Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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mechanically - automatically - by a robot transmitter.

It was Monday morning when Burke completed the last turn of the last
winding of his three-element pseudo-magnet. There are many things which
become something else when they change in degree. Electromagnetic
radiation may be long radio waves or radiant heat or yellow light or
ultraviolet or X-rays, or who knows what, according to its frequency.
It is different things with different properties at different
wavelengths. Burke believed that his cores and windings were something
other than magnets because the "flux" they produced was of a different
intensity. He did not believe it to be magnetism.

At nine o'clock Monday morning, he was clumsy from pure, weariness
when he began to fit the outer case on the thing he'd worked so long
to complete. The hand-weapon in his dream undoubtedly flung bullets
through a rifled bore penetrating the very center of the multiple
core. The design of the hand-weapon ruled out any possibility of a
considerable recoil. It wasn't built to allow the hand to take a
recoil. So there must be no recoil. On that basis, Burke had made
what finally amounted to a thick rod some six inches long and two in
diameter. With the casing in place, it was absolutely solid. There was
no play for the windings to expand into. He blinked at it. Common sense
said he ought to put it aside and test it when his mind was not nearly
numb from fatigue.

Then Sandy came into the constructions shed, looking for him. She'd
arrived for work and seen his car outside the shed. Her expression
indicated several things: a certain uneasiness, and some embarrassment,
and more than a little indignation. When she saw him unshaven and
wobbly with weariness, she protested.

"Joe! You've been working since Heaven knows when!"

"Since I left you," he admitted. "I got interested."

"You look dreadful!"

"Maybe I'll look worse after I try out this thing I've made. I'm not

"When did you eat last?" she demanded. "And when did you sleep?"

He shrugged tiredly, regarding the thing in his hands. He'd had enough
experience contriving new things to know that no theory is right until
something that depends on it has been made and works. He tended to be
pessimistic. But this time he thought he had it.

"Is this working night and day a part of your reaction to those
signals?" asked Sandy unhappily. "If it is - "

"Let's try it," Burke interrupted. "It's something I worked out from
the dream. Now I'll find out whether I'm crazy or not - maybe." He drew
a deep breath. He had a sudden, deep and corrosive doubt of things
which didn't make sense, like space signals and magnets which weren't
magnets because they were capable of negative self-induction. "If this
shows no sign of working, Sandy...."


He didn't answer. He went heavily over to the table where he had
storage-battery current available. He plucked a momentary-contact
switch out of a drawer and connected it to the wires from the small
thing he'd made. Then he hooked on the storage battery.

"Stand back, Sandy," he said tiredly. "We'll see what happens."

He flipped the momentary-contact switch. There was a crash and a roar.
The six-inch thing leaped. It grazed Burke's head and drew blood.
It flashed across the room, a full thirty feet, and then smashed a
water-cooler and imbedded itself in the brick wall beyond. A tool
cabinet tottered and crashed to the floor. The storage battery spouted
steam, swelled. Burke grabbed Sandy and plunged outside with her as the
building filled with vaporized battery acid.

Outside, he put her down and rubbed his nose with his finger.

"That was a surprise," he said with some animation. "Are you all right?"

"You - could have been killed!" she said in a whisper.

"I wasn't," said Burke. "If you're not hurt there's no harm done. It
looks like the thing worked! Lucky that was only a millisecond contact!
Negative self-induction.... I'll break some windows and come to the

He did break windows, from the outside, so air could flow through
the building and clear away the battery-acid steam. Sandy watched him

"Okay," he said. "I'll come quietly."

He followed her to the office. He was so physically worn out, he
tripped on the office step as he went in.

"Tell me the news on the signals," he said. "Still coming in?"

"Yes." She looked at him again, worried. "Joe ... Sit down. Here.
What's happened?"

"Nothing except that I'm a genius at second hand. I didn't intend it
that way, and maybe it can be covered up, but I've turned out to be
sane. So I think, maybe you'd better get another job. Since I'm sane
I'll surely go bankrupt and maybe I'll end up in jail. But it's going
to be interesting." His head drooped and he jerked it upright. "This is
reaction," he said distinctly. "I'm tired. I wanted badly to find out
whether I was crazy or not. I found out I haven't been. I'm not so sure
I won't be presently." He made a stiff gesture and said, "Take the day
off, Sandy. I'm going to rest awhile."

Then his head fell forward and he was asleep.

Burke slept for a long time. And this time dreamlessly.

The thing he made had worked for much less than the tenth of a second,
but it came out of his dream, ultimately, and it was linked with
whatever sent messages from Asteroid M-387. There was still nothing
intelligible about the whole affair. It contained no single rational
element. But if there was no rational explanation, there was what now
seemed reasonable action that could be taken.

So he slept, and as usual the world went on its way unheeding. The
fluting sounds from the sky remained the top news story of the day.
There was no doubt of their artificiality, nor that they came from a
small, tumbling, jagged rock which was one of the least of the more
than fifteen hundred asteroids of the solar system. It was two hundred
and seventy million miles from Earth. The latest computations said that
not less than twenty thousand kilowatts of power had been put into
the transmitter to produce so strong and loud a signal on Earth. No
power-source of that order had been carried out to make the signals.
But they were there.

Astronomers became suddenly important sources of news. They
contradicted each other violently. Eminent scientists observed
truthfully that Schull's object, as such, could not sustain life. It
could not have an atmosphere, and its gravitational field would not
hold even a moderately active microbe on its surface. Therefore any
life and any technology now on it must have come from somewhere else.
The most eminent scientists said reluctantly that they could not deny
the possibility that a spaceship from some other solar system had been
wrecked on M-387, and was now sending hopeless pleas for help to the
local planetary bodies.

Others observed briskly that anything which smashed into an asteroid
would vaporize, if it hit hard enough, or bounce away if it did not.
So there was no evidence for a spaceship. There was only evidence
for a transmitter. There was no explanation for that. It could be
mentioned, said these skeptics, that there were other sources of
radiation in space. There was the Jansky radiation from the Milky Way,
and radiations from clouds of ionized material in emptiness, and radio
stars were well known. A radio asteroid was something new, but -

It was working astronomers, so to speak, who took action. They had
been bouncing signals off of Earth's moon, and various artificial
satellites, and they'd flicked signals in the direction of Mars and
Venus and believed that they got them back. The most probable returned
radar signal from Mars had been received by a radar telescope in West
Virginia. It had been turned temporarily into a transmitter and some
four hundred kilowatts were poured into it to go out in a tight beam.
The working astronomers took over that parabolic bowl again. They
borrowed, begged, wheedled, and were suspected of stealing necessary
equipment to put nearly eight hundred kilowatts into a microwave
signal, this time beamed at Asteroid M-387. If intelligent beings
received the signal, they might reply. If they did, the working
astronomers would figure out what to do next.

Burke slept in the office of Burke Development, Inc. His features were
relaxed and peaceful. Sandy was completely helpless before his tranquil
exhaustion. But presently she used the telephone and spoke in a whisper
to her younger sister, Pam. In time, Pam came in a cab bringing
blankets and a pillow. She and Sandy got Burke to a pallet on the floor
with a pillow under his head and a thickness of blanket over him. He
slept on, unshaven and oblivious.

Pam said candidly, "If you can feel romantic about anything like that,
Sandy, I'll still love you, but I'll join the men in thinking that
women are mysterious!"

She departed in the cab and Sandy took up a vigil over Burke's
slumbering form.

_Pravda_ announced in its evening edition of Monday that Soviet
scientists would send out a giant space-probe, intended to orbit
around Venus, to investigate the space-signal source. The probe would
carry a man. It would blast off within six weeks, preceded by drone
fuel-carriers which would be overtaken by the probe and furnish fuel to
it. _Pravda_ threw in a claim that Russians had been first to refuel an
aeroplane in flight, and asserted that Soviet physical science would
make a space-voyage of two hundred seventy million miles mere ducksoup
for their astronaut.

Editorially, American newspapers mentioned that the Russians had tried
similar things before, and that at least three coffins now floated
in orbit around Earth, not to mention the one on the moon. But if
they tried it.... The American newspapers waited for a reaction from

It came. The most eminent of civilian scientists announced proudly
that the United States would proceed to the design and testing of
multi-stage rockets capable of landing a party on Mars when Earth and
Mars were in proper relative position. This having been accomplished, a
rocket would then take off from Mars for Asteroid M-387 to investigate
the radio transmissions from that peculiar mass of tumbling rock. It
was blandly estimated that the Americans might take off for Mars in
eighteen months.

Sandy watched over Burke. There was nothing to do in the office. She
did not read. Near seven the telephone rang, and she frantically
muffled its sound. It was Pam, asking what Sandy meant to do about
dinner. Sandy explained in an almost inaudible voice. Pam said
resignedly, "All right. I'll come out and bring something. Lucky
it's a warm day. We can sit in your car and eat. If I had to watch
Joe sleeping like that and needing a shave as he does, I'd lose my

She hung up. When she arrived, Burke was still asleep. Sandy went
outside. Pam had brought hero sandwiches and coffee. They sat on the
steps of the office and ate.

"I know," said Pam between sympathy and scorn, "I know you like the
poor goof, Sandy, but there ought to be some limit to your amorous
servitude! There are office hours! You're supposed to knock off at
five. It's seven-thirty now. And what will being decent to that
unshaven Adonis get you? He'll take you for granted, and go off and
marry a nitwit of a blonde who'll hate you because you'd have been so
much better for him. And she'll get you fired and what then?"

"Joe won't marry anybody else," said Sandy forlornly. "If he could fall
for anybody, it'd be me. He told me so. He started to propose to me
Friday night."

"So?" said Pam, with the superior air of a younger sister. "Did he say
enough for you to sue him?"

"He can't fall in love with anybody," said Sandy. "He wants to marry
me, but he's emotionally tangled up with a female he's had dreams about
since he was eleven."

"I thought I'd heard everything," said Pam. "But that - "

Sandy explained morosely. As she told it, it was not quite the same
picture Burke had given her. Her account of the trees in Burke's
recurrent dream was accurate enough, and the two moons in the sky,
and the fluting, arbitrary tones from behind him. Pam had heard their
duplicates, along with all the broadcast listeners in the United
States. But as Sandy told it, the running figure beyond the screen of
foliage was not at all the shadowy movement Burke described. Sandy had
her own ideas, and they colored her account.

There was a stirring inside the small office building. Burke had waked.
He turned over and blinked, astonished to find himself with blankets
over him and a pillow under his head. It was dark inside the office,

"Joe," called Pam in the darkness, "Sandy and I have been waiting for
you to wake up. You took your time about it! We've got some coffee for

Burke got to his feet and stumbled to the light switch.

"Fine!" he said ruefully. "Somebody got blankets for me, too! Nice
business, this!"

They heard him moving about. He folded the blankets that had been laid
on the floor for him. He moved across the room and turned on Sandy's
desk radio. It hummed, preliminary to playing. He came to the door.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I worked pretty hard pretty long, and
when the thing was finished I passed out. I feel better now. Did you
actually say you had some coffee?"

Sandy passed up a cardboard container.

"Pam's compliments," she said. "We've been waiting until you slept off
your working binge. We didn't want to leave you. Booger-men sound
likelier than they used to."

A voice from the radio broke in.

" _... o'clock news. A signal has been beamed toward the space-broadcast
transmitter by the parabolic reflector of the Bradenville radar
telescope, acting as a mirror to concentrate the message toward
Asteroid M-387. So far there has been no reply. We are keeping a
circuit open, and if or when an answer is received we will issue a
special bulletin.... The San Francisco Giants announced today that in a
three-way trade - _"

Burke had listened to nothing else while the news broadcast dealt with
space signals, but other news did not mean very much to him just now.
He sipped at the cardboard cup of coffee.

"I think," said Pam, "that since you've waked up I'll take my big
sister home. You'll be all right now."

"Yes," said Burke abstractedly. "I'll be all right now."

"Really, Joe, you shouldn't work day and night without a break!" Sandy

"And you shouldn't have bothered to stand watch over me," he answered.
"Well, I guess the shed should be clear of battery fumes by now. I'll
go over and see."

Burke came back in a few minutes.

"This thing I made is pretty tough," he observed. "It smashed into
a brick wall, but it was the wall that suffered." He fingered it
thoughtfully. "I had that dream again just now," he volunteered. "While
I was asleep on the floor. Sandy, you know about such things better
than I do. How much money have I in the bank? I'm going to build
something and it'll probably cost a lot."

Sandy's hands had clenched when he mentioned the dream. So far, it had
done more damage than any dream had a right to do. But it looked as
if it were about to do more. She told him his balance in the bank. He

"Maybe I can stretch it," he observed. "I'm going to - "

The music had stopped inside the office. The voice of an announcer

"_Special Bulletin! Special Bulletin! Our signals to space have been
answered! Special Bulletin! Here is a direct report from the Bradenton
radar telescope which, within the hour, broadcast a message to space!_"

A tinny, agitated voice came from the radio, punctuated by those tiny
beeping sounds that say that a telephone talk is being recorded.

"_A definite reply to the human signal to Asteroid M-387 has been
received. It is cryptic, like the first message from space, but is
unmistakably a response to the eight-hundred-kilowatt message beamed
toward the source of those world-wide-received strange sounds...._"

The tinny voice went on.

Chapter 3

In retrospect, events moved much faster than reason would suggest.
The first signal from space had been received on a Friday. At that
time - when the first flutings were picked up by a tape recorder on
Kalua - the world had settled down to await the logical consequences
of its history. It was not a comfortable settling-down, because the
consequences were not likely to be pleasant. Earth was beginning
to be crowded, and there were whole nations whose populations
labored bitterly with no hope of more than subsistence during their
lifetime, and left a legacy of equal labor and scarcer food for their
descendants. There were hydrogen bombs and good intentions, and
politics and a yearning for peace, and practically all individual men
felt helpless before a seemingly merciless march of ominous events. At
that time, too, nearly everybody worked for somebody else, and a large
part of the employed population justified its existence by the length
of time spent at its place of employment. Nobody worried about what he
did there.

In the richer nations, everybody wanted all the rewards earned for
them by generations gone by, but nobody was concerned about leaving
his children better off. An increasingly smaller number of people were
willing to take responsibility for keeping things going. There'd been
a time when half of Earth fought valiantly to make the world safe for
democracy. Now, in the richer nations, most men seemed to believe that
the world had been made safe for a four-card flush, which was the hand
they'd been dealt and which nobody tried to better.

Then the signals came from space. They called for a showdown, and
very few people were prepared for it. Eminent men were called on to
take command and arrange suitable measures. They immediately acted as
eminent men so often do; they took action to retain their eminence.
Their first instinct was caution. When a man is important enough, it
does not matter if he never does anything. It is only required of him
that he do nothing wrong. Eminent figures all over the world prepared
to do nothing wrong. They were not so concerned to do anything right.

Burke, however, was not important enough to mind making a mistake
or two. And there were other non-famous people to whom the
extra-terrestrial sounds suggested action instead of precautions.
Mostly they were engineers with no reputations to lose. They'd
scrabbled together makeshift equipment, ignored official channels, and
in four days - Friday to Monday - they had eight hundred kilowatts ready
to fling out toward emptiness, in response to the signal from M-387.

The transmission they'd sent out was five minutes long. It began with
a re-transmission of part of the message Earth had received. This
plainly identified the signal from Earth as a response to the cryptic
flutings. Then there were hummings. One dot, two dots, three, and so
on. These hummings assured whoever or whatever was out yonder that
the inhabitants of Earth could count. Then it was demonstrated that
two dots plus two dots were known to equal four dots, and that four
and four added up to eight. The inhabitants of Earth could add. There
followed the doubtless interesting news that two and two and two and
two was eight. Humanity could multiply.

Arithmetic, in fact, filled up three minutes of the
eight-hundred-kilowatt beam-signal. Then a hearty human voice - the
president of a great university - said warmly:

"_Greetings froth Earth! We hope for splendid things from this opening
of communication with another race whose technical achievements fill us
with admiration._"

More flutings repeated that the Earth signal was intended for whoever
or whatever used flutelike sounds for signaling purposes, and the
message came to an end with an arch comment from the university
president: "_We hope you'll answer!_"

When this elaborate hodge-podge had been flung out to immensity, the
prominent persons who'd devised it shook hands with each other. They
were confident that if intelligent beings did exist where the mournful
musical notes came from, interplanetary or interstellar communication
could be said to have begun. The engineers who'd sweated together the
equipment simply hoped their signal would reach its target.

It did. It went out just after the end of a reception of a five-minute
broadcast from M-387. Seventy-nine minutes should have passed before
any other sound from M-387. But an answer came much more quickly than
that. In thirty-four minutes, five and three-tenth seconds, a new
signal came from beyond the sky. It came in a rush. It came from the
transmitter out in orbit far beyond Mars. It came with the same volume.

It started with an entirely new grouping of the piping tones. There
was a specific crispness in their transmission, as if a different
individual handled the transmitter-keys. The flutings went on for three
minutes, then were replaced by entirely new sounds. These were sharp,
distinct, crackling noises. A last sequence of the opening flutings,
and the message ended abruptly. But silence did not follow. Instead, a
steady, sonorous, rhythmic series of beeping noises began and kept on
interminably. They were remarkably like the directional signals of an
airway beacon. When the news broadcasts of the United States reported
the matter, the beeping sounds were still coming in.

And they continued to come in for seventy-nine minutes. Then they broke
off and the new transmission was repeated. The original message was
no longer sent. Robot transmitter or no robot transmitter, the first
message had been transmitted at regular intervals for something like
seventy-six hours and then, instantly on receipt of the beginning of an
answer, a new broadcast took its place.

The reaction had been immediate. The distance between M-387 and Earth
could be computed exactly. The time needed for the Earth signal to
arrive was known exactly. And the instant - the very instant - the first
sound from Earth reached M-387, the second message had begun. There was
no pause to receive all the Earth greeting, or even part of it. The
reaction was immediate and automatic.

Automatic. That was the significant thing. The new message was already
prepared when the Earth signal arrived. It was set up to be transmitted
on receipt of the earliest possible proof that it would be received.
The effect of this rapid response was one of tremendous urgency - or
absolute arrogance. The implication was that what Earth had to say was
unimportant. The Earth signal had not been listened to. Instead, Earth
was told something. Something crisp and arbitrary. Maybe there could be
amiable chit-chat later on, but Earth must listen first! The beepings
could not be anything but a guide, a directional indicator, to be
followed to M-387. The message, now changed, might amount to an offer
of friendship, but it also could be a command. If it were a command,
the implications were horrifying.

At the moment of first release, the news had only a limited effect.
Most of Europe was asleep and much of Asia had not waked up yet. But
the United States was up and stirring. The news went to every corner of
the nation with the speed of light. Radio stations stopped all other
transmissions to announce the frightening event. It is of record that
four television stations on the North American continent actually broke
into filmed commercials to announce that M-387 had made a response to
the signal from Earth. Never before in history had a paid advertisement
been thrust aside for news.

In the United States, then, there was agitation, apprehension,
indignation, and panic. Perhaps the only place where anything
like calmness remained was inside and outside the office of Burke
Development, Inc., where Burke felt a singular relief at this evidence
that he wasn't as much of a fool as he feared.

"Well," he thought. "It looks like there _is_ something or somebody out
there. If I'd been sure about it earlier - but it probably wasn't time."

"What does this mean?" asked Sandy. "This horrible spell of
around-the-clock working! Are you still trying to do something about
the space signals?"

"Listen, Sandy," said Burke. "I've been ashamed of that crazy dream of
mine all my life. I've thought it was proof there was something wrong
with me. I'll still have to keep it secret, or nice men in white coats
will come and get me. But I'm going to do what all enterprising young
men are advised to do - dream greatly and then try to realize my dream.
It's quite impossible and it'll bankrupt me, but I think I'm going to
have fun."

He grinned at the two sisters as he led them firmly to Sandy's car.

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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 3 of 14)