Fiction Science Fiction Sad

The time was 2 minutes to Midnight when I was born in October of 1953. When I turned ten, they reset it to 12 minutes to Midnight. When I was 21, it was reset to 9 minutes to Midnight. Since I was about nine, I've kept my eye on it with a vigilant, tormenting worry. The Doomsday Clock has been my obsession, my reality, and my measure of life's possible end date for the last fifty-eight years. 

Just as my 67th birthday passed, the Clock was reset once more. It was 100 seconds to Midnight. One minute and forty seconds, the smallest measure it had been since… ever. It remained that way for two years, and as my 69th birthday was fast approaching, I feared mightily for the world. The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe, in the opinion of the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This metaphorical Clock has been maintained since 1947 and represents threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technological advances. It may be a metaphor for the rest of the world, but it is the beat of my heart, the grind of my teeth when I sleep, and the constant ache in my head.

"Midnight" has a deeper meaning to it besides the persistent threat of war—specifically nuclear war. I knew various things were considered when the scientists decide what Midnight and "global catastrophe" look like in any particular year. These things include politics, energy, weapons, diplomacy, and climate science; potential sources of incompatibility with human life as we know it are nuclear threats, climate change, bioterrorism, and artificial intelligence in this century. Of course, I didn't understand all of those things or their implications when I was a child; some of them didn't even exist yet. As I aged, every threat and every negatively consequential event on Earth all added up to my own personal hell. I read about how members of the board judge Midnight by discussing how close they think humanity is to the end of civilization. In 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Clock was started at seven minutes to Midnight.

This is the version of reality within which I exist. In my more rational moments, I understand that my reality runs concurrently with most people's versions. Okay, not concurrently, below other people's reality, like a layer of garden soil under the topsoil. I am lucky to have come from a moderate amount of wealth and privilege. I hid my obsession and fear under a veneer of what my parents called rationality and respectability. I studied hard, did well in school, dated, finished college, and had some friends—I wasn't a sociopath, after all. Yet, at the same time, I took the trust fund left to me by my grandparents, bought a modest house in the Sonoma Valley, and promptly built a fallout shelter below it. That was 1975. The time was 9 minutes to Midnight when I started that project.

The bunker and its supplies, which I maintained like it was my religion, would sustain five other people of my choosing and me for up to sixty days in case of nuclear war. Sixty was the optimal number of days that scientists agreed would allow the radiation levels to fall to safe numbers for people to come to the surface. Food, iodine pills, and medicines all rotated for freshness and efficacy. By me. On a rigid schedule. No one knew about the house for years. I was twenty-eight when the bunker was finished. It had taken six years, a lot of money, and attention to detail. 

 I could keep my preoccupation with the Doomsday Clock under control for a time when the Cold War seemed to be ending in the late 1980s. So much so that I fell in love with a beautiful woman; she and I married, and in a fit of optimism, I gave into her desire, and we had a perfect child together. A son. We moved into my house in the Sonoma Valley, and life developed a lovely rhythm. By 1991, the Clock was at 17 minutes to Midnight, and my relief was almost palpable, although no one would sense it except to say I seemed more relaxed and put it down to my wife's good influence on me. I worked at the Sonoma County Press in advertising sales. I was earnest and hard-working, according to my performance reviews. I consistently was the top ad salesman at the paper. Our life, our marriage, and our son flourished for the next 11 years, despite minor changes in the Clock each January. 

But by January 2002, with my son turning twelve, little progress on global nuclear disarmament was happening in the world, and the Clock was reset to 7 minutes to Midnight. 9/11 shook me, but it was the resetting of the Clock that caused me to have genuine anxiety. I began having trouble sleeping. Our government rejected a series of arms control treaties. It announced its intentions to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty amid concerns about the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack due to the amount of weapon-grade nuclear materials that were unsecured and unaccounted for worldwide. I would perseverate over this news report until the end of February when my son asked if I was ever going to shave or eat dinner with his mother and him again. Finally, I pulled myself together, and life returned to normal with one small caveat. My wife insisted I get help. See a therapist. I did as she asked, but I also began to resupply the bunker that neither she nor my son knew anything about.

By January of 2007, I was 54, and my son 17 when the Clock was set to 5 minutes to Midnight. It was changed because North Korea tested a nuclear weapon the previous October, Iran was squawking loudly about having nuclear ambitions, a renewed American emphasis on the military utility of atomic weapons under the fading presidency of GW Bush, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials all over the world, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia were pointed to by the Board with alarm. Also, after finally assessing the dangers posed to civilization, climate change was added to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as the greatest threat to mankind. The dual threats of man-made obliteration haunted my dreams and my waking hours.

In 2009, my son was off at college, and I spent most of my time in the bunker. I didn't even notice when my wife packed up and left me. When thirty days passed and I decided to get some precious fresh air, I found her note, stained with tears and no forwarding address. The house was hollowed out and empty without the two of them, devoid of the life we'd built. I realized then she had been the center of all the joy I'd ever had, and no material things would ever matter without her. She'd left behind my books, my clothes, and my old record collection. I hefted them into the bunker through the now unearthed door at the bottom of my walk-in closet in our abandoned bedroom. The bed we'd shared was gone. Where we'd made love, made our son, made up from various banal arguments, and finally made our break when I essentially moved out of the house and out of our marriage, as she put it in her note. She would probably file for divorce, citing abandonment. She wouldn't be wrong. I felt sad, I guess. I would rather have her company here in the bunker than not. Who wanted to be alone at the end of the world? Each day, I felt it drawing in around me, drawing closer. Or was that my own mortality?

In late 2022, I dared emerge briefly to retrieve an order I'd had delivered. They were doing that now. A note was pinned inside the bedroom on the wall. "You're a grandfather." The note said. No salutation, no signature. A photo of two little babies, one in a pink cap and one in a blue cap. How brave of my thirty-two-year-old son. He'd married and had children. He certainly hadn't received many of my fatalistic genes. The pandemic hadn't dimmed his optimism, but it had energized my certainty that the end was near. Man was killing themselves and each other in every way possible.

War was once again raging in eastern Europe. Mother Nature was wreaking havoc everywhere - fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other types of natural disasters exponentially bigger and worse than ever. Everything magnified, including my own fear. North Korea was threatening everyone, China was threatening tiny Taiwan. Species were going extinct at an unprecedented rate despite the work of the WWF and other conservation groups. The rate of species loss has become tens to hundreds of times higher than the average of the past 10 million years — and it is only accelerating. This isn't my paranoia; it is from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres' message on the International Day for Biological Diversity this past May. A child named Greta Thunberg is fighting to have her voice herald about the climate, but the adults aren't listening. I feel my mortality settle on my bones in a way I haven't before. Knowing you are right about something, but being alone in that rightness at the end… What have I done with my life? What have I done to my life? I may n_________


"Damn. Steve! Steve! Get down here!"

"Coming, Darryl. I'm coming. Hold on." The second man scaled down the rope ladder into the excavated pit carefully. The late 20th-century bunker had been uncovered when they demolished the entire condemned neighborhood of long-abandoned mid-20th-century homes to make way for modern mid-22nd-century homes. 

"What is it?" Steve questioned his coworker, who had sounded slightly freaked out.

"Look at this. We have to stop. This is a burial site… I think." 

Sitting at a basic Formica table were the skeletal remains of a man, hunched over a laptop that, to the men's eyes, was as archaic as the Rosetta Stone. He was dressed in clothes that had been fashionable before either set of their parents had been born. The unknown man had died sitting at his computer.

"Well, I don't know what to say, Steve. This is terrible. Are there any other bodies?"

"No, he seems to have died alone. But look at this…." Darryl handed Steve, the foreman of the job, a dust-covered journal of fine leather. "You have to read what he wrote."

As Steve read the man's sixteen-hundred-or-so-word autobiography, all he felt was sad. The writing ran off the page in a line as if he'd died while writing. Steve looked down. There was a pen beneath the table, the ink long evaporated. He briefly took off his hard hat and ran his hand through his hair. "So he did all this, lived in fear, and lost his family for nothing. Because we're all still here, ninety-five or so years later. Hanging on." He set his hard hat back on his head.

Darryl was busily looking at his mobile phone. "I found something," he murmured. "On the dark web. Don't tell anyone I know how to do this, okay?" 

Steve made a non-committal noise that could have been an agreement or a disagreement. The government looked favorably at people who reported on non-conformers or law-breakers. There were even cash rewards.

"Steve, it says here that the Doomsday Clock is still a thing! It is set to 30 seconds to Midnight right now. Humanity is barely hanging on." 

Steve gave that a thought; the news didn't report bad tidings much anymore. He sort of remembered when the law about such information being outlawed went into effect—he was just a young boy. He recalled it had angered his parents and grandparents tremendously. He replied worriedly to Darryl, "Maybe this guy was right; he was just off by a century."

The men simply looked at one another, fear filling both their expressions. The men were good at their jobs and competent in the ways of demolition and construction. They just didn't know too much about the history of this Doomsday Clock or of world disputes, global catastrophes, or man's part in the possible end of the world, and the government wanted to keep it that way. An ignorant public was easily controlled.

A loud, concussive noise stopped the two men from reading the screen that Darryl found on the dark web about the Doomsday Clock. Leave it to Darryl to know how to find the dark web, Steve thought with a headshake. He wouldn't turn in a coworker and friend for any amount of money. His morals were not that corrupt. His parents and grandparents had instilled that in him before their deaths.

Rick, one of their coworkers, looked over the edge of the excavated bunker and called out to them. "Steve, Darryl. I don't know what's happening. Get up here!" Another of those explosive sounds happened, shaking the ground; Rick's hard hat fell off his head and into the pit. A great whoosh of hot wind came by, and Darryl and Steve watched as the skin was peeled from Rick's skull. They fell to their knees and ducked under the nearest object, the table with the unknown corpse.

It was too late. The nuclear fallout swept into the excavated pit and killed them quickly. The last thing either man saw was the dried and shriveled skin that clung to the dead man from the twentieth century's skull forming a death rictus in the nuclear dust. A smile that was dreadful but proud to be vindicated at last.

October 10, 2022 21:05

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Éan Bird
16:21 Apr 04, 2023

Enjoyed the science and suspense built by using recursive seconds to midnight!


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Jack Kimball
21:52 Mar 27, 2023

Hi Delaney, I really liked the story, because it's well researched and believable that the MC could end up this way. I also like the triplicate of your prose, which adds depth in my view, 'the beat of my heart, the grind of my teeth when I sleep, and the constant ache in my head.' I could be wrong (brackets mine), but I thought 'I knew [know] various things were considered when the scientists decide[d] what Midnight and "global catastrophe" [would] look like in any particular year. My guess is I'm wrong after reading your other comment ab...


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Jeannette Miller
15:21 Oct 15, 2022

A slow burn to the end. So much going on but doesn't feel like exposition overload. I like the complexity of your character in how he maintains his attention to what is going on the world and the eventuality of it while still opening his heart to the possibility of love and a "normal" future only to find the fear of impending doom take over his mind and body. It's too bad he didn't confide in his wife and son about the bunker. Although, it wouldn't have saved them in the end anyway seeing how much time had gone by. The end was poetic and I l...


Delaney Howard
18:18 Oct 15, 2022

Thanks very much for the insightful comments. It always helps a writer so much! It's nice to know which parts resonate the most! Thank you for reading!


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