Scala’s violent twitching increased. I, myself, froze on the spot, unable to breathe. Dr. Freeman’s face turned purple, his lips beginning to move. He began to turn on Dr. Philageous, a look of complete outrage building.
Surprising all of us, Thoroughgood brought up the shotgun and aimed it directly at Dr. Freeman. “No one moves,” he said, in a short, clipped tone. “Don’t even breathe. Do you hear me? Suck in a single breath and hold it and calm down.” Dr. Freeman, his eyes wide at the two barrels of the gun pointed at him, nodded slowly and settled back into the cushions of his seat. “Good. Very good.”
Once he was sure that Dr. Freeman’s rage had subsided, Thoroughgood lowered the shotgun. “Are you quite mad?” Dr. Philageous asked, although he kept his own tone low and clipped. “If you shoot one of those things in here, we all die. The machine was designed to withstand the pressure and trauma of traveling through time ― and clearly the pressurization seal did its job admirably ― but a projectile from one of your guns will tear a hole in the bulkheads, and all our air will be gone in under a second.”
“Which is why I’m glad it was only the threat of shooting that was required in the moment,” Thoroughgood replied. “Now, listen, everyone. We don’t have enough air to last all of us this whole time, but the quickest way to make our situation even worse would be to get angry and upset and yell and scream and hyperventilate, because all those things use up a good lot more air. So calm down. Now.”
These last three words were directed at Scala, who was still shaking violently. Slowly, Scala raised his head, a crestfallen look on his face. His eyes met Thoroughgood’s. For a good two minutes, no one said anything as the two men stared at each other. Then, abruptly, Scala broke his gaze, no longer shaking. His entire body seemed to deflate; I’d swear he lost four inches off his height in an instant.
Thoroughgood, having completed whatever silent conversation he and Scala had been having, turned back to Dr. Philageous, who was again staring out the nearest porthole, his face somewhere hideously between a smile and a frown. “Now, Doctor,” Thoroughgood said, and Dr. Philageous swung his head around to look at him, “given how much air we have, how many men could survive the time it’ll take the time machine to warm back up again?”
Dr. Philageous’ eyes rolled back to the ceiling. He nodded slightly a couple of times, before his gaze settled back on Thoroughgood. “Four,” he said. As soon as the number was out of his mouth, he looked away. “And that might be a stretch, given that there’s no way to tell how much we’ve already used talking, or how the temporal event would have impacted the air inside the cabin.”
“So there’s a possibility that traveling back in time gave us more air?” Dr. Freeman asked, glancing between Thoroughgood and Dr. Philageous.
Dr. Philageous shook his head. The gently condescending air he’d assumed earlier was gone as he answered. “No. Or at least, I don’t see how it could have. The machine is designed to create a kind of kinetic shell around the machine ― to prevent anything from getting into it while the temporal event is in progress, since a loss of pressurization at that stage could have been fatal. So, even if there’d been more air here for us to find, there’s no way it could have gotten inside. It’s more likely that the temporal event ionized some of the air ― can you feel your hair on end? ― which would have depleted our air supply that much faster.”
Thoroughgood held up his hand. “No more explanations,” he said, shortly. “Unless you think they’re worth someone’s life.” Dr. Philageous paled. Thoroughgood continued. “We need to agree to some very basic things. First, we need to agree amongst all of us that no matter which direction this conversation takes, that we’ll all keep calm. Is that understood?” When everyone nodded, he continued. “And we need to make a pact ― as honorable gentlemen ― that whatever the group decides will be adhered to by all.”
All nodded ― Scala’s nod was barely perceptible, he was sitting positively slumped down and was staring vacantly at the floor in front of him ― except Dr. Freeman. Thoroughgood focused his gaze on the biologist. Dr. Freeman shook his head. “No,” he said. “I won’t agree to follow blindly whatever you say. I know where this is headed.”
Thoroughgood raised his hand before the biologist could continue to get worked up. “Remember that you already agreed not to get upset, no matter which direction the conversation goes in,” he said. “And you can rest assured that I won’t be the sole authority. We make decisions as a whole. You just need to agree to adhere to the majority vote, no matter what it may be.”
Dr. Freeman glanced around, from traumatized Scala to the doctor, who seemed lost in thought again, to me ― still frozen in my chair like a statue, such a heroic statue ― to Thoroughgood, who’d assumed the piercing gaze I’d at first associated with the biologist. “I don’t know,” he said.
Thoroughgood shook his head. “I don’t see you having much choice, friend. And it’s not like we’ve decided anything yet that you have to worry about. So, maybe what say we skip the part where you agree to do whatever the group decides and just cut straight to the part where we talk about what has to happen?”
“What has to happen?” I asked, finding my voice a mere squeak.
Thoroughgood turned to me. I was expecting to see that radiating disapproval at my asking so inane a question, but instead, his eyes were on fire, so much so that I had a momentary lapse in logic where I wondered if the flames would eat up our oxygen even faster. “One of us has to die.”
To keep myself from gasping ― which, embarrassment aside, would have been counterproductive to our survival ― I choked and grabbed the sides of my swiveling chair.
Dr. Philageous was shaking his head. “You can’t be serious, old chap,” he said. “All that talk about us acting like gentlemen, and then you come out with that. Absurd.”
“No. Logical. Think about it, doctor. You’re supposed to be the great genius here. We have enough air for four men. We have five men. One man must die so the others can live. And we have to make that decision fast, or the amount of air we consume as five men will leave us with only enough for three men, which rather exacerbates our problem, yes?”
The doctor went to respond, but no sound came out; his lips just moved. Seeing that he wasn’t actually responding, Dr. Freeman turned from Dr. Philageous to Thoroughgood. “How do we choose?”
Thoroughgood glanced around at all of us. “By necessity. Who do we need here?” He turned to me. “Our pilot is indispensable, I would assume.”
My mouth, apparently, had more courage than I’d have thought, because my next words shocked even me. “Not so much. I know how to fly the thing, yeah, but the doctor built it, practically with his bare hands. He could fly it in a pinch.”
For a moment, the shadow of a smile passed over Dr. Philageous’ face. “Quite high praise, my boy.” He trailed off, beginning to look out the porthole again, as though he were looking for something there. Absolution, maybe? All things considered, I’d rather not guess.
Thoroughgood nodded at me, impressed. “Brave, kid. But it’s safe to say that you’re essential. Clearly, we don’t know everything about how this glamorous contraption works, and if something happens to the doctor, you’re our only pilot. So you’re safe.”
I’m ashamed to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief, which earned me glares from Thoroughgood and Dr. Freeman and even Dr. Philageous.
“Since the reverse is also true ― that if something happens to the kid, we’ll need the doctor here to fly this crate ― he’s safe too,” Thoroughgood said, nodding to Dr. Philageous, who’d gone back to staring out his porthole. “So that leaves Dr. Freeman, Professor Scala, and myself.”
“I’m a doctor,” Dr. Freeman put in. “I have an MD, I mean. Never practiced, but you get the idea. If we’re going to be in a low-oxygen atmosphere, you’ll need me to make sure everyone can keep going. And like you said, if we don’t know what happens next with this thing, a doctor’s always good to have around.”
Thoroughgood nodded. This time, the sneer was present on his face. “Quite right,” he said. “And so eloquently put.” Dr. Freeman looked away.
Thoroughgood’s eyes focused back on Professor Scala. “So it’s between us two, professor. Now, I’d be the last person to suggest that a practitioner of your noble art might be inconsequential” ― with this, he spared a glance at Philageous and Freeman, who were both looking away studiously ― “but I’m afraid that, as necessity goes, your profession ranks lower than mine. If there’s even the slightest chance that we do wind up in the Cretaceous period ― and judging by Dr. Philageous’ meerkat comment earlier, there’s still the slightest chance ― then this expedition will need a guide more than it’ll need a paleontologist.” Scala was starting to shake violently again. “Professor, I have nothing against you personally. If you have anything to say to rebut what I’ve just said, I’ll hear it now. We’ll all hear it.”
Thoroughgood glanced around at everyone again. Scala managed to raise his head to do so as well, but he quickly lowered it again. “No,” he whispered.
Thoroughgood regarded him passively for a moment, then shrugged ever so slightly and began to unbuckle his restraints. “Now, wait just a minute,” Dr. Freeman said, glancing between Thoroughgood and Scala. “You can’t just kill him.”
Thoroughgood fixed his gaze on Dr. Freeman as his restraints came away and he floated to his feet, pressing against the roof of the machine to keep himself from cartwheeling into the air. “I suppose you’d rather take his place, doctor?”
Freeman’s face lost all of its blood. Like Dr. Philageous a moment before, he opened his mouth to respond, but no sound came out. “How will you do it?” I blurted.
Thoroughgood looked down at his bare hands, and I felt a chill run down my spine. All I could think was that it certainly didn’t look like the first time he’d looked at his own hands like that. As he opened his mouth to speak, Dr. Freeman cut in. “Dr. Philageous will do it!”
Slowly, all of us, even Scala, turned to the portly doctor. “Beg pardon?” Thoroughgood asked.
“Dr. Philageous can do it.” Dr. Freeman licked his lips, glancing quickly around at all of us. “With an overdose of the Carpaxyl I know he’s carrying in a syringe in his breast pocket.”
Dr. Philageous patted at the pocket of his lab coat. “How did you know?”
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