I tried to set aside thoughts of murder. I tried to see what I would have to do as my duty, nothing more. Duty. Duty. Dutydutydutyduty . . . I ran the word through my mind like a rat in a maze, and it bounced off deadends everywhere it went. Duty. Wasn’t it my duty to see that mankind got a chance at immortality? Wasn’t it my duty to see that death was stopped, that—perhaps—aging was reversed, that youth, was a right and not a privilege to be eventually taken away by Time? I talked to myself, sitting there by the window. The words sounded hollow; they seemed to strike things in the room, slide to the floor, lying about my feet like cold grease-puddles gone hard. I imagined killing a man, what it would be like. I had almost done it last night. I could do it, I told myself. I could kill a man as long as I did not have to see the corpse at close range. Duty. Murder. Immortality. Death. Duty. Duty.
When the troop transport came an hour and twenty minutes later, my nerves were shot. My hands trembled on the gun, and a tic had developed in my left cheek. The transport settled down two hills below, disgorging forty men in white snowsuits, all armed. I pushed back the curtain, slid the window open, and knocked out the screen with the rifle butt. I waited.
Duty. Murder. Duty.
I sighted on the lead man, wrapped a finger around the trigger, and promptly put the gun down without shooting. I had lost the battle with myself. Or, perhaps, I had won it. After fifteen years of living and breathing the code of a physician, after eight years of practicing that code, I could not fire at the man. The incident last night had been a freak. I had acted by reflex, under pressure. That was not the same as cold-blooded murder. Not the same at all.
The troops were crossing the open space quickly, hunched and running, guns held out to their sides, obviously expecting a bullet in the shoulder or face at any minute. I turned and ran to the cellar door, went down the steps two at a time . . .
It was an excuse to go down, and I knew it. There was danger, yes, but I had confronted Him now chiefly because my curiosity needed salving.
“Jacob, you shouldn’t have!”
And, truly, maybe I shouldn’t have. I stopped and moved back against the wall, unable to speak. He had changed more than I had guessed. I knew that He was not human, but I had not been prepared for this. He filled half the cellar, a great pulsing mass of hideous, veined flesh, reddish-brown in color with patches of black cancer-like cells pocketing Him. He was attached to the walls with pseudopods that bored away into the stone, anchoring Him. To my left, a tangle of fleshy membranes and tubes formed his vocal apparatus. A deformed, overlarge mouth was set in a fold of flesh. There were no teeth in it and no evidence of the rest of His face anywhere around it. It was obviously just for communicating with me. I sensed, without being told, that He no longer consumed His food as a man would, but more like an amoeba, engulfing it whole.
Frankenstein! my mind screamed.
That strange, horrid laughter came again, freezing me even more solidly to the floor. I choked down my terror and concentrated on remembering Him as He had been—and remembering the promises He had made, the promises to help mankind if only I could gain Him some time, time enough. Well, now was the moment when I would discover His true nature and the value of all promises. “They’re coming,” I said. “I was going to shoot some of them to hold them up—but I can’t.”
“I know,” He said. His voice was one of compassion and friendship. He was silent a moment. The vocal apparatus writhed, enlarged, grew into a many-petaled flower. When He spoke again, it was with His old voice. “I’ve been meaning to work on that all along,” He said apologetically, referring to the ominous voice He had used before. “Just didn’t have the time.”