Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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above, now. My brain's reeling a little, but I think I'll stay sane.
Keller takes it in stride. And we know the trick the Enemy has."

Sandy put out plates for five.

"What is it?"

"Gravity," said Burke, evenly. "Artificial gravity. We don't know how
to make it, but the people who built this fortress did, and the Enemy
does. So they've made artificial-gravity fields to give their ships the
seeming mass of suns, and they've set them in close orbits around each
other. They'll come spinning into this solar system. What will happen
when objects with the mass of suns - artificial or otherwise - come
riding through between our sun and its planets? There'll be tidal
stresses to crack the planets and let out their internal fires.
There'll be no stability left in the sun. Maybe it'll be a low-grade
nova when they've gone, surrounded by trash that once was worlds.
Anyhow there'll be no humans left! And then the Enemy will go driving
on toward the other solar systems that the builders of this fortress
own. They can't conquer anything with a weapon like that, but they can
surely destroy!"

Keller nodded distressedly. He gave Pam a number of sheets of paper,
filled with his neat handwriting.

He said sorrowfully, "For Earth. In code."

Sandy served the meal she had prepared.

"It's a matter of days," said Burke curtly. "Not weeks. Just days."

He picked up a fork and began his meal.

"So," he said after a moment, with a sort of unnatural calm, "we've got
to get the thing licked fast. Up in the instrument-room there are some
theory-cubes - lectures on theories with which the operators of the room
were probably required to be familiar. They were intended to figure out
what the Enemy might come up with, so it could at least be reported
before the fortress was destroyed. The trick of sun-gravity fields
was suggested as possible, but it seemed preposterously difficult.
Apparently, it was. It took the Enemy some thousands of years to get
it. But they've got it, all right!"

"How do you know?" demanded Holmes.

"The disk with the red sparks in it," said Burke, "is a detector of
gravity-fields. It sees by gravity, which is not radiation. Keller's
sending instructions back to Earth telling how to make such detectors."

He busied himself with his food once more. After a moment he spoke

"We're going to try to get some help," he observed. "At least we'll try
to find out if there's any help to be had. I think there's a chance.
There was a civilization which built this fortress. Something happened
to it. Perhaps it simply collapsed, like Rome and Greece and Egypt and
Babylonia back on Earth. But on Earth when an old civilization died
a new, young one rose in its place. If the one that built this fort
collapsed, maybe a new one has risen in its stead. If so, it will need
to defend itself against the Enemy just like the old culture did. It
might prefer to do its fighting here, instead of in its own land. I
think we may be able to contact it."

"How'll you look for them?"

Burke shrugged.

"I've some faint hope of a few directions in that sealed-up metal case
with the inscription on it. I'm going to take some tools and break into
it. It's a gamble, but there's nothing to lose."

He ate briskly, with a good appetite. Sandy was very silent.

Pam said abruptly, "We saw that case. And I smelled fresh air there.
Not pure air like here in the ship, but not dead air like the air
everywhere else."

"Near a power generator, Pam, there'd be some ozone," Holmes said
patiently. "It makes a lot of difference."

"It wasn't ozone," said Pam firmly. "It was fresh air. Not canned air.

Holmes looked at Burke.

"Did you or Keller find out how the air's refreshed here? Did anybody
throw a switch for air apparatus?"

Keller said mildly, "Apparatus, no. Air exchange, yes. I threw switches
also for communication with base. Also emergency communication. Also
dire emergency. Nothing happened."

"You see, Pam?" said Holmes. "It was ozone that made the air smell

Sandy was wholly silent until the meal was over. Then Holmes went
moodily off with Keller, to use the cube-reading devices in the
instrument-room and try to find, against all apparent probability, some
clue or some communication which would enable something useful to be
done. Holmes was trying hard to believe that things were not as bad as
Burke announced, and not nearly so desperate that they had to try to
find the descendants of a long-vanished civilization for a chance to
offer resistance to the Enemy.

Keller said confidentially, just before they reached the
instrument-room, "Burke's an optimist."

And at that moment, back in the little plastic spaceship, Burke was
saying to Sandy, "You can come along if you like. There are a couple of
things to be looked into. And if you want to come, Pam - "

But Pam touched the papers Keller had given her and said reservedly,
"I'll code and send this stuff. Go ahead, Sandy."

Sandy rose. She followed Burke out of the ship. She was acutely aware
that this was the first time since they had entered the ship that she
and Burke could speak to each other when nobody could overhear. They'd
spoken twice when the others were presumably asleep. But this was the
first time they'd been alone.

When they'd passed through the door with the rounded corners, they were
completely isolated. Overhead, brilliant light-tubes reached a full
mile down the gallery in one direction, and half as far in the other.
The vast corridor contained nothing to make a sound but themselves.

"It's this way," said Burke.

Sandy knew the way as well as he did, or better, but she accepted his
direction. Their footsteps echoed and re√ęchoed, so that they were
accompanied by countless reflections of heel-clicks along with the
normal rustling and whispering sounds of walking.

They went a full quarter-mile from the ship-lock door, and came to a
very large arched opening which gave entrance to a corridor slanting

"Supplies came up this ramp," said Sandy.

It was a statement which should have been startling, but Burke nodded.

Sandy went on, carefully, "That cube about a supply-officer's duties
was pretty explicit. Things were getting difficult."

Burke did not seem to hear. They went on and on. They came to the place
where Keller had turned aside. Burke silently indicated the turning.
They moved along this other gallery.

"Joe," said Sandy pleadingly. "Is it really so bad?"

"Strictly speaking, I don't see a chance. But that's just the way it
looks now. There must be something that can be done. The trick is to
find it. Meantime, why panic?"

"You - act queer," protested Sandy.

"I feel queer," he said. "I know various ways to approach problems.
None of them apply to this one. You see, it isn't really our problem.
We're innocent bystanders, without information about the situation
that apparently will kill us and everybody back on Earth. If we knew
more about the situation, we might find some part of it that could
be tackled, changed. There may be something in this case - perhaps a
message left by the garrison for the people who sent them here. I can't
see why it'd be placed here, though."

He slowed, looking down one cross-gallery after another.

"Here it is."

They'd come to the clumsily-made case with the inscription on it.
It was placed against the wall of a corridor, facing the length of
another gallery which came from the side at this point. A little
distance down the other passage, the line of doors was broken by an
archway which gave upon a hewed-out compartment. The opening was wide
enough to show a fragment of a metal floor. There was no sign of any
contents. Other compartments nearby were empty. The placing of the
inscribed box was inexplicable. But the inscription was sharply clear.

"Maybe," suggested Sandy forlornly, "it says something like
'Explosives! Danger!'"

"Not likely," said Burke.

He'd examined the box before. He'd brought along a tool suited to the
job of opening it. He set to work, then stopped.

"Sandy," he said abruptly, "I think the gravity-generator's a couple
of corridors in that direction. Will you look and see if there are any
tools there that might be better than this? Just look for a place where
tools might be stored. If you find something, call me."

She went obediently down the lighted, excavated corridor. She reached
the vast cavern. Here there were myriad tube-lights glowing in the
ceiling - and the gravity machine. It was gigantic. It was six storeys
high and completely mysterious.

She looked with careful intentness for a place where tools might have
been kept by the machine's attendants.

She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned
there was nothing. There could be no movement in the fortress unless
by machinery or one of the five humans who'd come so recently. The
asteroid had been airless for ten thousand years. It was unthinkable
that anything alive, even a microbe, could have survived. So Sandy did
not think of a living thing as having made the movement. But movement
there had been.

She stared. There were totally motionless machines all about. None
of them showed any sign of stirring. Sandy swallowed the ache in her
throat and it returned instantly. She moved, to look where the movement
had been. She glanced at each machine in turn. One might have made some
automatic adjustment. She'd tell Burke.

She passed a fifteen-foot-high assembly of insulators and bright metal,
connected overhead to other cryptic things by heavy silvery bars. She
passed a cylinder with dials in its sides.

She saw movement again. In a different place. She spun around to look.

Something half the height of a man, with bird-legs and feet and
swollen plumage and a head with an oversized beak which was pure
caricature - something alive and frightened fled from her. It waddled in
ridiculous, panicky haste. It flapped useless stumps of wings. It fled
in terrified silence. It vanished.

The first thing that occurred to Sandy was that Burke wouldn't believe
her if she told him.

Chapter 9

Burke found her, rooted to the spot. He had a small metal box in his
hand. He didn't notice her pallor nor that she trembled.

"I may have something," he said with careful calm. "The case had this
in it. There's a black cube in the box. The case seems to have been
made to hold and call attention to this cube. I'll take it up to the
instrument-room and use a reader on it."

He led the way. Sandy followed, her throat dry. She knew, of course,
that he was under almost intolerable emotional strain. He'd brought her
along to be with her for a few moments, but he was so tense that he
could think of nothing personal to say. Now it was not possible for him
to talk of anything at all.

Yet Sandy realized that even under the stress that pressed upon him,
he'd asked her to go look for tools in the gravity-machine room because
she'd spoken of possible danger in the opening of the case. He'd gotten
her away while he opened it.

When they reached the ship-lock he said briefly, "I want to hurry,
Sandy. Wait for me in the ship?"

She nodded, and went to the small spacecraft which had brought them all
from Earth.

When she saw Pam, inside, she said shakily, "Is - anybody else here?"

"No," said Pam. "Why?"

Sandy sat down and shivered.

"I think," she said through chattering teeth, "I think I'm going to
have hysterics. L-listen, Pam! I - I saw something alive! It was like a
bird this high and big as a - There aren't any birds like that! There
can't be anything alive here but us! But I saw it! And it saw me and
ran away!"

Pam stared and asked questions, at first soothing ones. But presently
she was saying indignantly, "I do believe it! That's near the place
where I smelled fresh air!"

Of course, fresh air in the asteroid, two hundred and seventy million
miles from Earth, was as impossible as what Sandy had seen.

Holmes came in presently, depressed and tired. He'd been filling his
mind with the contents of black cubes. He knew how cooking was done in
the kitchens of the fortress, some eons since. He knew how to prepare
for inspection of the asteroid by a high-ranking officer. He was fully
conversant with the bugle-calls once used in the fortress in the place
of a public-address loud-speaker system. But he'd found no hint of how
the fortress received its supplies, nor how the air was freshened,
nor how reinforcements of men used to reach the asteroid. He was
discouraged and vexed and weary.

"Sandy," said Pam challengingly, "saw a live bird, bigger than a goose,
in the gravity-machine room."

Holmes shrugged.

"Keller's fidgeting," he observed, "because he thinks he's seen
movements in the vision-plates that show different inside views of this
thing. But he isn't sure that he's seen anything move. Maybe we're all
going out of our minds."

"Then Joe's closest," said Pam darkly. "He worries about Sandy!"

"And very reasonably," said Holmes tiredly. "Pam, this business of
figuring that there's something deadly on the way and nothing to do
about it - it's got me down!"

He slumped in a chair. Pam frowned at him. Sandy sat perfectly still,
her hands clenched.

Burke came back twenty minutes later. His expression was studiedly calm.

"I've found out where the garrison went," he said matter-of-factly.
"I'm afraid we can't get any help from them. Or anybody else."

Sandy looked at him mutely. He was completely self-controlled, and he
did not look like a man resolutely refusing to despair, but Sandy knew
him. To her it seemed that his eyes had sunk a little in his head.

"Apparently there's nobody left on the world the garrison came from,"
said Burke in the tone of someone saying perfectly commonplace things,
"so they didn't go back there and there's no use in our trying to make
a contact with that world. This was an outpost fortress, you know. It
was reached from somewhere far away, and carved out and armed to fight
an enemy that didn't attack it for itself, but to get at the world or
worlds that made it."

He continued with immoderate calm, "I believe the home world of that
civilization has two moons in its sky and something off at the horizon
that looks like a hill, but isn't."

"But - "

"The garrison left," explained Burke, "because it was abandoned. It was
left behind to stand off the Enemy, and the civilization it belonged to
moved away. It was left without supplies, without equipment, without
hope. It was left behind even without training to face abandonment,
because its members had been trained by black cubes and only knew how
to do their own highly special jobs by rote. They were just ordinary
soldiers, like the Roman detachments left behind when the legions
marched south from Hadrian's Wall and sailed for Gaul. So when there
was nothing left for them to do but leave their post or starve - because
they couldn't follow the civilization that had abandoned them - they
left. The cube in the box was a message they set up for their former
rulers and fellow-citizens if they ever returned. It's not a pretty

Sandy swallowed.

"Where'd they go? What happened to them?"

"They went to Earth," said Burke tonelessly. "By twos and fives and
dozens, in the service ships that came out with meat, and took back
passengers. The service ships had been assigned to bring out what meat
the hunting-parties could kill. They took back men who were fighters
and ready to face mammoths or sabre tooth tigers or anything else.
Just the same, they left a transmitter to call them back if the Enemy
ever came again. But it didn't come in their lifetimes, and their
descendants forgot. But the transmitter remembered. It called to them.
And - we were the ones to answer!"

Sandy hesitated a moment.

"But if the garrison went to Earth," she said dubiously, "what became
of them? There aren't any traces - "

"We're traces," said Burke. "They were our ancestors of ten or twenty
thousand years ago. They couldn't build a civilization. They were
fighting men! Could the Romans left behind at Hadrian's Wall keep up
the culture of Rome? Of course not! The garrison went to Earth and
turned savage, and their children's children's children built up a new
civilization. And for here and for now, we're it. We've got to face the
Enemy and drive him back."

He stopped, and said in a tone that was almost completely steady and
held no hint of despair, "It's going to be quite a job. But it's an
emergency. We've got to manage it somehow."

There was also an emergency on Earth, not simplified as in space
by having somebody like Burke accept the burden of meeting it. The
emergency stemmed from the fact that despite the best efforts of the
air arm of the United States, Burke and the others had gotten out to
space. They'd reached the asteroid M-387. Naturally. The United States
thereupon took credit for this most creditable achievement. Inevitably.
And it was instantly and frantically denounced for suspected
space-imperialism, space-monopoly, and intended space-exploitation.

But when Keller's painstaking instructions for the building of
gravity-field detectors reached Earth, these suspicions seemed less
plausible. The United States passed on the instructions. The basic
principle was so new that nobody could claim it, but it was so simple
that many men felt a wholesome shame that they had not thought of it
before. Nobody could question a natural law which was so obvious once
it was stated. And the building of the device required next to no time
at all.

Within days then, where the asteroid had a single ten-foot instrument,
the United States had a ten-foot, a thirty-foot and a sixty-foot
gravity-field detector available to qualified researchers. The new
instruments gave data such as no astronomer had ever hoped for
before. The thirty-foot disk, tuned for short range, pictured every
gravitational field in the solar system. A previously unguessed-at
Saturnian moon, hidden in the outer ring, turned up. All the asteroids
could be located at one instant. The mystery of the inadequate mass of
Pluto was solved within hours of turning on the thirty-foot device.

When the sixty-foot instrument went on, scaled to take in half a
hundred light-years of space, the solar system was a dot on it. But
four dark stars, one with planets, and twenty-odd planetary systems
were mapped within a day. On that same day, though, a query went back
to Keller. What, said the query, was the meaning of certain crawling,
bright-red specks in mathematically exact relationship to each other,
which were visibly in motion and much closer to Earth than Alpha
Centaurus? Alpha Centaurus had always been considered the closest of
all stars to Earth. Under magnification the bright-red sparks wove and
interwove their paths as if about a common center of gravity. If such a
thing were not impossible, it would be guessed that they were suns so
close together as to revolve about one another within hours. Even more
preposterously, they moved through space at a rate which was a multiple
of the speed of light. Thirty light-speeds, of course, could not be.
And the direction of their motion seemed to be directly toward the
glowings which represented the solar system containing Earth. All this
was plainly absurd. But what was the cause of this erroneous report
from the new device?

Keller wrote out very neatly, "_The instrument here shows the same
phenomenon. Its appearance much farther away triggered the transmitter
here to send the first signals to Earth. Data suggests red dots
represent artificial gravity-fields strong enough to warp space and
produce new spatial constants including higher speed for light, hence
possible higher speed for spacecraft carrying artificial gravity
generators. Request evaluation this possibility._"

Pam coded it and sent it to Earth. And presently, on Earth, astronomers
looked at each other helplessly. Because Keller had stated the only
possible explanation. Objects like real suns, if so close together,
would tear each other to bits and fuse in flaming novas. Moreover,
the pattern of motion of the red-spark-producing objects could not
have come into being of itself. It was artificial. There was a group
of Things in motion toward Earth's solar system. They would arrive
within so many days. They were millions of miles apart, but their
gravity-fields were so strong that they orbited each other within
hours. If they had gravity-fields, they had mass, which could be as
artificial as their gravity. And, whirling about each other in the
maddest of dances, ten suns passing through the human solar system
could leave nothing but debris behind them.

Oddly enough, the ships that made those gravity-fields might be so
small as to be beyond the power of a telescope to detect at a few
thousand miles. The destruction of all the solar planets and the sun
itself might be accomplished by motes. They would not need to use power
for destruction. Gravitation is not expended any more than magnetism,
when something is attracted by it. The artificial gravity-fields would
only need to be built up. They had been. Once created, they could exist
forever without need for added power, just as the sun and planets do
not expend power for their mutual attraction, and as the Earth parts
with no energy to keep its moon a captive.

The newspapers did not publish this news. But, very quietly, every
civilized government on Earth got instructions for the making of a
gravity-field detector. Most had them built. And then for the first
time in human history there was an actual and desperately honest
attempt to poll all human knowledge and all human resources for a
common human end. For once, no eminent figure assumed the undignified
pose involved in standing on one's dignity. For once, the public
remained unworried and undisturbed while the heads of states aged

Naturally some of the people in the secret frantically demanded that
the five in the fortress solve the problem all the science of Earth
could not even attack. Incredible lists of required information items
went out to Burke and Keller and Holmes. Keller read the lists calmly
and tried to answer the questions that seemed to make sense. Holmes
doggedly spent all his time experiencing cubes in the hope that by
sheer accident he might come upon something useful. Pam, scowling,
coded and decoded without pause. And Sandy looked anxiously at Burke.

"I'm going to ask you to do something for me," she said. "When we went
down to the Lower Levels, I thought I saw something moving. Something

"Nerves," said Burke. "There couldn't be anything alive in this place.
Not after so many years without air."

"I know," acknowledged Sandy. "I know it's ridiculous. But Pam's felt
creepy, too, as if there were something deadly somewhere in the rooms
we've never been in."

Burke moved his head impatiently. "Well?"

"Holmes found some hand-weapons," said Sandy. "They don't work, of
course. Will you fix one for Pam and one for me so that they do?" She
paused and added, "Of course it doesn't matter whether we're frightened
or not, considering. It doesn't even matter whether there is something
alive. It doesn't matter if we're killed. But it would be pleasant not
to feel defenseless."

Burke shrugged. "I'll fix them."

She put three of the transparent-barreled weapons before him and said,
"I'm going up to the instrument-room and help Pam with her coding."

She went out. Burke took the three hand-weapons and looked at them
without interest. But in a technician of any sort there is always some
response to a technical problem. A trivial thing like a hand-weapon
out of order could hold Burke's attention simply because it did not
refer to the coming disaster.

He loosened the hand-grip plates and looked at the completely simple
devices inside the weapons. There was a tiny battery, of course. In
thousands of years its electrolyte had evaporated. Burke replaced
it from the water stores of the ship. He did the same to the other
two weapons. Then, curious, he stepped out of the ship's air-lock
and aimed at the ship-lock wall. He pressed the trigger. There was a
snapping sound and a fragment of rock fell. He tried the others. They
fired something. It was not a bullet. The barrels of the weapons, on
inspection, were not hollow. They were solid. The weapons fired a
thrust, a push, an immaterial blow which was concentrated on a tiny
spot. They punched, with nothing solid to do the punching.

"Probably punch a hole right through a man," said Burke, reflectively.

He took the three weapons and went toward the instrument-room. On the

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