I was looking at this question and I think I may have read the same story, but I'm not sure because a few of the details don't quite line up.

The story I read was about a man who had built a machine that could work out when a person would die. The way it worked was described as sending a small electric charge along the four-dimensional "sausage" which was a person's extent in spacetime - the story definitely used the word "sausage". The person who had built the machine had made several predictions which he put in sealed envelopes, including that of his own death. The story ended with him being visited by a pregnant woman who wanted to know how long her child would live. The builder saw that she would die very soon, and tried to keep her in his office as long as possible to avoid her fate by giving her tea and cakes, but she insisted on leaving and got hit by a car as she crossed the road to leave his office. This caused him to kill himself, and the date in his envelope was correct.

I read this in 1999 at the earliest and 2001 at the latest. Around the same time - possibly but not definitely in the same book - I read a story about a murder mystery in which the murder weapon turned out to be a time-accelerated flashlight.

I tried googling with these details, but kept running into the Machine of Death anthology which made it very difficult to find earlier stories on that theme.

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    the flashlight murder was probably a Larry Niven ARM story (can't find the exact title now, unfortunately).
    – ths
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 12:40
  • 4
    Yes, the flashlight murder weapon is definitely a Niven short story featuring Gil "The ARM" Hamilton. Ah, I found it. It's called "ARM" and among other places was published in the short story anthology (all about Hamilton) called Flatlander. Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 15:27
  • See also scifi.stackexchange.com/q/253385/4918 "everyone has a letter saying when they will die"
    – b_jonas
    Commented Apr 4 at 23:51

2 Answers 2


That is "Life-Line" by Robert Heinlein.

You pretty much nailed the story.

Only, Pinero (the man with the machine) didn't kill himself. He was killed by a contract killer who was paid by the head of an insurance company.

Pinero was advising people on how long to plan their lives. Insurance companies sued him because they were losing money on people who knew when they were going to die.

In court, he was challenged to prove he could really predict the life span of people. He measured the life span of several lawyers and the heads of the companies. They then met periodically to open the sealed predictions.

Pinero, of course, had measured the length of his own life and knew when he was going to die. He had a last meal and a favorite liqueur shortly before the killer arrived.

The final scene has the heads of the insurance companies meeting again. Pinero is dead, and his date is in the current envelopes to be opened. The heads of the companies collect all the sealed prediction envelopes and burn them in a trash can right there in the meeting room.

The story is later linked into the Lazarus Long stories. The woman turns out to have been Lazarus' mother, whom he rescues with the help of a time travelling spaceship. He plucks her out of place just as the accident occurs. This is several hundreds (if not thousands) of years later in Lazarus' time line.

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    The text of the story is available on the publisher's website, along with the tale of how it came to be written for a contest: baen.com/Chapters/0743471598/0743471598___2.htm
    – arp
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 12:49
  • 1
    Rather missing from this answer (and the question) is any reference to the wonderfully vivid verbal illustration the story contains of academia/scholasticism in contrast with the actual scientific method. If anything, it's even more relevant today than it was when written.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 1:18

"Life-Line" by Robert A. Heinlein.

From the Wikipedia article on the short story:

Published in the August 1939 edition of Astounding, it was Heinlein's first published short story.

The protagonist, Professor Pinero, builds a machine that will predict how long a person will live. It does this by sending a signal along the world line of a person and detecting the echo from the far end. Professor Pinero's invention has a powerful impact on the life insurance industry, as well as on his own life.

Pinero is mentioned in passing in the novels Time Enough for Love and Methuselah's Children when the practically immortal Lazarus Long mentions having been examined and being sent away because the machine is "broken."

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    @BiscuitBaker Thank you for pointing out that this was copied from Wikipedia. However, please review the instructions on what to do upon discovering plagiarism. Posts which plagiarize need to be edited and/or flagged for a moderator. A comment is not enough since the post author may not respond to it.
    – Null
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 14:44
  • @Null Thanks for the heads up! I'll delete my comment. I'll admit I was a little unsure about whether to flag this one because it felt like an honest attempt to answer the question, but I'll be sure to send off a flag in future. Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 14:48
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    @BiscuitBaker It doesn't matter whether or not it's an honest attempt to answer the question. Plagiarism is absolutely unacceptable here and needs to be dealt with ASAP.
    – Null
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 14:57

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