time, up to intervals of fifteen days.

A corollary to the second proposal is that the bunker isn't a bunker it's an experimental time machine. The time machine has malfunctioned and its experimental subject is being shifted around in time. This has gone on long enough that the psychological factors have distorted his perception of reality to such an extent that he no longer knows what is happening to him.

Since two possibilities somehow mutated into three, it may be time to leave the bunker again and find out what is the date and time --- this time.

  • $\begingroup$ Automatic clock: it could set itself every night like my watch and room clocks via radio sync. But the signal is messed up now and it gets the wrong time. Flashing red is an indicator that it was set back an abnormal amount so is suspect and should be verified. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 26 '17 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz An automatic clock with radio synchronization gone wrong certainly fits the bill. Simple, straightforward and plausible. Almost wish it was something really bizarre. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 26 '17 at 9:13

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