Have you ever heard of the Doomsday Clock? It’s actually not a clock, per se; it’s more of a metaphor. You see, mankind used this clock to measure not the passage of time, but the human race’s proximity to probable destruction. In this metaphor, time began at 00:00 and ended at 12:00—one complete rotation of the hour hand about the face—where 12:00 was symbolic of imminent disaster. The hands of this clock didn’t advance linearly, either; they were adjusted forward and backward in relation to the state of global affairs at the time.
At its highest peak, the Doomsday Clock read two minutes to midnight—11:58—due to the immense tension of the nuclear arms race post-World War 2. At its lowest, it read a mere seventeen minutes to midnight—11:43—due to the dissolution of the USSR and global reduction of nuclear arms. It was always amusing to me that even when the world was seen to be furthest from annihilation it was still represented with a figure that was 92% of the way up the scale. Rather pessimistic those scientist folk were back then.
Nowadays the notion of a global Doomsday Clock is somewhat antiquated. In the early 22nd century, scientists discovered a way to reliably predict the immediate future using quantum computers. What they discovered was that, when applied to humanity as a whole, the new Doomsday Clock averaged out to something closer to 06:00. However, applied to the individual, the values varied considerably according to their daily life. In a decidedly controversial study, researchers recorded a dying person’s value rapidly increasing until it peaked at 12:00 on the exact moment of their passing.
With the similarly recent advent of biological engineering, it was no surprise to see it become in vogue for people to get fitted with their own personal Doomsday Clock. Of course, they didn’t call it that; marketing experts preferred to sell people on the merits of reading it in the opposite direction—that is, a method of measuring quality of life where the lower your number was, the better your life was. The trashy magazine articles about “what to remove from your diet to fit into a size zero dress” were quickly replaced with articles about “what to remove from your life to reach a 00:00 Life Clock”.
I’m still not sure why I got my Life Clock. Perhaps I was simply caught up in the trends, or perhaps some part of me was innately curious about my future. Whatever the reason, I can’t exactly get rid of it now; the blasted thing is encoded into my DNA, forever ticking away alongside the other handy devices displayed on my wrist.
Practically speaking, it’s the least useful thing I’ve ever installed. It goes up by an hour when I cross against the traffic lights, and it goes down again when I curl up on the couch for a movie. Obvious stuff. Thanks a lot, cutting-edge computing: you can quantify exactly how risky it is going to the bathroom at night without turning on the lights. In any case, before long I had completely forgotten about that arbitrary and pointless number and gone back to living my life exactly as I had before.
Until one day, when my co-worker happened to notice something odd.
‘Oh. My. Gosh,’ she said, in that obnoxious accent that I wished had perished along with half of California in the quake of 2085. ‘Did you, like, know that your Life Clock is at eleven?’
‘Is it really?’ I replied, the question rhetorical. I wasn’t even paying attention to her at that point. Not that she picked up on that at all.
‘Yeah, like, almost eleven-fifteen. You must be having such a hard time, like, for real. Stay right there, I’mma go ask for some time off for you, ‘kay?’
Truth be told, my concern then was more relating to having been distracted from my work than from what she said. If I kept going at my current rate, I could probably finish shortly after my break and get a head start on tomorrow’s stuff. It was only a few minutes later, when our boss came to see me, that what was happening began to sink in.
‘I’m sorry, Drew, I need to send you home,’ he said, face visibly worried. ‘Right now.’
‘What? Why? I still have work left to do.’
‘Company policy. Any employee with a Life Clock reading over 11:00 is to be withdrawn from duties effective immediately and referred to emergency services. I’ve already made all the arrangements.’
Suffice to say I was dumbstruck. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so for my Life Clock to generate such a dramatic response came as somewhat of a surprise. It’s for that reason that the original Doomsday Clock is so amusing to me; if that had ever reached a value as low as 11:00 it would have been cause for mass celebration of the arrival of world peace or something.
Still, despite my protests, I was gently escorted from the building and met by medical professionals outside. They packed me into the back of an ambulance and whisked away to the local hospital, running preliminary tests all the while. I must say it was quite the inconvenience. Being diabetic, I was used to the prick of a needle, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it, much less in rapid succession. Alongside the physical tests, one of the medics asked me some questions about my wellbeing that any reasonably educated fellow could tell was a psychological evaluation.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, the first test results were coming in. A smug smile crept onto my face as each one turned up a negative result. It was as I thought: an overreaction. “Come kidnap me again when my Clock reads 11:58,” I wanted to say. But nevertheless they pressed on, moving me through further and further tests with more and more senior staff. By the end of the day I’d been through five different kinds of full-body scans and put up in a cramped bed overnight to await their judgments. Utterly ridiculous.
When I came to the next morning, it wasn’t the morning. I felt like I had slept restlessly, but when I looked at the clock on the wall it was the afternoon. Where had the time gone? I made to get out of the bed but a hand clasped my wrist to stop me, accompanied by a voice that said, ‘You probably shouldn’t move around just yet. You’re likely still groggy from the surgery.’
Admittedly I was a little groggy. I turned my head to see a nurse seated in a chair beside me, smiling a practiced smile. Then the rest of her statement registered in my head. Surgery? What surgery?
I must have said it out loud as well, because the nurse drew a cautious breath before gesturing towards the lower half of my body. As I followed her gaze, I lifted the bed sheets with my hands and drew my legs towards my chest. I felt a sudden pang of fear in my heart. No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening! I looked between the nurse and my legs several times, hoping that the next time would reveal this to be some kind of sick ruse. But no matter how many times I looked, I saw only one leg.
One and a half, if I had to be technical. My right leg had been amputated just below the knee. My mouth opened and shut like a suffocating fish as I tried to formulate the questions overheating my brain. Ever-so-helpful, the nurse answered the anticipated words.
‘Were you aware that your leg was heavily fractured? Four micro-fractures in the tibia, to be precise.’
I shook my head. ‘I think I would have noticed something like that. Fractures hurt.’ A memory of a childhood fall attested to that.
‘Yes, well… That’s not all. The breaks were quite infected, and the tissue around them was rotting away from the inside out, so nerve function was heavily impeded. In reality it was hurting—a lot—but the signals weren’t reaching your brain. Thankfully it hadn’t developed into septicaemia or things could have been much worse. You’re very lucky you got to us when you did.’
Lucky? She calls this lucky? My leg is completely gone, and I didn’t even have the chance to know about it beforehand! I buried my head in my hands. That second stage of grief was hitting me full-force.
‘Listen, your recovery shouldn’t take long, and we’ve already had you fitted for a prosthesis. If you take quickly to rehab, you could be walking again in three to six months. In the meantime, we’ve arranged a wheelchair for you.’
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. Everything was all happening too fast. All this talk about what happened, what now, and what next, but not a word on why. Or how. Or when. I needed to know. The lack of knowledge burned inside me like a hunger. In exchange for the time—and limb—that had been stolen from me, I needed to know as much as I could.
The nurse was happy—or, more accurately, required—to oblige my questions. ‘We’re not entirely sure as to the cause, but we suspect it was a localised osteoporosis brought on by an imbalance in calcium and iron. It’s very likely a result of your diabetes. As for how long, there’s no way to be certain. But if we take your Life Clock history as an indicator, the degradation might have been in progress for as many as twelve months.’
Twelve months? Had my Life Clock been over 11:00 that whole time? No—when I thought about it for a second, the value would have incremented slowly over that whole period. Little wonder it went unnoticed, what with how prolonged the change was and how inattentive I was to it. To reaffirm my belief, I looked at my Clock, and saw the value hovering just under 06:00. I let out a contemptuous snort. It had nearly halved in the last twenty-four hours. All because of this stupid leg.
TO BE CONTINUED