I nodded. I was listening to what He said, yet I felt as if I were in a dream, as if none of this could really be happening to me.
We started for the house.
The snow here was only half a foot deep, for the wind had scoured the knoll upon which the cabin rested, carrying away the other few feet that had originally been deposited. There were even patches where the hard, bare earth was exposed. Fleetingly, I thought how much easier that would make things if we had to turn tail and run . . .
We were no more than a dozen feet from the front steps of the little house when I felt the ground tremble beneath me. At first, I thought of an earthquake, then quickly remembered what I had seen the Hyde mother body do to that white-tailed deer. Abruptly, there were pseudopods of pink-tan jelly flesh springing up around the Jekyll android walking before me. He turned, as if looking for a way out, then raised His hands to defend Himself. At that point, my view was cut off, because a second group of the slimy tentacles leaped up on all sides of me—quivering, swaying columns of shapeless flesh. I had been carrying my rifle in ready position, the pin-gun tucked in an open pocket where it could be reached easily, if the need arose not to be lethal. I dropped to one knee, raised the rifle, and fired into the fleshiest of the pseudopods. The blast tore a chunk of the flesh loose and sent it spiraling away, presumably to land in the snow, where it would wither and die, separated from the healing influences of the Hyde mother body. The pseudopod hesitated, drew back, then started down again, apparently more anxious than before to have me. I fired again, ripped all of the head of the false arm loose with that blast. But it was too late now. The other tentacles dropped onto me, melting together and encasing me in a digestive vacuole.
I tried to pull on the rifle trigger again, but the false flesh had poured over me like cement, had engulfed me so thoroughly that I could not move my fingers. I could not lift my arms to bring the rifle into a firing position that would not blow off my own foot.
Trapped . . .
I felt a strange, prickly wetness on my face, the sensation of dampness against my clothing. For a moment, I could not imagine what was happening, and then I understood in a flash of horrible insight. The first of the digestive enzymes were seeping out of the vacuole wall. My face would be the first to dissolve under the strong acid. My clothes would rot, fall away, and the rest of my body would be prey to the mother body’s juices.
I screamed. It came out as a dead, muffled sound. Like a child crying in his blankets . . .
I struggled against the rubbery flesh, tried to kick and squirm my way out of its death hold, but I soon found out why the deer had been unable to escape. The cloying, sticky-cold pseudo-flesh was glue-like and could not be shaken off.
I felt vomit rising in my throat, tried to force it back down. There was no time for upchucking now, no time at all. There was only time to think, think, think like crazy. Or, maybe, there was only time to die . . .
I screamed. But when I opened my mouth, the pseudo-flesh crept into it, sour tasting. I tried to spit it out, could not manage that. I gagged and realized I was going to suffocate before I could be dissolved by the enzymes. At least, I thought, that is something to be thankful for.
Then, abruptly, the vacuole broke open, split back like a speedpod ready to spill its inner fruits. A cold draft of Alaskan air blew across my face, drying the enzymes before they could do more than set my flesh to burning with a pimpled rash. I had cursed the cold of Cantwell before. Now I blessed it. It was infinitely more preferable to the sticky, warm closeness of the digestive vacuole. The false flesh began to shrivel around me, wrinkle and draw away as if I was unpleasant to touch. Or taste. In minutes, I was lying free, the flesh curled about me like burned paper, gray, dry and powdery.