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Title: The Brave Walk Alone

Author: John McGreevey

Illustrator: W. E. Terry

Release date: April 13, 2021 [eBook #65069]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at



By John McGreevey

He was a coward not only in the eyes of his men
but his father as well. Yet sometimes fear can be
mistaken for the honor badge of great courage....

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
December 1950
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Dirk Jemson pressed his forehead against the cool metal of the astro-chart and hoped that he was not going to be sick. At any moment, the space cruiser would be entering the gravity field of Caliban, and if he were ordered to assume control ... he shuddered at the prospect.

Around him in the cabin, the other members of the crew went quietly about their duties. Allen, the astrogator worked over his charts and calculations; Kennedy, the atochanic squinted worriedly at the readings on his gauges; Tabor, the biophysicist was engrossed in a book.

They were men handling routine assignments automatically. If they felt any of the fear, the impending nausea which constricted Dirk's stomach, they gave no outward indication of it.

He straightened himself and closed his eyes. These others were at home out in space, unperturbed by the thought that they were rushing now at the speed of light toward an unknown world, the dark satellite of Caliban. They could not understand this space sickness which held him in a vise. They were like his father.

Dirk looked apprehensively toward the audio-visor above Allen's head. Momentarily, his father's face would blur into that screen; his father's voice would saw into the quiet of the cabin with a command. And all of these men would come to attention and listen, for this would be the face and voice of Commandant Jemson—Terra's most renowned and daring space explorer.

Dirk's gaze roamed the cabin. These others—Allen, Kennedy—even Tabor who was only an observer—would listen to the words of the Commandant; but they would know that his message was meant only for Dirk. Dirk Jemson—the Commandant's son.

Wave upon wave of the sickness swept over him and he fought desperately against the impulse to call out for help. He imagined the surprise on their faces as they assisted him, and then, afterward, the polite pretense that nothing had happened.

Why couldn't they leave him on Terra, doing the things he wanted to do—the things he could do well? He was an alien here. He had been an alien in the Service from the beginning. The agonizing days at the strato-school on Mars still stood vividly in his memory.

They had expected such great things of him. After all, he was the son of Commandant Jemson and his brother Ken had been one of the most brilliant graduates the school ever had. Now, young Dirk was there to carry on in the Jemson tradition—to make good for the Commandant and for the gallant Ken who had lost his life in the first attempt made to land on Setebos.

They had expected great things—but they had been disappointed. Of course, his panic on the trip to Mars had been understandable. The first experience in space. It often happened so. Soon he'd be as calm and unaffected as the others.

Then, there had been the practice flight to Deimos. For Dirk, it still had the immediacy of a nightmare. It was five years now—more than five—and yet he could still visualize the cramped quarters of that training ship.

The instructor had been a fish-faced young man named Petley. Ensign Petley. He had seen in Dirk Jemson a chance for advancement. Give the commandant's son the breaks, he had told himself, and you'll get a promotion.

As the trainer approached Deimos, Petley had turned from the visi-shield and smiled patronizingly at the tensed class who crowded around him.

"We're approaching Deimos, class," he said, and his lips made little smacking noises as he spoke. "I'm going to let Dirk show us how to make a landing. Dirk—take the controls."

And with that, he had gestured to Dirk and stepped back. The silence in the training ship had been absolute. The other thirteen in the class stared at the recipient of this signal honor. Who but the son of the commandant would be trusted to land a ship on his first training flight? Who but the heir to the space mantle of Commandant Jemson.

Dirk remembered the sticky perspiration that had drenched his uniform as he had stared in disbelief at the beaming Petley. He had stammered some excuse, but Petley had smiled and firmly insisted. This was no time to be modest.

Dirk had closed his eyes, moved to the controls. Through the visi-shield, the grey orb of Deimos rushed toward him. The black maw of space was a swirling, twisting, rotating nightmare that blurred up at him.

In the background, Ensign Petley had murmured explanations to the watchers. Closer and closer whirled Deimos. Dirk's hands had faltered over the degravitator. Somehow, the movement of the universe had communicated itself to him. His mind, his heart, his stomach all swam in a whirlpool of black motion.

"Now, Dirk!" Petley's voice was sharp. "Now! Show the class!"

The eyes had been on him—the urgency in the voice had been great—but the hypnotic spinning of Deimos in the visi-shield was irresistible. With a little sigh, Dirk had blacked out.

There had been very little said, naturally. Petley had broken the rules in turning a ship over to a boot, in the first place; and one of the other trainees had saved them by seizing the controls at the crucial moment and decelerating. Dirk had asked to be transferred to another class, and his request was granted. He was, after all, the Commandant's son and allowances must be made.

Enough allowances were made to permit him to graduate from the strato-school. He was a great theorist, his instructors agreed. Perhaps he lacked a little of his father's daring and drive, but he had the same comprehension, the same inter-stellar grasp.

And after graduation, nothing sensational. A little routine work between Mars and Luna—work which permitted him to stay in the navigator's cell—away from the visi-shield—away from the twisting whirlpool of space.

For, after all, promotions must not come too rapidly. He was the son of a famous man and sons of famous men are closely observed by the Universe. When he rose, it must not be the result of family, but because he was well qualified and experienced.

His days as a Lunar navigator were as happy as any Dirk had known, but they were not to last. Commandant Jemson was planning another voyage of exploration—the most audacious in his long and brilliant career. The goal was the dark satellite known as Caliban. A space armada would accompany the commandant on this, the climactic space trek of his colorful career, and in charge of one cruiser in the fleet would be Dirk Jemson—the commandant's brilliant but untried son.

And now, they were approaching Caliban.

"What d'ya think we'll find on Caliban, Doc?" Kennedy addressed his question to Tabor, who had closed his book with a little sigh, and was staring dreamily ahead.

"Very little." Tabor pursed his lips in an academic pout. "It is my theory that the atmosphere on Caliban will not support organic life as we know it."

"But there could be other kinds? Like the Venusians, maybe, or those things from Circe I've seen at the Zoo."

Tabor nodded. "That's what makes being a part of this expedition so stimulating. When we reach Caliban, I will be the first biophysicist to be permitted to examine the satellite. I'll be the first to coordinate fact and theory."

Allen peered through the visi-shield. "You can start coordinatin' pretty soon, Doc. Caliban's just ahead."

As Allen spoke, the audio-visor above his head hummed and flickered. Dirk tensed himself. This was it. In a few seconds, that humming and flickering would materialize and he would be watching his father's face, hearing his father's voice.

As with a single impulse, the other three men in the cabin turned and regarded Dirk. They seemed to sense that the moment was his. Allen stepped back from the visi-shield; Kennedy turned from his gauges.

Commandant Jemson's face spread on the screen like a slow stain. He cleared his voice. This was a strong face. The eyes were compelling; the nose generous and the mouth firm. Steel grey hair, cut short, completed the impression of controlled power.

"Attention," the voice said; and it, too, was dynamic, forceful. "Attention, all participants in Operation Caliban. We are now approaching our objective. The flight, thus far, has been distinguished by its orderliness. We know that the landing will be equally well-organized. The high command has decided that the space cruiser ICARUS, piloted by Lieutenant Dirk Jemson, shall have the honor of leading the armada in. If that is clear, we will rendezvous on Caliban."

The image flickered for a moment and then dwindled away. The die was cast. Shakily, Dirk rose to his feet. There had been a second when he had harbored the wild hope that his father might reserve the honor of the first landing for himself; that hope had foundered and gone down. The echo of the older man's pride hung suspended in Dirk's mind. Why couldn't the commandant understand that with Dirk it was different? Why couldn't he see the difference?

"Are you all right, sir?" That was Allen, struggling to mask his concern with an air of forced casualness.

"Yes." Dirk's voice sounded strained and taut. "Yes. I'm all right. I'll take over, Allen." He moved toward the visi-shield and Allen retreated.

They were staring at him now, as those fellow students had stared long years before; but now, it was Caliban which bobbed in the visi-shield, not Deimos; this was the lead ship in the Jemson Armada, not a trainer; they were all waiting for him—Dirk Jemson—the commandant's son—to lead them in.

He clutched at the controls. His mouth was dry and his eyes ached. He longed desperately to close them—to shut out the spinning universe before him. He stared at his hands on the controls and they seemed detached—as if they belonged to someone else.

Allen was at his shoulder with a suggestive clearing of his throat: "Are you sure, lieutenant, that you're well?"

Impatiently, Dirk nodded. Why didn't they leave him alone? Why couldn't they ALL leave him alone?

The audio-visor hummed. "We're waiting, ICARUS. Go ahead."

They were waiting. Waiting on him. This was the moment—the moment he had hoped to avoid—when other men depended on him to put them into a safe harbor in space. His father was testing him. He was supposed to show the superiority of the breed—the special gifts that made the Jemson men apart.

He closed his eyes for a moment and began to decelerate.

"Careful of the flagship!" Kennedy's voice was low, but tense. "You're cutting in on him."

Dirk forced himself to open his eyes. The universe spun and whirled in a confused circle before him and in the center of that gyrating mass was the flagship. Somehow he missed it.

"Steady on your course, ICARUS!" This was the crisp instruction on the audio-visor.

Caliban rushed toward them, but all space between was a twisting, writhing spectrum of color. Dirk's mind was a pinwheel, spinning in reckless abandon toward oblivion. He couldn't keep his eyes open. He was sick. Really sick. A sob tore through his clenched teeth. He slumped over the controls.

"Lieutenant!" That was Allen's voice, and then, something shoved him to the floor. There was a wrenching, tearing of metal, and a sickening lurch. Resolutely, Dirk kept his eyes tight shut against what he might see when he opened them.

There was a murmur of voices—Kennedy, Allen, Tabor—and then, gradually, a deceleration as the ship settled into Caliban's atmosphere.

It had happened again—only not in an isolated training ship with a fish-faced instructor, but before the entire Armada. They all knew now, and Dirk was almost relieved. It was as if he had relinquished a role that he had been ill-suited to play.

"Lieutenant Jemson," a voice said close to his ear. "Lieutenant are you all right?" It was Tabor, the biophysicist.

Dirk opened his eyes. Allen and Kennedy were at the controls. The cruiser was settling on its tail for a landing. Tabor's face was a study in embarrassed concern.

Dirk nodded. He must say something. "Sure. Sure. I'm all right. Anyone else hurt?"

Tabor shook his head. "We sheared a fin off the flagship, but no one was injured. What happened to you?"

Dirk closed his eyes again. What answer could he give? "Just space dizziness," he said. "That's all. Space dizziness." He looked to catch Tabor's reaction.

The scientist nodded, but behind his eyes was a puzzlement. Space dizziness in a lieutenant of the Federation's space armada? Space dizziness in the son of Commandant Jemson?

"All clear." Allen and Kennedy were scrupulously avoiding his eyes, busying themselves with the reports and logs.

Suddenly, he wished that he could make them understand. He wished that there were words which would communicate to them the sinking feeling that had seized him as he gazed into the visi-shield. But there were no words. These were men inured to space. They could not appreciate the shattering malady that gripped him.

Tabor rose and moved over to the others. They conversed quietly, and once or twice, Dirk saw them nod in his direction. Then he closed his eyes again. It was better that way. Soon enough he would have to face his father. And what could be said? There were no excuses. He had failed. If Allen had not been quick, the ICARUS would have been lost; perhaps the entire Armada jeopardized. No. There was no excuse.

And he could expect no forgiveness. If it was difficult for these men now with him to understand his weakness, it would be impossible for his father. Why couldn't Ken have lived, he wondered. He was the son the Commandant wanted. He had the dash and the spirit. He was never troubled by consequences. He acted on impulse ... bravely, daringly.

The trio was donning space suits, preparing to venture out onto Caliban. He half-raised himself.

"Going with us, lieutenant?" Allen asked the question for the others.

Dirk hesitated and Kennedy interposed: "Maybe you'd rather have us send a Med over to take care of you."

The lieutenant shook his head tiredly. "I'll be all right. Thanks."

They turned away in relief and zipped on the space uniforms. Just as they were preparing to enter the compression chamber, the audio-visor hummed. They paused and looked back expectantly.

The sleek face of the commandant's orderly blurred into focus. "Lieutenant Jemson will report to the commandant aboard the flagship." That was all. The picture faded.

Instinctively, the trio in the doorway looked toward Dirk. He managed a smile and waved them on. After a moment's hesitation, they stepped into the compression chamber and out of sight.

With fumbling hands, he put on his own space suit. What would his father say? What could he say? Words would only make it worse. And Commandant Jemson was not a man to seek out the kind word, the gentle phrase. His speech resembled his tactics—raw, direct, uncompromising.

Slowly, Dirk moved into the compression chamber and from it into the murk of the world known as Caliban. Even protected as he was by his space suit, Dirk could sense the slimy chill in the atmosphere. It was as if wet, fibrous hands pushed at his suit; as if oozing tendrils slithered across his visor plate. The footing was insecure as well, and he had the unpleasant sensation that he was walking on raw eggs.

Dark Caliban, he thought, pushing his way through the grey-brown fog. Dark Caliban—scene of Dirk Jemson's final shame and disgrace. Poor dad. This was to have been his crowning achievement and all it had been was a blow to his pride.

Impatiently, Dirk swiped at his glass visor plate with his swathed hands. Some substance—gelatinous and moist—seemed to have formed there.

The guard at the flagship was expecting him, and he quickly entered the compression chamber and doffed the uniform. As he put it on a hook to await his return, he noticed with a little shudder of revulsion that the jelly-like things he had noticed on his visor were also clustered here and there in the folds of his space suit. This was probably the life to which Tabor had referred.

The orderly outside his father's office saluted, but Dirk thought he sensed in the click of the heels, the tilt of the chin just a nuance of disrespect—as an executioner might salute the criminal just before the disintegrating switch were thrown.

Commandant Jemson was seated at an enormous table of batek-wood from Thule. He didn't look up when Dirk closed the cabin door behind him and waited at attention.

The Commandant was not a large man, yet he managed somehow through the sheer force of his personality to convey the impression of a giant. Seated now behind the great table, he seemed some remote demi-god, omnipotent and untouchable.

Just as Dirk was about to clear his throat to ease the tension, his father spoke: "Come to the table." That was all. The voice was carefully modulated and controlled. Too carefully.

Dirk was face to face with his father across the glistening batek-wood. Looking down into its polished surface, he could see his own white face, as well as each movement of his father's hands.

"You disgraced me."

The three words were thrown at him with electric force. Never before in his life could Dirk remember hearing three words spoken with such intensity and emotion. All of his father's life was summed up in that anguished declaration; all the hopes that had been sabotaged; all the dreams that were now derelict; and yet, the three words were spoken so quietly, they scarcely carried across the room.

He wished his father would look up at him. If he could see the eyes, it might be easier. "You shouldn't have expected me to do it. You had no right to expect it of me."

"No right!" The Commandant stood abruptly, his knuckles white against the wood of the table as he leaned forward. "What do you think I had left in my life but you—and the things you might do? What do you think I built my world on after Ken was killed? No right!" The eyes raked him now with a barrage of contempt and hurt. "You would have killed those men. Killed them because you're a weakling! A coward!"

The words fell in the silent room like coiling snakes. Dirk stepped back. The hate, frustration and disappointment which radiated from the older man was almost unbearable. "You can't understand, dad," he faltered.

"No. I can't. And don't call me 'dad.' You're no longer my son. No Jemson could put the lives of his men in jeopardy, no matter how stricken he might be. And this isn't the first time. I've closed my eyes. I told myself you were young; that you'd grow into this as you matured."

"You shouldn't have tried to make me a space pilot. It's not for me. I could have found some other life on Terra ... something that I could have done well ... could have made you proud."

"Proud!" The square shoulders sagged, and the old man sank down into his chair. "Proud. Proud of a weakling who puts his own comfort above the lives of his crew?" He stared again at the polished table surface, as if he might read there an answer to the dilemma. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it."

"Not all men are alike, dad. You must see that." But Dirk knew it was hopeless. His father knew only one life and that his son could want another was beyond his comprehension.

"You'll never have a chance to fail anyone else."

"What do you mean?"

The Commandant pushed a parchment across the table. "Your discharge. Dishonorable. You'll return to Terra at once. They're fueling a small ship for you now. You'll have to manage it alone. I can't spare anyone to pilot it for you."

Dirk picked up the parchment with a trembling hand. "Dad, we can't separate like this. I'm sorry I failed you. You just gave me a job that was too big for me."

There was a pause, and when the commandant spoke again, it was in a voice so low that Dirk could scarcely hear him. "What I've done, I did, not for myself, but for my sons. What fame I've won, I didn't seek selfishly, but only in order that my sons might inherit a name for honor, for courage, for integrity. I've devoted a lifetime to establishing a name to pass on to my sons ... a name the Universe could speak with pride." The strong voice broke. The Commandant raised his eyes and regarded Dirk. "I've wasted my life building something for my sons. Wasted it, because both my sons are DEAD!"

"Dad!" Dirk's voice snapped in the quiet room like a whip.

"Lieutenant, you are dismissed." The commandant regarded the table top.

"Listen to me! Please!" Dirk leaned across the table. "I know what it's meant to you, dad, but I can't help myself. You've got to believe that I've tried. All these years, I've tried to be what you wanted ... what you thought I was ... but it's hopeless."

"I said you were dismissed, lieutenant. Take off for Terra as soon as your ship is fueled."

Dirk stood staring in disbelief at his father for a long moment, and then, he turned and walked slowly to the door. He paused with his hand on the latch. "I'm sorry, dad," he said, and turning swiftly, went out of the room.

The flagship was strangely quiet as he walked down the passageway to the compression chamber. It was as if the entire crew mourned with the commandant the passing of his son. "You disgraced me. You disgraced me. You disgraced me." The phrase whirled and circled in his mind.

The guard outside the compression chamber stood stiffly at attention as Dirk approached. Looking at the impassive young face, Dirk felt a sudden twist of envy. Here was a man happy in his chosen duties, working out his destiny in an honorable and satisfying way.

Inside the chamber, Dirk began automatically to put on his space suit. What possible future could there be for him on Terra? If he changed his name, perhaps he could find a little happiness; but could he ever erase the picture in his mind of his father's face, or the sound of a low voice ceaselessly repeating "You disgraced me"?

On the floor beneath the peg on which he had hung his space suit, he noticed a puddle of ooze—the colorless gelatine he had seen on his visor. Was his imagination working overtime, or was there more of it now than when he had gone in to talk to his father? It couldn't be, and yet he had thought there were only a few blotches of it on his suit.

The world of Caliban was always in half-darkness. Dirk found this somehow comforting as he pushed through the murk to the command center. He actually felt less alien here than on sunlit Terra.

His father had already taken action, he learned from the officer in charge. A small SD-4 reconnaissance ship had been placed at his disposal. It was fueled and he could blast off whenever he chose. The officer avoided his eyes, Dirk noted, and there was between the two of them, an elaborate pretense that nothing had happened.

With his orders, Dirk returned to the ICARUS for his gear. He hoped that the others would not have returned, but he was disappointed. Tabor was in the cruiser when he stepped aboard. The biophysicist was crouched over his microscope, concentrating intently on some specimen he had found. He was scarcely aware that Dirk had come in.

There weren't many things to collect. An officer in the Space Armada learned to travel light. He didn't hurry. He was reluctant to leave the ICARUS, to isolate himself in the cramped quarters of the SD-4, to leave behind forever the life which he had tried to take as his own.

Tabor huddled over his microscope, punctuating the silence with little exclamations of surprise. The specimen on the slide was apparently proving of interest. Another happy man, thought Dirk.

He hesitated in the doorway and looked back. "Good-bye, Tabor."

The man at the microscope only half-turned. "This is the most amazing cell I've ever examined. Incredible. Apparently it's the effect of oxygen on the organism. What a sensational announcement this will be on Terra. Sensational."

Dirk nodded at Tabor's back. Why should he have thought the scientist would be interested in his going? He was just another space officer washing out. Wearily, he donned his space suit once more. The gelatine was everywhere. An expanding pool of it stood in the compression chamber. Idly, he wondered if it could be the specimen causing Tabor's excitement.

Parties were already out combing Caliban. This would be another triumph for Commandant Jemson; another glorious achievement for the Grand Old Man of Space. The reports need carry no mention of the disgrace and shame of a lieutenant in the commandant's armada—an ex-lieutenant whose name also happened to be Jemson.

Dirk stopped beside the trim little SD-4. What if he went back to his father—if he begged for another chance—a chance to prove that he WAS a Jemson worthy of the name. The answer was there in the crawling dark of Caliban. There was no second chance. His father had made a decision.

Slipping out of his space suit in the narrow confines of the little reconnaissance ship, Dirk noticed that the omnipresent grey ooze had clung to his suit and boots. It lay in quivering globules on the floor.

Automatically, he checked his controls and got a clearance from the command center. The take-off was uneventful, and with the speed of light, he slipped through the atmosphere of Caliban and into the whirling void of space.

Quickly, he made his calculations and set his course for Terra. No margin for error in an SD-4. The fuel tank held only enough for the one-way trip to Terra. Any miscalculation might prove fatal.

Once set, however, the controls were fool-proof. He could relax, forget the spinning galaxies around him, forget that he was a lost mote in the infinite void. He could close his eyes and forget the last twenty-four hours, or even the last twenty-four years, for after all, the error over Caliban was only the climax of his many years of maladjustment.

His father would be all right. He would still have his beloved armada, and there would always be new worlds to conquer; until after one such expedition, the commandant would fail to return; and that was the way he'd want it. Yes. His father was all right. His life was too solidly based to be shaken.

But what of himself? What lay ahead for him on Terra? A space pilot with a dishonorable discharge!

... For some time, he had experienced a growing sensation that he was being observed, that someone or something was behind him, watching. He closed his eyes. Space nerves. That's all it was. There was no one else in the SD-4. He was alone. And yet, the feeling persisted. He felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and a cold shiver shook him. He had to turn around. He couldn't resist the impulse. Slowly, he opened his eyes and swiveled in his chair.

The floor in the corner where he had hung his space suit was alive! A spreading, pulsating jelly ... quivering in the half-light of the cabin. This was a living thing—growing.

For a moment, all he could do was sit and stare in hypnotic horror at the tremelloid monstrosity quaking in the corner. Even as he watched, another section of the floor was obscured by the viscous transparency.

He crouched against the instrument panel and drew his disinteray. Fighting down the sick, panic that swelled in his throat, he fired, time after time, into the undulating, pulpy mass on the floor. The impact had no visible effect. Still he could see it growing ... spilling with soft, slobbery noises across the ship toward him.

Frantically, he threw up a temporary barricade between himself and the Thing: some filing cabinets, a desk, an up-ended chair. Perhaps that would check its terrible, oozing progress for a little while.

At the instrument panel, he checked his position. With a little luck, he might reach Terra before the thing got through to him. It depended on how rapidly it was growing. As he strained to hear, a sort of sucking sound came from it now as it worked behind the barricade.

His audio-visor suddenly flickered and hummed. Who would be calling him? Only someone on Caliban. His father? But why? Unless....

The face rippled onto the screen. His father's face—but it seemed that the face had aged twenty years since the interview short hours before.

"Dirk," the voice said. "Dirk—have you checked your ship?"

He pushed the talk-back. "Yes, dad. There's something ... something that looks like jelly. It's growing. The disinteray doesn't stop it."

"You've got to turn back, Dirk. Nothing will stop that jelly-thing. As long as it gets oxygen, it'll keep growing! You've got to turn back to Caliban."

Dirk's eyes flickered to the gauges on the panel. "There's not enough fuel to get me back to Caliban. I can feel the pull of Terra's solar system already."

The visor went abruptly blank and then Tabor's face replaced his father's on the screen. "Listen to me, Dirk," Tabor said, and the academic hesitancy had been discarded for a terrible urgency. "That stuff in your ship is wild cells. They're the only life on Caliban. Oxygen has a peculiar effect on them. Makes them multiply by geometric progression. Do you understand that?"

"I understand." Dirk's voice was a thing remote from him, apart.

"There's nothing you can do to stop that growth. The disinteray won't help. You've got to get it back to Caliban—out of oxygen."

"I can't. I haven't enough fuel, Tabor." Dirk fought to keep his voice controlled and calm, but he could see already a crystalline ooze seeping under the desk, the filing cabinet. It couldn't be stopped.

"Can you reach Terra?" Tabor's face was knit into a perplexed maze of wrinkles.

"I might, if the thing doesn't grow too fast."

Tabor nodded. "If you get through to Terra, you'll live a little longer at least."

"What do you mean—a little longer?"

Tabor's face seemed to fill the screen and his eyes caught and held Dirk. "Don't you see? Even if you get out of the ship on Terra, the thing will follow. There'll be no stopping it. Eventually, it will engulf the whole earth."

"No!" Dirk's voice was a hoarse whisper. "No!"

"There will be nothing to stop it there. It will have all the oxygen it needs. I didn't know you were taking off. I'd have warned you. It's my fault." Tabor's voice trailed away and again the visor went blank.

"No," Dirk said softly. "It's my fault. All my fault. Not only have I failed dad, but now I'm going to destroy Terra." He stared at the slime as it inched with increasing speed across the cabin. The sucking, bubbling noise was quite dear now.

With an effort, Dirk pulled his eyes away from the Thing and looked through the visi-shield. Dead ahead lay the disc that was Terra—his home—a chance at life. To the left was the glimmering white brilliance of the sun.

"Dirk," The Commandant's face blurred back on the audio-visor. "Dirk, are you sure you can't get back here? Can't you try?"

"I know I can't," Dirk answered, and his tongue seemed to cling to the roof of his mouth.

"Maybe you can hit a spot on Terra that isn't thickly populated. Maybe they'll be able to devise some way of stopping it." The Commandant's voice sounded lame, strained.

For a moment, Dirk was unaware of his father's face on the audio-visor, unaware of the sucking mass that crept closer and closer to him, unaware of the swirling universe outside.

Dirk remembered only the spring green of the low, rolling hills around his home; the smell of lilacs battered by April rains; the cry of fledgling birds in the pink-grey of summer dawns; the crisp sound of snow under sled runners; and the gentle caress of water in a blue-green lake. Dirk remembered these things, and abruptly, he changed his course.

"What are you doing?" His father checked him from the audio-visor. "You've changed your course. You're headed for the sun, Dirk!"

"I can't land on Terra, dad. You heard Tabor. I can't destroy Terra to save my own skin." He looked down at his shoes. The first jellied tentacle had slipped over his foot. With a wild kick, he threw it off. The floor was almost covered now, and it was rising on the walls. By geometric progression Tabor had said. It would go rapidly toward the end.

"You're going to crash into the sun. You're going to destroy the Thing, Dirk." His father's voice was hoarse, "If only there was something I could do to help!"

Dirk turned and looked full in his father's face. "There's nothing, dad. And I ... I think it would be better if ... if you didn't look any more. I'll smash the audio-visor." He raised the butt of his disinteray.

"Son. Wait." His father's voice stopped him as surely as if he had restrained him with his hand. "Son, I said some terrible things to you. I can only beg you to forgive me."

"I knew, dad. I understand."

The voice rumbled on, and tears formed in the steely eyes. "I beg you to forgive me. You're the bravest of the Jemsons, Dirk. The bravest. I'm proud of you, son. Understand? Proud of you."

Dirk managed a nod. The gelatine lapped now over the top of the desk. The ship was filled with the terrible sucking, bubbling noise.

Then with the butt of his disinteray, he smashed the audio-visor. He was alone; alone with the horror that inched toward him.

He concentrated on the visi-shield. The disc of Terra was plainer now, but safely to his right. Ahead lay the blazing furnace of the sun.

Dirk braced himself and waited. He tried not to think of the smothering ooze which crept slowly up to possess him. Instead, he thought of the purifying, purging white heat of the sun toward which they plunged; he thought of the sound of his father's voice saying: "I'm proud of you, son. I'm proud of you."

Dirk closed his eyes and smiled.