Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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wall there was a small thing with a handle on it, to be moved up or
down. It was a round metal disk with a handle, set in the masonry.

He flung himself across the room to examine it. He was filled with
terror for Sandy, which would turn into more-than-murderous fury if
he found her harmed. The metal floor-plate lay between. He stepped
obliviously on the plate....

The universe dissolved around him. The brightly lit masonry wall
became vague and misty. Simultaneously quite other things appeared
mistily, then solidified.

He was abruptly in the open air, with a collapsed and ruined structure
about and behind him. This was not emptiness, but the surface of a
world. Over his head there was a sunset sky. Before him there was
grass, and beyond that a horizon, and to his left there was collapsed
stonework and far off ahead there was a hill which he knew was not a
natural hill at all. There was a moon in the sky, a half-moon with
markings that he remembered. There were trees, too, and they were trees
with long, ribbony leaves such as never grew on Earth.

He stood frozen for long instants, and a second, smaller moon came up
rapidly over the horizon and traveled swiftly across the sky. It was
jagged and irregular in shape.

Then flutings came from somewhere to his rear. They were utterly
familiar sounds. They had distinctive pitch, which varied from one
to another, and they were of different durations like half-notes and
quarter-notes in music. And they had a plaintive quality which could
have been termed elfin.

All this was so completely known to him that it should have been
shocking, but he was in such an agony of fear for Sandy that he could
not react to it. His terror for her was breath-stopping. He held his
weapon ready in his hand. He tried to call her name, but he could not
speak.

The long, ribbony leaves of the trees waved to and fro in a gentle
breeze. And then Burke saw a figure running behind the swaying foliage.
He knew who it was. The relief was almost greater pain than his terror
had been. It was such an emotion as Burke had experienced only feebly,
even in his recurrent dream. He gave a great shout and bounded forward
to meet Sandy, crying out again as he ran.

Then he had his arms about her, and she clung to him with that
remarkable ability women have to adapt themselves to circumstances
they've been hoping for, even when they come unexpectedly. He kissed
her feverishly, panting incoherent things about the fear he'd felt,
holding her fast.

Presently somebody tugged at his elbow. It was Holmes. He said drily,
"I know how you feel, Burke. I acted the same way just now. But there
are things to be looked into. It'll be dark soon and we don't know how
long night lasts here. Have you a match?"

Pam regarded the two of them with a peculiar glint of humor in her
eyes. Keller was there too, still shaken by an experience which for
him had no emotional catharsis attached.

Burke partly released Sandy and fumbled for his cigarette lighter. He
felt singularly foolish, but Sandy showed no trace of embarrassment.

"There was a matter-transposer," she said, "and we found it, and we all
came through it."

Keller said awkwardly, "I turned on the communicator to base. It must
have been a matter-transposer. I thought, in the instrument-room, that
it was only a communicator."

Holmes moved away. He came back bearing broken sticks, which were limbs
fallen from untended trees. He piled them and went back for more. In
minutes he had a tiny fire and a big pile of branches to keep it up,
but he went back for still more.

"It works both ways," observed Sandy. "Or something does! There must be
another metal plate here to go to the fortress. That huge, crazy bird I
saw in the gravity-generator room must have come from here. He probably
stepped on the plate because it was brightly lighted and - "

"You've got your pistol?" demanded Burke.

The sunset sky was darkening. The larger, seemingly stationary moon
floated ever-so-slightly nearer to the zenith. The small and jagged
moon had gone on out of sight.

"I have," said Sandy. "Pam gave hers to Holmes. But that's all right.
There won't be savages. Over there, beyond the trees, there's a metal
railing, impossibly old and corroded. But no savage would leave metal
alone. I don't think there's anybody here but us."

Burke stared at something far away that looked like a hill.

"There's a building, or the ruins of one. No lights. No smoke. Savages
would occupy it. We're alone, all right! I wonder where? We could be
anywhere within a hundred or five hundred light-years from Earth."

"Then," said Sandy comfortably, "we should be safe from the Enemy."

"No," said Burke. "If the Enemy has an unbeatable weapon, destroying
one solar system won't be enough. They'll smash every one that humanity
ever used. Which includes this one. They'll be here eventually. Not at
once, but later. They'll come!"

He looked at the small fire. There were curious, familiar fragrances in
the air. Over to the west the sun sank in a completely orthodox glory
of red and gold. The larger moon swam serenely in the sky.

"I'm afraid," said Pam, "that we won't eat tonight unless we can
get back to the fortress and the ship. I guess we're farther from
our dinners than most people ever get. Did you say five hundred
light-years?"

"Ask Keller," grunted Burke. "I've got to think."

Far off in the new night there was something like a birdsong, though
it might come from anything at all. Much nearer there were peculiarly
maternal clucking noises. They sounded as if they might come from a
bird with a caricature of a bill and stumpy, useless wings. There was
a baying noise, very far away indeed, and Burke remembered that the
ancestry of dogs on Earth was as much a mystery as the first appearance
of mankind. There were no wild ancestors of either race. Perhaps there
had been dogs with the garrison of the fortress, which might be five
hundred light-years away, in one sense, but could not be more than a
few yards, in another.

Holmes squatted by the fire and built it up to brightness. Keller came
back to the circle of flickering light. His forehead was creased.

"The constellations," he said unhappily. "They're gone!"

"Which would mean," Burke told him absently, "that we're more than
forty light-years from home. They'd all be changed at that distance."

Holmes seated himself beside Pam. They had reached an obvious
understanding. Burke's eyes wandered in their direction. Holmes began
to speak in a low tone, and Pam smiled at him. Burke jerked his head to
stare at Sandy.

"I think I forgot something. Should I ask you again to marry me? Or
do I take it for granted that you will? - if we live through this?"
He didn't wait for her answer. "Things have changed, Sandy," he said
gruffly. "Mostly me. I've gotten rid of an obsession and acquired a
fixation - on you."

"There," said Sandy warmly, "there speaks my Joseph! Yes, I'll marry
you. And we will live through this! You'll figure something out, Joe. I
don't know how, but you will!"

"Yes-s-s," said Burke slowly. "Somehow I feel that I've got something
tucked away in my head that should apply. I need to get it out and look
it over. I don't know what it is or where it came from, but I've got
something...."

He stared into the fire, Sandy nestled confidently against him. She
put her hand in his. The wind blew warm and softly through the trees.
Presently Holmes replenished the fire.

Burke looked up with a start as Sandy said, "I've thought of something,
Joe! Do you remember that dream of yours? I know what it was!"

"What?"

"It came from a black cube," said Sandy, "which was a cube that
somebody from the garrison took to Earth. And what kind of cube would
they take? They wouldn't take drill-instruction cubes! They wouldn't
take cubes telling them how to service the weapons or operate the
globes or whatever else the fortress has! Do you know what they'd take?"

He shook his head.

"Novels," said Sandy. "Fiction stories. Adventure tales. To - experience
on long winter evenings or even asleep by a campfire. They were
fighting men, Joe, those ancestors of ours. They wouldn't care about
science, but they'd like a good, lusty love story or a mystery or
whatever was the equivalent of a Western twenty thousand years ago. You
got hold of a page in a love story, Joe!"

"Probably," he growled. "But if I ever dream it again I'll know who's
behind those waving branches. You." Then, surprised, he said, "There
were flutings when I came through the matter-transposer. They've
stopped."

"They sounded when I came through, too. And when Pam and Holmes and
Keller came. Do you know what I think they are?" Sandy smiled up at
him. "'_You have arrived on the planet Sanda. Surface-travel facilities
to the left, banking service and baggage to the right, tourist
accommodations and information straight ahead._' We may never know,
Joe, but it could be that!"

He made an inarticulate sound and stared at the fire again. She fell
silent. Soon Keller was dozing. Holmes strode away and came back
dragging leafy branches. He made a crude lean-to for Pam, to reflect
back the warmth of the fire upon her. She curled up, smiled at him,
and went confidently to sleep. A long time later Sandy found herself
yawning. She slipped her fingers from Burke's hand and settled down
beside Pam.

Burke seemed not to notice. He was busy. He thought very carefully,
running through the information he'd received from the black cubes.
He carefully refrained from thinking of the desperate necessity for a
solution to the problem of the Enemy. If it was to be solved, it would
be by a mind working without strain, just as a word that eludes the
memory is best recalled when one no longer struggles to remember it.

Twice during the darkness Holmes regarded the blackness about them with
suspicion, his hand on the small weapon Pam had passed to him. But
nothing happened. There were sounds like bird calls, and songs like
those of insects, and wind in the trees. But there was nothing else.

When gray first showed in the east, Burke shook himself. The jagged
small moon rose hurriedly and floated across the sky.

"Holmes," said Burke reflectively. "I think I've got what we want. You
know how artificial gravity's made, what the circuit is like."

To anybody but Holmes and Keller, the comment would have seemed
idiotic. It would have seemed insane even to them, not too long before.
But Holmes nodded.

"Yes. Of course. Why?"

"There's a chooser-circuit in the globes," said Burke carefully, "that
picks up radiation from an Enemy ship, and multiplies it enormously and
beams it back. The circuit that made the radiation to begin with has to
be resonant to it, as the globe burns it out while dashing down its own
beam."

"Naturally," said Holmes. "What about it?"

"The point is," said Burke, "that one _could_ treat a suddenly
increasing gravity-field as radiation. Not a stationary one, of course.
But one that increased, fast. Like the gravity-fields of the Enemy
ships, moving faster than light toward our sun."

"Hmmmm," said Holmes. "Yes. That could be done. But hitting something
that's traveling faster than light - "

"They're traveling in a straight line," said Burke, "except
for orbiting around each other every few hours. There's no
faster-than-light angular velocity; just straight-line velocity. And
with the artificial mass they've got, they couldn't conceivably dodge.
If we got some globes tricked up to throw a beam of gravity-field back
at the Enemy ships, there might be resonance, and there's a chance that
one might hit, too."

Holmes considered.

"It might take half an hour to change the circuit," he observed. "Maybe
less. There'd be no way in the world to test them. But they might work.
We'd want a lot of them on the job, though, to give the idea a fair
chance."

Burke stood up, creaking a little from long immobility.

"Let's hunt for the way back to the fortress," he said. "There is a
way. At least two crazy birds were marching around in the fortress'
corridors."

Holmes nodded again. They began a search. Matter transposed from
the fortress - specifically, the five of them - came out in a nearly
three-walled alcove in the side of what had once been a magnificent
building. Now it was filled with the trunks and stalks of trees and
vines which grew out of every window-opening. There were other, similar
alcoves, as if other matter-transposers to other outposts or other
worlds had been centered here. They were looking for one that a plump,
ridiculous bird might blunder into among the broken stones.

They found a metal plate partly arched-over by fallen stones in the
very next alcove. They hauled at the tumbled rock. Presently the way
was clear.

"Come along!" called Burke. "We've got a job to do! You girls want
to fix breakfast and we want to get to work. We've a few hundred
light-years to cross before we can have our coffee."

Somehow he felt no doubt whatever. The five of them walked onto
the corroded metal plate together, and the sky faded and ghosts of
tube-lights appeared and became brilliant, and they stepped off the
plate into a corridor one section removed from the sending-transposer
which had translated them all, successively, to wherever they had been.

And everything proceeded matter-of-factly. The three men went to the
room where metal globes by hundreds waited for the defenders of the
fortress to make use of them. They were completely practical, those
globes. There were even small footholds sunk into their curving sides
so a man could climb to their tops and inspect or change the apparatus
within.

On the way, Burke explained to Keller. The globes were designed to
be targets, and targets they would remain. They'd be set out in the
path of the coming Enemy ships, which could not vary their courses.
Their circuits would be changed to treat the suddenly increasing
gravitational fields as radiation, so that they would first project
back a monstrous field of the same energy, and then dive down it to
presumed collision with the ships. There was a distinct possibility
that if enough globes could be gotten out in space, that at the
least they might hit one enemy ship and so wreck the closely orbited
grouping. From that reasonable first possibility, the chances grew
slimmer, but the results to be hoped for increased.

Keller nodded, brightly. He'd used the reading helmets more than
anybody else. He understood. Moreover, his mind was trained to work in
just this field.

When they reached the room of the many spheres he gestured for Burke
and Holmes to wait. He climbed the footholds of one globe, deftly
removed its top, and looked inside. The conductors were three-inch bars
of pure silver. He reached in and did this and that. He climbed down
and motioned for Burke and Holmes to look.

It took them long seconds to realize what he'd done. But with his
knowledge of what could be done, once he was told what was needed,
he'd made exactly three new contacts and the globe was transformed to
Burke's new specifications.

Instead of days required to modify the circuits, the three of them
had a hundred of the huge round weapons changed over within an hour.
Then Keller went up to the instrument-room and painstakingly studied
the launching system. He began the launchings while Holmes and Burke
completed the change-over task. They joined him in the instrument-room
when the last of the metal spheres rose a foot from the stony floor of
the magazine and went lurching unsteadily over to the breech of the
launching-tube they hadn't noticed before.

"Three hundred," said Keller in a pleased tone, later. "All going
out at full acceleration to meet the Enemy. And there are six
observer-globes in the lot."

"Observers," said Burke grimly. "That's right. We can't observe
anything because the information would come back at the speed of light.
But if we lose, the Enemy will arrive before we can know we've lost."

Keller shook his head reproachfully.

"Oh, no! Oh, no! I just understood. There are transposers of electric
energy, too. Very tiny. In the observers."

Burke stared. But it was only logical. If matter could be transposed
instead of transmitted between distant places, assuredly miniature
energy-transposers were not impossible. The energy would no more travel
than transposed matter would move. It would be transposed. The fortress
would see what the observer-globes saw, at the instant they saw it, no
matter what the distance!

Keller glanced at the ten-foot disk with its many small lights and the
writhing bright-red sparks which were the Enemy gravity-ships. There
was something like a scale of distances understood, now. The red sparks
had been not far from the disk's edge when the first space call went
out to Earth. They were nearer the center when the spaceship arrived
here. They were very, very near the center now.

"Five days," said Burke in a hard voice. "Where will the globes meet
them?"

"They're using full acceleration," Keller reminded him gently. "One
hundred sixty gravities."

"A mile a second acceleration," said Burke. Somehow he was not
astonished. "In an hour, thirty-six hundred miles per second. In ten
hours, thirty-six thousand miles per second. If they hit at that
speed, they'd smash a moon! They'll cover half a billion miles in ten
hours - but that's not enough! It's only a fifth of the way to Pluto!
They won't be halfway to Uranus!"

"They'll have fifty-six hours," said Keller. The need to communicate
clearly made him almost articulate. "Not on the plane of the ecliptic.
Their course is along the line of the sun's axis. Meeting, seven times
Pluto's distance. Twenty billion miles. Two days and a half. If they
miss we'll know."

Holmes growled, "If they miss, what then?"

"I stay here," said Keller, mildly. "I won't outlive everybody. I'd be
lonely." Then he gave a quick, embarrassed smile. "Breakfast must be
ready. We can do nothing but wait."

But waiting was not easy.

On the first day there came a flood of messages from Earth. Why had
they cut off communication? Answer! Answer! Answer! What could be done
about the Enemy ships? What could be done to save lives? If a few
spaceships could be completed and take off before the solar system
shattered, would the asteroid be shattered too? Could a few dozen
survivors of Earth hope to make their way to the asteroid and survive
there? Should the coming doom be revealed to the world?

The last question showed that the authorities of Earth were rattled.
It was not a matter for Burke or Keller or Holmes to decide. They
transmitted, in careful code, an exact description of the sending of
the globes to try to intercept the Enemy gravity-ships. But it was
not possible for people with no experiential knowledge of artificial
gravity to believe that anything so massive as a sun could be destroyed
by hurling a mere ten-foot missile at it!

Then there came a sudden revulsion of feeling on Earth. The truth was
too horrible to believe, so it was resolved not to believe it. And
therefore prominent persons broke into public print, denouncing Burke
for having predicted the end of the world from his safe refuge in
Asteroid M-387. They explained elaborately how he must be not only
wrong but maliciously wrong.

But these denunciations were the first knowledge the public had
possessed of the thing denounced. Some people instantly panicked
because some people infallibly believe the worst, at all times. Some
shared the indignation of the eminent characters who denounced Burke.
Some were bewildered and many unstable persons vehemently urged
everybody to do this or that in order to be saved. Get-rich-artists
sold tickets in non-existent spacecraft they claimed had secretly been
built in anticipation of the disaster. They would accept only paper
currency in small bills. What value paper money would have after the
destruction of Earth was not explained, but people paid it. Astronomers
swore quite truthfully that no telescope gave any sign of the alleged
sun-sized masses en route to destroy Earth. Government officials
heroically lied in their throats to reassure the populace because,
after all, one didn't want the half-civilized part of educated nations
to run mad during Earth's probable last few days.

And Burke and the others looked at the images sent back by the
observer-globes traveling with the rest. The cosmos looked to the
observer-globes just about the way it did from the fortress. There were
innumerable specks of light of innumerable tints and colors. There was
darkness. There was cold. And there was emptiness. The globe-fleet
drove on away from the sun and from that flat plane near which all the
planets revolve. Every second the spheres' pace increased by one mile
per second. Ten hours after Keller released them, they had covered
five hundred eighty-eight thousand thousand miles and the sun still
showed as a perceptible disk. Twenty hours out, the globes had traveled
two billion six hundred million miles and the sun was the brightest
star the observers could note. Thirty hours out, and the squadron of
ten-foot globes had traveled five billion eight hundred thirty-odd
million miles and the sun was no longer an outstanding figure in the
universe.

Houses looked fine-drawn, now, and Pam was fidgety. Keller appeared to
be wholly normal. And Sandy was conspicuously calm.

"I'll be glad when this is over," she said at dinner in the ship in the
lock-tunnel. "I don't think any of you realize what this fortress and
the matter-transposer and the planet it took us to - I don't believe any
of you realize what such things can mean to people."

Burke waited. She smiled at him and said briskly, "There's a vacant
planet for people to move to. People occupied it once. They can do it
again. Once it had a terrific civilization. This fortress was just one
of its outposts. There were plenty of other forts and other planets,
and the people had sciences away ahead of ours. And all those worlds,
tamed and ready, are waiting right now for us to come and use them."

Holmes said, "Yes? What happened to the people who lived on them?"

"If you ask me," said Sandy confidentially, "I think they went the way
of Greece and Rome. I think they got so civilized that they got soft.
They built forts instead of fighting fleets. They stopped thinking of
conquests and begrudged even thinking of defenses, though they had to,
after a fashion. But they thought of things like the Rhine forts of
the Romans, and Hadrian's Wall. Like the Great Wall of China, and the
Maginot Line in France. When men build forts and don't build fighting
fleets, they're on the way down."

Burke said nothing. Holmes waited for more.

"It's my belief," said Sandy, "that many, many centuries ago the
people who built this fort sent a spaceship off somewhere with a
matter-transposer on board. They replaced its crew while it traveled
on and on, and they gave it supplies, and refreshed its air, and
finally it arrived somewhere at the other side of the Galaxy. And then
the people here set up a matter-transposer and they all moved through
it to the new, peaceful, lovely world they'd found. All except the
garrison that was left behind. The Enemy would never find them there!
And I think they smashed the matter-transposer that might have let the
Enemy follow them - or the garrison of this fort, for that matter! And I
think that away beyond the Milky Way there are the descendents of those
people. They're soft, and pretty, and useless, and they've likely let
their knowledge die, and there probably aren't very many of them left.
And I think it's good riddance!"

Pam said, "If we beat the Enemy there'll be no excuse for wars on
Earth. There'll be worlds enough to take all the surplus population
anybody can imagine. There'll be riches for everybody. Joe, what do you
think the human race will do for you if, on top of finding new worlds
for everybody, you cap it by defeating the Enemy with the globes?"

"I think," said Burke, "that most people will dislike me very much.
I'll be in the history books, but I'll be in small print. People who
can realize they're obligated will resent it, and those who can't will
think I got famous in a disreputable fashion. In fact, if we go back
to Earth, I'll probably have to fight to keep from going bankrupt. If
I manage to get enough money for a living, it'll be by having somebody
ghost-write a book for me about our journey here."

Keller interrupted mildly, "It's nearly time. We should watch."

Holmes stood up jerkily. Pam and Sandy rose almost reluctantly.


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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 13 of 14)