Malpus kneeled and placed the cat gently on the floor then gave its back a quick scratching before the animal trotted out of the room. He rose slowly and walked in a sedated way toward the formidable door. He swung it shut and locked it, then made his way to a chair and slumped into it.
"Who?" Sandra asked.
"I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count."
"Errand's men? Contrivances?"
"It's doubtful he would send contrivances alongside men. They are unstable; they would kill his own men just as soon as others. They are responsible for much of it, but they don't understand death."
"So it's men? Agents?"
Malpus let out a heavy sigh and ignored her question. He was staring at his feet.
"Will the door hold them?"
"No," he said, shaking his head slightly. The flesh under his chin continued to shake briefly after the rest had stopped. For the first time Malpus looked elderly. Unhealthy. The texture and tone of his skin was that of old man, resignation written all over it.
"What can we do?" Sandra asked, not admitting the existence of that resignation and what it meant.
"Wait? For what?" Sandra asked, the desperation in her voice bubbling up.
"To see if we can barter for our lives."
"No! No, damnit!"
Malpus stared at his feet.
"We can fight them."
"Garith might be able to. We would likely only earn ourselves a night of torture before our deaths. Any attempt to wake Garith might kill him, and we lose any leverage we had for bartering in the process."
"They won't let us live," Sandra said.
Pacing in the clinical light of the room, her heart racing, Sandra felt her lips tingling with the first nuances of numbness. She was not ready to die. There had to be something. Anything.
"Why don't we try bringing Garith back? What can we lose?"
"I would lose nothing that I am not already set to lose. I am close to certain that you would lose Garith, however. If you believe in what you are trying to accomplish then he must live as long as possible. Perhaps he can succeed before they pull the plug. To me, it matters not."
"So it would be a small chance to keep our lives in order to slightly delay Garith's death?"
Malpus shrugged. "There is a very small chance we might get out of this alive. We might even be able to delay them for some time, but, yes, I am afraid Garith's death looms at the end of whichever path we take." He sounded unconcerned.
There was no response.
"You knew, didn't you? You knew they were coming."
Malpus said nothing.
"Talk to me, damn you!"
"I am a man of science, Sandra. I do not like unknown variables and I certainly wish things like odds and probabilities did not exist, but they do. The probability of Errand anticipating the two of you coming to me was high. I expected this to happen, but I did not provide any help to Errand."
"If you are telling the truth and you really are in as much danger as me, help me think of something. You are a damned genius, Malpus. You pioneered all of this technology. You can think of something."
Dr. Malpus chuckled, inciting another prolonged jiggle of the flesh beneath his chin. "You are right, by God!" he said in a teasing tone. "You are damned right! Just buy me some time--say, about thirty years--and I will come up with a device that will get us out of this safely and without problems!"
Sandra's heart was now racing, her breathing deep and fast. Too fast. Her fingers began to tingle and her feet broke out in a sweat. Red-faced, she stared at Malpus; a tear pooled in the corner of her eye.
He looked into her eyes. For a moment she saw sympathy. But only for a moment.
"Well, hop to it!" he said, bursting out in a despicable, hoarse laughter that slowly diminished into a wet cough. The door to the lab burst open and Sandra was, for some reason, not at all surprised to see Errand himself flanked by two agents. Her cheeks were now numb and the room appeared much brighter than it had a moment ago. It was all dreamlike. Which meant it was a dream. It had to be.
"Looks like we have ourselves a little party, gentlemen," someone said. Sandra did not know who. The three men entered the room, each going a different direction. One of them began binding Malpus with zip-ties, the latter still coughing up phlegm in a disgusting mockery of laughter. Sandra's eyes remained fixed on the doorway. It was a magical doorway, it seemed; one that lead back into her past life after having left the organization but before Garith's return.
The room grew brighter still and Sandra thought she heard somebody say something like, what is on with her? but she wasn't sure. She felt a pressure at the nape of her neck that seemed irrelevant. That door was so close, but she could not move to get to it. The words leave her alone coasted through the room in visual cues but their issuer was nowhere to be seen. This incredibly bright room seemed to go on forever in all directions. The last thing she heard before everything went white was some metallic clatter and indistinct hollering.