Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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able to calculate a globe's trajectory and meet it in space. They were
smart, the Enemy!_

_The two globes went spinning toward the Enemy. Linked together, they
spun round and round and no conceivable computer could calculate the
path of either one so a projectile could hit. They did not travel in
a straight line, as a trajectory in space should be. Whirling as they
did around a common center of gravity, with the plane of their circling
at a sharp angle to their line of flight, it was not possible to range
them for gunfire. Their progress was in a series of curves, each at
a different distance, which no mere calculator could solve without
direction. A radar could not pick up the data a computer would need.
One or the other globe might be hit, but it was far from likely._

_The pilot of the one-man ship saw the blue-white flame of a hit. He
flung his ship about and sped back toward the fortress. The Enemy would
beat this trick, in time. Four thousand years before they'd almost won,
when they invaded the Old Nation. They were getting bolder now. There
was a time when a sound beating sent them back beyond the Coal-sack to
lick their wounds for two thousand years or better. Lately they came
more often. There'd been a raid in force only five hundred years back,
and only fifteen before that ..._

* * * * *

Holmes, obviously, had the odd dream Burke had prophesied. But Burke
was up in the instrument-room by then. Keller gazed absorbedly at
a vision-plate. It showed a section of the exterior surface of the
asteroid - harsh, naked rock, with pitiless sunlight showing the grain
and structure of the rock-crystals. Where there was shadow, the
blackness was absolute. As Burke entered, Keller turned a knob. The
image changed to a picture of a compartment inside the fortress.
It was a part of the maze of rooms and galleries that none of the
newcomers had visited. Panels and bus-bars and things which were
plainly switches covered its walls. It was a power-distribution center.
Keller turned the knob back, and the view of the outside of the
asteroid returned.

Keller turned and blinked at Burke, and then said happily, "Look!"

He went to another vision-screen with an image of another part of
the outer surface. He turned that knob, and the image dissolved into
another. This was a gigantic room, lighted like more familiar places.
In its center there was an enormous, gigantic machine. There were domes
of metal, with great rods of silvery stuff reaching across emptiness
between them. There were stairs by which one could climb to this part
and that. Judging by the steps and the size of the light-tubes, the
machine was the size of a four-storey house. And on the floor there
were smaller machines, all motionless and all cryptic.

Keller said with conviction, "Power!"

Burke stared. Keller recovered the original view and went to still
other plates. In succession, as he turned the knobs, Burke saw
compartment after compartment. There was one quite as huge as the one
containing the power-generating machine. It contained hemispheres
bolted ten feet above the floor on many columns. There was a network
of bus-bars, it seemed, overlying everything, and there were smaller
devices on the floor below it.

"Gravity!" said Keller with conviction.

"Good enough," said Burke. "We've found something too, which may be
useful with those machines. If we can - "

Keller held up his hand and went to one special screen. When he changed
the image, the new one was totally unlike any of the others. This was
a close-up. It showed a clumsy, strictly improvised and definitely
cobbled metal case against a wall. It had been made by inept hands. It
was remarkable to see such indifferent workmanship here. But the really
remarkable thing was that the face of the box contained an inscription,
burned into the metal as if by a torch. The symbols had no meaning to
Burke, of course. But this was an inscription in a written language.

Keller rubbed his hands, beaming.

"It could be a message for somebody who'd come later," said Burke.
"It's hard to think of it being anything else. But it wasn't placed for
us to find. It should have been set up beside the ship-lock we were
expected to come in by and did come in by."

"We'll see," said Keller zestfully. "Come on!"

Burke followed him. Keller seemed somehow to know the way. They went
all the way back to the ship-lock, passed it, and then Keller dived off
to the right, down an unsuspected ramp. There were galleries running
in every direction here, crossing each other and opening upon an
indefinite number of what must have been storerooms. Presently Keller
pointed.

There was the case against the wall. It faced a wide corridor. It
did not belong here. It was totally unlike any other artifact they
had seen, because it seemed to have been made totally without skill.
Yet there was an inscription - and the making of written records had
appeared to be a skill the former occupants of the asteroid had not
possessed. Keller very zestfully essayed to open it. He failed.

Burke said, "We'll have to use tools to get it open."

"Somebody made it," said Keller, "just before the garrison went away.
They made it here!"

"Quite likely," agreed Burke. "We'll get at it presently. Now listen,
Keller! I came along because a message might be useful. I think Holmes
has found out something, though what it may be I can't guess. Come
along with me. There've been developments and I want to hold a council
of war. And I think I do mean war!"

He led the way back toward the ship. When they arrived, Holmes was
awake and growling because of Burke's absence.

"You win," he told Burke. "I had a dream, and it wasn't a dream. I know
something about those metal globes. They've got drives in them, and
they can accelerate to a hundred and sixty gees, and I don't think I'll
ride one."

Wryly, he told Burke what he'd experienced.

"I'm not too much surprised," said Burke. "I've managed two
cube-experiences myself. I figure that these cubes trained men to
operate things, without training their brains in anything else. They'd
make illiterates into skilled men in a particular line, so anybody
could do the work a highly trained man would otherwise be needed for.
In one of my two cube-dreams I was a gun-pointer on one of those
machines up on the third level. In the second cube-dream I was a
rocket-pilot."

"No rockets in my cube," protested Holmes.

"Different period," said Burke. "Maybe, anyhow. In my dream we were
using rockets to fight with, and the war was close. The enemy had
taken some planets off Kandu - wherever that is! - and the situation
was bad. We went out of here in rockets and fought all over the sky.
But then there were supplies coming from home, and fresh fighting men
turning up." He stopped abruptly. "How'd they come? I don't know. But
I know they didn't come in spaceships. They just came, and they were
new men and we veterans patronized them. The devil! Holmes, you say the
globes have a hundred-sixty-gee drive! Nobody'd use rockets if drives
like that were known!"

"To stay in the party," Sandy said suddenly, with something like
defiance, "I tried a cube, too. And I was a sort of supply-officer. I
had the experience of being responsible for supply and being short of
everything and improvising this and that and the other to keep things
up to fighting standard. It wasn't easy. The men grumbled, and we
lacked everything. There was no fighting in my time, and there hadn't
been for centuries. But we knew the Enemy hadn't given up and we had
to be ready, generation after generation, even when nothing happened.
And we knew that any minute the Enemy might throw something unexpected,
some new weapon, at us."

"History-cubes," said Keller interestedly. "Different periods. Right?"

"Dammit, yes!" said Burke. "We've got accounts of past times and
finished battles, but we need to know who's coming and what to do about
it! Maybe the rocket-dream was earliest in time. But how could a race
with nothing better than rockets ever get here? And how could they
supply the building of a place like this?"

There was no answer. Facts ought to fit together. When they don't, they
are useless.

"We've got snatches of information," said Burke. "But we don't know
who built this fort, or why, except that there was a war that lasted
thousands of years, with pauses for centuries between battles." He
waved a hand irritably. "The Enemy tries to think up new weapons.
They do. They try them. So far, they've been countered. But we're not
prepared to fight a new weapon. Maybe the fort is set to battle old
ones, but we don't know how to use it even for that! We've got to - "

"I think - " began Keller.

"I'd give plenty for a service manual on the probably useless weapons
we do have," said Burke angrily. "Incidentally, Keller just found what
may be an explanation of how and why this place was abandoned."

Keller said suddenly, "Where would service manuals be?"

He moved, almost running, toward the air-lock. Burke started to swear,
and stopped.

"A service-and-repair manual," he snapped, "would be near the equipment
it described. How many little shelves with boxes on them have we seen?
They're just the right size to hold cubes! And where are they? Next to
those fighting machines next to the door of the room where the ten-foot
globes are! There's a shelf of them in the instrument-room! Let's find
out how to fight with this misbegotten shell of a space-fort! There'll
be no help coming to us, but if the Enemy's held off for thousands of
years while this civilization fell apart, we might as well try to hold
it together for a few minutes or seconds longer! Let's go get some real
instruction-cubes!"

Keller was already gone. The others followed. Once they saw Keller in
the far, far distance, hastening toward the instrument-room. Behind
him, after almost running down the long corridor, Burke swung into the
room where hundreds of ten-foot metal globes waited for the fortress to
be remanned and to go into action again. Inside the door he found the
remembered shelf, with two small boxes fastened to it. He pulled down
one box and opened it. There was a black cube inside it. He thrust it
upon Holmes.

"Here!" he said feverishly. "Find out how those globes work! Find out
what's in them, how they drive!"

He ran. To the end of the corridor and up the ramp and past the
supposed bunk-rooms and mess-halls. Up to the level where the ugly
metal machines stood, each in its separate cubicle. There were little
shelves inside each door. Each shelf contained a single box. Burke took
one, two, and then stopped short.

"They'll be practically alike," he muttered. "No need."

He put one back. And then he felt almost insanely angry. One would need
at least to be able to doze, to make use of the detailed, vivid, and
utterly convincing material contained in the black cubes. And how could
any man doze or sleep for the purpose of learning such desperately
needed data? He'd need almost not to want the information to be able to
sleep to get it!

Sandy and Pam overtook him as he stood in harried frustration with a
black cube in his hands.

"Listen to me, Joe," said Sandy. "We've all taken chances, but if you
get recurrent dreams from every cube you doze near - "

"When that happened to me," snapped Burke, "I was eleven years old and
had one moment only. And that dream wasn't affected by the others in
the cubes that came after it. And anyhow, no matter what happens to
Holmes and me, we have to get these things ready for use! I don't know
what we'll use them against. I don't know whether they'll be any use at
all. But I've got to try to use them, so I've got to try to find out
how!"

Sandy opened her mouth to speak again.

"I'm going off to fret myself to sleep," added Burke. "Holmes will be
trying it too. And Keller."

"I don't think it's necessary," said Sandy.

"Why?"

"You found a sort of library of cubes. How useful would they be if one
had to doze off to read them? How handy would a manual about repairing
a weapon be, if somebody had to take a nap to get instructions? It
wouldn't make sense!"

"Go on!" said Burke impatiently.

"Why not look in the library?" asked Sandy. "As a quartermaster
officer, I _think_ I knew that there was a reading-device for the
cubes, like a projector for microfilm. It might have been taken away,
but also - "

"Come along!" snapped Burke. "If that's so, it's everything! And it
ought to be so!"

They hastened to the vast, low-ceilinged room which was filled with
racks of black cubes. They were stacked in their places. At the far
corner they found a desk and a cabinet. In the cabinet they found two
objects like metal skull-caps, with clamps atop them. A cube would fit
between the clamps. Burke feverishly sat a cube in position and put the
skull-cap on his head. His expression was strange. After an instant he
took it off and reversed the cube. He put it on. His face cleared. He
lifted it off.

"I had it on backwards the first time," he said curtly. "This is better
than dreaming the stuff. This lets you examine things in detail. You
know you're receiving something. You don't think you're actually
experiencing. We'll get this other reading-machine to Keller, so he can
understand the equipment in the instrument-room. Holmes will have to
wait."

Sandy said, "I can use him. Doesn't it occur to you, Joe, that we've
only partly explored the top half of the fortress? We've only looked
at what's between us and the instrument-room. There are all the
stores - there were stores! And the generators down below. I can lead
the way there now!"

"What do you know about the weapons?" demanded Burke.

"Nothing," said Sandy. "But I know something about the morale of the
garrison. When grumbling began, discipline tightened up. And that
worked for the men, but the women - "

"Women!" said Pam incredulously.

"They were an experiment," Sandy told her, "to see if they would
content men on duty in an outpost. It'd been going on for only a few
hundred years. It didn't seem to work too well. They wanted supplies
that weren't exactly military, and at the time the cube I used was
made, there was trouble getting even military things!"

Burke said impatiently, "I'll get one of these things to Keller. That's
the most important thing. Tell Holmes not to try to sleep. Take him
down to look over the supplies, if there are any. I'd guess that the
garrison took most of them along. I doubt there's much left that we
could use."

He made his way out of the cube-library and vanished.

Pam said uncomfortably, "Joe dreamed about a woman and is no good to
you, in consequence. If there were women in this garrison, using the
cubes might make anybody - "

Sandy tensed her lips.

"I don't think Joe is thinking about his old dream. Something deadly's
on the way here. His mind's on that. I suspect all three of the men are
concentrating on it. They're in no mood for romance."

"Don't you think I've noticed?" Pam said gloomily. "But I'm coming with
you when you show him the storerooms!"

The "him" was obviously Holmes, whose attention had been so much
taken up by the problems the fortress presented that Pam felt pushed
much farther on the side lines than she liked. It was one thing to
be present to watch and help and cheer on a man who planned to do
something remarkable. But it was less satisfying when he became so
absorbed that he didn't notice being watched, and couldn't be helped,
and didn't need to be cheered on. Pam was disgruntled.

Then, for a considerable number of hours, absurdly trivial activities
seemed to occupy all the people in the asteroid. Burke and Keller sat
in the thirty by thirty-foot instrument-room, each wearing a small
metal half-cap with a black cube held atop it between a pair of clamps.
Their expressions were absorbed and intent, while they seemed attired
for a children's halloween party. Now and again one of them exchanged
one cube for another. About them there was a multiplicity of television
screens, each screen presenting a picture of infinitely perfect
quality. Every square foot of the outside of the asteroid could be seen
on one or another of the screens. Then, besides, there were banks of
screens which showed every square degree of the sky, with every star of
every magnitude represented so that one could use a magnifying glass
upon the screen to discover finer detail.

Once, during the hours when Burke and Keller were sitting quite
still, Keller reached over and threw a switch. Nothing happened.
Everything went on exactly as it had done before. He shook his head.
And much later he went to one of the star-image screens. He moved an
inconspicuous knob in a special fashion, and the star-image expanded
and expanded until what had been a second of arc or less filled all the
screen's surface. The effect of an incredibly powerful telescope was
obtained by the movement of one control. Keller restored the knob to
its original place and the image returned to its former scale. These
were the only actions which took place in the instrument-room.

In the lower part of the asteroid, not much more occurred. The entrance
to the power and storage areas was not hidden. It simply had not been
entered. Sandy and Holmes and Pam went gingerly down a corridor with
doors on either side, and then down a ramp, and then into huge caverns
filled with monstrous metal things. There was no sign of any motion
anywhere, but gigantic power-leads led from the machines to massive
switchboards, whose switches were thrown by relays operated from
somewhere else.

Then there were other caverns which must have contained many varieties
of stores. There were great cases, broken open and emptied. There were
bins with only dust at their bottoms. There were shelves containing
things which might have been textiles, but which crumbled at a touch.
Some thousands of years in an absolute vacuum would have evaporated any
substance giving any degree of flexibility. These objects were useless.
There was a great room with a singular hundred-foot-high machine in
it, but there was no vibration or sound to indicate that it was in
operation. This, Sandy said decisively, was the artificial-gravity
generator. She did not know how it worked. It would have been
indiscreet to experiment.

She led the way through relatively small corridors to areas in
which there were very many small compartments. These had been for
foodstuffs. But they were empty. They had been emptied when the
asteroid was abandoned.

Then they came to the crudely fashioned case with the cryptic symbols
on its front.

"This is the thing Joe mentioned," said Sandy. "They had writing.
They'd have to, to be civilized. But this is the only writing we've
seen. Why'd they write it?"

"To tell somebody something they'd miss, otherwise," Pam said.

"Who'd come down here? Why not put it at the ship-lock where people
could be expected to come?"

Holmes grunted. "Asking questions like that gets nowhere. It's like
asking how the garrison was supplied. There's no answer. Or how it
left."

Sandy said in a surprised voice, as if saying something she hadn't
realized she knew. "There were service ships. They serviced the
television eyes on the outside, and they drilled at launching missiles,
and so on. They were modified fighting ships, made over after ships
didn't fight any more."

She hesitated, then went on.

"It's odd that I didn't think of telling Joe this! Some of the food
supply came from Earth at the time my cube was made. As a quartermaster
officer, I was authorized to allow hunting on Earth in case of need.
So the serviceships went to Earth and came back with mammoths tied to
the outside of their hulls. They had to be re-hydrated, though. Frozen
though they were, they dried out in the long trip through vacuum from
Earth."

Then she shivered a little.

Pam looked at her strangely. Holmes raised his eyebrows. He'd had one
experience of training-cubes. Sandy'd had quite another. Holmes felt
that instinctive slight resentment a man feels when he lacks a position
of authority in the presence of a woman.

"In my time - in the cube's time - there was even a hunting camp on
Earth. Otherwise there simply wouldn't be enough to eat! Women were
clamoring to be sent to Earth to help with the food supply. To be sent
to hunt for food was a reward for exemplary service."

"Which is interesting," observed Holmes, "but irrelevant. How was the
asteroid normally supplied? How did the garrison leave? Where did it
come from? Where did it go? Maybe the answer's in this box. If it is,"
he added, "it'll be in the same language as the inscription, and we
can't read it."

Archaeologists on Earth would have been enraptured by any part of the
fortress, but anything which promised to explain as much as Holmes had
guessed the case could, would be a treasure past any price.

But the five people in the asteroid had much more immediate and much
more urgent problems to think of. They went on a little farther and
came to a storeroom which had been filled with something, but now held
only the remains of packing-cases. They looked ready to crumble if
touched.

"There used to be weapons stored here," Sandy said. "Hand-weapons. Not
for the defense of the fortress, but for the - discipline police. For
the men who kept the others obedient to orders."

"I'd be glad to have one operating pea-shooter," said Holmes.

Pam wrinkled her nose suddenly. She'd noticed something.

"I think - " she began, "I think - "

Holmes kicked at a shape which once was probably a case of wood or
something similar. It collapsed into impalpable dust. It had dried out
to absolute desiccation. It was stripped of every molecule which could
be extracted by a total vacuum in thousands of years. It was brittle
past imagining.

The collapse did not end with the object kicked. It spread. One case
bulged as the support of another failed. The bulged case disintegrated.
Its particles pressed on another. The dissolution spread fanwise until
nothing remained but a carpeting of infinitely fine brown stuff. In one
place, however, solid objects remained under the covering.

Holmes waded through the powder to the solid things. He brought them
up. A case of hand-weapons had collapsed, but the weapons themselves
kept their shape. They had transparent plastic barrels with curiously
formed metal parts inside them.

"These might be looked into," said Holmes.

He stuffed his pockets. The hand-weapons had barrels and handgrips and
triggers. They were made to shoot, somehow.

"I think - " began Pam again.

"Don't," growled Holmes. "Maybe Sandy remembers when this place was
different, but I've had enough of it as it is. Let's go back to the
ship and some fresh air."

"But that's what - "

Holmes turned away. Like the rest, he'd accepted great age, mentally,
as a part of the nature of the fortress. But the collapse of emptied
shipping-cases because they were touched was a shock. Where such
decay existed, one could not hope to find anything useful for a modern
emergency. He vanished.

Pam was indignant. She turned to Sandy.

"I wanted to say that I smelled fresh air," she protested. "And he acts
like that!"

Sandy was not listening. She frowned.

"He could lose his way down here," she said shortly. "We'd better keep
him in sight. I remember the way from my dream."

They followed Holmes, who did make his way back to the upper levels
and ultimately to the ship without guidance. But Pam was intensely
indignant.

"We could have gotten lost down there!" she said angrily when they
were back in familiar territory. "And he wouldn't have cared! And I
did smell fresh air! Not very fresh, but fresher than the aged and
dried-out stuff we're breathing now!"

"You couldn't," said Sandy practically. "There simply couldn't be any,
except in the ship where the hydroponic wall-gardens keep it fresh."

"But I did!" insisted Pam.

Sandy shrugged. They went into the ship, which Holmes had already
reached and where he sat gloomily beside a black cube. He would
have to sleep to get anything from it. There were only two of the
freakish-seeming metal caps which made the cubes intelligible to a man
awake, and Burke and Keller were using them. Holmes felt offended.

Sandy looked at a clock and began to prepare a meal. Pam, brooding,
helped her.

Burke and Keller came back to the ship together. Keller looked pale.
Burke seemed utterly grim.

"There's some stuff to be coded and sent back to Earth," he told Sandy.
"Keller's got it written out. We know how to work the instruments up


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