He still opened the journal to the front page first though, pressing the pages gently down and wincing inwardly every time the paper crackled. The frontispiece gave the name of the journal – The Journal of Arcane Mathematics – which he’d never heard of, and a date of publication of 1847. The listing of contents gave six papers, each about five pages long with titles like Mathematics of the Iborian Caves and Steen stones as calculi. Joshua shook his head, wondering if this was some kind of practical joke, and turned to the bookmarked page.
The title of the paper was a surprise, so much so that he turned back to the table of contents and checked for it there again. It was missing, but then so were all the papers after page 31, and the journal (he checked now) appeared to have 168 numbered pages. He turned back, and began to read A curious Bernoulli recurrence.
The paper was well written, though the language felt a little stilted and occasionally the author seemed to be more interested in poetry than clarity. Joshua grew more and more puzzled as he read through the paper, which described some notes found somewhere in England that were thought to date back to the time of Norman conquest. The paper attempted to analyse the notes and assess their mathematical worth, but the author clearly struggled, both with guessing at the meanings of the symbols, and in understanding the thought processes behind the purported proofs. To Joshua though the notes were icily clear: the mathematics that the paper was describing were used in elliptic curve theory and that of modular forms and the ideas were, as far as he knew, less than a hundred years old. The symbols were entirely modern, and the proofs were written in the modern style where each line was laid out as a logical succession rather than being narrated by the writer. Again he paused and turned back to the front of the journal, his eyes scanning the paper for any signs that this was some kind of elaborate joke. He turned the journal over in his hands, checking the bindings and then checking the stitching inside, wondering if someone had gone to the trouble of printing a modern article on old, distressed paper and then sewing it into an old journal just as a joke. It seemed oddly elaborate, and the journal appeared to be genuinely old and unmodified, so he returned to the paper, working through the results in his head, wondering where this was all going to lead.
The paper was nearly forty-five pages long; the original notes taking up twenty-seven of those pages and the remainder being the author’s attempts to explain and understand what he’d found. As he worked through, Joshua found himself noticing points where there were genuine insights in the original notes (the additional notes were pedestrian, and often wrong, to the point where he started to ignore them altogether), and he began to perceive the inklings of an idea that tied in with his own work. Without paying much attention to the papers stacked everywhere on his desk he pushed them aside to make a little space, fumbled a pen out of his trouser pocket and started making notes on the back of some printout while he read.
With a start he realised that evening had fallen while he’d been reading and working and that the office was so gloomy as to almost hide the mess it housed. The only light came from the Macbook’s screen and the window, where there was a soft orange glow from lights on in other offices in the buildings across the lawn. He sat back, and realised that his back was stiff from not having moved, and he stood up to turn the lights on. As he moved away from the screen the blackness seemed absolute, so he paused to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. As he stood there, waiting impatiently, he realised that he could a soft sound like the intake of breath.
He listened harder, but all he got now was the dull rush of blood in his ears. He stood still, continuing to listen, for what felt like minutes but was surely only seconds, but the room remained quiet and his own heart-beat started to become audible to him. Realising that he must be hearing things he crossed the room and depressed the light-switch.
A bright, bluish-white light filled the room hurting his eyes and forcing him to squint a little until they adjusted the other way again. The university preferred LED lighting in all their buildings, believing that they lasted longer and drew less power, but he didn’t remember the light being quite such an electric blue before. He looked at the window, which was now a mirror of what was going on the room, and saw an elongated, spider-like figure standing directly behind him. His skin bobbled with goosebumps and a cold sweat sprang out all over. A sensation like a cold hand scraping over his skin ran up both arms and across his shoulders, and even as he turned, his eyes widening and his mouth opening in horror, he could feel his stomach contracting. In his mind a voice was shouting to be heard, demanding to know where this thing had come from, how it had gotten into his room without him seeing it, but he had no time to answer questions like that.
There was nothing behind him.
He reached out his hand, unwilling to believe that there was nothing there when he’d just seen it clearly in the window. His hand waved through the air, touching nothing. He made himself turn around again, slowly, rotating his feet rather than his head, dreading at any moment that the skinny, daddy-long-legs shape would be there, dodging around him and staying where he couldn’t see it, couldn’t defend himself from it. The room was empty, there was just him in there.
He turned sharply, now whipping his head around, praying as he did that he wouldn’t catch sight of anything at the corner of his eyes, a shape moving faster than he could. Still nothing.
Finally he turned back to the window again and stared into it. The bright light still kept it a mirror of the room, but the room was empty other than himself. He scrutinised it, looking to see if maybe the figure had crouched down, or was trying to hide to blend in with the woodwork. But the window remained stubbornly empty.
The lights went out.
He slapped at the light switch instantly, and the lights came straight back on again, this time a warmer, yellower glow than before, the light he’d been expecting when he’d pressed the switch for the first time. The window was still a mirror, but things were less sharp in it, and Joshua was still the only person in the room. Now though the details of things were blurred, and when he looked at himself his face was mostly a pink blur, no eyes, nose, or mouth to pick out and identify him by. He turned away and looked at his desk, and then at the door. He could either search his office until he was sure that there was no-one hiding in here, or he could go out and lock the door behind him, and find someone to come back in with him.
He left the journal on the desk and felt an enormous sense of relief outside as he heard the lock snap home automatically as the door closed behind him.