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Super Science Stories

MARCH, 1950

Knowing himself eternally lost, Harvey Vallis set out alone on a journey no brave man would have dared—not to the rotting jungles of Venus, or the chill deserts of Mars, but

A STEP FARTHER OUT

By RAYMOND Z. GALLUN

FIFTY miles from the great spaceport at White Sands, New Mexico, the approaching roads end in guardposts and barbed wire. But before that lethal circumference is reached, signboards warn: RADIOACTIVE DUST, PROCEED WITH CAUTION. ARE YOU WEARING YOUR RESPIRATOR? WHAT DOES YOUR GEIGER COUNTER SAY?

Beyond the guardposts and wire, no sane man ventures on the surface without wearing radiation armor. The spaceport itself is reached by tube-trains. The tunnels in which they move are bored far beneath the poisoned desert, where the dust of countless rocket takeoffs and landings has made even the cacti still more grotesque and monstrous by disturbing their genes.

Lead, superheated and vaporized by a slow chain-reaction of the fissionable metals with which it is alloyed, is the chief constituent of the incandescent gases ejected by the atomic jet-motors of spacecraft. It congeals to a heavy, tainted powder, which, fortunately, soon settles to the ground, limiting the radius of its poisonous effect.

Within the restricted area, there are, of course, no towns left, and almost no buildings except the heavily-shielded structures of the spaceport itself, depots, hotels, and covered gangways by which passengers can enter the space liners without contact with the atmosphere.

Such, then, is the hell-guarded gate to High Romance.... But something of its essence reaches out much farther than the dust of mankind's greatest adventuring. Some might call it another, more insidious poison. Others, a stimulant, a tonic. To White Sands, life-hungry youth comes from far and wide, seeking a future on a frontier that can never be used up. But more certainly than from anywhere else, they come from nearby—from the ranches, the farms, and the little crossroad towns near the fringes of the circle of death.

For in such places, the call, the fascination, is forever present, and can never be forgotten. There, hour after hour, day and night, the incandescent trails of rockets, are visible. They are both awful and beautiful. They tingle one's spine with a joy that is at the edge of fear. One's mind associates with them the names of places such as Vananis, Mars, or Finchport, Venus. Ah, yes—how sweet and rotten smells the jungle, in one's fancy; and how strange and thrilling is that desert world called Mars, where man cannot live without his oxygen helmet and his dome-cities, where once there was a great native civilization that destroyed itself, but where youth labors and dreams now, to build a smaller, and perhaps better earth....

But all that is but a foretaste—a beginning. Beyond Mars, both newer and older, lies the asteroid belt—wreckage of a world that exploded, but that was peopled once, too. It is a wonderful, terrible region. Far beyond it lie Jupiter and his moons. As yet, very few rockets have ever gone that far. Then comes ringed Saturn. Then Uranus, Neptune, Pluto... Then the eternal and inconceivably distant stars....

Is it remarkable, then, that there are scarcely any young men left in the little towns around the White Sands spaceport ? The opportunity is close at hand. Always, men are needed. Whether they achieve satisfaction, or even the glory of progress made, or merely hurl themselves into the maw of a new kind of Moloch, is a matter of viewpoint and chance. For out there are both danger and opportunity. Out there are swift death in many forms, incalculable riches, and gut-twisting strangeness....

Few can stay behind. So there are empty chairs and saddles, and unslept-in beds in boyhood rooms. And the stories come back—of success and disaster. All this stamps itself into the local attitude of life. It is a hard attitude, that worships courage, and smiles a knowing and contemptuous challenge to those youths who seem to lack it.

Of all the stories, perhaps there is none quite as whimsical and strange, in its own way, as that of Harvey Vellis. He was born, it seemed, to be the butt of bullies. That was only part of his ill luck. For what can anybody really do about being a skinny little twerp? Besides, he had a certain kind of mother. "Yes, Ma. All right, Ma," was about all he ever said to her. Some people thought that she was the kindest woman on Earth. But maybe she was a cruel, possessive tyrant. On the other hand, maybe she was just a frightened widow who remembered too well that her husband had joined the crew of the Artemis, and had died in a crash on the moon.

Harvey Vellis became a clerk in Mr. Finkel's General Store, in the little town of Dos Piedras, where he had been born. For a vegetative type of youth, this might have been all right, for Mr. Finkel was a kind, understanding man. The trouble was that Harvey was far from vegetative. The trouble, further, was that people who had always been around him, had drawn their own picture of what his soul was like. Their belief in that picture was so strong that they had made him believe in it too. They had never let him be himself.

Day after day, year after year, he heard the same challenge and the same joke, flung at him in one form or another, by one person or another. First it was by his swashbuckling contemporaries—big Dink Darrell was the best example—then, as they vanished into the space wilderness, by younger boys, even by tots....

"Hey, Harv—when you blasting out? Next year, maybe? Think your Mamma'll let you?"

It is an old tale. The repetitious cruelty of it sits on the shoulders of its victims, a vulture, destroying not courage so much, but confidence. The laughs have a jagged edge. In the focus of attention from all sides, one becomes self-centered—not in a proud way, but in another way that makes one feel that, in all the world and in all history, there has never been another as gutless and pink-livered as one's own self.

IT WAS doubly hard for Harvey Vellis, for all of his wishes and dreams belonged to space. How many books about Venus, Mars, and the outer planets had he read? How often did he fondle the quarra weed, dry and dead now, which he used as a book-marker?

A spaceman, who had picked it casually near the point of Syrtis Major, that strange, triangular depression thousands of miles in extent, near the equator of Mars, had dropped it as casually on Main Street in Dos Piedras, and Harvey, recognizing it for what it was from his booklore, had pounced upon it as a treasure.

How often had he sniffed its faint, dry aroma, as if to it clung the frosty pungence of dusty, dehydrated winds that no longer contained enough oxygen to sustain Earthly human life? Of such stuff is the fabric of romance woven. And it was to such pathetic trifles that Harvey Vellis clung. Echoes they were, from a great distance; and they touched Harvey as echoes of music touch the ears of a music lover, starved for what he needs.

Time went on. Harvey worked and dreamed. In his spare time he studied the blueprints of spacecraft and space armor, until he knew their structure by heart. And he tinkered with odds and ends ot equipment, learning all that he could about things related to the distance that it seemed he could never reach. He even achieved a certain adjustment to his unpleasant lot. His cheeks forgot how to flush under the hazing; his response, instead, became a small, wry smile, and a shrug that hid some of the hurt inside him.

Death comes just as surely to those who live sheltered lives as it does to those who live dangerously, and it came at last to Harvey Vellis' mother. "I suppose you'll blast out, now, Harvey," she said to him near the end, not realizing the heavy handicaps she had laid upon him. "You won't have to look after me any more."

Those were the words that she poured into the gulf of grief and disorientation that her passing meant to him. It was a mockery. And more of a mockery was the honest if contemptuous pity which he read in other eyes. People, it seemed, were no good to him, even when they meant well. For a week he kept to himself, fogged and lost.

There was one good thing about what his life had been like—perhaps. Frustration had been like the restraining of a steel spring, or the wiring-down of the safety valve of a boiler. It had built up the power of the drives in him, impelled them to push past fear and ruined confidence, toward what he had always wanted.

What he wanted was not entirely clear or simple. He was too naive and too full of dreams to aim quite practically. His goal was a vagueness. Out, somewhere toward the vastness, was as far as his thinking about it went—and that, certainly, was dangerous. Just what he would do to live, he did not know....

He had saved up twelve hundred dollars. Passages to Mars cost a thousand. How was it that he did not simply go to the employment offices of the space lines so near at hand ? How was it that, instead, he drove his old car to Albuquerque, and bought a ticket to Mars there? That, when he might easily have gotten a job, and saved his money?

The answer is easy and old. His emotions were ill, so he could not do things so directly. People that he knew would see him; they'd wonder, they'd laugh, they'd pity. They'd stare at him as if they had caught him trying to commit suicide. Maybe, in fact, what he contemplated amounted to the same thing. For him, the inept, helpless coward—when it was so terrible and wonderful out there.... No, he could never face those eyes that knew him. Before he felt that he would curl up and die in an agony of stage-fright. It was better to slip away quietly, seek the shelter of anonymity on a strange planet.

Maybe, in all that he forced himself to do, there was courage of a sort. No human can live for years with a handicap or with fear without achieving a kind of courage.

He put his affairs in order as quietly as he could. Mr. Finkel pretended not to know what was happening, for that was the kindest way. In his heart he was both glad and worried about what Harvey Vellis was doing.

Harvey boarded the train for the short journey to the spaceport at midnight—the best time to slip away. There were many faces around him—mercifully those of people that he did not know. Hard, bronzed faces—eyes that had seen much that he had not seen—that took coolly what to him was so new and different. They were blasé and unruffled. Their luggage bore stickers from New York, London, Paris—Kaie-Yeel, Venus; Vananis, Mars. Among such company, Harvey Vellis felt like the awkward yokel that he was.

The girl beside him in the train smiled at him. Her blonde hair was cut in a long bob, and she sat casually. Her blue dress was elegantly simple. She was pretty, but not too pretty. She even looked a bit rough-hewn. Her eyes were gray. For a second they probed him, and he felt like an insect on a pin. He suspected, with the ready suspicion of the self-conscious, that all of his frustrated personal history was stamped in his face and figure for her to see, and laugh about silently, just as if she were one of those others who had always known him; and that he could never escape from himself with her, even for a minute. All of this was at least half so tr...

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