Detail from "Klebeband Nr. 10 der Fürstlich Waldeckschen Hofbibliothek Arolsen Motiv: Feuerwerk in Hamburg zur Feier der Kaiserkrönung Franz I. Stephan 1745," from the collection of the University of Heidelberg. H/t: The Public Domain Review.

The man’s voice on the phone is deep, conspiratorial: “I’m going to scare you.” He uses certain refrains, “some people believe,” “my sources say,” and “people tell me,” as a way of keeping himself at one degree of remove—from certainty, from absolute prophecy, from the lunatic fringe. After our conversation, he will email me some links, saying, “You will need to determine their veracity, while keeping an open mind.” He’s no chump—he doesn’t believe everythingbut he keeps his ears open, and this summer his sources are chattering like crazy. The picture is grim, the dots are connecting, there’s just too much to ignore. An overwhelming confluence of events points to something BIG on the horizon in this, the summer of 2015—starting in July and culminating in September—which will be bad news on a planetary scale. And here’s what Robert Vicino’s people are telling him right now, delivered to me, the skeptic, in a looping, oddly charismatic monologue that runs more or less uninterrupted—try as I may—for the next hour and a half.

Have you heard about Jade Helm? It’s a military exercise taking place across America. Starts in July, ends in September. It’s nationwide; they’re using major equipment. It’s believed by my sources that the government is going to be enacting martial law. Why this summer? Because of the recent racial tensions? Nah. Something is coming and they can no longer keep it secret. There are several options:

One, they’re finally going to pull the plug on the economy. We all know it’s based on fiat, a big Ponzi scheme. Economic collapse is coming. They’re going to do a reset, close the banks, which means you can’t get money, you can’t get gas, et cetera.

Two, have you heard of the Shemittah, the ancient Jewish Sabbath year? Every seven years debts are forgiven—and these years often line up with horrible events. The 1933 stock-market crash, the one again in 1987. I think 9/11 was a Shemittah year. This is a Shemittah year. It happens in September.

And, across the country, Walmart and Target have been shutting down stores; hundreds of them are boarded up, fenced in. They fired everybody and now there’s high security. The stores are right over the hubs of the government’s underground railroad. They’re depots. And all are ready in time for Jade Helm. They’re part of the drill. Or maybe they’re to be used by FEMA.

Now, I don’t need to go into the Walmart-NSA connection, do I?

Robert Vicino is the founder of the Vivos Group, a California company that promises “life assurance for a dangerous world” by building a network of secret underground bunkers meant to withstand the apocalypse, and then selling berths in them to the average citizen. I am interested in a shelter Vicino reportedly was readying in the Mojave Desert outside of LA. Many of the bunkers remain to be built, but they’re said to be retrofitted Cold War installations—often hardened telecommunication centers—and it seems ironic that complexes that were once meant to ensure connection in moments of catastrophe are being repurposed to separate the pessimistically prepared from the soon-to-be-extinct.

Vivos says the shelters are impervious to flooding, fire, earthquakes, extreme hail and winds, chemical and biological attacks, armed assaults, solar flares, and twenty-megaton nuclear blasts. They have surface defenses, radios, generators, fuel, water, medical supplies, air filters, room for pets, and a year’s worth of food for every person, plus resources to grow more underground.

Would-be members apply online. From the applications that come in, Vivos curates a community, the optimal mix of doctors, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, cooks, educators, security personnel, and the like. The shelters have libraries stocked with books and movies; the company is assembling a DNA vault. The media director tells me, “It’s not just about surviving—but continuing.” She also assures me the shelters are surprisingly comfortable. (Citing the plush mattresses, pleasant color schemes, and calming art on the walls—“no violence, no blood”—Vicino calls the accommodations four-star: “Not Motel Six, but La Quinta.”) The media director says she has lived in the shelters for months at a time and never missed the outdoors. And—with an office overlooking the ocean—she’s someone who likes a view.

In Los Angeles, the morning TV news shows the ongoing efforts to clean up the Santa Barbara oil spill, two hours up the coast, where last month a Texas-based underground pipeline failed, spewing 101,000 gallons of crude, much of which flowed beneath the 101 Freeway and into the Pacific. Black sludge still seeps into the sea. Cleanup is costing $3 million per day and stretches for more than ninety-six miles. Blobs of tar have washed up on beaches in LA. The oil company is requesting permission to transport the oil—in as many as eight tanker trucks an hour, twenty-four hours a day—up the coast.

Meanwhile, the newspaper covers the ongoing investigation into a confrontation last year that ended with a black, mentally ill young man shot dead by police only two days after Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson. In other news, there were two shootings in south LA yesterday afternoon, video of a road-rage fistfight in Hollywood has gone viral, and statewide pollution is putting communities at risk. On the international front, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome has hit South Korea, and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is calling Putin a “bully,” as the US leads military exercises near the Russian border.

Susan Sontag writes, “Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse From Now On.’ Apocalypse has become an event that is happening and not happening.” Essayist Charles D’Ambrosio adds, “Every fundamentalism focuses on end times, and Armageddon is, in a sense, a rhetorical trope, an emphatic and overwhelming conclusion, meant to wrap up and make tidy the mistaken wanderings of history.”

Some say the Cold War is over. Shelters are a waste of money. But the Cold War is heating up. And, hey, forget the Cold War—what about the holy war? Divisive religions are destroying mankind. You know, we have a superior-court judge as a member of Vivos. What do you think of that? A judge is afraid!

These people are smart enough to read the signs. It’s the people who don’t who are ignorant. They don’t have a clue. They don’t want to prepare until it’s too late. I have disdain for the guy who shows up at the moment of truth knocking on our shelter door, waving his black AmEx. On that day, when everything hits the fan, WE DON’T TAKE AMEX! We might take your gold, food, guns, ammo, or skills—but that’s assuming you can even find the door to knock on!

At dinner in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood (named for one of the city’s first water commissioners, who built a reservoir there in the early 1900s), I ask two old friends where they would go at the end of the world—when the big one hits, whatever that means. Are they prepared? One friend answers immediately—of course his family has a plan. He and his wife have two meeting spots, A and B, walkable from their house and their kids’ school. (They would shelter in place or, if things got really hairy, they would head out of town to a coworker’s ranch.) My friend and his wife keep an earthquake kit at home—food, sleeping bags, flashlights, radio, etc.—plus one in the car. The city suggests being prepared to go at least seven days without any assistance. My friend’s wife regularly replaces the bottles of water.

Water, of course, is what everyone is talking about. The drought is now in its fourth year. For the first time in California history, the governor has imposed mandatory statewide water restrictions. Reservoirs are empty; groundwater is being depleted (by cities, by farmers, by fracking). As the water is pumped out of the earth, swaths of central California are sinking, some as much as a foot a year. (Picture buried pipes poking through the surface, roads and canals cracking, bridges slipping underwater.) On the US Drought Monitor map, the state is bathed blood-red—“exceptional drought.” Freeway signs urge residents to reduce usage. Surveying California’s reservoirs from space, NASA warns only a year’s worth of water remains.

Everywhere Angelenos see proof that the desert is seeking to reclaim the city. A conservation sign in a desiccated lawn (now turned to dirt) might declare: “H2—No!” As the crooked politician in the classic LA noir Chinatown reminds us, “Beneath every street there’s a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed.”

At dinner, we nod at the thoroughness of my friend’s plan. We sit in a short, respectful silence. Then my other friend says, “When the earthquake hits, I’m diving into the crack. I mean, I’m going headfirst into the magma.” He is no less sure of his plan. “Why would I want to be around for the aftermath?”

*

On January 22 of this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the hands of its Doomsday Clock—their measure of how close we stand to the eve of our destruction—to only three minutes to midnight. The hands hadn’t moved in years. The culprit: our failure to keep climate change and nuclear arsenals in check. The closest we’ve come to the zero hour was 11:58 in 1953, after the US and Russia both tested hydrogen bombs. In 1991, a few years after the end of the Cold War, the hands stood an optimistic seventeen minutes to midnight. Ever since, we’ve been inching back toward doom.

Folk singer Phil Ochs: “The final story, the final chapter of Western man, I believe, lies in Los Angeles.”

What can you say that has not already been said about a city that holds a regular End of the World Party? LA is a town with a hair trigger, poised to fend off—or, failing that, embrace—its own destruction. Take, for instance, the “Battle of Los Angeles,” when, on the blacked-out night of February 24, 1942, some 1,400 antiaircraft shells were fired in an hour-long barrage at a Japanese plane, a wayward weather balloon, or a UFO, depending on whom you ask—a shelling that resulted in a number of civilian deaths but not one enemy casualty.

Paranoia has slipped into certainty. Last summer, the mayor of LA—citing the fact that his city is menaced by thirteen of the sixteen federally recognized types of natural disasters—announced plans to appoint a “chief resilience officer,” who would ready the city for catastrophe. The mayor insisted, “It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’”

When it can no longer be kept a secret—what then? Say it’s a solar ray, EMP, asteroid, the government enacting martial law, economic collapse, nuclear winter, Yellowstone starting to go (it is, you know—burping and rising and leaking Helium-4), or Planet X (the tenth planet in our solar system, which appears in ancient Sumerian stone carvings, caused Noah’s Flood, and comes around every 3,600 years to wreak absolute havoc)—would the government tell you if disaster was on the way and there was no solution? That would only create panic! Social breakdown and chaos! As good custodians of society, they can’t tell us. It’s not what they say—it’s what they don’t say.

Vivos won’t tell me how many shelters they have, or where they’re located. They say the press has burned them before. According to Vicino, he had to scuttle plans for that bunker outside LA—the one I wanted to see—when a newspaper reporter revealed the location. (The site—a nuke-proof communications center built in 1965—was vandalized twice during escrow, he says.) A bunker is no good if everyone knows where it is. Plans for shelters in Nebraska and Kansas have fallen through, too.

And here my conversations with the Vivos Group come to an impasse. Despite having appeared on a number of news outlets, they have grown wary of reporters. I become a little wary of them. To even get this far, I had to engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse: pre-interviews and the like. A friendly paranoia seems to be the rule. For security reasons, they say I can’t be shown a bunker; they must protect the privacy of their owners and the integrity of their sites. The last TV crew to film a shelter—in Indiana—had their phones and GPS confiscated before being driven to the location in a blacked-out van. I agree to such procedures. I promise confidentiality, vagueness, details withheld. No dice. Vicino says, “If your story became a book, then I would take you there.”

I’m looking for a good writer to do the story of Vivos: the good, the bad, the indifferent. The stories of the people who’ve applied—the appeals from mothers, begging for their children. I have thousands of applications asking for financing. They can’t even pay $500. A year’s worth of food alone is $5,000 per person! I haven’t made a dime. I’ve invested millions! People say I’m capitalizing on people’s fears. But look at the major media! They’re the ones doing that.

This hasn’t been fun. It’s been extremely emotionally troubling for me and my family. I’ve been attacked. People say I’m a scammer, taking advantage of people. There’s a book here, a movie. The subtitle would be “How I Tried to Save the World and Couldn’t.”

A billboard on Sunset Boulevard advertises the latest Terminator movie—“New Mission. New Fate”—but judging from the flaming city in the background, the future seems the same as ever. Los Angeles is a favorite setting for Hollywood’s apocalyptic vision—a sign of narcissism and self-loathing, perhaps, but also proof of the desire to destroy what we love. Blade Runner, the Terminator series, Escape from LA, Volcano, Earthquake, Miracle Mile, Battle: Los Angeles, This Is the End, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Demolition Man, The Omega Man, and so on. The city has been annihilated so many times: The War of the Worlds, Night of the Comet, Independence Day, The Core, The Day After Tomorrow, Transformers, 2012, Zombieland, and most recently this summer in San Andreas, a bit of disaster porn starring The Rock—the posters for which proclaim, “We always knew this day would come.” Remember, this is the city that not only created a post-apocalyptic time-traveling cyborg-slash-harbinger of doom, but elected him governor.

Vicino tells me the Internet is an ugly place. There are rumors online. One day, I find a site calling Vivos a fraud. It posts what it claims is a federal lawsuit filed by an owner who paid over $140,000—and never saw a finished bunker. A week later, the site disappears.

I email Vicino. In a long reply, he groups the naysayers into seven categories (competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, those who can’t afford Vivos, those who don’t believe the end is near, those who think preparation is against the Bible, jealous survivalists who are irked that Vivos requires no extreme training, and government trolls). He refutes a number of the specific critiques made on one of the websites—confusion over calculating food in tons versus cubic feet, etc.—and suggests the site was created by the government to quell a nervous public. He says Vivos isn’t cashing in on fear—it’s offering a solution. He writes, “The only fraud is the one being perpetrated by these deviants,” and points to the many mainstream media outlets that have covered Vivos. He says more than fifty thousand people have applied for space in the shelters—those selected are grateful and often surprised by what they get for their money. He concludes, “The bigger question that should be asked is where will all of these people go when the SHTF! They will be the ones banging on the other side of the blast door!”

Frank Lloyd Wright: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”

A beat-up white van goes clunking down Los Feliz Boulevard without looking back— both its rearview mirrors are totally busted—but this particular vehicle is focused on the future, specifically the end times, which started two years ago and will unfold according to a timeline that entirely covers the back windows and doors in careful, obsessive scrawl. I sit behind the van at a red light and read: Armageddon will involve a galactic federation, the Mayan high priesthood, an archangel, aliens in spaceships, and “the return of magical beings and the guru masters of spiritual knowledge.” The first seals are already open, and the van predicts things soon will get ugly, a chaotic acceleration that results in “billions killed and drowned.” The year 2031 is the last time we will see the sun and moon. The prophecy ends simply, “Good luck.”

You say, “But Robert, this is conspiracy stuff.” What is conspiracy? My definition: something that’s not yet been admitted to by the government. History proves the conspiracy is right. We’re all frogs in boiling water—that’s how society changes. I know I’m sounding like some far-right-wing religious-conspiracy nut, but I’m not. I’m rational. So you believe in God. How can you be so sure you’re on the list? That’s so arrogant! There’s danger all around us.

Ice T: “Los Angeles is a microcosm of the United States. If LA falls, the country falls.”

Some cities seem forever caught in the crosshairs, the usual suspects for disaster scenarios: LA, New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Tehran, Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow, DC. When my wife and I moved our family to St. Louis, I considered us to be safe in the heartland, until I found out we were situated on the New Madrid fault zone, the site, in 1812, of the largest earthquake recorded in the US. The massive tremor devastated Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee; it woke people in Pittsburgh and rang bells in Boston. The Mississippi River ran backward. Fields became swamps. The earth opened up and swallowed people whole. Today we must all must live with localized apocalypse.

In early 1980-ish, I had a vision that something was going to happen. It was more like an inspiration. I wasn’t very religious—I was a lapsed Catholic—and I wasn’t very spiritual. But I got the message that something was coming my way, and I needed to build a shelter for a thousand people underground. At the time, I had my own company, a Rolls-Royce, an airplane—I was doing very well. I looked for a gold mine that I could go and harden, but people said I was crazy, so I tucked the idea away. In 2007, after about thirty years, I had a gut feeling that time was almost out. I mentioned it again to my staff, and they said—Have you been reading the news?

Joan Didion: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Vivos sends me a brochure for a luxury shelter to be built in Germany—an overhaul of a massive Cold War bunker that the Soviets dug out of a mountain. “Europa One” already includes a water-treatment plant and a train depot; there is space for a zoo, a “Hall of Records,” a seed bank, and a vault for the world’s treasures. The brochure calls it a “modern-day Noah’s Ark.” Accommodations will be five-star, and membership is by invitation only, to be extended to the world’s “elite” families, which are each allotted five thousand square feet of living space to build out to their wildest dreams.

The Russians have an animal DNA vault. There’s a Norwegian seed vault buried in the Arctic. But nobody has built a DNA ark for humans. Why does that seem crazy? What if we’re all radiated by something today, tomorrow? The shelter we’re planning in Germany is big enough to store the DNA of everyone on the planet. It’s the fountain of youth! Soon you’ll be able to clone yourself and upload your memory for the future.

While I’m in LA, Vivos makes public its plans for Europa One. The story gets picked up by blogs such as ForbesLife and The Drudge Report. In three days, the article on the Forbes site is viewed half a million times.

*

Building a shelter replaces dread with a to-do list, while at the same time fanning the flames of that fear, which offers its own kind of fun, as we invent elaborate and exciting scenarios of our own demise. We embrace the death wish. Safe in here, everything out there is cause for concern. Drug-resistant super bugs, West Nile, Lyme, Ebola, cancer, bird flu, swine flu, solar storms, climate change, drought, plague, pole shifts, political upheaval, overpopulation, terrorism, supervolcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, economic meltdown, electromagnetic pulses, nuclear war, killer asteroids, the death of the bees, the rise of the machines, the coming of the Rapture, the zombie apocalypse.

Fantasizing about the end is a way of sidestepping responsibility—of overlooking the problems, or systems of inequality, that we might actually be contributing to. (Say, disparities in class and race, global inequality, our environmental footprint, to name just a few.) Destruction always finds the right door to knock on. Our fate is even sealed by science, which tells us we inhabit a galaxy spinning outward into nothing, where by various immutable laws of physics (entropy, thermodynamics), we wind up on the other end of eternity hopelessly cold and alone.

In 1950, atomic scientist Enrico Fermi put a question to Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb: Given the vastness of universe, and our own unremarkable place in it, why haven’t we heard from another civilization?

In other words, where the hell is everybody?

This disconnect—infinite universe, no sign of life—is known as the Fermi paradox. It points to the unsettling underbelly of progress. Science advances, but we don’t necessarily become more enlightened. Technology tends toward the dark side. There might be a pattern born out across the universe: civilizations develop to the point where they have the power to do themselves in—and then pull the trigger. The cosmos could be little more than a celestial graveyard, each dead planet just someone else’s failed start.

My mind filled with bunkers, I seek higher ground. To the Griffith Observatory on the top of Mount Hollywood—an art deco masterpiece that has brought the public closer to the stars since 1935. (Built to withstand an earthquake, the white concrete temple with its three copper domes sits near the Hollywood sign and is itself a screen icon, having been featured in, among others, Rebel without a Cause and three Terminator movies.)

A forty-foot-long pendulum swings in the central rotunda—the 240-pound brass ball stays steady in its course, while the earth spins beneath it. A display talks of bursts of gamma rays coming from distant collisions in space. Another discusses the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs. People are eating in the Café at the End of the Universe. They hardly seem worried. From the roof of the observatory, joggers dot the trails winding through the canyons. The city stretches before me in a gray haze. I think of smoke and the wildfires that ravage these hills. I picture the houses on stilts buckling in a mudslide. The sun will be setting soon. There’s much I cannot see in the smog, but I know it’s all out there. The ocean, for instance—the waves endlessly scraping away at the shore—or, closer in, the ancient tar pits, where mastodons, saber-toothed cats, sloths, and the like—a collection of creatures whose number came up a long time ago—trapped themselves unwittingly and sank underground, where they waited, entombed in asphalt, for someone else to come along and dig up the bones.

Everyone asks me when—When is it going to happen? So what if I gave you a date? An event? Are you going to heed the call? Nature has a cleansing process. The wise and strong—they will survive. You know “Vivos” means “to live” in Latin, don’t you?

Does an international network of hardened bunkers truly exist? In some ways it doesn’t matter. Vicino has tapped a vein. The story has legs. During our waking moments—going to work, commuting home, taking in the dreary news of the day, the old existential treadmill—we dream of someone, somewhere, who knows the score, who’s anticipating the spectacular. We lean toward that person, hoping to infuse our confused lives with meaning. Part of us wants the train of history to jump its rickety tracks—it’s a brave, easy thrill. So we come to inhabit these bunkers of the mind, a string of shelters running beneath our feet, everywhere and nowhere, hidden just out of sight.

The elite have multiple shelters. I know. I’ve talked to the head of security for Bill Gates; he told me, “He’ s got them everywhere.” They have theirs. Do you have yours? The government has been building big bunkers deep underground. They’ve got a high-speed subway, or railway, with hubs across the country. They say you can go from DC to LA in twenty minutes. In the 1990s, small towns all over America reported the sounds of locomotives underground. That was them building it. Just search online for “Air Force underground tunnel machine.” I didn’t know the Air Force flew underground! This thing is nuclear-powered and glazes the rock, so it doesn’t collapse.

I take the bait, and, indeed, a website points to a patent filed in 1971 by Los Alamos scientists, “Method and Apparatus for Tunneling by Melting.”

“Are you ready for more?” Vicino asks me again and again.

At least one shelter does stand—in Indiana, where some Vivos members waited out the so-called “Mayan apocalypse” in late December 2012, before eventually going home (relieved? disappointed?) for the holidays. I watch a video tour. The bunker looks nice. Thirty feet down and behind a twelve-inch blast door, there is room for eighty people, plus a minifarm (with grow lights), a medical center, a workshop, a kitchen (granite counters, checkered tile backsplash), a lounge, a theater, a dining room, and a kennel. Vicino calls it an underground cruise ship. It is another retrofit—a Cold War relic repurposed for the future. Vivos is currently taking applications—spots are $35,000 for an adult, $25,000 for a child—but space is limited.

What goes around comes around. When you say “the future,” you’re really saying “the past.” All events are cyclical. Our future has happened many times before. We live in an endlessly changing world. The problem is getting the word out. People think, Change is not going to happen in my lifetime. We make predictions, but they don’t listen; they’re closed-minded. I tell them, “You’re keeping your head in the sand, but your ass is hanging out.”

What can it all mean? How do we read the signs? Is history interconnected, a series of events that add up to a meaningful pattern that is somehow not of our own making? Or, looking back, do we only see our own reflection? Is that the true final tragedy—to be trapped in our own private visions of history? My interest in the past has always been how it intrudes into the present—which then might suggest a course for the future. But what if that fundamental understanding is flawed. What if the arrow doesn’t only point in one direction?

I clip an article from a British newspaper about a strange physics experiment that shows influence runs forward and backward in time—at least on a quantum scale. The experiment is complex and involves tiny particles, covert systems, hidden results, and equations run backward in order to make “retrodictions.” The conclusion is startlingly clear: the future can change the past.

Expanded to the human scale, this finding suggests where we are today might be informed retroactively by where we will end up. I don’t know what to make of this, what it says about us now. Look around and what do you see—signs of salvation or doom? Put another way: Is this bunker building a wake-up call or just the final straw?

*

Having given up on Vivos, I have contacted another company that sells more traditional backyard bunkers.

At last, I have found a shelter ready to take me in.

But only after Ron Hubbard—president and CEO of Atlas Survival Shelters—comes out to greet me. After he asks me not to take pictures (“We have all you need on the website”). After he tells me he makes all of this stuff except the air systems, which are Swiss or Israeli (“I’m a world-class steel fabricator. I’ve won awards”). After he tells me his main business is in ornamental iron—and shows me heavy wrought-iron doors stacked high in a warehouse. After a feral black cat springs from a pile of metal and crosses our path. After he tells me he could sell more than the four bunkers he’s able to build each month, but he only breaks even on them, so why rush to make more? (“I’m just here to help people. Those other guys are fearmongers trying to get into your bank account”). After he tells me he ships his bunkers mainly to “Texas, Utah, Indiana… everywhere. We’d sell more in California if people had land.” After he gives me a glossy brochure. After he brags, “I’ve been on TV fifty times—I’ve been on every goddang network there is!” After he leads me into his office, the walls of which are covered with articles (on such topics as how to evade high-altitude electromagnetic pulse attacks), plus blown-up photos and blueprints of bunkers—many showing his competitors’ designs, the flaws of which Ron walks me through carefully (“It’s a small community. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing”). After he tells me how he bought the rights to the name Atlas Bomb Shelter and pulls out an old company brochure from the Cold War certified by the Office of Civil Defense. After he tells me that the corrugated pipe design is the only one that has been tested by the government with an actual nuclear bomb (“It’s the only one they have statistics on”). After he assures me the shockwave will travel through the top six feet of earth, so he buries his bunkers at least ten feet, which has a side benefit of keeping the main hatch a relatively constant fifty-eight degrees. After he shows me pictures of him going down a decommissioned nuclear missile silo in Nebraska (“See—there’s the corrugated pipe!”). After he says, “Everything I do is from a government design. I studied these things for years. Then I just brought the old to the new.” After he lists several of his innovations: that angular entry designed to thwart gamma rays, a buried generator pod (“So your enemies can’t steal it!”), tamper-proof air filters (plus a backup CO2 scrubber in case unfriendlies try to block your air pipes), and a secret escape hatch (“If someone comes after my bunker, I can flank ’em through my tunnel and shoot ’em in the back!”). After he promises, “The government contractors said I’m doing it right.”

Then, and only then, will Ron lead me to the bunker he will be shipping on Monday. Ron walks to where the bunker sits above ground on the asphalt—a bright metal shell, careless and cold. Someone else’s secret nightmare, waiting to be buried. “Hop up,” Ron says, and I jump into the open pipe. I’m standing in the decontamination room. In front of me, the blast door is shut. “Spin the wheel,” Ron says. One arrow points up, another points down. Which one will it be? “Down,” Ron says. The wheel turns, then stops with a satisfying thunk. Ron stays behind. The door swings open and I step into the bunker, alone and unprepared.

*

Nine months later, I find myself back in LA. The world hasn’t ended yet. I’m staying downtown for a conference. The homelessness is astonishing—particularly along Skid Row, which occupies four square miles—but also in the business district, which on an early weekend morning looks positively post-apocalyptic: empty skyscrapers looming above while a few tourists searching for breakfast weave purposefully between the slow- moving homeless, many of whom are hungry, hopeless, mentally ill. A man shuffles across the street only to park himself in a corner and stare at the wall. The scene is heartbreaking. A friend says it reminds him of Fear the Walking Dead, which is set in LA—but that’s just another way to dehumanize, to duck responsibility, to ignore the debt we owe one another.

*

I crawl across the city through dirty gridlocked freeways—the 5, the 101—lines of cars belching fumes to the gray sky. In front, a pickup carries old tires; behind, a graffiti-tagged truck begs for “No War.” It’s overcast and slightly chilly—a period of surprising gloom in this city of the eternally bright seventy degrees. There is a central incongruity to thinking about death in LA—an ugliness beneath the radiant veneer, something reckless and sinister. This notion is nothing new—others have put their fingers on this dark pulse—but still I’m surprised to find myself feeling this way as the clouds clear, traffic thins, and I start speeding through a sun-kissed land of swimming pools and fruit trees and beautiful people living nervously—but still living, still living!—under endless blue skies.

About nine miles from downtown, an industrial complex rises beside the freeway. Rusty warehouses straddle both sides of the street—hammers crashing, the cutting of steel. Inside, guys use hooks to lift heavy sheets of metal. Outside, bomb shelters are stacked to the end of the block. They’re made of giant corrugated pipes with tubes sprouting from the ends. A thick metal door lies on the ground next to some black vents and long, heavy elbow joints that will become hidden escape tunnels. An unattached blast hatch flips open hydraulically—one day it will reveal a ladder leading down into a mudroom-slash-decontamination shower, where survivors will turn ninety degrees to enter a bunker, thus thwarting any gamma radiation traveling down the hatch.

2015-2016

__

Excerpted from The History of the Future, published by Coffee House Press, available May 2, 2017.

Edward McPherson

Edward McPherson is the author of The History of the Future (Coffee House Press), Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat(Faber and Faber), and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins). He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Tin House, and The American Scholar, among others. He has received a Pushcart Prize, the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and the Gesell Award from the University of Minnesota, where he received his MFA. He teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.

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