Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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Burke listened with a peculiarly tense expression on his face. When the
recording ended, he looked at Sandy.

Sandy was disturbed. "They're alike. But Joe, how did it happen?"

"I'll tell you later," he said grimly. "The important thing is, am I
crazy or not?"

The desk radio muttered. It was an hourly news broadcast. Burke turned
it up and a voice boomed:

"_... one o'clock news. Messages have been received from space in the
century's most stupendous news event! Full details will follow a word
from our sponsor._"

There followed an ardent description of the social advantage, personal
satisfaction and business advancement that must instantly follow the
use of a particular intestinal regulator. The commercial ended.

"_From deepest space_," boomed the announcer's voice, "_comes a
mystery! There is intelligent life in the void. It has communicated
with us. Today - _"

Because of the necessity to give the later details of a cafe-society
divorce case, a torch murder and a graft scandal in a large city's
municipal budget, the signals from space could not be fully treated in
the five-minute hourly news program. But fifteen seconds were spared
for a sample of the cryptic sounds from emptiness. Burke listened to
them with a grim expression.

"I think," he said measuredly, "that I am sane. I have heard those
noises before tonight. I know them - I'll take you home, Sandy."

He ushered her out of the office and into his car.

"It's funny," he said as he drove back toward the highway. "This is
probably the beginning of the most important event in human history.
We've received a message from an intelligent race that can apparently
travel through space. There's no way in the world to guess what it will
bring about. It could be that we're going to learn sciences to make
old Earth a paradise. Or it could mean that we'll be wiped out and a
superior race will take over. Funny, isn't it?"

Sandy said unsteadily, "No. Not funny."

"I mean," said Burke, "when something really significant happens,
which probably will determine Earth's whole future, all I worry about
is myself - that I'm crazy, or a telepath, or something. But that's
convincingly human!"

"What do you think I worry about?" asked Sandy.

"Oh ..." Burke hesitated, then said uncomfortably, "I was going to
propose to you, and I didn't."

"That's right," said Sandy. "You didn't."

Burke drove for long minutes, frowning.

"And I won't," he said flatly, after a time, "until I know it's all
right to do so. I've no explanation for what's kept me from proposing
to you up to now, but apparently it's not nonsense. I _did_ anticipate
the sounds that came in tonight from space and - I've always known those
sounds didn't belong on Earth."

Then, driving doggedly through a warm and moonlit night, he told
her exactly why the fluting sounds were familiar to him; how they'd
affected his life up to now. He'd mentally rehearsed the story,
anyhow, and it was reasonably well arranged. But told as fact, it was
preposterous.

She listened in complete silence. He finished the tale with his car
parked before the boardinghouse in which Sandy lived with her sister
Pam, they being all that was left of a family. If she hadn't known
Burke all her life, of course, Sandy would have dismissed him and
his story together. But she did know him. It did explain why he felt
tongue-tied when he wished to be romantic, and even why he recorded a
weird sequence of notes on a tape recorder. His actions were reasonable
reactions to an unreasonable, repeated experience. His doubts and
hesitations showed a sound mind trying to deal with the inexplicable.
And now that the signals from space had come, it was understandable
that he should react as if they were a personal matter for his
attention.

She had a disheartening mental picture of a place where strange trees
waved long and ribbonlike leaves under an improbable sky. Still ...

"Y - yes," she said slowly when he'd finished his uneasy account. "I
don't understand, but I can see how you feel. I - I guess I'd feel the
same way if I were a man and what you've experienced happened to me."
She hesitated. "Maybe there will be an explanation now, since those
signals have come. They do match the ones you recorded from your dream.
They're the ones you know about."

"I can't believe it," said Burke miserably, "and I can't dismiss it. I
can't do anything until I find out why I know that somewhere there's a
place with two moons and queer trees...."

He did not mention the part of his experience Sandy was most interested
in - the person for whom he felt such anguished fear and such
overwhelming joy when she was found. She didn't mention it either.

"You go on home, Joe," she said quietly. "Get a good night's sleep.
Tomorrow we'll hear more about it and maybe it will all clear up.
Anyhow - whatever turns out, I - I'm glad you did intend to ask me to
marry you. I intended to say yes."




Chapter 2


Burke was no less disturbed, but his disturbance was of a different
kind. After he left Sandy at the house where she and her sister
boarded, he headed back to the plant. He wanted to think things out.

The messages from space, of course, must presage events of overwhelming
importance. The coming of intelligent aliens to Earth might be
comparable to the coming of white men to the American continents.
They might bring superior techniques, irresistible weapons, and an
assumption of superiority that would bring inevitable conflict with the
aborigines of Earth. Judging by the actions of the white race on Earth,
if the newcomers were merely explorers it could mean the coming doom of
humanity's independence. If they were invaders....

Something like this would be pointed out soon after the news itself.
Some people would react with total despair, expecting the strangers to
act like men. Some might hope that a superior race would have developed
a kindliness and altruism that on Earth are rather rare. But there was
no one at all who would not be apprehensive. Some would panic.

Burke's reaction was strictly personal. Nobody else in the world would
have felt the same appalled, stunned emotion he felt when he heard the
sounds from space. Because to him they were familiar sounds.

He paced up and down in the big, partitionless building in which the
actual work of Burke Development, Inc., was done. He'd done some
reasonably good work in this place. The prototype of the hydroponic
wall for Interiors, Inc., still stood against one wall. It was crude,
but he'd made it work and then built a production model which had now
been shipped off complete. A little to one side was a prototype of a
special machine which stamped out small parts for American Tool. That
had been a tricky assignment! There were plastic and glass-wool and
such oddments with which he'd done a process-design job for Holmes
Yachts, and a box of small parts left over from the designing job that
gave one aviation company the only practical small-plane retractable
landing-gear.

These things had a queer meaning for him now. He'd devised the wanted
products. He'd developed certain needed processes. But now he began to
be deeply suspicious of his own successes. Each was a new reason for
uneasiness.

He grimly questioned whether his highly peculiar obsession had not been
planted in him against the time when fluting noises would come from
that illimitable void beyond Earth's atmosphere.

He examined, for the thousandth time, his special linkage with the
space noises. In previous soul-searchings he'd pinpointed the time when
the whole business began. He'd been eleven years old. He could even
work out something close to an exact date. He was living with his aunt
and uncle, his own parents being dead. His uncle had made a business
trip to Europe, alone, and had brought back souvenirs which were
fascinating to eleven-year-old Joe Burke. There was a flint knife, and
a carved ivory object which his uncle assured him was mammoth ivory. It
had a deer's head incised into it. There were some fragments of pottery
and a dull-surfaced black cube. They appealed to the small boy because
his uncle said they'd belonged to men who lived when mammoths roamed
the Earth and cave men hunted the now-extinct huge beasts. Cro-Magnons,
his uncle said, had owned the objects. He'd bought them from a French
peasant who'd found a cave with pictures on its walls that dated back
twenty thousand years. The French government had taken over the cave,
but before reporting it the peasant had thriftily hidden away some
small treasures to sell for himself. Burke's uncle bought them and, in
time, presented them to the local museum. All but the black cube, which
Burke had dropped. It had shattered into a million tissue-thin, shiny
plates, which his aunt insisted on sweeping out. He'd tried to keep one
of the plates, but his aunt had found it under his pillow and disposed
of it.

He remembered the matter solely because he'd examined his memories so
often, trying to find something relevant to account for the beginning
of his recurrent dream. Somewhere shortly after his uncle's visit he
had had a dream. Like all dreams, it was not complete. It made no
sense. But it wasn't a normal dream for an eleven-year-old boy.

He was in a place where the sun had just set, but there were two moons
in the sky. One was large and motionless. The other was small and moved
swiftly across the heavens. From behind him came fluting signals like
the messages that would later come from space. In the dream he was
full-grown and he saw trees with extraordinary, ribbony leaves like no
trees on Earth. They wavered and shivered in a gentle breeze, but he
ignored them as he did the fluting sounds behind him.

He was searching desperately for someone. A child knows terror for
himself, but not for anybody else. But Burke, then aged eleven,
dreamed that he was in an agony of fear for someone else. To breathe
was torment. He held a weapon ready in his hand. He was prepared to
do battle with any imaginable creature for the person he needed to
find. And suddenly he saw a figure running behind the waving foliage.
The relief was almost greater pain than the terror had been. It was a
kind and amount of emotion that an eleven-year-old boy simply could
not know, but Burke experienced it. He gave a great shout, and bounded
forward toward her - and the dream ended.

He dreamed it three nights running, then it stopped, for awhile.

Then, a week later, he had the dream again, repeated in every detail.
He had it a dozen times before he was twelve, and as many more before
he was thirteen. It recurred at random intervals all through his teens,
while he was in college, and after. When he grew up he found out that
recurrent dreams are by no means unusual. But this was very far from a
usual dream.

From time to time, he observed new details in the dream. He knew that
he was dreaming. His actions and his emotion did not vary, but he was
able to survey them - like the way one can take note of items in a
book one reads while quite absorbed in it. He came to notice the way
the trees sent their roots out over the surface of the ground before
dropping suckers down into it. He noticed a mass of masonry off to the
left. He discovered that a hill in the distance was not a natural hill.
He was able to remember markings on the large, stationary moon in the
sky, and to realize that the smaller one was jagged and irregular in
shape. The dream did not change, but his knowledge of the place of the
dream increased.

As he grew older, he was startled to realize that though the trees, for
example, were not real, they were consistent with reality. The weapon
he held in his hand was especially disturbing. Its grip and barrel
were transparent plastic, and in the barrel there was a sequence of
peculiarly-shaped forms, in and about which wire had been wound. As a
grown man he'd made such shapes in metal, once. He'd tried them out as
magnets in a job for American Tool. But they weren't magnets. They were
something specific and alarming instead. He also came to know exactly
what the mass of masonry was, and it was a sober engineering feat. No
boy of eleven could have imagined it.

And always there were the flutelike musical sounds coming from
behind him. When he was twenty-five he'd memorized them. He'd heard
them - dreamed them - hundreds of times. He tried to duplicate them on
a flute and devised a special mute to get exactly the tone quality he
remembered so well. He made a recording to study, but the study was
futile.

In a way, it was unwholesome to be so much obsessed by a dream. In a
way, the dream was magnificently irrelevant to messages transmitted
through millions of miles of emptiness. But the flutelike sounds linked
it - now - to reality! He paced up and down in the empty, resonant
building and muttered, "I ought to talk to the space-exploration
people."

Then he laughed. That was ironical. All the crackpots in the world
would be besieging all the authorities who might be concerned with the
sounds from space, impassionedly informing them what Julius Caesar, or
Chief Sitting Bull, or some other departed shade, had told them about
the matter via automatic writing or Ouija boards. Those who did not
claim ghostly authority would explain that they had special talents, or
a marvelous invention, or that they were members of the race which had
sent the messages the satellite-tracking stations received.

No. It would serve no purpose to inform the Academy of Sciences that
he'd been dreaming signals like the ones that now agitated humanity.
It was too absurd. But it was unthinkable for a person of Burke's
temperament to do nothing. So he set to work in exactly the fashion of
one of the crackpots he disliked.

Actually, the job should have been undertaken in ponderous secrecy by
committees from various learned societies, official bureaus, and all
the armed forces. There should have been squabbles about how the task
was to be divided up, bitter arguments about how much money was to be
spent by whom, violent disagreements about research-and-development
contracts. It should have been treated as a program of research, in
which everybody could claim credit for all achievements and nobody was
to blame for blunders.

Burke could not command resources for so ambitious an undertaking. And
he knew that as a private project it was preposterous. But he began the
sort of preliminary labor that an engineer does before he really sets
to work.

He jotted down some items that he didn't have to worry about. The
wall-garden he'd made for Interiors, Inc., would fit neatly into
whatever final result he got - if he got a final result. He had a
manufacturing process available for glass-wool and plastics. If he
could get hold of an inertia-controlled computer he'd be all set,
but he doubted that he could. The crucial item was a memo he'd made
from a memory of the dream weapon. It concerned certain oddly-shaped
bits of metal, with fine wires wound eccentrically about them, which
flew explosively to pieces when a current went through them. That was
something to worry about right away.

At three o'clock in the morning, then, Burke routed out the laboratory
notes on the small-sized metal-stamping machine he had designed for
American Tool. He'd tried to do the job with magnets, but they flew
apart. He'd wound up with blank cartridges to provide the sudden,
explosive stamping action required, but the notes on the quasi-magnets
were complete.

He went through them carefully. An electromagnet does not really attain
its full power immediately after the current is turned on. There is an
inductive resistance, inherent in a wound magnet, which means that the
magnetism builds up gradually. From his memory of the elements in a
transparent-plastic hand-weapon barrel, Burke had concluded that it was
possible to make a magnet without inductive resistance. He tried it.
When the current went on it went to full strength immediately. In fact,
it seemed to have a negative-induction effect. But the trouble was that
it wasn't a magnet. It was something else. It wound up as scrap.

Now, very reflectively, he plugged in a metal lathe and carefully
turned out a very tiny specimen of the peculiarly-shaped magnetic
core. He wound it by hand, very painstakingly. It was a tricky job.
It was six o'clock Saturday morning when the specimen was finished.
He connected the leads to a storage battery and threw the switch. The
small object tore itself to bits, and the core landed fifteen feet from
where it had been. Burke beamed.

He wasn't tired, but he wanted to think things over so he drove to a
nearby diner and got coffee and a roll and reflected with satisfaction
upon his accomplishment. At the cost of several hours' work he'd made
a thing like a magnet, which wasn't a magnet, and which destroyed
itself when turned on. As he drank his coffee, a radio news period came
on. He listened.

The signals still arrived from space, punctually, seventy-nine minutes
apart. At this moment, 6:30 A.M., they were not heard on the
Atlantic coast, but the Pacific coast still picked them up and they
were heard in Hawaii and again on the South Pacific island of Kalua.

Burke drove back to the plant. He was methodical, now. He reactivated
the prototype wall-garden which he'd neglected while building the
larger one for Interiors, Inc. The experimental one had been made in
four sections so he could try different pumping systems and nutrient
solutions. Now he set the pumps to work. The plants looked ragged, but
they'd perk up with proper lighting and circulation of the hydroponic
liquid.

Then he went into the plant's small office building and sat down with
drawing instruments to modify the design of the magnetic core. At
eleven he'd worked out a rough theory and refined the design, with
curves and angles all complete. At four the next morning a second,
modified magnet-core was formed and polished.

He'd heard the first newscast on Friday night. It was now early Sunday
morning, and although he was tired, he was still not sleepy. He worked
on doggedly, winding fine magnet wire on a noticeably complicated metal
form. Just before sunrise he tested it.

When the current went on the wire windings seemed to swell. He'd held
it in a small clamp while he tested it. The clamp overturned and broke
the contact with the battery before the winding wire stretched to
breaking-point. But it had not torn itself or anything else to bits.

He was suddenly enormously weary and bleary-eyed. To anyone else in the
world, the consequence of this second attempt to make what he thought
of as a negative-induction magnet would seem an absolute failure.
But Burke now knew why the first had failed and what was wrong with
the second. The third would work, just as the unfired hand-weapon
of his dream would have worked. Now he could justify to himself the
association of a recurrent dream with a message from outer space. The
dream now had two points of contact with reality. One was the sounds
from emptiness, which matched those in the dream. The other was the
hand-weapon of the dream, whose essential working part now plainly did
something unknown in a normal world.

But it would be impossible to pass on his information to anybody
else. Too many crackpots have claimed too many triumphs. His actual,
unpredictable technical achievement would have little chance of
winning official acceptance. Especially since he would be considered a
non-accredited source. Burke had a small business of his own. He had
an engineering degree. But he had no background of learned futility to
gain a hearing for what he now knew.

"Crackpots of the world, unite!" he muttered to himself.

He dragged himself out-of-doors to a cool, invigorating morning and
drove somnolently to the diner he'd patronized before. The coffee he
ordered was atrocious, but it waked him. He heard two truck drivers at
the counter.

"It's baloney!" said one of them scornfully. "There ain't no people out
there! We'd'a heard from them before if there was. Them scientists are
crazy!"

"Nuts!" said the other earnestly. "One of their idle thoughts would
crack your brain wide open, mac! They know what's up, and they're
scared! If you wanna know, I'm scared too!"

"Of what?"

"Hell! Did you ever drive at night, and have all the stars come in
pairs like snake-eyes - like little mean eyes, lookin' down at you an'
despisin' you? You've seen that, ain't you? Whoever's signalin' could
be lookin' down at us just like the stars do."

The first man grunted.

"I don't like it!" said the second man, fretfully. "If it was a man
headin' out to go huntin' among the stars for somethin' he wanted,
that's all right. That's like a man goin' huntin' in the woods with
a gun. But I don't like somebody comin' our way from somewhere else.
Maybe he's huntin' us!"

The two drivers paid for their coffee and went out. And Burke reflected
wryly that the second man had, after all, expressed a universal
truth. We humans do not like to be hunted. The passion with which a
man-killing wild beast is pursued comes from human vanity. We do not
like the idea that any other creature can be better than we are. It is
highly probable that if we ever have to face a superior race, we will
die of it.

So Burke went back to the plant and began to make yet another of the
peculiarly wound magnets-which-were-not-magnets. This was to have
three of the odd-shaped cores, formed in line, of a single piece
of Swedish iron. As the windings were put on they'd be imbedded in
plastic. Over that would go a casing to keep them from expanding or
stretching. It ought to be distinctively different from a magnet.

It was an extremely long and utterly tedious job. He knew what he
was doing, but he had doubts about the why. As he worked, though, he
wrestled out a detailed theory. Discoverers often work like that. It
was said that Columbus didn't know where he was going when he started
out, didn't know where he was when he got there, and didn't know where
he'd been when he got back. The history of the discovery of the triode
tube has points of similarity. Burke had begun with a device which
destroyed itself when turned on, developed the idea into a device which
swelled to uselessness when energized, and now hoped that it would turn
out at the third try to be something the textbooks said was impossible.

Outside the construction shed, the world went about its business.
While Burke worked on through the Sunday noon hour, a Japanese
radar telescope aimed at the night sky and made six successive
position-findings on the source of the space signals. When sunset found
him laboring doggedly at a metal lathe, Croydon made eight. American
radar telescopes had made others. Carefully computed, the observations
added up to the discovery of an independent motion of the signal
source. It moved against the stars as if it were a solar-system body
with an orbit in the asteroid belt some three hundred sixty million
miles from the sun - as compared to Earth's ninety-two million.

At midnight on Sunday, while Burke painstakingly made micrometric
examination of the triple magnet-core, Harvard Observatory reported
that there should be a very minor asteroid at the spot in space from
which the signals came.

The coincidental asteroid was known as Schull's object. It was listed
as M-387 in the catalogs. It had been discovered in 1913, was a very
minor celestial body, had an estimated greatest diameter of less than
two miles, and its brightness had been noticed to vary, suggesting
that it was of irregular shape. It was too insignificant to have been
kept under constant observation, but the signals from space appeared
definitely to originate from its position.

An hour after midnight, Eastern Standard time, Palomar detected the
infinitesimal speck of light which was Schull's object at exactly
the place the radar telescopes insisted was the signal source.
Satellite-watching stations now monitored the cryptic signals around
the clock, and radar telescopes began to sweep space for possible
answers to the space broadcast. There was an uncomfortable possibility
that the transmitter might not be signaling Earth, after all, but a
fellow mystery of space - an associate or a sister-ship.

More data turned up. M.I.T. made examination of the signals
themselves. Timed, the intervals between notes varied as if keyed
by something alive. But successive broadcasts were identical to
microseconds. The conclusion was that the original broadcast had
been set up by hand, as it were, but that all were now transmitted


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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 2 of 14)