100 Seconds to Midnight

100 Seconds To Midnight

The time was 2 minutes to Midnight when I was born in mid-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 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 than the persistent threat of war—specifically nuclear war. I understood various things had to be considered when the scientists decided what Midnight and "global catastrophe" looked 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 those things or their implications when I was a child; some 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 started at seven minutes to Midnight.

This is the version of reality within which I exist. In my more rational moments, I understand my reality ran concurrently with most people's versions. Okay, not concurrently, below other people's reality, like a layer of sandy, porous garden soil under the rich 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 the 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 eighty days in case of nuclear war. Sixty was the optimal number of days 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 reached completion. Six years, a lot of money, and attention to detail went into it.  There was something I excelled at: paying attention to detail.

 I could keep my preoccupation with the Doomsday Clock under control for a time when the Cold War ended 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. I was disturbing my wife, so I started sleeping in the guestroom.

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 atomic 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 would ever shave or eat dinner with him and his mother 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, when I was 54 and my son 17, they set the Clock to 5 minutes to Midnight. It 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, the Board pointed to that with alarm. 

Also, after finally assessing the dangers posed to civilization, the board added climate change to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as the greatest threat to humankind. 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. Thirty days passed, and I decided to get some precious fresh air. I found her note, stained with tears, and no forwarding address. Without the two of them, the house stood hollowed out and empty, devoid of the life we 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. She'd taken the bed we once shared. 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 sensed it drawing in around me, drawing closer. Or was that my own mortality?

In late 2022, I dared emerge briefly to retrieve an order recently delivered. The stores were doing that now. I found a note 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 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, floods, earthquakes, 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 was now 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 heard 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… So I wonder, as I turn 69...What have I done with my life? What have I done to my life? I may ne_   v___e___r___


"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. Uncovered when they demolished the entire condemned neighborhood of long-abandoned mid-20th-century homes to make way for modern early-22nd-century homes, the late 20th-century bunker was full of outdated supplies and something unexpected.

"What is it?" Steve questioned his coworker, who 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. The skeletal remains wore clothes that had been fashionable before either set of their parents were born. The unknown man died sitting at his computer.

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

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

As Steve read the man's eighteen-hundred-or-so-word autobiography, he felt sad. The writing ran off the page in a line as if he'd died while writing. Steve looked down. A pen was beneath the table, the ink long desiccated along with the man’s skin. He briefly removed 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 and looked around the bunker.  Still lined with canned goods, the walls were high and made of concrete. The man died long before his supplies ran out.

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. 2067? He recalled it angered his parents and grandparents tremendously. Worried, he replied 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. These men were good at their jobs and competent in demolition and construction, just as their training directed them to be. Singled-minded and clueless about other matters.

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. The government easily controlled an ignorant public. Most of the adults of this day didn't realize they were being controlled; it happened through time and attrition, but it happened just the same.

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 money. His morals were not that corrupt. His parents and grandparents instilled that in him before their deaths. He also knew there were things lost to him in the haze of the past.

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 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 late twentieth-century man's skull, which formed a death rictus in the nuclear dust. A smile that was dreadful but proud to be vindicated at last.


The excavated pit, now a grave for the past and present, stood silent under the ominous sky. The remnants of the once-buried bunker are now exposed, a haunting monument to a man who lived a life fueled by fear. The nuclear fallout settled like a heavy shroud over the remains of Steve, Darryl, and Rick and their unknown host, the author of a life that predicted their deaths. The world outside echoed with a deadly silence, broken only by the distant groans of collapsing structures.

As the dust settled, the journal writer's skeletal remains, perched over the ancient laptop, seemed almost serene. The pen beneath the table, its ink long dried up, and the journal that landed beside it served as a somber reminder of a life lived in isolation and preoccupation with an impending end that had finally arrived.

From the dark corners of the long lost Internet, where forbidden knowledge had lingered late into the twenty-first century, despite the government's efforts, a final message glowed with eerie precience on Darryl's mobile phone screen. Burned into the pixels for eternity. The Doomsday Clock, hidden from public eyes, finally reached its terminal countdown – 30 seconds to Midnight. The prophecy of doom that the old man carried for more than nine-tenths of his life had been fulfilled, and humanity hung on the precipice of extinction.

In the years that followed, the world transformed into a desolate wasteland. Once the province of horror or zombie movies, the world now reflected the worst the most creative minds long ago dreamed up to scare humanity. The once-vibrant cities lay in ruins, consumed by the ravages of war, nuclear fallout, and time itself. The Doomsday Clock, now frozen at its symbolic 30 seconds to Midnight, stood as a silent witness to the demise of civilization.

In the bunker, hidden beneath layers of dust and debris, the leather-bound journal chronicling the old man's life and fears remained untouched for just about another century. The words penned by trembling hands depicted a journey of love, loss, and an unwavering belief in an impending apocalypse. The final entry, cut off by death, left a chilling message that echoed in the minds of those who stumbled upon it: "What have I done with my life? What have I done to my life? I may never—"

The once-buried bunker under a house in the Sonoma Valley, now a relic of a bygone era of war and fear, held the echoes of a family that faced its own end long before the world met its demise. The abandoned rooms, covered in grime and bleached of any color down to a dull gray, whispered stories of joy, sorrow, and the relentless march of time. The sound of the wind howling through the remaining broken windows became a mournful symphony, a requiem for a lost world.

The remnants of the unknown man's existence served as a haunting reminder of the futility of his lifelong obsession with the Doomsday Clock. The fear that gripped his heart for decades had, in the end, proven to be both a curse and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Altogether, it was useless, for we all died--eventually.

In the years after the "Tribulation," as it came to be known, a new world began to emerge. Those who survived faced the daunting task of rebuilding from the ashes. Communities formed, determined to create a future different from the one that led to their downfall. The lessons of the past were etched into their collective memory, a cautionary tale against the unchecked pursuit of destruction.

As nature slowly reclaimed the desolate landscapes, signs of life began to emerge once more. A small group of survivors stumbled upon the buried bunker, its entrance long forgotten. They marveled at the preserved supplies and the meticulous planning that went into its creation.

The dusty journal, now a relic of a distant past, passed through the hands of the survivors. The final entry, cut off in mid-sentence, sparked conversations about the fragility of human existence and the importance of cherishing the moments of life.

Among the survivors was a young woman who had been born into this bleak world but found solace in the connections forged in the aftermath. She clutched the old man's journal to her chest, both as a warning against fear and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. As she looked towards the uncertain future, the remnants of the Doomsday Clock's legacy stood as a solemn reminder – a warning to tread carefully, to learn from the mistakes of the past, and to ensure that the countdown to "midnight" would never restart.

And so, in the rebirth of a shattered world, the survivors carried the weight of history on their shoulders. The unknown man's legacy, etched in dust-covered words, became a guiding light for a new era. As they faced the challenges of rebuilding, they vowed to rewrite the narrative, to reshape a future where the ominous ticking of an imaginary clock would never dictate the fate of humanity again.