Short Story: Tomorrow is Postponed
Graham Billow’s spine erected itself reflexively at the sound of the morning news glooping itself across his wall screen. Under the gaze of the "all-seeing-eye" camera in a high corner of the room, he robotically walked himself to his kitchenette. Without movement or noise, the eye efficiently soaked up the scene, perpetually uploading to the building’s memory for security and insurance purposes. It was always a comfort, drifting off to sleep, but could sometimes feel an intrusion on waking up. And today was one of those days.
He chewed breakfast and attempted to digest the news. Commentators were gravely nodding at one another, agreeing that “the situation's remedy”, although “an extreme measure”, was “one of extraordinary boldness and invention”.
Each word weighed heavily upon him. He had the feeling this was going to be a long week. Being used to such a state, he didn’t wonder about it. A part of him, though, had noticed that the date, displayed in the corner of the screen, was the same as yesterday’s.
On the crowded tram to work his eyes drifted in their customary rudderless fashion before running aground on a rather striking headline.
"TOMORROW IS POSTPONED".
Now that is sensational, he thought dryly.
But what was the story really about? He looked for a higher-brow newspaper. It took a while. "SECOND TUESDAY DECREED FOR ECONOMY". Now that is sensational, he thought, this time without the irony.
A subheading advanced a reassuring ministerial quote: "Wednesday to follow as usual."
Today was Tuesday. Yesterday was Tuesday. It was still Tuesday.
The surrounding conversations came into focus. People weren’t overly happy about the news, though nobody seemed to quite say so.
“They had to do it," argued a man matter-of-factly.
“Well, it doesn’t bother me,” an excited woman told her friend. “I need the money, anyway."
“Yeah, we'll just have to have a bigger weekend!” came the reply to quite disproportionate fits of laughter.
Anger and excitement flushed through Graham, his body rigid for fear of it spilling out. His eyes rebelled, dancing in their sockets like ovoid EEGs.
Over the shoulders of another passenger, he put his eyes to work on the background to the story. It seemed that England wasn’t the only region to have taken a shine to Tuesday; the whole Eurozone had in fact slid back down the same temporal snake, as “community-wide production recorded its lowest ever figures in the previous week, and Monday and Tuesday have so far shown no upturn."
Ah, that explains it, thought Graham sardonically.
Usually a passive consumer of current affairs, this particular item was having trouble going down. He turned it over and over in his mind as he joined the stream of workers filing into the maw of the enormous ‘space-scraper’ that was the HCD & HFDK building. Begrudgingly, he sloped to his cubicle on the vast thirty-eighth floor, sat down and watched his analogue wall-clock tick through the same minutes it had ticked through exactly twenty-four hours before.
The clock’s date, being analogue, had naturally advanced to “Wednesday”. Well, if it were officially a Wednesday, I’d be here anyway, he thought. What difference does it make?
With a sigh, he clicked on a "PRIORITY" email, a short video address from his head of department.
"I hope that you will all respond to this most unusual of situations with the best attitude," the department head began in his customary tone. "While I'm sure you're aware that HCD & HDFK is a highly productive company – and this department can certainly hold its head up in that regard – it should be remembered that we operate within an interdependent economic and social web. I'm sure you will all therefore wish to contribute an equal amount, or greater, than you did yesterday, and in so doing help make the company's contribution, as always, a healthy, respectable and community-minded one." Graham played it several times before any of it turned a gear in his brain, so frictionless was its content.
As the message concluded, another arrived from a good friend, Dave, who worked somewhere in the uncharted other side of the office. “Anybody else getting acute deja vu this morning? Protest group meets at 1 in the plaza. Attending: Yes / No?”
Graham reached out to the “Yes” icon then hesitated. Dave's email was jokey, but Graham pondered on the word "protest". At that very moment a program would be screaming through Dave's archive of communications, triggered by the contentious keyword, scanning for evidence of corporate sedition.
With a deep breath, he tapped the icon.
It felt strange to work through a second consecutive Tuesday morning. There was that feeling again, that Tuesday feeling, of being sandwiched between Monday and Wednesday, the beginning and the middle. Day two. Two’s-day, as Americans pronounced it. Yeah, they've taken the "you" out of Tuesday, he thought to himself bitterly. Replaced it with a number. An inhuman ordinal. That's just like them. Americans.
It was still Tuesday. And still so much of the week to go.
Thankfully, at least the work was not the same as the Tuesday just passed. Not exactly anyway. Database engineering, the task of all on floors thirty-one through thirty-nine, was an unvarying one at the best of times. Ordinarily, Graham was thankful for the predictability. But, today, for the first time ever, he could discern unsettled grunts from the savannah-craving hunter-gatherers still stubbornly encoded in his cells. They’d cooperatively gone along with things for quite some time, but, frankly, they just weren’t accustomed to this.
Life that particular morning on the thirty-eighth floor of the HCD & HDKF building also felt quite normal. Infuriatingly normal. Colleagues around him blithely talked of “tomorrow” in connection with events that had been due "today". He noted how the more circumspect amongst them entirely avoided the word "tomorrow", preferring to specifically state “Wednesday”, rather than risk the previously solid and dependable noun, thus making the distinction between the day they were experiencing (which itself had widely been tipped to have been a Wednesday) and the following day. Lest anyone get confused.
These 'early adapters', reflected Graham, were perhaps also being mindful to be accurate, for no longer could anyone ensconced in a Tuesday so confidently assume that Wednesday would necessarily follow.
Graham flushed with frustration. But it is Wednesday, he thought stubbornly.
His mind raced on. What if some day the powers-that-be made everyone repeat weekdays ad infinitum, permanently withholding the weekend? Could they get away with it? His mind whirled.
No, people wouldn't allow it. Surely.
Just after noon a rather too easygoing young man appeared in Graham's cubicle wafting an oversized birthday card intended for a colleague whose birthday it still was.
“I signed it,” snapped Graham.
“No, I don’t think you have.”
“I signed it yesterday.” Through gritted teeth: “Tuesday.”
“Ohhhh, yesterday! Yeeeahhh,” recognition blossomed in a smile across the youth’s face. “This is a new one. Because we already gave her that one. Yesterday. Which apparently we’re now supposed to call ‘That-day’ and today we should call ‘This-day’.”
“Are we?” said Graham coldly.
“It was on the news.”
“Look, today is today and that is Wednesday. Yesterday is yesterday and that was Tuesday,” Graham’s fury bubbled under a monotone deliberateness. “I am not about to start using these ridiculous terms on the say-so of some vacuous autocutie.”
With a sad shake of the head, the card-bearer drifted away. “You’re living in the past, man.”
At one o'clock, Graham made his way to the meeting point in the plaza, an expansive tree-lined food hall with numerous outlets of dizzying choice. Dave was sitting with two other familiar colleagues in the bustling common area. Graham joined the fast-moving entrance line filing through a turnstile, its uninterrupted spin sanctioned by the recognition of embedded wrist chips and the convenient immediate debiting of entrance fees from bank accounts.
“Well, I must have read everything on the net about our little man-made time-warp,” announced Dave as Graham settled down. “I'm ashamed to say I've done not one jot of work.”
"You'll have us repeating another day if you're not careful," joked the only female, Saffron.
"How do you get away with not working?" asked the other man, Andy.
"Oh, it's possible," replied Dave with a twinkle.
"So, let me get this straight," began Graham, "is it just Europe repeating Tuesday?”
"Yeah, but - "
"And it’s Wednesday in the rest of the world?" interrupted Graham. "It’ll be chaos!”
"No. It won't," said Dave casually. "Because it isn’t Wednesday … anywhere." He drew out the suspense for a moment. "It's ‘Nullday’."
"'Nullday'?" Graham became aware of other ears turning to hear the news.
"Yeah, it's Nullday in the rest of the world. They all have to work," explained Dave. "But for them it's like an end-of-term day in school."
Andy and Saffron nodded and “ahhh’d” in a moment of wistful remembrance.
"So they’re allowed to bring games in?" quipped Saffron.
"And play hangman on the white board?" added Andy.
"Well, not quite. There's a lot of people that obviously have to deal with everything Europe's doing today, so they have to work. Everybody else is doing training and team-building stuff."
"It must be Wednesday by now in Australia," said Saffron, checking her watch.
Dave nodded. "With a bit of luck."
"I reckon it's making us pretty unpopular in the other communities," said Andy.
"We're meeting some of the costs. But, yeah, the Yanks are bitching plenty," said Dave.
"I wonder what happens if we produce a huge surplus today. I suppose, the other communities would start putting in claims for a slice," mused Andy.
"They should give it to the African Development Fund," said Saffron.
Graham's attention drifted. It was no consolation that they were all being subjected to this second Tuesday. Just another talking point. He watched surrounding workers become drawn into the conversation while Dave held court. This sudden sociability was enjoyable to be around, almost nourishing. For a moment it had seemed they could maybe even do something. They certainly all seemed to know the arguments as well as any geo-commissioner.
And yet, it was already an age too late. Whether he liked it or not, it was Tuesday.
In the great scheme of human history, it was not a terrible thing; and yet, in one vitally important way, to Graham at least, it was inestimably grave, for it finally proved to him, piercing through layers of comfortable assumptions, his ultimate powerlessness before the state. No matter how it was packaged, he was merely a pawn to be shuffled around, and the decree to hit the repeat button on Tuesday might as well have come from god.
Graham looked up, as if for deliverance, or the culprit. Instead, his gaze fell upon a "roving eye" camera, stationary on the ceiling directly overhead.
“What's bugging you?” asked Dave abruptly. “You're very quiet.”
“I'm just amazed that this can happen, without any warning or anything,” said Graham, his head slowly tilting to look at the eye once more.
“Yeah, it's bugging us all,” said Dave, subtly emphasising “bugging”, and less subtly kicking him under the table.
Graham looked at Dave who frowned at him prohibitively.
“Actually there was warning,” said Andy, oblivious to their exchange. “Congress decided late last night and announced it across the news at eleven, apparently.”
“That's not much notice!” said Saffron.
“No,” agreed Andy, “but it's obviously been a desperate measure, made – literally in this case – at the eleventh hour. I can see why it had to be done.”
“Yeah, but it's a bit of a bizarre thing to wake up to!” exclaimed Saffron.
“I'm not saying it's not,” said Andy, “but all we have to do is work one extra day – everyone across Europe – which is an amazing feat of co-operation, really. It just shows that it’s true that history is finally over!”
“Yeah!” agreed a young man enthusiastically. “Problem solved in a day! It's better than the anarchy that went on before the World Congress – though it doesn’t stop people bellyaching.”
“Yup,” agreed Dave. “No war. No nationalism. No greedy corporations. It's a golden age and we don't even realise.”
Heads bobbed thoughtfully at this.
Dave's apparent sincerity sat less well with Graham. “I think it’s time to go back to work,” he uttered dejectedly.
Entering the lift with Dave, Graham noticed the roving eye had now drifted away. Was it a ruse? If they were being watched, the 'all-seeing-eye' in the lift could take over surveillance until they reached their floor. Dave motioned to it with a flick of his own eye and then innocently offered to ride the tram with Graham to his Adult-Ed class after work. Graham wondered why – they rarely socialised outside of work-time chat rooms – but casually agreed.
As the doors opened, Graham spotted an eye inconspicuously parked on the ceiling in the middle distance, able to take in a three-hundred-and-sixty degree field of vision, zoom in, and hear every word. Graham lowered his gaze and went back to work.
A few hours later, Graham and Dave were riding the tram to the Adult-Ed centre. Graham waited expectantly to hear what Dave had to say.
“I never knew you went to school,” began Dave light-heartedly. “You kept that quiet.”
“I had to agree to it to get the job,” replied Graham tersely. “There were a few areas on the 'culture' part of the entrance test that I wasn’t too hot on.”
“So, now you have to go to school … to keep up with your own culture,” said Dave wryly.
Graham flushed. “Well, it’s not something I’m particularly interested in -”
“Don’t worry, I’m not having a go,” reassured Dave. “I’m the same.”
“It was the only way they’d accept me. I can understand why. They don’t want employees who can’t keep up with world affairs and music and technology and all that. They want ‘rounded individuals’,” said Graham, gathering composure. "Of course, I also study database development, which is obviously essential for the job. I mean, everything changes so fast.”
“Plus ça change,” said Dave.
“It does indeed.” After a pause, Dave went on, “We can talk now, by the way. Just not too loud. And keep your mouth out of sight of the tram’s eye.”
“The tram’s eye? You mean the company can patch into external cameras?”
“Well, I don’t know how sensitive the company’s security setup is – and for sensitive you might also insert the word ‘fascistic’ – but the law states that in suspected cases of corporate sedition, company systems can instantaneously patch into any public camera in the world. All they have to do to get access is tell the public network they’re investigating a case of corp-sed. Just tell them! That’s the way the law is these days,” explained Dave sadly.
“I had no idea they could all link up like that,” said Graham with horror. “How do you know all this?”
“I read a lot. That’s what I do all day,” he said matter-of-factly. “I haven't worked in over a year.”
“What do you mean you haven’t worked?” probed Graham, sensing that he was about to be initiated into the secret of Dave’s poise.
“I’ve written a program,” said Dave quietly into his chest, “which tells the network I’m working.”
“A program that what?” blurted Graham.
“Keep your voice down!”
“That’s ridiculous. The company will find out … from the clients,” hissed Graham.
“It won’t,” said Dave calmly. “Because the work isn’t real. It’s, likewise, a simulation.”
Graham gaped at Dave while the tram slowed to stop and exchange passengers.
Dave gazed off, appearing absent-minded, though actually scanning the crowds for human surveillance. "They’ve got us playing games all day, and mind-numbing ones at that.”
“There’s no way!” said Graham with more assurance than he felt.
“Put it this way, can you actually tell me what you do?”
“Yes, of course. I’m a database engineer.” Graham searched for something more substantial. “I reclassify data for compatibility with other databases, as well as help to develop greater database efficiency. Same as you.”
“And do you think this is essential work? Do you think society needs all this work? Couldn’t it all be created for you on a computer, the very instrument you work upon eight hours a day, five days a week?”
Graham actually found it all too easy to believe. In fact, he had often half-suspected it. However, that was not enough to prevent him from staring stupidly at Dave who, in the sudden absence of sentience from his companion, pressed on: “There’s not enough real work these days. It’s a con trick. But this way is better for society. Employed citizens behave better.”
“But, the clients! They’re real. I sometimes get emails from them.”
“Sure you do.” Dave eyed him then quickly added: “They’re simulated, too.”
“I’ve seen the offices of these companies in other cities. I’ve seen their
“Oh, the companies are mostly real. It’s just the work you’re doing for them that isn’t.”
“And … Maggie!” exclaimed Graham. “At UCB Broadbent in Kentucky ...”
“Oh, yeah! That American girl you were going to marry!” Dave erupted in laughter, as if Graham's own authenticity – his very humanity – had itself now evaporated.
Graham thought over his months long email courtship of what now appeared to have been an ingenious A.I. program. He hoped it had been ingenious, anyway.
Dave staunched his mirth, “I know it’s shocking. But think of it this way: at least you’re now free of all that soul-destroying work.”
Graham pondered this. “Why don’t you tell somebody?” he asked. “Go to the media, or the government?”
“Why do you think? It’s global, Graham. There must be hundreds of millions in sim-work. Maybe a billion. Maybe even more. The media and all the rest of the apparatus are part of it.” They contemplated this for a moment. “But, y’know, at the end of the day, I can see why they have to do it,” said Dave, slowly and thoughtfully shaking his head.
“Oh, damn,” said Graham, suddenly noticing the outside world, “that was my stop.”
“Listen, here's my address,” Dave proffered a card. “Come and see me after your class. I’ll give you the program.”
Dazed, Graham stumbled from the tram. The fatigue of the day suddenly broke through some resistant barricade in his brain, flooding every synapse, closing down operations like a zealous revolutionary mob. It was a particularly radical force, galvanised to action by all the lies of the ruling regime. This sudden onset of ‘true consciousness’ had brought with it the wearying realisation that the efforts of the last two days – or, more correctly now, the last “two day”– had been for exactly nothing.
Hold on a minute, thought Graham, the whole last six years of work had been for nothing. Although he didn’t quite revel in his job, he now realised the level of satisfaction it had at least afforded, the sense of social usefulness. He had been satisfied, but he hadn’t been useful. He was just a 'useless eater' to feed, a young male to be diverted, placated, controlled. Reserve, at best; at worst, surplus.
And his other jobs? An array of ways in which they might also have been simulated kaleidoscoped in his mind, as if his subconscious was now finally having its ‘day in court’. With joy he remembered a summer spent working in a Golden Agers’ village when he was a teenager; that had certainly been with real, living and breathing old people, even if some only barely qualified. He had spoiled the experience at the time with frustration at the exploitative wage. Now it seemed like the greatest job in the world.
Graham had long yearned for the powers of concentration to study cosily tucked up in his unit. This particular evening his modicum of focus had itself now deserted him. His mind quickly untethered from the subject, History of Euro Fashion 2019-2020, to waft about in the currents of this strange and unsettling day.
With a shock he found his thoughts coalescing around the possibility of not accepting Dave's offer of the ‘work simulator’ (or, 'work simulator simulator'). Could he be like him, so detached and calm about everything? Dave seemed immune to the demands and mores – and bullshit – of society. He seemed … free.
On flunking the end of lesson test a message flashed in red across his screen: “Urgent: You must see your department head within forty-eight hours.” Graham panicked, shakily summoning the facilitator. He had never before had to meet with the department head.
“Your credit has probably slipped into the red, that’s all,” reassured the facilitator. “You can re-take the test next time.”
“But I thought I had good credit,” protested Graham limply. “I’m never late, my work’s always ahead of schedule. What could I have possibly done to go in the red?” Then, with harrowing clarity, everything flooded back: the eye in the plaza, his fraternisation with Dave, and the initial email that mentioned protest. Unsteadily, Graham excused himself and raced immediately back to work to catch the department head before he left for the day.
Breathless, he made the department head’s office with a minute to spare. Heart pounding, he stepped into the plush anteroom, nodding to the secretary who seemed to expect him and ushered him through. Graham’s stomach churned, convinced he would find police on the other side of the door. He stood for a moment to compose himself, failed, and entered.
“Graham?” inquired a lone department head from behind a monolithic desk.
Graham nodded and tamely advanced.
“Take a seat please.” The department head gazed off benignly, gathering his thoughts. “You may think that you are here because of a negative credit rating. And that is true, in a sense. You see, before you failed your fashion test, your rating was at zero. The failed test – not serious in itself – cost you some points and put you in the red, landing you here.”
“I had no idea my rating was zero. I thought it was in the forties,” said Graham.
“When an employee is suspended, their rating is immediately reset,” said the department head in a serious tone. “And you were suspended today; effective: five pm. The test failure then took you into the red, eliciting the summons.”
“I’ve been suspended?” Graham’s voice quivered.
“Pending an investigation of corporate sedition.”
“Corporate sedition! Me?” Graham felt faint. His head decided that pounding might help. His vision grew unreal, blackness swimming at the edges. He’d rejected flight. Fight was right out. The only thing to do was squirm.
“Security has been investigating a seditious cell here on the thirty-eighth floor,” the department head spoke slowly, scrutinising Graham’s reaction to each word. “One member was identified and arrested this morning, on discovery of her use of illegal software. She was sentenced to five years this afternoon. Her associates have naturally fallen under suspicion. One of them is your friend, David Nosys, who was arrested in the last hour.”
“Oh, my god,” breathed Graham, sinking further into his chair.
“Now, I don’t believe you were an important piece in this particular jigsaw.”
“No.” Graham shook his head vigorously.
“Though I do believe you have knowledge of this extremely damaging program which certain individuals are seeking to fecundate within the corporate body,” distaste soured his face, “and that is as equally seditious.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” said Graham, sensing the possibility of a way out – whatever it took. After all, he knew he was clean, and lying could help nobody now.
“But it’s clear you know something.”
“Yes,” Graham heard himself say. He quickly emptied himself of the day's events, the picture painted by Dave of their simulated work and his program for hoodwinking the company system. As Graham spoke, the weight began to lift from his shoulders. When finished, he felt purified.
“Interesting,” mused the department head agonisingly.
“But is it true? Would such a program work?”
“For your friend Dave, the program did work for a while, yes. Because his position was simulated. But it wouldn’t have worked for you, because you actually have an authentic role with the company.” He made it sound like a compliment.
Graham breathed a sigh of relief, “It’s real? You mean everything I’ve been doing these last six years has been real? It’s all been for something, after all?”
“Yes, it’s real,” the department head smiled and nodded. “However, what Mr. Nosys told you is partly true. The times dictate that there be a percentage of simulated employment, as Europe is a victim of its own soaring success. And this way is better than paying people to be unemployed. I hope you can see why it simply has to be done.” Graham nodded gravely at this. The department head went on: “Everybody works together, though – the authentic and the simulated – intermingling on every office floor; it operates more smoothly that way. And you, Graham, are one of our many, many authentic employees.”
Graham felt gratitude and a stirring of pride at the department head’s words. A worry quickly pushed up through the cracks: how could he carry around such a secret? “What happens if the truth gets out?" he asked.
“The truth?" The department head seemed offended by the word. "The truth is that a global security mandate exists classifying the mere storage of this information, let alone its transmission, as extremely seditious. So, I'd skip any diary entries you have in mind for today. In fact, if I were you I'd invest in a personal brain organiser, delete the whole day and destroy the machine!"
"Yes, yes, you're right," said Graham, already envisioning spending his savings on such a device on the way home.
“I’m glad we’ve been able to avoid involving the police in your case. Much more desirable. And, I’m happy to lift your suspension,” he rose from his seat and offered a hand to Graham. “It’s like none of this ever happened.”
Graham rose, even managing a smile as he shook his superior’s hand and thanked him heartily. It had been a long day, but he was no longer tired. This final change of affairs had re-invigorated him. He felt lucky – blessed even – and looked forward to returning to work the next day.