Professor Xavier Fitzroy was fifty-three when he perfected his life’s work. Although his prized invention was a small machine and outwardly it didn’t appear any more impressive than an electronic blood pressure meter with a few extra buttons, the professor was confident it would make his name remembered throughout history.
For one thing, his invention, unlike ordinary blood pressure machines, detected a vast and complex array of physical characteristics. Secondly, and more importantly, the ominous red numbers on its digital display did not refer to an isolated physical measurement but rather to how much time the user had remaining before they died.
It was a device that was certain to transform the way people lived and thought about their lives forever. Once the inconvenient uncertainty of not knowing exactly how you had to live was removed, people could organise their lives far more efficiently. No longer would people undertake extensive home renovations or embark on lengthy work projects only to die before their completion.
The professor’s delight in seeing his marvellous invention completed was perhaps only slightly marred when he tested it on himself and discovered that he only had twenty-three months left to live. This was a disappointing blow to Professor Xavier Fitzroy but he determined that he should make the most of those months to ensure that society would benefit from the genius of his brilliant creation.
The Death Meter was launched and was a tremendous success. At last people felt they had conquered one of the more perplexing uncertainties of existence and rejoiced that now that they knew precisely when they were going to die, they could get on with their lives.
Over the months after the Death Meter’s release, things started to change. People realised it was no longer so useful to age themselves according to how many years they had lived; what really mattered was how many years they had left before they died.
Driving licenses were the first to officially change. It was declared that all drivers must have their ‘D-date’ printed on their license and that anyone with a D-1 year or less couldn’t drive as it was too dangerous to have those so close to dying on the roads endangering the lives of the longer living.
Schools and universities changed their policies too. There wasn’t much point in investing the years of education required to give someone a PhD in rocket science if they were going to die a decade or two into their career. It was decided that lengthy education was a waste for time for anyone with a D-20 or closer death expectancy. Children with a D-10 age were put in a special classroom and given crayons to draw with as there just wasn’t much point in inflicting the usual writing and arithmetic requirements on them.
As his D-date approached, Professor Xavier Fitzroy was content. He had enjoyed nearly two years of spectacular success. He had been hailed as a revolutionary genius and made a fortune so large his family would be wealthy for generations to come.
He was going to die with the happiness of a man who knew that his life’s work was completed and that he had improved people’s lives.
On the night before he was to die, he slipped his arm into the Death Meter one last time.
It read: “D-3 years”.
The Professor examined it to see if it was broken or malfunctioning. It wasn’t. He switched it off and on. It gave the same reading. He tried another Death Meter and then another. They said the same thing.
His death date had changed.
“Damn,” said the professor.
He paced up and down in his workshop, considering the options. At last he resolved on the only feasible measure. After all, he couldn’t face the humiliation of admitting that his machine was wrong or inadequate to cope with the ever-changing variables of human existence.
Professor Xavier Fitzroy faked his own death, moved to a small tropical island under an assumed name and then, to his profound annoyance, proceeded to live a peaceful and quiet life for the next seven and a half years.
Debbie Cowens lives on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand with her husband and son. She is the co-creator of the Matador card games Dig, Mob and Cow and an enthusiast of drama and amateur film-making. She has worked as an English language teacher in Japan and more recently taught English and Media Studies at high school.