Over the tip of the syringe, The Actuary regarded Professor Singalton.
“Just hold still, Professor, and we’ll be done in an instant.” He exhausted the last of the air through the needle, then circled the basement worktable. Singalton kept his distance, however, circling in turn. The Actuary let out a sigh.
“You know why I’m here and you won’t outrun me. At 96 years old, be thankful for the years you received from us.”
Singalton pointed at the needle, clarity coming into his eyes behind the trifocals. “Why bother letting out the air?”
“The company wants to simulate an aneurism, since you were treated for one two years back. A heart attack is unlikely even at your age, given your general health.”
The old professor looked down for a moment at the tangle of electronics on the table, the leads running to a black cube six inches on a side. “I should be thankful for all those salads and long walks with Emma’s dog, eh? Did you do in Professor Rosser last month?”
The Actuary slipped the syringe into a foam-lined case. He made a half-playful move, as if to vault over the messy worktable. Singalton stepped back, his eyes darting around until they rested on Emma’s old tennis racquet.
“I did. Amazing what some of the newer drugs can do, and not leave a trace in your system. He was still costing the university a hundred thousand a year at a hundred and one years old. And,” The Actuary said, eyeing the racquet, “I can reach it before you can.”
“Should I just pick an arm and roll up my sleeve, then?” Singalton slipped off his obligatory lab coat.
The Actuary nodded. “That would help. Mind you, we don’t predecease anyone with family needing the annuity, or a retired colleague who still conducts. . .”
The professor’s eyes narrowed just a bit, and his hands came down to rest on the table. “Who still conducts potentially lucrative research?”
A faint smile came to The Actuary’s lips. “Nothing personal.”
Singalton considered the table and its heaps of instruments. “That explains why you got rid of Professors Nallsen and Bellsang. Literary work and Civil-War history yield little return on investment. But they had spouses alive.”
Slowly The Actuary picked up the case with the syringe. “Spouses who were independently wealthy. We are not fiends. Even your dog is gone.”
Singalton slowly moved toward his visitor. “Yes, Hubble is…gone. Want to hear about my research before you give me a jab?”
The Actuary walked slowly now, coming around to stand beside the Professor. But Singalton met him half way, beside a toggle switch in the circuit to the black cube.
“Whatever you wish, Professor Singalton. I took courses in Astrophysics as an undergraduate. But, please. As I said, we are not. . .”
Singalton set his lips tightly and stared at the case The Actuary was again opening. “When we had a sane nation and economy in the last century, before you business types let it go to hell and took apart the government, I began building this prototype. It was nearly done before I was forced to take early retirement to save the university fifteen thousand dollars every year.”
The Actuary slipped on latex gloves. “I wish you had finished it, then. We would not be having this conversation. I can’t help it that you could not get any further grants in your final decade on the faculty. At least you got to keep the university-owned house so your wife could enjoy her last years in comfort.”
Singalton rolled up his right sleeve. “Yes. That would have killed her. Can I have a moment to pray?”
The Actuary slowly nodded his head and stepped back a pace. Singalton looked down with his head bent for a moment, as if praying.
“Funny thing about gravity waves. If they could be made to run backward, then we might simulate the conditions around the time of the Big Bang. On a small scale of course. I’d finished this prototype and didn’t quite know it worked, until the dog vanished.”
The Actuary glanced at the table, too.
“I felt bad about Hubble. Emma loved him so much.” Singalton paused, eyes locking with The Actuary’s. “He enjoyed jumping on tables to get food, and, well, he jumped up here one day to get my lunch and triggered this switch.”
Singalton flipped it. A faint whine began to come from the circuits.
The Actuary moved swiftly, shoving the old man aside, but they began to struggle. The physicist fell against his attacker, knocking the syringe to the worktable yet unable to do more, though he outweighed The Actuary. Neither of them said a thing as the old man’s weight competed with the younger man’s suddenly frantic efforts, one arm groping for the toggle switch. The whine from the machinery had slowly grown to fill the room.
After a few more seconds, Singalton fell heavily to the side as The Actuary lunged and flipped the switch, then stepped back a pace. The old man was gasping, but he turned, smiling. The whining still grew louder.
“Works like a capacitor, once it’s… charged. Then it discharges. Before I could grab him, Hubble jumped into the beam path. Right where you’re standing.”
The Actuary felt the room go as he tumbled headlong, already being disassembled atom by atom, into a blazing core of light and soundless fury. He fell and was stretched light-years long, no, compressed to nanometers and then stretched again by the fundamental particles of an infinitely dense seed about to burst into the rapid growth of eons.
Singalton’s voice echoed. “Funny thing about gravity waves… sir. I was thinking… Big-Bang simulator. I didn’t… know… I was building a doorway.”
Joe Essid’s short fiction has appeared in the young-adult publication Labyrinths, in Style, and in the British anthology Catastrophia, ed. Allen Ashley. His story from that collection, “Something For Nothing,” was a finalist in the “Best Short Fiction of 2011” category by the British Fantasy Society. His nonfiction has appeared in Style, RVA, and Eighty-One.