Sometime in earth's future, we've sent an intrepid mixed-gender exploratory mission led by a bearded captain (along with Don! And Sue!) to Alpha Centauri, which is now, more than 40 years after this story's publication, a popular tourist destination. In those days, it was the distant frontier of outer space. After finding bones on their first planetary stop, the explorers anticipate a possible meeting with intelligent life. Which is kind of ironic. I mean, they do meet it. It's just not the kind they were hoping for.
You know how the hierarchy of space aliens goes—in order from least to most objectionable, it’s generally humanoids, reptilians, insectoids, cephalopods, non-tentacled mollusks, blobs and, finally, slimes. The further its appearance gets from the human template, the more repulsive the alien. And usually, the more likely to have philosophies contrary to the kinds we find comforting. So Wood’s slime terrifies the space explorers by trying to absorb Sue.
In familiar comic book sci-fi fashion, Don shoots the slime with his phallic laser zapper gun, then everyone flees in their retro-finned rocket ship, only to find the slime on yet another planet. Having achieved what they believe is their due quota of slime-based encounters, they orbit a comfortably earth-like planet that gives them a very rude greeting in the form of more laser beams. In response, the human explorers (And Don! And Sue!) blast through planetary shields and receive a series of puzzling messages. The civilization below no longer seem angry, but rather depressed and resigned to first contact. They invite the astronauts to land, then ambush them in a suicidal rush.
And, ironically enough, they're comfortably humanoid in appearance. Bulbous, bald heads (like my own) and large black eyes notwithstanding. A recording reveals this was their deliberate self-extinction and a cleaner death than the one that awaits the astronauts. Who stand around puzzled, as anyone would be, but the next day all but two of them are skeletons as well. And those two are Don and Sue!
Which is probably just as well. After all, even if it was a case of suicide-by-human-astronaut, these men and women did commit genocide. Are they any less monstrous than the slime? Perhaps they're precisely as monstrous, as we soon discover. Don and Sue make for earth where they suddenly experience a strange elation and crash the rocket into the ocean.
There Don and Sue slough off their skins and mutate into the now-familiar slime. Everything becomes clear. The humanoid aliens chose to die as a group with each individual’s self-awareness intact because the slime infects other beings and absorbs them into the titular cosmic all, a vast collective without individual thought. The two space travelers become one with the intent of spreading their all-ness to every living thing on earth. Starting with all sea life, I suppose. Uncle Creepy appears at the end and tells us the ultimate twist—they’re glad to be this way, so it’s technically a happy ending. I’m not going to argue with him. It certainly made me happy!
The ending is one reason. The ambiguity of it lingers. So many deaths, but no escape for Don and Sue, just the loss of humanity both physical and mental, a blending of their minds with the vastness of the alien slime, all-knowing and unstoppable. Is their joy at the becoming genuine, or simply an effect the slime has on their minds?
The other is Wood’s artwork. The splash page is a spectacular image, the kind of Woodian spaceship interior he drew regularly during EC’s heyday. Round vents, layers of exposed pipes like the veins in a human arm. Similarly exciting scenes follow, with the explorers trudging across a planetary landscape, the slime attacking like a huge ocean wave and then a space battle followed by an alien-wave attack and the intimate concluding sequence which is equal parts bleak and elating, an uneasy mix that elevates this story to legendary status. It has the feel of a particularly memorable EC tale, but with an expansiveness the larger page size affords.
And that ending! That ending!