Trying to identify a short-story I read around 1983 or '84.

A man thinks another man sitting next to him in a bar looks familiar. As they begin talking, he realizes that the reason the man looks familiar is because he's a well-known scientist.

As the conversation continues, the scientist says that he has just discovered that the world is about to end. No one else knows about this yet. He asks the man, "If you were me, would you tell anyone?"

The man asks if there's any way that anyone could stop it from happening.


"Is there any way that anyone could escape?"

"Not unless he could get himself clear off the planet in about four hours time."

"In that case I wouldn't tell anyone."

"Good. Then I won't either," the scientist says, and gets up and leaves the bar.

The man figures he's been the victim of some kind of practical joke. Then he notices the scientist has left his watch behind.

"I'm sure this is just some kind of joke. He'll be back any minute. But he's already been gone quite a while, and it's a really expensive watch."

I think I probably read this in Omni Magazine.

Can anyone tell me the title and author?

  • 2
    I'm amazed that you read this 36+ years ago and remember the dialogue almost word for word.
    – JBentley
    Jun 23 '20 at 9:10
  • 1
    Interesting that it sounds almost exactly like the start of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy published in 1979. Jun 23 '20 at 21:22
  • JBentley - This says less about my memory than it does about the power of really well-written dialog. Like a song lyric or a line from a poem, sometimes a line of dialog jumps off the page and burns itself into your brain. In this case that line was: “Not unless they can figure out a way to get clean off the planet in about five hours’ time.” As you said, I was able to remember it almost verbatim after having read it maybe once or twice more than 30 years ago. The power of good writing. That's part of why I wanted to find it again. And yes, apparently I read it in Playboy and not in Omni. Jun 23 '20 at 21:48
  • This question sparked me to read this short story.
    – J.S. Orris
    Jun 24 '20 at 13:41
  • Though of course ~john-rennie has identified the exact story you're thinking of, the premise of (a few) laypeople discovering an imminent but possibly unavoidable world disaster reminds a bit of an Outer Limits episode 'Inconstant Moon' (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… based on a 1971 Larry Niven short story) or 1988's film 'Miracle Mile' (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_Mile_(film)).
    – gojomo
    Jun 24 '20 at 20:00

One for the Road by Gardner Dozois. I read it in his anthology Geodesic Dreams.

You have remembered the conversation very accurately:

Moving with exaggerated care, he polished off his drink, and set it carefully back on the water ring it had made on the bar top. He turned to face me again. “Would you tell anyone, if you knew?”

I thought about it. “If I did, would there be anything anybody could do to stop it from happening?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Any way that anybody could escape from it?”

“Not unless they can figure out a way to get clean off the planet in about five hours’ time.”

“In that case…” I said, fingering my chin, “in that case, I don’t think I would say anything.”

“Good,” the man said, “then I won’t either.”

And it ends:

The bartender drifted over to see if he could con me into a refill. “Who was that weirdo?” I said.

“Jeez,” the bartender said, “I thought you knew him. That was Dr. Fine, from over at the Institute.”

Then I remembered where I’d seen that young-old face: it had been staring at me out of a recent Time cover, accompanying an article that hailed Dr. Fine as one of the most brilliant experimental physicists in the world.

It’s been about an hour now, and I keep looking at Dr. Fine’s watch, toying with it, pushing it around on top of the bar with my finger. It’s a damn expensive watch, and I keep thinking that soon he’ll notice that it’s gone, that he’ll certainly come back into the bar for it in a moment or two.

But I’m starting to get worried

  • 7
    Interestingly not in Omni, but it was first published in April 1982 in Playboy.
    – SteveV
    Jun 22 '20 at 17:20
  • 30
    @SteveV - yep, half of us read Playboy for the interviews, the other half for the sci-fi stories ...
    – davidbak
    Jun 23 '20 at 0:22
  • 7
    @davidbak There is text in Playboy? Jun 23 '20 at 12:16
  • 6
    Since Playboy has been mentioned... I recently discussed web filtering and I was showing how this works. So I typed playboy.com and did not even look at the screen (projected in a large room) and saw that people were making faces. I turned around and saw the huge Playboy homepage. And this is how I learned that Playboy has been reclassified as "magazine" (or smthg like that) because they changed their editorial line (I only knew somehow the version from the 80's, though we had our own Lui in France we were also reading, as teens, for the interviews)
    – WoJ
    Jun 23 '20 at 15:07
  • 3
    @MichaelSeifert given that according to the scientist accounts the "event" will not happen for at least three more hours (someone had 4 hours left to leave Earth, and 1 hour had passed since the scientist left the clock), the missing dot does not seem to represent a "sudden end of the world." Also, this is usually better represented by an unfinished senten
    – SJuan76
    Jun 23 '20 at 22:14

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