For the first time in nearly an hour, the frenetic squeaking in Dr. Ira Melling’s university laboratory fell silent. In a practiced motion, Ira tossed the dead dry-erase marker into a nearby waste bin, plucked a fresh one from his pocket, and resumed his assault on the white board. It was one of five such boards set end to end, and the last to be filled.
“Careful now,” he whispered to himself. It was late in the day, and he couldn’t allow fatigue to dull his concentration.
Quiet returned five minutes later, and this time it lasted. It was the tenth time Ira had worked his way through the ponderously long equations, and the results were always the same. Yet the machine still didn’t work.
Although it felt like a moot exercise, he began prepping a trial anyway, just as he had the past five nights in a row. He checked the digital clock set before the machine, comparing its time with both his watch and his phone. He couldn’t be too careful.
“Come on, baby,” he pleaded as he fired up the machine and leaned down to its eyepiece. It was ten PM, and according to all his calculations, what he should see through the chronocular lens was a clock that read eleven, an hour into the future. “Please, baby, please.”
What he saw instead was what he’d seen every other night — nothing. Not the future, not the present, not even the clock — just blackness. Which made no sense. The lab stayed lit all night, so it couldn’t be actual darkness he was seeing. Nothing was obscuring the lens. Nothing was wrong with the math.
Ira shook his head, dismayed. Why couldn’t he see into the future? Where had he gone wrong? He’d been so careful!
As the machine powered down, Ira’s eyes wandered to the tattered sofa on the far side of the lab. Tempting. He relaxed there often and even napped on occasion, but he’d never spent the night. His wife would not be pleased if he did.
Reflexively, he straightened the thin blanket resting over the sofa’s back as he passed by, trying to remember the last time he’d used it. His compulsive nature rarely allowed him to leave things out of place or askew.
“Go home, Ira,” he told himself. “Go to bed.”
Just outside the lab, Ira was greeted by the building’s custodian, Brenda Seller.
“Evening, Professor,” Brenda said, smiling. “Working late again? The missus won’t be happy.”
“Yeah, well, what else is new? You know, Brenda, you don’t have to call me that. Ira is fine.”
“Oh, thanks… Ira. I appreciate that.”
“Sure. Hey, while I’m thinking of it, let me ask you something. All the lights in here stay on all night, right? For sure?”
“On the first floor, yes,” she answered. “For security reasons, they keep everything at ground level lit up 24-7, in all the university buildings.”
Ira considered this for a moment, and then added, “And you know to never touch any of the apparatus in the labs, right? I mean I know you know that, but… you never do, right? You’re careful?”
The smile melted from Brenda’s face. With far less enthusiasm, she answered, “Of course I don’t touch the equipment. I’ve worked here for four years. I know my job.”
“I know you do. I shouldn’t have asked that. I’m sorry. My wife would tell you I’m a master of ‘open mouth, insert foot.’” At this, Ira gave a little chuckle. Brenda did not.
“Have a good night, Professor,” she said and turned toward the lab.
As she reached the door, Ira stopped her, saying, “I’m sorry, Brenda, but I have to ask one more thing. Just a little thing. And it’s not like you’ll be in trouble regardless, but… do you ever use the sofa in there? I mean for more than just a quick sit down? It’s just that I noticed the blanket had been moved and—”
“Professor, if you have a problem with me or my work, then I suggest you take it up with the department head, who can take it up with the deans, who can take it up with the damn president of the university for all I care.”
Without waiting for a response, Brenda lifted her chin in defiance and disappeared into the lab. Ira squeezed his temples, cursed himself, and headed for the parking lot.
Brenda had to walk three laps around the lab before she’d cooled down enough to get to work. She’d always thought of Professor Melling as being quirky, but never rude. It was pretty ironic, really — him accusing her of sleeping on the job. She’d seen him in there napping a bunch of times. She took two smoke breaks all night. That was it.
“You’re the one somebody should be checking up on, Ira.”
As she continued to grumble, Brenda retrieved the blanket from the sofa. With the utmost care, she draped it over the machine, hiding it completely under a tent of perfect, impenetrable darkness. She had no idea what the thing was supposed to do, but it looked important. And expensive. She’d keep it covered for the next hour or so while she cleaned, just as she had every night that week.
“There. Now I won’t get a single speck of dust on your precious apparatus. How’s that for careful?”
Randall Andrews is the author of two books, The Last Guardian of Magic, which won the National Indie Excellence Award, and Finding Hour Way, a collection of novellas about navigating life with time travel. His short stories have been nominated for a Locus Award, won the Write Michigan short story contest, and been included in the speculative fiction anthology, The Best of Abyss and Apex: Volume Three. When not writing, he can be found wearing the soles off a pair of running shoes, listening to his favorite John Williams soundtracks, or hand-feeding his loyal flock of wild songbirds.