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THE WAILING ASTEROID ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









THE WAILING ASTEROID

by Murray Leinster


An Avon Original

AVON BOOK DIVISION

The Hearst Corporation
959 Eighth Avenue
New York 19, New York

Copyright, 1960, by Murray Leinster. Published by arrangement with
the author. Printed in the U.S.A.

[Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

* * * * *

There was no life on the asteroid, but the miles of rock-hewn corridors
through which the earth party wandered left no doubt about the purpose
of the asteroid.

It was a mighty fortress, stocked with weapons of destruction beyond
man's power to understand.

And yet there was no life here, nor had there been for untold centuries.

What race had built this stronghold? What unimaginable power were they
defending against? Why was it abandoned? There was no answer, all was
dead.

But - not quite all.

For in a room above the tomb-like fortress a powerful transmitter
beamed its birdlike, fluting sounds toward earth. Near it, on a huge
star-map of the universe, with light-years measured by inches, ten tiny
red sparks were moving, crawling inexorably toward the center.

Moving, at many times the speed of light, with the acquired mass
of suns ... moving, on a course that would pass through the solar
system.

The unknown aliens would not even see our sun explode from the force
of their passing, would not even notice the tiny speck called Earth as
it died....

* * * * *




Chapter 1


The signals from space began a little after midnight, local time, on a
Friday. They were first picked up in the South Pacific, just westward
of the International Date Line. A satellite-watching station on an
island named Kalua was the first to receive them, though nobody heard
the first four or five minutes. But it is certain that the very first
message was picked up and recorded by the monitor instruments.

The satellite-tracking unit on Kalua was practically a duplicate of
all its fellows. There was the station itself with a vertical antenna
outside pointing at the stars. There were various lateral antennae
held two feet above ground by concrete posts. In the instrument room
in the building a light burned over a desk, three or four monitor
lights glowed dimly to indicate that the self-recording instruments
were properly operating, and there was a multiple-channel tape recorder
built into the wall. Its twin tape reels turned sedately, winding a
brown plastic ribbon from one to the other at a moderate pace.

The staff man on duty had gone to the installation's kitchen for a cup
of coffee. No sound originated in the room, unless one counted the
fluttering of a piece of weighted-down paper on the desk. Outside,
palm trees whispered and rustled their long fronds in the southeast
trade wind under a sky full of glittering stars. Beyond, there was
the dull booming of surf upon the barrier reef of the island. But the
instruments made no sound. Only the tape reels moved.

The signals began abruptly. They came out of a speaker and were
instantly recorded. They were elfin and flutelike and musical. They
were crisp and distinct. They did not form a melody, but nearly all the
components of melody were there. Pure musical notes, each with its own
pitch, all of different lengths, like quarter-notes and eighth-notes
in music. The sounds needed only rhythm and arrangement to form a
plaintive tune.

Nothing happened. The sounds continued for something over a minute.
They stopped long enough to seem to have ended. Then they began again.

When the staff man came back into the room with a coffee cup in his
hand, he heard the flutings instantly. His jaw dropped. He said, "What
the hell?" and went to look at the instruments. He spilled some of his
coffee when he saw their readings.

The tracking dials said that the signals came from a stationary source
almost directly overhead. If they were from a stationary source,
no plane was transmitting them. Nor could they be coming from an
artificial satellite. A plane would move at a moderate pace across the
sky. A satellite would move faster. Much faster. This source, according
to the instruments, did not move at all.

The staff man listened with a blank expression on his face. There was
but one rational explanation, which he did not credit for an instant.
The reasonable answer would have been that somebody, somewhere, had put
a satellite out into an orbit requiring twenty-four hours for a circuit
of the earth, instead of the ninety to one-hundred-twenty-four-minute
orbits of the satellites known to sweep around the world from west
to east and pole to pole. But the piping, musical sounds were not
the sort of thing that modern physicists would have contrived to
carry information about cosmic-particle frequency, space temperature,
micrometeorites, and the like.

The signals stopped again, and again resumed. The staff man was
galvanized into activity. He rushed to waken other members of the
outpost. When he got back, the signals continued for a minute and
stopped altogether. But they were recorded on tape, with the instrument
readings that had been made during their duration. The staff man played
the tape back for his companions.

They felt as he did. These were signals from space where man had never
been. They had listened to the first message ever to reach mankind from
the illimitable emptiness between the stars and planets. Man was not
alone. Man was no longer isolated. Man....

The staff of the tracking station was very much upset. Most of the
men were white-faced by the time the taped message had been re-played
through to its end. They were frightened.

Considering everything, they had every reason to be.

The second pick-up was in Darjeeling, in northern India. The Indian
government was then passing through one of its periods of enthusiastic
interest in science. It had set up a satellite-observation post in a
former British cavalry stable on the outskirts of the town. The acting
head of the observing staff happened to hear the second broadcast to
reach Earth. It arrived some seventy-nine minutes after the first
reception, and it was picked up by two stations, Kalua and Darjeeling.

The Darjeeling observer was incredulous at what he heard - five
repetitions of the same sequence of flutelike notes. After each
pause - when it seemed that the signals had stopped before they actually
did so - the reception was exactly the same as the one before. It
was inconceivable that such a succession of sounds, lasting a full
minute, could be exactly repeated by any natural chain of events. Five
repetitions were out of the question. The notes were signals. They were
a communication which was repeated to be sure it was received.

The third broadcast was heard in Lebanon in addition to Kalua and
Darjeeling. Reception in all three places was simultaneous. A signal
from a nearby satellite could not possibly have been picked up so far
around the Earth's curvature. The widening of the area of reception,
too, proved that there was no new satellite aloft with an orbit period
of exactly twenty-four hours, so that it hung motionless in the sky
relative to Earth. Tracking observations, in fact, showed the source of
the signals to move westward, as time passed, with the apparent motion
of a star. No satellite of Earth could possibly exist with such an
orbit unless it was close enough to show a detectable parallax. This
did not.

A French station picked up the next batch of plaintive sounds. Kalua,
Darjeeling, and Lebanon still received. By the time the next signal was
due, Croydon, in England, had its giant radar-telescope trained on the
part of the sky from which all the tracking stations agreed the signals
came.

Croydon painstakingly made observations during four seventy-nine-minute
intervals and four five-minute receptions of the fluting noises. It
reported that there was a source of artificial signals at an extremely
great distance, position right ascension so-and-so, declination
such-and-such. The signals began every seventy-nine minutes. They could
be heard by any receiving instrument capable of handling the microwave
frequency involved. The broadcast was extremely broad-band. It covered
more than two octaves and sharp tuning was not necessary. A man-made
signal would have been confined to as narrow a wave-band as possible,
to save power for one reason, so it could not be imagined that the
signal was anything but artificial. Yet no Earth science could have
sent a transmitter out so far.

When sunrise arrived at the tracking station on Kalua, it ceased to
receive from space. On the other hand, tracking stations in the United
States, the Antilles, and South America began to pick up the cryptic
sounds.

The first released news of the happening was broadcast in the United
States. In the South Pacific and India and the Near East and Europe,
the whole matter seemed too improbable for the notification of the
public. News pressure in the United States, though, is very great. Here
the news rated broadcast, and got it.

That was why Joe Burke did not happen to complete the business for
which he'd taken Sandy Lund to a suitable, romantic spot. She was his
secretary and the only permanent employee in the highly individual
business he'd begun and operated. He'd known her all his life, and
it seemed to him that for most of it he'd wanted to marry her. But
something had happened to him when he was quite a small boy - and still
happened at intervals - which interposed a mental block. He'd always
wanted to be romantic with her, but there was a matter of two moons
in a strange-starred sky, and trees with foliage like none on Earth,
and an overwhelming emotion. There was no rational explanation for it.
There could be none. Often he'd told himself that Sandy was real and
utterly desirable, and this lunatic repetitive experience was at worst
insanity and at the least delusion. But he'd never been able to do
more than stammer when talk between them went away from matter-of-fact
things.

Tonight, though, he'd parked his car where a river sparkled in the
moonlight. There was a scent of pine and arbutus in the air and a faint
thread of romantic music came from his car's radio. He'd brought Sandy
here to propose to her. He was doggedly resolved to break the chains a
psychological oddity had tied him up in.

He cleared his throat. He'd taken Sandy out to dinner, ostensibly to
celebrate the completion of a development job for Interiors, Inc. Burke
had started Burke Development, Inc., some four years out of college
when he found he didn't like working for other people and could work
for himself. Its function was to develop designs and processes for
companies too small to have research-and-development divisions of their
own. The latest, now-finished, job was a wall-garden which those
expensive interior decorators, Interiors, Inc., believed might appeal
to the very rich. Burke had made it. It was a hydroponic job. A rich
man's house could have one or more walls which looked like a grassy
sward stood on edge, with occasional small flowers or even fruits
growing from its close-clipped surface.[A]

[Footnote A: Transcriber's Note: The following sentence has been
deleted at this point: "Interiors, Inc., would push the idea of a
a bomb shelter or in an atomic submarine where it would cation."
This is a possible printer error. A later edition of this work
also has this sentence deleted.

It was done. A production-job room-wall had been shipped and the check
for it banked. Burke had toyed with the idea that growing vegetation
like that might be useful in a bomb shelter or in an atomic submarine
where it would keep the air fresh indefinitely. But such ideas were for
the future. They had nothing to do with now. Now Burke was going to
triumph over an obsessive dream.

"I've got something to say, Sandy," said Burke painfully.

She did not turn her head. There was moonlight, rippling water, and the
tranquil noises of the night in springtime. A perfect setting for what
Burke had in mind, and what Sandy knew about in advance. She waited,
her eyes turned away from him so he wouldn't see that they were shining
a little.

"I'm something of an idiot," said Burke, clumsily. "It's only fair to
tell you about it. I'm subject to a psychological gimmick that a girl
I - Hm." He coughed. "I think I ought to tell you about it."

"Why?" asked Sandy, still not looking in his direction.

"Because I want to be fair," said Burke. "I'm a sort of crackpot.
You've noticed it, of course."

Sandy considered.

"No-o-o-o," she said measuredly. "I think you're pretty normal,
except - No. I think you're all right."

"Unfortunately," he told her, "I'm not. Ever since I was a kid I've
been bothered by a delusion, if that's what it is. It doesn't make
sense. It couldn't. But it made me take up engineering, I think,
and ..."

His voice trailed away.

"And what?"

"Made an idiot out of me," said Burke. "I was always pretty crazy about
you, and it seems to me that I took you to a lot of dances and such in
high school, but I couldn't act romantic. I wanted to, but I couldn't.
There was this crazy delusion...."

"I wondered, a little," said Sandy, smiling.

"I _wanted_ to be romantic about you," he told her urgently. "But this
damned obsession kept me from it."

"Are you offering to be a brother to me now?" asked Sandy.

"No!" said Burke explosively. "I'm fed up with myself. I want to be
different. Very different. With you!"

Sandy smiled again.

"Strangely enough, you interest me," she told him. "Do go on!"

But he was abruptly tongue-tied. He looked at her, struggling to speak.
She waited.

"I w-want to ask you to m-m-marry me," said Burke desperately. "But I
have to tell you about the other thing first. Maybe you won't want...."

Her eyes were definitely shining now. There was soft music and rippling
water and soft wind in the trees. It was definitely the time and place
for romance.

But the music on the car radio cut off abruptly. A harsh voice
interrupted:

"_Special Bulletin! Special Bulletin! Messages of unknown origin are
reaching Earth from outer space! Special Bulletin! Messages from outer
space!_"

Burke reached over and turned up the sound. Perhaps he was the only man
in the world who would have spoiled such a moment to listen to a news
broadcast, and even he wouldn't have done it for a broadcast on any
other subject. He turned the sound high.

"_This is a special broadcast from the Academy of Sciences in
Washington, D. C._" boomed the speaker. "_Some thirteen hours ago a
satellite-tracking station in the South Pacific reported picking up
signals of unknown origin and great strength, using the microwave
frequencies also used by artificial satellites now in orbit around
Earth. The report was verified shortly afterward from India, then Near
East tracking stations made the same report. European listening posts
and radar telescopes were on the alert when the sky area from which
the signals come rose above the horizon. American stations have again
verified the report within the last few minutes. Artificial signals,
plainly not made by men, are now reaching Earth every seventy-nine
minutes from remotest space. There is as yet no hint of what the
messages may mean, but that they are an attempt at communication is
certain. The signals have been recorded on tape, and the sounds which
follow are those which have been sent to Earth by alien, non-human,
intelligent beings no one knows how far away._"

A pause. Then the car radio, with night sounds and the calls of
nightbirds for background, gave out crisp, distinct fluting noises,
like someone playing an arbitrary selection of musical notes on a
strange wind instrument.

The effect was plaintive, but Burke stiffened in every muscle at the
first of them. The fluting noises were higher and lower in turn. At
intervals, they paused as if between groups of signals constituting
a word. The enigmatic sounds went on for a full minute. Then they
stopped. The voice returned:

"_These are the signals from space. What you have heard is apparently
a complete message. It is repeated five times and then ceases. An hour
and nineteen minutes later it is again repeated five times...._"

The voice continued, while Burke remained frozen and motionless in
the parked car. Sandy watched him, at first hopefully, and then
bewilderedly. The voice said that the signal strength was very great.
But the power for artificial-satellite broadcasts is only a fraction of
a watt. These signals, considering the minimum distance from which they
could come, had at least thousands of kilowatts behind them.

Somewhere out in space, farther than man's robot rockets had ever gone,
huge amounts of electric energy were controlled to send these signals
to Earth. Scientists were in disagreement about the possible distance
the signals had traveled, whether they were meant solely for Earth
or not, and whether they were an attempt to open communication with
humanity. But nobody doubted that the signals were artificial. They had
been sent by technical means. They could not conceivably be natural
phenomena. Directional fixes said absolutely that they did not come
from Mars or Jupiter or Saturn. Neptune and Uranus and Pluto were not
nearly in the line of the signals' travel. Of course Venus and Mercury
were to sunward of Earth, which ruled them out, since the signals
arrived only on the night side of mankind's world. Nobody could guess,
as yet, where they did originate.

Burke sat utterly still, every muscle tense. He was so pale that even
in the moonlight Sandy saw it. She was alarmed.

"Joe! What's the matter?"

"Did you - hear that?" he asked thinly. "The signals?"

"Of course. But what...."

"I recognized them," said Burke, in a tone that was somehow despairing.
"I've heard signals like that every so often since I was a kid." He
swallowed. "It was sounds like that, and what went with them, that has
been the - trouble with me. I was going to tell you about it - and ask
you if you'd marry me anyway."

He began to tremble a little, which was not at all like the Joe Burke
that Sandy knew.

"I don't quite under - "

"I'm afraid I've gone out of my head," he said unsteadily. "Look,
Sandy! I was going to propose to you. Instead, I'm going to take you
back to the office. I'm going to play you a recording I made a year
ago. I think that when you've heard it you'll decide you wouldn't want
to marry me anyhow."

Sandy looked at him with astonished eyes.

"You mean those signals from somewhere mean something special to you?"

"Very special," said Burke. "They raise the question of whether I've
been crazy, and am suddenly sane, or whether I've been sane up to now,
and have suddenly gone crazy."

The radio switched back to dance music. Burke cut it off. He started
the car's motor. He backed, swung around, and headed for the office and
construction shed of Burke Development, Inc.

Elsewhere, the profoundest minds of the planet gingerly examined the
appalling fact that signals came to Earth from a place where men could
not be. A message came from something which was not human. It was a
suggestion to make cold chills run up and down any educated spine.
But Burke drove tensely, and the road's surface sped toward the car's
wheels and vanished under them. A warm breeze hummed and thuttered
around the windshield. Sandy sat very still.

"The way I'm acting doesn't make sense, does it?" Burke asked. "Do you
feel like you're riding with a lunatic?"

"No," she said. "But I never thought that if you ever did get around
to asking me to marry you, somebody from outer space would forbid the
banns! Can't you tell me what all this is about?"

"I doubt it very much," he told her. "Can you tell me what the signals
are about?"

She shook her head. He drove through the night. Presently he said,
"Aside from my private angle on the matter, there are some queer
things about this business. Why should somebody out in space send us
a broadcast? It's not from a planet, they say. If there's a spaceship
on the way here, why warn us? If they want to be friends, they can't
be sure we'll permit it. If they intend to be enemies, why throw away
the advantage of surprise? In either case, it would be foolish to send
cryptic messages on ahead. And any message would have to be cryptic."

The car went whirring along the roadway. Soon twinkling lights appeared
among the trees. The small and larger buildings of Burke Development,
Inc., came gradually into view. They were dark objects in a large empty
space on the very edge of Burke's home town.

"And why," he went on, "why send a complex message if they only wanted
to say that they were space travelers on the way to Earth?"

The exit from the highway to Burke Development appeared. Burke swung
off the surfaced road and into the four-acre space his small and
unusual business did not begin to fill up.

"If it were an offer of communication, it should be short and simple.
Maybe an arithmetic sequence of dots, to say that they were intelligent
beings and would like the sequence carried on if we had brains, too.
Then we'd know somebody friendly was coming and wanted to exchange
ideas before, if necessary, swapping bombs."

The car's headlights swept over the building in which the experimental
work of Burke Development was done and on to the small house in which
Sandy kept the books and records of the firm. Burke put on the brakes
before the office door.

"Just to see if my head is working right," he said, "I raise a question
about those signals. One doesn't send a long message to emptiness,
repeated, in the hope that someone may be around to catch it. One
calls, and sends a long message only when the call is answered. The
call says who's wanted and who's calling, but nothing more. This isn't
that sort of thing."

He got out of the car and opened the door on her side, then unlocked
the office door and went in. He switched on the lights inside. For a
moment, Sandy did not move. Then she slowly got out of the car and
entered the office which was so completely familiar. Burke bent over
the office safe, turning the tumbler-wheel to open it. He said over
his shoulder, "That special bulletin will be repeated on all the news
broadcasts. You've got a little radio here. Turn it on, will you?"

Again slowly, Sandy crossed the office and turned on the miniature
radio on her desk. It warmed up and began to make noises. She dimmed it
until it was barely audible. Burke stood up with a reel of brown tape.
He put it on the office recorder, usually used for the dictation of
the day's lab log.

"I have a dream sometimes," said Burke. "A recurrent dream. I've had it
every so often since I was eleven. I've tried to believe it was simply
a freak, but sometimes I've suspected I was a telepath, getting some
garbled message from somewhere unguessable. That has to be wrong. And
again I've suspected that - well - that I might not be completely human.
That I was planted here on Earth, somehow, not knowing it, to be of use
to - something not of Earth. And that's crazy. So I've been pretty leery
of being romantic about anybody. Tonight I'd managed to persuade myself
all those wild imaginings were absurd. And then the signals came." He
paused and said unsteadily, "I made this tape a year ago. I was trying
to convince myself that it was nonsense. Listen. Remember, I made this
a year ago!"

The reels began to spin on the recorder's face. Burke's voice came out
of the speaker, "_These are the sounds of the dream_," it said, and
stopped.

There was a moment of silence, while the twin reels spun silently. Then
sounds came from the recorder. They were musical notes, reproduced
from the tape. Sandy stared blankly. Disconnected, arbitrary flutelike
sounds came out into the office of Burke Development, Inc. It was quite
correct to call them elfin. They could be described as plaintive. They
were not a melody, but a melody could have been made from them by
rearrangement. They were very remarkably like the sounds from space.
It was impossible to doubt that they were the same code, the same
language, the same vocabulary of tones and durations.


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