Notes from the Second International Conference to Replace the Second

The Second International Conference to Replace the Second met in San Francisco. I think it was last week, by the old reckoning, but because the conference ended in failure, we can’t use any of the clocks anymore. We can’t look at the calendars.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we never wanted to replace the second. The yllexarians pushed this on us. The nerve of those people. (If they are people. If they’re not human, can they be people?)

We’d never even heard of them until they showed up. Hi, and by the way, we own the second, and you owe us royalties.

Many of us laughed. We stopped laughing when our lawyers looked into it and explained that, yes, the claim was legitimate. The royalties were owed, and they amounted to, according to our calculations, more money than ever had or could exist on Earth.

You see? We had no choice.

Therefore: the First International Conference to Replace the Second. I think that must have been last year. Again, this is by the old reckoning, which is still the only reckoning, because we never managed to replace it. But I get ahead of myself.

The F.I.C.R.S. (pronounced “fuckers,” at first by a handful of wags, and later by everyone) was right here in New York. Convenient for me. I took a train midtown, made it to the conference hotel just in time for the opening plenary, a lecture given by an esteemed professor of chronology. At the time I thought it masterful. Now I realize it was heavy on rhetoric and light on, you know, anything useful.

The nature of time and so on. Dawn of human history, et cetera. Sundials in Mesopotamia. Water clocks in Athens. Caesar and Gregory. The Longitude Act. Einstein. Quartz and cesium.

All fine, all good, but what about the yllexarians? We talked around them, rather than about them. We paid ourselves compliments. The wonders of human ingenuity. What ever would we think of next?

By the end of the F.I.C.R.S., we had thought of nothing.

On some level we may have thought that if we ignored the problem, the yllexarians would go away. A year — was it a year? — later, and that hadn’t happened. If anything they’d gotten more aggressive, their threats becoming acts of unspeakable violence.

Someone, anyone, somewhere, anywhere, would say, “give me a second,” or “just a second,” or “hold on a second,” and a yllexarian who’d been there all along, who’d just, in fact, been hiding and waiting for the right moment, would decloak and, with a hideous grin, fire a bolt of plasma. The offender would be dead before they hit the floor.

So, as you might imagine, by the second second conference (S.I.C.R.S., pronounced, from the beginning and by everyone, “suckers”), we were desperate. The stakes were real. I’d experienced this myself on the flight to San Francisco, which I had been lucky to walk away from. The pilot, the air traffic controller, both worried about saying the forbidden word, were vague with each other. “It looks like the runway might be clear soon.” Well, it wasn’t, and six people died.

The yllexarians, in what we all acknowledged was a kind gesture, gave us, for the conference, a special permit to use the word “second,” good for one day only. We offered profuse thanks. We invited them, even, to attend themselves. Perhaps they had suggestions, thoughts, ideas about other units of time that weren’t under copyright? They slapped their knees, snorted, gasped for breath. One guffawed with such violence his plasma rifle discharged, blowing a hole in the ceiling. Another fell over and rolled across the floor, clutching his sides. We appreciate this excellent joke, they said. In yllexaria, they said, there’s no such thing as “not under copyright.”

We skipped the plenary this second time around. We engaged, instead, in vigorous debate.

The first proposed name for the second second was “the third.” The main benefit: it was logical. The main drawback: it was too cute.

Someone suggested “the tick.” Someone else reminded us that ticks are vermin. Did we, the argument went, want to build our method of measuring time on the name of something that can give you Lyme disease?

What about “the sec,” someone said. A yllexarian materialized. “We would take strong exception to this. Far too close to our intellectual property.” Would they take strong exception to “the seg,” short for segment? They would. “The sect,” short for section? Also a no-go.

“Look,” someone said. “Why don’t we just make up a word?”

Now this – this got some attention. Problem was, what would the word be? Every suggestion sounded either like the kind of bullshit you’d find in nineteenth century doggerel, or like the brand name for some new psychiatric drug.

The next day we reconvened to deliberate again, and sixty people were shot within five minutes.

“Your permit,” the yllexarians explained, “has expired.”

So, yes. We left without a name.