Zeitgeber

By Greg Egan

For millions of years, life on Earth has taken its cues from the rising and setting of the sun, and for most of human history we’ve followed the same rhythm. But if that shared connection was broken, and we each fell under the sway of our own private clock, could we still hold our lives together? One family is about to find out.

1

“Daddy?” Emma pleaded. “Why aren’t you awake?”

Sam opened his eyes and squinted toward the sound of her voice in the darkness, ready to offer whatever comfort she needed, but as he replayed the words that had penetrated his sleep she sounded not so much frightened or unwell as annoyed and censorious. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

“No!” Her tone was pure frustration now, as if the thing most troubling her was his obtuseness. She reached over and tugged his arm. “Why won’t you get up?”

Laura shifted beside him; Sam waited, afraid they’d woken her, but then he heard the rhythm of her breathing and he knew she was still asleep.

“Shh,” he whispered to his daughter. “Why don’t I get you a drink of water?”

He slipped out of bed and took her hand, then led her from the room and closed the door behind them before switching on the light in the passageway.

In the kitchen, he filled a cup from the sink and handed it to her. She gulped the water down eagerly, but when he took the cup back she said, “I want oats, please.”

“You can have oats for breakfast,” Sam replied. “It’s the middle of the night.”

Emma laughed. “No! It’s breakfast time.”

Sam gestured at the digital clock on the microwave. “What does that say?”

She frowned and moved her lips for a moment before announcing, correctly, “Twelve fifteen.”

“And what does that mean?”

Emma shrugged. “The power went off?”

Sam resisted the urge to congratulate her on her lateral thinking. “Sweetheart, it’s nighttime. You need to go back to bed or you’ll be too tired to get up in the morning.” He took her hand again. “Come on, I’ll tuck you in.”

“No!” She pulled free. “I want breakfast!”

Sam squatted beside her. “What’s going on? If you had a nightmare, you can tell me. You know that.”

Emma scowled impatiently, brushing off his attempt to change the subject. “Why can’t we have breakfast?”

Sam walked to the back door and opened it. “Look! It’s pitch black outside!” All he could see was the light from the kitchen spilling onto the dewy lawn; beyond that, the yard was lost in darkness. “Does it look like the sun’s coming up soon?”

Emma didn’t answer. Sam closed the door, afraid that he’d already risked giving her a cold. He reached down and scooped her up into his arms, rubbing her shoulders to warm her, and carried her to her room.

As he pulled the blankets up to her chin, she started, not so much crying, as emitting blubbery sounds of protest.

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“That’s enough!” Sam said. “If something’s scaring you, tell me what it is and we’ll make it go away.” He waited, but Emma didn’t take up the offer. “Okay. So close your eyes and dream about breakfast, and before you know it, it really will be morning.”

Back in his room, as he lay down beside Laura, he heard Emma leaving her bed again. He waited, hoping she was just fetching one of her stuffed animals to cuddle beside her. But after a few minutes, he still hadn’t heard a second telltale squeak from the bedsprings.

He rose and walked down the passageway to her room, then stood outside the door, listening, not wanting to disturb her if he’d simply missed the sound of her settling back in under the covers. But then he heard her harrumphing to herself.

He opened the door. She was sitting on the floor in a patch of light coming through the window from a nearby streetlamp, fully dressed in her school clothes. She had a pad of paper in front of her, and she was drawing on it with her colored pencils.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Sam demanded.

She held up the paper to the light from the window. She’d drawn a yellow disk surrounded by radiating lines, with birds flying across the sky beside it.

“You didn’t believe me,” she replied accusingly. “So now I have to show you.”

2

“Are you sure you’re in control of her screen time?” Dr. Davis asked. “Sometimes parents don’t really know what’s going on.”

Laura said, “She has no devices of her own—no phone, no tablet, no TV in her room. Before this started, she’d watch TV for a couple of hours before dinner.”

“And she’d fall asleep after twenty minutes listening to one of us reading,” Sam added. “It was a pretty steady routine: in bed by seven thirty, eyes shut by eight.” He turned to glance at Emma, lying on the pediatrician’s couch, dead to the world at two p.m.—the earliest appointment they’d been able to get. But from midnight to noon, she’d had as much energy as any healthy six-year-old…just seven hours earlier than usual.

“The MRI and the blood tests rule out any kind of tumor,” Dr. Davis stressed. “And with no family history of sleep phase disorders, at this point the simplest explanation might be that she’s responding to something in her life that’s troubling her.”

Laura frowned. “Nothing’s changed for her recently. She settled into school with no problems—and she’s never been reluctant to go in the morning. Even now, the hard part’s making her wait. And when she started dozing off in the afternoons, she was mortified.”

“I’m not suggesting that she’s feigning sleepiness to get out of school,” Dr. Davis replied. “But if something’s persistently waking her at night—either some anxiety she’s feeling, or some external factor—that could be enough to disrupt her whole routine.”

Sam said, “She’s adamant she’s not having nightmares. And it’s a pretty quiet street. I’m a light sleeper myself; if the neighbors’ dog was barking, or the fridge motor was making a noise, I’d be the first to know.”

Dr. Davis scribbled something in his notes. Then he said, “I can recommend a psychologist, but the waiting list is brutal right now; you’d probably be looking at six or seven months. In the meantime, I’ll order genetic tests for all the familial sleep disorders, just in case there’s something we’re not seeing in the history, but I think that’s a long shot.”

“So what should we be doing,” Laura asked, “while we wait for all that?”

“Try to guide her back toward her old habits. Try to keep her awake a little later in the afternoons, so she’ll sleep through a little later as well. A few nudges like that, and it’s possible the whole thing will resolve itself.”

On the drive home, Laura sat in the back with an arm around Emma. Sam wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had to drive her somewhere by himself; she was far too big for her old baby seat, but the seatbelt alone couldn’t keep her from slumping.

“Do you think I should take a couple of weeks off?” he asked Laura. The substitute teacher who’d come in to cover his classes for the afternoon was always keen to do more hours.

“No, I can keep working from home,” she replied. “The firm doesn’t mind, and half our meetings are by Skype anyway.”

“What about site visits?” Sam knew she didn’t need to show up for every concrete pour, but she liked to keep a close eye on the details of every building.

“There’s nothing coming up for a while.”

As Sam carried Emma from the car, she stirred slightly, grimacing, but her eyes remained shut. “Look at that sleepy head!” Mrs. Munro called out from across the road. “Someone’s been up past their bedtime!” Laura raised a hand to her in greeting, muttering insults under her breath.

Inside, Sam got Emma into bed, then he knelt beside her and buried his face in his hands. He could feel himself trembling with relief. It wasn’t a brain tumor or a neurological disease. Most likely, it wasn’t anything dangerous at all.

Her sleep was out of phase, but it was a phase she could grow out of. All they had to do was gently pull her back into synch with the rest of the world.

3

“Big night on the town, sir?” someone called out.

Sam’s eyes snapped open, and half the class burst into laughter. “Very funny,” he said. “But you’ve only got ten minutes left, so you should probably save the jokes until then.”

He punched the side of his leg under the desk and stared at the clock at the back of the room, wondering if the collective will of the students, desperate for more time to finish the test, could actually freeze the minute hand in place. He and Laura had got through months of broken sleep when Emma was teething—but back then, after their interventions, she’d usually drifted off for a while. Now, once she was up, she stayed up, and even if she did her best to be helpful and pass the time quietly on her own, Sam felt too guilty to let her sit alone in her room, drawing, for hours on end. He wasn’t sure anymore where the line lay between unforgivable neglect and prolonging her wakefulness by making it more tolerable, but he couldn’t sleep through the night as if nothing was wrong while his daughter was going stir-crazy.

After the siren rang and he’d gathered up the tests, he detoured to the staff room. He’d graduated to four spoonfuls of instant coffee and three of sugar; he usually drank it black, but now he added just enough milk so he could gulp it down quickly without burning his mouth. The brown sludge made his teeth ache and his stomach clench, but it cranked up the volume on the white noise buzzing behind his eyes, summoning fragmentary thoughts from the static to ricochet around his skull. However remote this state was from normal consciousness, the sheer rate of random mental activity ought to be enough to keep him from dozing off.

As he walked across the carpark, acid rose into his throat. He could feel his blood pumping, but it was not so much a rush of vigor as a sensation akin to the aftermath of hitting himself with a hammer. This wasn’t going to work; even if he’d managed to immunize himself against micro-sleeps for the next twenty minutes, he had no more faith in his judgment and reflexes than if he’d just drained a bottle of whiskey.

He looked around. “Sadiq?”

Sadiq paused, stooped at his open car door with an armful of paperwork.

“Any chance I could get a lift with you?”

“Sure.”

Sam approached, hoping his gait didn’t appear quite as unsteady as it felt. “Thank you.”

“Car trouble?”

“No. I was up half the night with Emma, and if I drive…”

Sadiq nodded. “No problem.”

As Sam buckled in beside him, Sadiq asked, “So Emma’s been sick?”

“Yeah.” Sam hesitated; Sadiq’s son had muscular dystrophy, which seemed to demand a recalibration of his own difficulties. “Something’s messing with her body clock. She wakes up in the middle of the night, and then she’s completely alert for the next twelve hours.”

Sadiq was silent as he drove through the carpark; Sam assumed he was trying to frame a polite response to such a trivial complaint. But as they turned onto the road he said, “I know how annoying it can be when people tell you they know someone with the same medical problems. Ninety percent of the time they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

“Okay.”

Sadiq grinned. “So take that as given, and feel free to ignore this. But my brother-in-law has the same symptoms.”

“Yeah? What did they diagnose?”

“Oh, he won’t see a doctor. He insists it’s not just insomnia, but he’s too much of a tough guy to admit that he might not be able to get back to normal by sheer force of willpower. It’s driving my sister crazy.”

“Hmm.” Sam’s eyelids fluttered closed and he pictured a scowling pugilist, tormented in the small hours by thwarted ambition and a history of concussions. What could a man like that possibly have in common with a six-year-old girl?

Sadiq said, “The thing is—and I know, Dr. Google is not our friend—but Noor did some rummaging around on the web, and there seem to be an awful lot of similar cases.”

Sam forced his eyes open. “The last time I looked, all I found were people burbling about their digital detoxes and their valerian enemas.”

“Yeah, and maybe this is nonsense too. But I’ll get her to send you a link, and you can make up your own mind what it’s worth.”

When Sadiq dropped him off, Sam opened the front door as quietly as he could, and made his way to the spare room where Laura had set up their shared home office.

“How was she?” he asked.

“When I picked her up at lunchtime,” Laura replied, “she said she wasn’t tired and she begged me to let her stay. And then she didn’t fall asleep until almost two o’clock.”

“That’s progress, isn’t it?” Sam hadn’t been keeping records of the time she woke; he’d been trying to leave her on her own until two a.m. or so, when she’d already been up for a while. But it did look as if the whole cycle was moving forward by about five minutes a day.

Laura seemed unwilling to raise her hopes too high. “What happened to the car?” she asked.

“I didn’t want to drive. I’m kind of wasted.”

“Okay. Why don’t you grab some sleep right now?”

“It’s my turn to cook dinner.”

“Forget it. I’ll order takeaway.”

Sam managed to stay awake just long enough to get undressed and crawl beneath the sheets. Three hours later, he was roused by the scent of fried rice. His caffeine binge hadn’t kept him from sleeping, but it had thrown enough grit into the clockwork that he emerged from the process out of synch with himself: ravenous as if it were morning, chilled to the bone as if it were three a.m., and afflicted with the kind of headache and parched mouth that brought back distant memories of nights spent clubbing, when he’d staggered home at dawn and woken at noon.

When he walked into the kitchen, Laura was taking the lids off the food containers, sending aromatic vapors wafting up from the table. Sam listened for any sound from Emma’s room, but there was nothing. “She loves Chinese food,” he said. “I don’t know how she can sleep through this.”

As he ate, he began to feel better. It was seven o’clock now; if Emma hadn’t slept until two, she might not wake until one, so maybe he could sleep again from ten until…three? Leaving her on her own for a couple of hours wasn’t torture, and if he didn’t start setting limits he’d end up either dead in a ditch or sacked for incompetence.

“How was work today?” he asked Laura.

“All right.”

“It’s not getting you down? Being stuck here?”

She frowned, thinking it over. “I probably get more work done in a day, even spending a couple of hours with Emma. It’s a bit numbing when I’m alone, though. Some of my colleagues are pretty annoying, but sitting at a desk in a silent house…when you’re focused, it’s fine, but when you stop and look around, it feels like you’re the last person on Earth.”

When Sam had cleared the table, he glanced at his phone. Sadiq’s sister, Noor, had emailed him a link.

Laura was in the living room, browsing the menus of the streaming services in search of something that would help her unwind. Sam walked down to the office and opened the link on the desktop.

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