The world ended thirty seconds ago.
You greet this whisper with incredulity. After all, here you are, living and breathing. The people around you are living and breathing. You might be drinking coffee in lying in bed trying to decide whether to get up. You are reminding yourself of all the little life tasks awaiting you, things that need to be taken care of in order for you to continue going about your day. Thoughts of the apocalypse are a thousand miles away. Lunacy, they seem.
Then the voice clarifies.
The precipitating event, the one that is going to end the world, took place thirty seconds ago. Somebody pushed the doomsday button. A comet struck the other side of the planet. The first zombies started rising from their graves. The common cold developed a spontaneous mutation that is airborne, 100% communicable, and 100% fatal. The sun just went nova. Alien intelligences turned their cold and pitiless eyes toward this little planet, intent on incinerating us with heat rays from their ambulatory death machines. A perfectly nice young married couple planning their first child just conceived the most ruthless genocidal madman in all human history. Somebody just got funding to create a black hole in the laboratory. Whatever it was, people, the event that we might have been able to prevent, had we only been given a tad more warning, has taken place within the last thirty seconds.
It’s not just coming. It’s here, and it’s too late to ameliorate the consequences: The world has ended, and what remains, for however long it takes, is the packing away of the toys and the putting out of the lights.
That’s the given. That is the news being delivered to every human being, by the same whisper, at this moment.
Assume that the voice speaks with authority, and that there is no room for doubt.
Now it tells you how much time we all have left, before the process already begun reaches its completion, and the last of us are gone.
Call this value N.
How does humanity react, for different values of N?
• • • •
If N is two seconds,
there is time for everybody to unleash a single shouted exclamation. More people will say, “Jesus!” or “Oh, Shit!” or their local equivalent than at any other given moment in the history of the world. Some people will have time to utter their chosen phrase and will then immediately repent, thinking of things they should have said instead; and this thought will have just enough time to cross their minds before they say the equivalent of, “No, wait,” or, “I mean . . .” But after that, the time will be up.
• • • •
If N is sixty seconds,
what people do will depend entirely on whether they’re alone. Some will embrace one another. Some will scream, some will pray. Some will turn to their loved ones and utter a few words of deep appreciation, or of apology. Some will turn to the people next to them and do the exact opposite, hurl the punch that was always, before this, held back for fear of consequences. There will be some murders, some suicides, a tribute in both cases to fast thinking. People on high balconies will indulge a lifetime dream of flight. Chaos, the kind of chaos that can happen when there’s prior assurance that the bill will never come due, will have time to erupt; but it will only have time to start, not to go anywhere of genuine consequence.
Still, it’s more time than you think. Try holding your breath.
• • • •
If N is one hour,
then all places of business will empty, as people hit the elevators and the staircases in a desperate hurry to get to their loved ones. The roads will clog with traffic jams as people who should have known better try to accomplish a commute that was forty-five minutes even on good days. More sensible people will grab their telephones, and though the grid will fail, many final words will be spoken, by those separated by distance; loving words and spiteful words, and there will be infinite passing of secrets by those who held them close to their breasts, waiting for the right moment to tell those important to them that Uncle Bob is their real father, that they are sleeping with Nazir, that they were the one who took Aunt Bella’s tea set, that they are gay. There will be shooting sprees and there will be rapes, committed by those who have always feared prison but now say, why the hell not. There will be lots of perfectly acceptable last-minute sex, though some will start too late and not get to finish and others will start too early only to face a rumpled bed and the apocalypse as literal anticlimax. Some of that sex will be between minor acquaintances with no time to get to anyone they’re actually involved with, who will seize those they’ve occasionally daydreamed about and say, “The faculty lounge! Now!” Many will spend the entire hour weeping; a few will spend it grinning at the panic taking place all around them and exult that the sins they’ve kept secret their whole lives will never bear consequences. In the first few minutes, several nations with nukes will say to hell with it and launch them, full commitment, because Chekhov’s rifle must be fired, right now, if it is indeed true that the play’s about to end. By the end of the hour, so many will have died that, depending on how the missiles fall, there might even be serious dispute over whether the absolute end had a greater body count than the end that came before it. That is, if there were anyone around to do the disputing.
• • • •
If N is one day,
many more people will commit crimes that require some planning and effort. Scores will be settled, not because it matters anymore, but because there is still minimal chance of being punished. It will a bad day, worldwide, to be a member of a targeted racial minority, or to be a woman; for that matter, to be a child. The nuclear exchanges will still happen, but they don’t happen right away, not at the beginning of the day when the nations in question are keenly aware of how much time they’ll be cheating themselves of as well. Generally, it won’t happen until the last hour.
Amidst the general savagery, though, you will be able to see other things. People who watch their calories binge. People who are on the wagon will fall off. People who have forgotten to smell the roses will try to make up for what they’ve lost.
Among all the feuds and vendettas erupting, there will also be any number of moments of personal grace. The son who hasn’t visited his ailing mother for a while will ignore the excuse of the closed roads and spends the day making his way to her. The father who has estranged his daughter will do much the same, showing up at her front door even though he suspects that he will be rebuffed. People will play with their dogs. People will stay in bed to finish what they’ll now know to be the very last books they will ever read. Neighborhoods will hold block parties that involve all the food and drink available because nothing has to be saved for later. There will be weeping but there will laughter. There will be a determined, defiant effort to it all, a quest to experience everything that can be enjoyed in one day, and among more people than you would guess this will not be an exercise in celebrating the worst, but in practicing the best.
The day will ring with intervals of human beauty.
And everywhere people will play the game of, “What if?” What if the warning had come earlier? What if they now had a week, instead of a day? How much more could they have done, with the time that was left?
• • • •
If N is one week,
then in many places, civilization will fall faster and more catastrophically than could hardly be believed. It won’t happen everywhere, but there are any number of tribes that will hold on to the offenses committed against them by other tribes, and with one full week to explore this history at length, will indulge grudges at length. The carnage will become organized, in many places Rwanda-style genocides that amount to a house-to-house purging.
You have heard the stories dating back to those times when the world was not ending and the perpetrators simply had no thought of justice ever catching up with them; now that the end is an absolute given, many places that stuttered to an uneasy peace, after past blood scourges, will work themselves up to replaying history in frighteningly short order.
Worldwide, anybody who’s been suppressing criminality will indulge. People who can leave their cities will. They will head off for the mountains or erect tents in the woods or repair to the isolated little getaways they know about and hunker down, paranoid, intent on remaining alive until the very end. Others will stay in large centers of population, giving themselves over to service. Many are the civilians who will direct traffic, the belated Samaritans who will share what they have with others who don’t have enough to make it to the end. When they hear of the terrible offenses being committed elsewhere, they will cluck in shame and ask the same question that people have always asked, but that will seem infinitely more pressing now: At long last, what’s wrong with people?
• • • •
If N is one year,
then humanity will for a while be no more savage toward itself than it has always been. People who would have run out and killed that son of a bitch Omar right away, if they knew that no punishment awaited, will now picture justice of a sort catching up with them, and refrain. After all, nobody will want to spend the last year of the world rotting away in prison, if there even are prisons being run, in the months to come.
No, it will be simpler, and more freeing, for many, to just relinquish the things that don’t matter. People will sleep more. They will go on longer walks. They may keep their jobs, at least for a while, but they will stop thinking about where they’re going to be and devote more thought to where they are. The marriages that need to break up will. The ones that were teetering for stupid reasons will stay alive. It will all be very relaxed and civilized, for the first six months or so, at which point the effort people were putting into making sure everything continued to work will begin to falter, and the last six months will become at first like the Wild West and then like the Barbarian Olympics of Mad Max.
Honestly, you thought it was bad when people only had one day to work this shit out. Give them six months to gradually relax into anarchy and the next six months, the next six months, will be an exercise in survival of the meanest. Some places will go like Jonestown and other places will go like Auschwitz. Other places, isolated places, will experience the discrete little apocalypse of the cocktail-swilling Australians of On the Beach. But generally? A year is precisely the wrong period of time. The end of everything will be imminent, but with time to think about it. And this is not a grand recipe for peace, given human nature.
• • • •
If N is twenty years,
but you already know the answer to this one, don’t you?