Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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way, his mind went automatically back to the coming destruction. It was
completely arbitrary. The Enemy had no reason to destroy the human race
in this solar system. Men, here, had lost all recollection of their
origin and assuredly all memory of enmities known before memory began.
If any tradition remained of the fortress, even, it would be hidden in
tales of a Golden Age before Pandora was, or of an Age of Innocence
when all things came without effort. Those stories were changed out of
all semblance to their foundations, of course, as ever-more-ignorant
and ever-more-unsophisticated generations retold them. Perhaps the
Golden Age was a garbled memory of a time when machines performed tasks
for men - before the machines wore out and could not be replaced without
other machines to make them. Perhaps the slow development of tools,
with which men did things that machines formerly did for them, blurred
the accounts of times when men did not need to use tools. Even the
everywhere-present traditions of a long, long journey in a boat - the
flood legends - might be the last trace of grand-sires' yarns about a
journey to Earth. It would have been modified by successive generations
who could not imagine a journey through emptiness, and therefore
devised a flood as a more scientific and reasonable explanation for
myths plainly overlaid with fantasy and superstition.

Burke went into the instrument-room as Sandy was asking, "But how did
they? We haven't found any ship-lock except the one we came in by! And
if a ship can't travel faster than light without wrapping artificial
mass about itself ..."

Holmes had taken off his helmet He said doggedly, "There's nothing
about ships in the cubes. Anyhow, the nearest other sun is four
light-years away. Nobody'd try to carry all the food a whole colony
would need from as far away as that! If they'd used ships for supply,
there'd have been hydroponic gardens all over the place to ease the
load the ships had to carry! There was some other way to get stuff
here!"

"Whatever it was, it didn't bring meat from Earth. That was hauled out,
fastened to the outside of service-boats."

"Another thing," Holmes said. "There were thousands of people in the
garrison, here. How did the air get renewed? Nobody's found any mention
of air-purifying apparatus in the cubes. There's been no sign of any!
An emergency air-supply, yes. It was let loose when we came into the
ship-lock. But there's no regular provision for purifying the air and
putting oxygen into it and breaking down the CO_{2}!"

"Won't anyone believe I smelled fresh air yesterday?" Pam asked
plaintively.

No one commented. It could not be believed. Burke handed Sandy one of
the weapons. He gave Pam a second.

"They work very much like the ship-drive, which was developed from
them. A battery in the handle energizes them so they use the heat they
contain to make a lethal punch without a kick-back. They'll get pretty
cold after a dozen or so shots."

He sat down and Holmes went on almost angrily, "The garrison had to get
food here. It didn't come in ships. They had to purify the air. They've
nothing to do it with! How did they manage?"

Keller smiled faintly. He pointed to a control on the wall.

"If that worked, we could ask. It is supposed to be communication with
base. It is turned on. Nothing happens."

"Do you know what I'm thinking?" demanded Holmes. "I'm thinking of a
matter-transmitter! It's been pointed out before that we'll never reach
the stars in spaceships limited to one light-speed. What good would be
voyages that lasted ten, twenty, or fifty years each way? But if there
could be matter-transmitters - "

Keller said gently, "Transmitters, no. Transposers, yes."

It was a familiar enough distinction. To break down an object into
electric charges and reconstitute it at some distant place would be a
self-defeating operation. It could have no actual value. To transmit
a hundred and fifty pounds of electric energy - the weight of a man
converted into current - would require the mightiest of bus-bars for a
conductor, and months of time if it was not to burn out from overload.
The actual transmission of mass as electric energy would be absurd.
But if an object could simply be transposed from one place to another;
if it could be translated from place to place; if it could undergo
substitution of surroundings.... That would be a different matter!
Transposition would be instantaneous. Translation would require no
time. Substitution of position - a man who was here this instant would
be there the next - would have no temporal aspect. Such a development
would make anything possible. A ship might undertake a voyage to
last a century. If a matter-transposer were a part of it, it could
be supplied with fuel and air and foodstuffs on its voyage. Its crew
could be relieved and exchanged whenever it was desired. And when it
made a planet-fall a hundred years and more from home, why, home would
still be just around the transposer. With matter-transposition an
interstellar civilization could arise and thrive, even though limited
to the speed of light for its ships. But a culture spread over hundreds
of light-years would be unthinkable without something permitting
instant communication between its parts.

"All right!" said Holmes doggedly. "Call them transposers! This
fortress had to be supplied. We've found no sign that ships were used
to supply it. It needed to have its air renewed and refreshed. We've
found no sign of anything but emergency stores of air in case some
unknown air-supply system failed. What's the matter with looking for a
matter-transposer?"

Burke said, "In a way, a telephone system transposes sound-waves from
one place to another. Sound-waves aren't carried along wires. They're
here, and then suddenly they're there. But there has to be a sending
and receiving station at each end. When the fortress here was 'cut off'
from home it could be that its supply-system broke down."

"Its air-system didn't," said Holmes. "It hadn't used up its emergency
air-supply. We're breathing it!"

"Anyhow we could try to find even a broken-down transposer," said Sandy.

"You try," said Burke. "Keller's been looking for something for me in
the cubes. I'll stay here and help him look."

Sandy examined the weapon he'd given her.

"Pam says she's smelled fresh air, down below where there can't be
any. Mr. Keller thought he saw movements in the inside vision-plates,
where there can't be any. I still believe I saw something alive in the
gravity-machine room, where such a thing is impossible. We're going to
look, Pam and I."

Holmes lumbered to his feet.

"I'll come, too. And I'll guarantee to defend you against anything that
has survived the ten thousand years or so that this place was without
air. My head's tired, after all those cubes."

He led the way. Burke watched as the two girls followed him and closed
the door behind them.

"What have you found, Keller?"

"A cube about globes," said Keller. "Very interesting."

"Nothing on communication with base?"

Keller shook his head.

Burke said evenly, "I figured out three chances for us - all slim ones.
The first was to find the garrison when the radio summons didn't and
get it or its descendants to help. I found the garrison - on Earth. No
help there. The second chance was finding the civilization that had
built this fortress. It looks like it's collapsed. There's been time
for a new civilization to get started, but it's run away. The third
chance is the slimmest of all. It's hooking together something to fight
with."

Keller reached out over the array of cubes that had been experienced by
Holmes and himself while using the helmets from the cube-library. One
cube had been set aside. Keller put it in place on the extra helmet and
handed it to Burke.

"Try it," said Keller.

Burke put the helmet on his head.

* * * * *

_He was in this same instrument-room, but he wore a uniform and he sat
at an instrument-board. He knew that there were drone service-boats
perhaps ten thousand miles out, perhaps a hundred. They'd been fitted
out to make a mock attack on the fortress. Counter-tactics men devised
them. There was reason for worry. Three times, now, drones pretending
to be Enemy ships had dodged past the screen of globes set out to
prevent just such an evasion. Once, one of the drones had gloatingly
touched the stone of the fortress' outer surface. This was triumph for
the counter-tactics crew, but it was proof that an Enemy ship could
have wiped out the fortress and all its garrison a hundred times over._

_Burke sweated. There was a speck with a yellow ring about it. It was
a globe, poised and ready to dart in any conceivable direction if an
Enemy detection-device ranged it. The globes did not go seeking an
Enemy. They placed themselves where they would be sought. They set
themselves up as targets. But when a radar-pulse touched them, they
flung themselves at its source, their reflex chooser-circuits pouring
incredible power into a beam of the same characteristics as the
radar-touch. That beam, of course, paralyzed or burned out the Enemy
device necessarily tuned to it. And the globes plunged at the thing
which had found them. They accelerated at a hundred and sixty gravities
and mere high explosive would be wasted if they carried it. Nothing
could stand their impact. Nothing!_

_But in drills three drones had dodged them. The counter-tactics men
understood the drones, of course, as it was hoped the Enemy did not.
But it should not be possible to get to the fortress! If the fortress
was vulnerable, so was the Empire. If the Empire was vulnerable,
the Enemy would wreck its worlds, blast its cities, exterminate its
population and only foulness would remain in the Galaxy._

_On the monitor-board a light flashed. A line of green light darted
across the screen. It was the path of a globe hurtling toward something
that had touched it with a radar-frequency signal. The acceleration of
the globe was breathtaking. It seemed to explode toward its target._

_But this globe hit nothing. It went on and on.... A second globe
sprang. It also struck nothing. It went away to illimitable emptiness.
Its path exactly crossed that of the first. A third and fourth and
fifth.... Each one flung itself ferociously at the source of some
trickle of radiation. Their trails crossed at exactly the same spot.
But there was nothing there...._

_Burke suddenly flung up a row of switches, inactivating the remaining
globes under his control. Five had flung themselves away, darting
at something which radiated but did not exist. Something which was
not solid. Which was not a drone ship impersonating an Enemy. They'd
attacked an illusion...._

_At the control-board. Burke clenched his fist and struck angrily at
the flat surface before him. An illusion! Of course!_

_Cunningly, he made adjustments. He had five globes left. He chose one
and changed the setting of its reflex chooser-circuit. It would ignore
radar frequencies now. It would pick up only stray radiation - induction
frequencies from a drone ship with its drive on._

_The globe's light flashed. A train of green fire appeared. A burst of
flame. A hit! The drone was destroyed. He swiftly changed the setting
of the reflex circuits of the rest. Two! Three! Three drones blasted in
twice as many seconds._

_He mopped his forehead. This was only a drill, but when the Enemy came
it would be the solution of such problems that would determine the
survival of the fortress and the destruction of the Enemy._

_He reported his success crisply._

* * * * *

Burke took off the helmet.

Keller said mildly, "What did he do?"

Burke considered.

"The drone, faking to be an enemy, had dumped something out into space.
Metal powder, perhaps. It made a cloud in emptiness. Then the drone
drew off and threw a radar-beam on the cloud of metal particles. The
beam bounced in all directions. When a globe picked it up, it shot
for the phony metal-powder target. It went right through and off into
space. Other globes fell for the same trick. When they were all gone,
the drones could have come right up to the fort."

He was almost interested. He'd felt, at least, the sweating earnestness
of an unknown member of this garrison, dead some thousands of years, as
he tried to make a good showing in a battle drill.

"So he changed the reflex circuits," Burke added. "He stopped his
globes from homing on radar frequencies. He made them home on
frequencies that wouldn't bounce." Then he said in surprise, "But they
didn't hit, at that! The drones blew up before the globes got to them!
They were exploding from the burning-out of all their equipment before
the globes got there!"

Keller nodded. He said sorrowfully, "So clever, our ancestors. But not
clever enough!"

"Of our chances," said Burke, "or what I think are chances, the least
promising seems to be the idea of trying to hook something together
to fight with." He considered, and then smiled very faintly. "You saw
movements you couldn't identify in the vision-plates? Sandy says she
saw something alive. I wonder if something besides us answered the
space-call and got into the fortress by a different way, and has been
hiding out, afraid of us."

Keller shook his head.

"I don't believe it either," admitted Burke. "It seems crazy. But it
might be true. It might. I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel for
solutions to our problem."

Keller shook his head again. Burke shrugged and went out of the
instrument-room. He went down the stairs and the first long corridor,
and past the long rows of emplacements in which were set the hunkering
metal monsters he'd cube-dreamed of using, but which would be of no
conceivable use against speeding, whirling, artificial-gravity fields
with the pull and the mass of suns.

He reached the last long gallery on which the ship-lock opened. He
saw the broad white ribbon of many strands of light, reaching away
seemingly without limit. And he saw a tiny figure running toward him.
It was Sandy. She staggered as she ran. She had already run past
endurance, but she kept desperately on. Burke broke into a run himself.

When he met her, she gasped, "Pam! She - vanished - down below! We
were - looking, and Pam cried out. We ran to her. Gone! And we - heard
noises! Noises! Holmes is searching now. She - screamed, Joe!"

Burke swung her behind him.

"Tell Keller," he commanded harshly. "You've got that hand-weapon? Hold
on to it! Bring Keller! We'll all search! Hurry!"

He broke into a dead run.

It might have seemed ironic that he should rush to help Sandy's sister
in whatever disaster had befallen her when they were facing the end of
the whole solar system. In cold blood, it couldn't be considered to
matter. But Burke ran.

He panted when he plunged down the ramp to the lower portions of
the asteroid. He reached the huge cavern in which the motionless
power-generator towered storeys high toward a light-laced ceiling.

"Holmes!" he shouted, and ran on. "Holmes!"

He'd been no farther than this, before, but he went on into tunnels
with only double lines of light-tubes overhead, and he shouted and
heard his own voice reverberating in a manner which seemed pure
mockery. But as he ran he continued to shout.

And presently Holmes shouted in return. There was a process of
untangling innumerable echoes, and ultimately they met. Holmes was
deathly white. He carried something unbelievable in his hands.

"Here!" he growled. "I found this. I cornered it. I killed it! What is
it? Did things like this catch Pam?"

Only a man beside himself could have asked such a question. Holmes
carried the corpse of a bird with mottled curly feathers. He'd wrung
its neck. He suddenly flung it aside.

"Where's Pam?" he demanded fiercely. "What the hell's happened to her?
I'll kill anything in creation that's tried to hurt her!"

Burke snapped questions. Inane ones. Where had Pam been last? Where
were Holmes and Sandy when they missed her? When she cried out?

Holmes tried to show him. But this part of the asteroid was a maze
of corridors with uncountable doorways opening into innumerable
compartments. Some of these compartments were not wholly empty, but
neither Burke nor Holmes bothered to examine machine-parts or stacks of
cases that would crumble to dust at a touch. They searched like crazy
men, calling to Pam.

Keller and Sandy arrived. They'd passed the corpse of the bird Holmes
had killed, and Keller was strangely white-faced. Sandy panted, "Did
you find her? Have you found any sign?"

But she knew the answer. They hadn't found Pam. Holmes was haggard,
desperate, filled with a murderous fury against whatever unnameable
thing had taken Pam away.

"Here!" snapped Burke. "Let's get some system into this! Here's the
case with the message-cube. It's our marker. We start from here! I'll
follow this cross corridor and the next one. You three take the next
three corridors going parallel. One each! Look in every doorway. When
we reach the next cross-corridor we'll compare notes and make another
marker."

He went along the way he'd chosen, looking in every door. Cryptic
masses of metal in one compartment. A heap of dust in another. Empty.
Empty. A pile of metal furniture. Another empty. Still another.

Holmes appeared, his hands clenching and unclenching. Sandy turned up,
struggling for self-control.

"Where's Keller?"

"I heard him call out," said Sandy breathlessly. "I thought he'd found
something and I hurried - "

He did not come. They shouted. They searched. Keller had disappeared.
They found the mark they'd started from and retraced their steps. Burke
heard Holmes swear startledly, but there were so many echoes he could
not catch words.

Sandy met Burke. Holmes did not. He did not answer shouts. He was gone.

"We stay together," said Burke in an icy voice. "We've both got
hand-weapons. Keep yours ready to fire. I've got mine. Whatever out
of hell is loose in this place, we'll kill it or it will kill us, and
then - "

He did not finish. They stayed close together, with Burke in the lead.

"We'll look in each doorway," he insisted. "Keep that pistol ready.
Don't shoot the others if you see them, but shoot anything else!"

"Y-yes," said Sandy. She swallowed.

It was nerve-racking. Burke regarded each doorway as a possible ambush.
He investigated each one first, making sure that the compartment
inside it was wholly empty. There was one extra-large archway to an
extra-large compartment, halfway between their starting point and the
next cross-corridor. It was obviously empty, though there was a large
metal plate on the floor. But it was lighted. Nothing could lurk in
there.

Burke inspected the compartment beyond, and the one beyond that.

He thought he heard Sandy gasp. He whirled, gun ready.

Sandy was gone.




Chapter 10


The star Sol was as bright as Sirius, but no brighter because it was
nearly half a light-year away and of course could not compare in
intrinsic brightness with that farther giant sun. The Milky Way glowed
coldly. All the stars shone without any wavering in their light, from
the brightest to the faintest tinted dot. The universe was round. There
were stars above and below and before and behind and to the right and
left. There was nothing which was solid, and nothing which was opaque.
There were only infinitely remote, unwinking motes of light, but there
were thousands of millions of them. Everywhere there were infinitesimal
shinings of red and blue and yellow and green; of all the colors that
could be imagined. Yet all the starlight from all the cosmos added
up to no more than darkness. The whitest of objects would not shine
except faintly, dimly, feebly. There was no warmth. This was deep
space, frigid beyond imagining; desolate beyond thinking; empty. It was
nothingness spread out in the light of many stars.

In such cold and darkness it would seem that nothing could be, and
there was nothing to be seen. But now and again a pattern of stars
quivered a little. It contracted a trace and then returned to its
original appearance. The disturbance of the star-patterns moved, as a
disturbance, in vast curved courses. They were like isolated ripplings
in space.

There seemed no cause for these ripplings. But there were powerful
gravitational fields in the void, so powerful as to warp space and bend
the starlight passing through them. These gravity-fields moved with an
incredible speed. There were ten of them, circling in a complex pattern
which was spread out as an invisible unit which moved faster than the
light their space-twisting violence distorted.

They seemed absolutely undetectable, because even such minute
light-ripplings as they made were left behind them. The ten ships which
created these monstrous force-fields were unbelievably small. They were
no larger than cargo ships on the oceans of one planet in the solar
system toward which they sped. They were less than dust particles in
infinity. They would travel for only a few more days, now, and then
would flash through the solar system which was their target. They
should reach its outermost planet - four light-hours away - and within
eight minutes more swing mockingly past and through the inner worlds
and the sun. They would cross the plane of the ecliptic at nearly a
right angle, and they should leave the planets and the yellow star Sol
in flaming self-destruction behind them. Then they would flee onward,
faster than the chaos they created could follow.

The living creatures on the world to be destroyed would have no
warning. One instant everything would be as it had always been. The
next, the ground would rise and froth out flames, and more than two
thousand million human beings would hardly know that anything had
occurred before they were destroyed.

There was no purpose to be served by notifying the world that it was
to die. The rulers of the nations had decided that it was kinder to
let men and women look at each other and rejoice, thinking they had
all their lives before them. It was kinder that children should be let
play valorously, and babies wail and instantly be tended. It was better
for humanity to move unknowing under blue and sunshine-filled skies
than that they should gaze despairingly up at white clouds, or in still
deeper horror at the shining night stars from which devastation would
presently come.

In the one place where there was foreknowledge, no attention at all
was paid to the coming doom. Burke went raging about brightly lighted
corridors, shouting horrible things. He cried out to Sandy to answer
him, and defied whatever might have seized her to dare to face him. He
challenged the cold stone walls. He raged up and down the gallery in
which she had vanished, and feverishly explored beyond it, and returned
to the place where she had disappeared, and pounded on solid rock to
see if there could be some secret doorway through which she had been
abducted. It seemed that his heart must stop for pure anguish. He knew
such an agony of frustration as he had never known before.

Presently method developed in his searching. Whatever had happened, it
must have been close to the tall archway with the large metal plate in
its floor and the brilliant lights overhead. Sandy could not have been
more than twenty feet from him when she was seized. When he heard her
gasp, he was at this spot. Exactly this spot. He'd whirled, and she was
gone. She could not have been farther than the door beyond the archway,
or else the one facing it. He went into the most probable one. It was a
perfectly commonplace storage-room. He'd seen hundreds of them. It was
empty. He examined it with a desperate intentness. His hands shook. His
whole body was taut. He moved jerkily.

Nothing. He crossed the corridor and examined the room opposite. There
was a bit of dust in one corner. He bent stiffly and fingered it.
Nothing. He came out, and there was the tall archway, brightly lighted.
The other compartments had no light-tubes. Being for storage only,
they would not need to be lighted except to be filled and emptied of
whatever they should contain. But the archway was very brilliantly
lighted.

He went into it, his hand-weapon shaking with the tension in him. There
was the metal plate on the floor. It was large - yards in extent. He
began a circuit of the walls. Halfway around, he realized that the
walls were masonry. Not native rock, like every other place in the
fortress. This wall had been made! He stared about. On the opposite


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