Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

. (page 4 of 14)
Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 4 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


"Shoo!" he said pleasantly. "You'd better go home now. I'll be leaving
in minutes, heading for Schenectady first. I need some electric stuff.
Then I'll go elsewhere. There'll be some shipments arriving, Sandy.
Take care of them for me, will you?"

He closed the car door and waved, still grinning. Pam fumed and started
the motor. Moments later their car trundled down the highway toward
town. Sandy clenched her fists.

"What can you do with a man like that?" she demanded. "Why do I bother
with him?"

"Shall I answer," asked Pam, "or shall I be discreetly sympathetic? I
wouldn't want him! But unfortunately, if you do - "

"I know," said Sandy forlornly. "I know, dammit!"

Burke was not thinking of either of them then. He opened the office
safe, put the six-inch object inside, and took out his checkbook. Then
he locked up, got into his car, and headed away from the plant and the
town he'd been brought up in. He was unshaven and uncombed and this
was an inappropriate time to start out on a drive of some hundreds of
miles, but it was a pleasing sensation to know that a job had turned up
that nobody else would even know how to start to work on. He drove very
cheerfully to a cross-country expressway and turned onto it. He settled
down at once to drive and to think.

He drove practically all night. Shortly after sunrise he stopped to
buy a razor and brush and comb and to make himself presentable. He
was the first customer on hand when a Schenectady firm specializing
in electronic apparatus for seagoing ships opened up for business. He
ordered certain equipment from a list he'd written on an envelope while
eating breakfast.

The morning papers, naturally, were full of the story of the answer
to the Earth signal sent out to M-387. The morning comedians made
jokes about it, and in every one of the business offices Burke visited
there was some mention of it. He listened, but had nothing to say. The
oddity of his purchases caused no remark. His was a small firm, but a
man working in research and development needs strange stuff sometimes.
He ordered two radar units to be modified in a particular fashion,
air-circulation pumps of highly specialized design to be changed in
this respect and that. He had trouble finding the electric generators
he wanted and had to pay heavily for alterations in them, and even more
heavily for a promise of delivery in days instead of weeks. He bought a
self-contained diving suit.

He was busy for three days, buying things by day, designing by night
and finding out new things to order. On the second day, United States
counter-intelligence reported that the Russians were trying to signal
M-387 on their own. An American satellite picked up the broadcast. The
Russians denied it, and continued to try. Burke made arrangements for
the delivery of aluminum-alloy bars, rods, girders, and plates; for
plaster of Paris in ton lots; for closed-circuit television equipment.
Once he called Sandy to give her an order to be filled locally. It
was lumber, mostly slender strips of lathing, to be on hand when he
returned.

"All kinds of material is turning up," said Sandy. "There've been six
deliveries this morning. I'm signing receipts for it because I don't
know what else to do. But won't you please give me copies of the orders
you've placed so I can check what arrives?"

"I'll put 'em in the mail - airmail," promised Burke. "But only six
deliveries? There ought to be dozens! Get after these people on long
distance, will you?" And he gave her a list of names.

Burke said suddenly, "I had that dream again last night. Twice in a
week. That's unusual."

"No comment," Sandy said.

She hung up, and Burke was taken aback. But there was hardly any
comment she could make. Burke himself had no illusion that he would
ever come to a place where there were two moons in the sky and trees
with ribbonlike leaves. And if he did - unthinkable as that might be - he
could not imagine finding the person for whom he felt such agonized
anxiety. The dream, recurrent, fantastic, or whatnot, simply could not
represent a reality of the past, present, or future. Such things don't
happen. But Burke continued to be moved much more by the emotional urge
of the repeated experience than by intellectual curiosity about his
having dreamed repeatedly of signals exactly like those from space,
long before such signals ever were.

He made ready to try to do something about those signals. And, all
reason to the contrary notwithstanding, to him they meant a world with
two moons and strange vegetation and such emotion as nothing on Earth
had ever quite stirred up - though he felt pretty deeply about Sandy,
at that. So he went intently from one supplier of exotic equipment to
another, spending what money he had for an impossibility. Impossible
because Asteroid M-387 was not over two miles through at its largest
dimension, and therefore could not possibly have an atmosphere and
certainly not trees, and it could not own even a single moon!

He spent one day at a small yachting port with a man for whom he'd
worked out a special process of Fiberglas yacht construction. Through
that process, Holmes yachts could be owned by people who weren't
millionaires. Holmes was a large, languid, sunburned individual who
built yachts because he liked them. He had much respect for Burke, even
after Burke asked his help and explained what for.

But that was the day the Russians launched an unmanned space-probe
headed toward M-387. That development may have influenced Holmes to do
as Burke asked.

Later on, it transpired that the probe originally had been designed
and built as a cargo-carrier to take heavy loads to Earth's moon. The
Russian space service had planned to present the rest of Earth with a
_fait accompli_ even more startling than the first Sputnik. They had
intended to send a fleet of drone cargo-rockets to the moon and then
assemble them into a colony. Broadcasts would triumphantly explain
that the Soviet social system was responsible for another technical
achievement. But to get a man out to M-387 was now so much more
important a propaganda device that the cargo-carriers were converted
into fuel-tankers and the first sent aloft.

At ten thousand miles up, when the third booster-stage should have
given it a decisive thrust, one of the probe's rocket engines misfired.
The space-probe tilted, veered wildly from its course, and went on
accelerating splendidly toward nowhere. And still the steady, urgent
beeping sounds continued to come to Earth, with every seventy-nine
minutes a broadcast containing one section of crackling sounds and a
tone of extremest urgency.

The day after the probe's ineffectual departure, Burke got back to
his plant. He brought Holmes with him. Together, they looked over the
accumulated material for Burke's enterprise and began to sort out the
truckloads of plaster of Paris, masses of punched-sheet aluminum,
girders, rods, beams of shining metal, cased dynamos, crated pumps,
tanks, and elaborately padded objects whose purpose was not immediately
clear. Sandy was overwhelmed by the job of inventorying, indexing, and
otherwise making the material available for use as desired. There
were bales of fluffy white cloth and drums and drums of liquids which
insisted on leaking, and smelled very badly when they did. But Burke
found some items not yet on hand, and fretted, so Sandy brought her
sister Pam into the office to add to the office force.

Sandy and Pam worked quite as hard in the office as Burke and Holmes
in the construction shed. They telephoned protests at delays, verified
shipments, scolded shipping-clerks, argued with transportation-system
expediters, wrote letters, answered letters, compared invoices with
orders, sternly battled with negligence and delays of all kinds, and
in between kept the books of Burke Development, Inc., up to date so
that at any instant Burke could find out how much money he'd spent and
how little remained. The two girls in the office were necessary to
the operations which at first centered in the construction shed, but
shortly began to show up outside.

Four workmen arrived from the Holmes' Yacht shipyard. They looked at
blueprints and drawings made by Holmes and Burke together, regarded
with pained expressions the material they were to use, and set to
work. This was on the day the second Russian space-probe lifted from
somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains at 1:10 A.M., local time.

The second probe did not veer off its proper line. Its four boosters
fired at appropriate intervals and it went streaking off toward
emptiness almost straight away from the sun. It left behind it a thin
whining transmission which was not at all like the beepings of the
asteroid transmitter.

In two days a framework of struts and laths took form outside the
construction shed. It looked more like a mock-up of a radio telescope
than anything else, but it was smaller and had a different shape. It
was an improbable-looking bowl. Under Holmes' supervision, dozens of
sacks of plaster of Paris found their way into it, coating it roughly
on the outside and very smoothly within. It was then lined tenderly
with carefully cut sections of fluffy cloth, with bars and beams and
girders placed between the layers. Then reeking drums of liquid were
moved to the working-site and their contents saturated the glass-wool.

The smell was awful, so the workmen knocked off for a day until it
diminished. But Sandy and Pam continued to expostulate with shippers
by long-distance, type letters threatening lawsuits if orders were
not filled immediately, and once found that items Burke indignantly
demanded had come in and Holmes had carted them off and used them
without notifying anybody. That was the day Pam threatened to resign.

"It looks like a pudding," grumbled Pam, after Sandy had mollified her
and Burke had apologized for having made her fight needlessly with two
transport-lines, a shipping department, and a vice-president in charge
of sales. "And they act like it was a baby!"

"It'll be a ship," said Sandy. "You know what kind."

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Pam. Then she demanded
indignantly, "Has Joe looked at you twice since this nonsense started?"

"No," admitted Sandy. "He works all the time. At night he has a
receiver tuned to the beepings to make sure he knows if the broadcast
changes again. The Russians are still trying to make a two-way contact.
But the broadcast just keeps on, ignoring everybody." Then she said,
"Anyhow, Joe's going to feel awful if it doesn't work. I've got to be
around to pick up the pieces of his vanity and put them together again."

"Huh!" said Pam. "Catch me doing that!"

At just that moment Holmes came into the office with a finger dripping
blood. He had been supervising and, at the same time, assisting in
the building of an additional section of laths and struts and he was
annoyed with himself for the small injury which interfered with his
work.

Pam did the bandaging. She cooed over him distressedly, and had him
grinning before the dressing was finished. He went back to work very
much pleased with himself.

"I," said Sandy, "wouldn't act like you just did!"

"Sister, darling," said Pam, "I won't cramp your act. Don't you
criticize mine! That large wounded character is as attractive as
anything I've seen in months."

"But I feel," said Sandy, "as if I hadn't seen Joe in years!"

Their viewpoint was strictly feminine and geared to female ideas and
aspirations. But, in fact, they were probably as satisfied as two girls
could be. They were on the side lines of interesting happenings which
were being prepared by interesting men. They were useful enough to the
enterprise to belong to it without doing anything outstanding enough to
amount to rivalry with the men. From a girl's standpoint, it wasn't at
all bad.

But neither Burke nor Holmes even faintly guessed at the appraisal
of their work by Sandy and Pam. To Holmes, the task was fascinating
because it was a ship he was building. It was not a beautiful object,
to be sure. If the lath-and-plaster mould were removed, the thing
inside it would look rather like an obese small whale. There were
recesses in its rotund sides in which distinctly eccentric apparatus
appeared. Its interior was even more curious. And still it was a ship.
Holmes found deep satisfaction in fitting its interior parts into
place. It was like, but not the same as, equipping a small vessel with
fathometers, radars, direction-finders, air-conditioners, stoves,
galleys, heads and refrigerators without getting it crowded.

To be sure, no seagoing ship would have sections of hydroponic
wall-garden installed, nor would an auxiliary schooner normally have
six pairs of closed-circuit television cameras placed outside for a
view in each and every direction. This ship had such apparatus. But
to Holmes the building of what Burke had designed was an extremely
attractive task.

Burke had less fun. He'd set up a huge metal lathe in the construction
shed, and he labored at carving out of a specially built-up
Swedish-iron shaft a series of twenty-odd magnet-cores like the triple
unit he considered successful. Each of the peculiar shapes had to be
carved out of the shaft, and all had to remain part of the shaft when
completed. Then each had to be wound with magnet-wire, coated with
plastic as it was wound. Then a bronze tube had to be formed over all,
with no play of any sort anywhere. The task required the workmanship of
a jeweller and the patience of Job. And Burke had had enough experience
with new constructions to be acutely doubtful that this would be right
when it was done.

The Russians sent up a third space-probe, aimed at Asteroid M-387. It
functioned perfectly. Three days later, a fourth. Three days later
still, a fifth. Their aim with the fifth was not too good.

The beeping sounds continued to come in from space. The second message
remained the same but the crackling sounds changed. There was a
systematic and consistent variation in what they apparently had to
say. M.I.T. discovered the modification. When its report reached the
newspapers, Sandy invaded the construction shed to show Burke the news
account. Oil-smeared and harassed, he stopped work to read it.

"Hell!" he said querulously. "I should've had somebody watching for
this! I figured the second broadcast was telling us something that
would change as time went on. They're telemetering something to us. I'd
guess there's an emergency or an ultimatum in the works, and this is
telling how fast it's coming to a crisis. But I'm already working as
fast as I can!"

"Some cases marked 'Instruments' came this morning," Sandy told him.
"They're the solidest shipping cases I ever saw. And the bills for
them!"

"Wire Keller," said Burke. "Tell him they're here and to come along."

"Who's Keller?" asked Sandy. "And what's his address?"

Burke blew up unreasonably, and Sandy said "I quit!" In seconds, he had
apologized and assured Sandy that she was quite right and that he was
an idiot. Of course she couldn't know who Keller was. Keller was the
man who would install the instruments in the ship outside. Burke gave
her his address. Sandy was not appeased.

Burke ran a grimy hand despairingly through his hair.

"Sandy," he protested, "bear with me just a little while! In just a
few more days this thing will be finished, and I'll know whether I'm
the prize imbecile of history or whether I've actually managed to do
something worth while! Bear with me like you would with a half-wit or a
delinquent child or something. Please, Sandy - "

She turned her back on him and walked out of the shed. But she didn't
quit. Burke turned back to his work.

The Russians sent up another probe. It went off course. There were now
six unmanned Russian probes in emptiness, of which four were lined up
reasonably well along the route which a manned probe, if one were sent
up, should ultimately travel. The advance probes formed an ingenious
approach to the problem of getting a man farther out in space than any
man had been before, but it was horribly risky. But apparently the
Russians could afford to take such risks. The Americans couldn't. They
had a settled policy of spending a dollar instead of a man. It was
humanitarian, but it had one drawback. There was a tendency to keep on
spending dollars and not ever let a man take a chance.

The Russians had four fuel-carrying drones in line out in space. If a
ship could grapple them in turn and refuel, it might make the journey
to M-387 in eight or ten weeks instead of as many months. But it was
not easy to imagine such a success. And as for getting back....

The beeping sounds continued to be received by Earth.

A short man with thin hair arrived at Burke Development, Inc. His
name was Keller, and his expression was pleasant enough, but he was
so sparing of words as to seem almost speechless. Sandy watched as he
unpacked the instruments in the massive shipping cases. The instruments
themselves were meaningless to her. They had dials, and some had gongs,
and one or two had unintelligible things printed on paper strips. At
least one in the last category was a computer. Keller unpacked them
reverently and made sure that not a speck of dust contaminated any
one. When he carried them out to the hull, still concealed by the
lath-and-plaster exterior mould, he walked with the solemn care of a
man bearing treasure.

That day Sandy saw him talking to Burke. Burke spoke, and Keller smiled
and nodded. Only once did he open his mouth to say something. Then he
could not have said more than four words. He went happily back to his
instruments.

The next day, Burke made what was intended to be a low-power test of
the long iron bar he'd machined so painstakingly and wound so carefully
before enclosing it in the bronze outer case. He'd worked on it for
more than two weeks.

He prepared the test very carefully. The six-inch test model had lain
on a workbench and had been energized through a momentary-contact
switch. The full-scale specimen was clamped in a great metal lathe,
which in turn was shackled with half-inch steel cable to the
foundations of the construction shed. If the pseudo-magnet flew
anywhere this time it would have to break through a tremendous
restraining force. The switch was discarded. A condenser would
discharge through the windings via a rectifier. There would be a single
damped surge of current of infinitesimal duration.

Holmes passed on the news. He got along very well with Pam these days.
At first he'd been completely careless of his appearance. Then Pam took
measures to distract him from total absorption in the construction job,
and he responded. Nowadays, he tended to work in coveralls and change
into more formal attire before approaching the office. Sandy came upon
him polishing his shoes, once, and she told Pam. Pam beamed.

Now he came lounging into the office and said amiably, "The moment of
truth has arrived, or will in minutes."

Sandy looked anxious. Pam said, "Is that an invitation to look on at
the kill?"

"Burke's going to turn juice into the thing he's been winding by hand
and jittering over. He's worried. He can think of seven thousand
reasons why it shouldn't work. But if it doesn't, he'll be a pretty
sick man." He glanced at Sandy. "I think he could do with somebody to
hold his hand at the critical moment."

"We'll go," said Sandy.

Pam got up from her desk.

"She won't hold his hand," she explained to Holmes, "but she'll be
there in case there are some pieces to be picked up. Of him."

They went across the open space to the construction shed. It was a
perfectly commonplace morning. The very temporary mass of lumber and
laths and plaster, forming a mould for something unseen inside, was the
only unusual thing in sight. There were deep truck tracks by the shed.
One of the workmen came out of the air-lock door on the bottom of the
mould and lighted a cigarette.

"No smoking inside," said Holmes. "We're cementing things in place with
plastic."

Sandy did not hear. She was first to enter the shed. Burke was moving
around the object he'd worked so long to make. It now appeared to be
simply a piece of bronze pipe some fifteen feet long and eight inches
in diameter, with closed ends. It lay in the bed of an oversized metal
lathe, which was anchored in place by cables. Burke took a painstaking
reading of the resistance of a pair of red wires, then of white ones,
and then of black rubber ones, which stuck out of one end of the pipe.

"The audience is here," said Holmes.

Burke nodded. He said almost apologetically, "I'm putting in a minimum
of power. Maybe nothing will happen. It's pretty silly."

Sandy's hands twisted one within the other when he turned his back to
her. He made connections, took a deep breath, and said in a strained
voice, "Here goes."

He flipped a switch.

There was a cracking sound. It was horribly loud. There was a crash.
Bricks began to fall. The end of the metal-lathe bounced out of a
corner. Steel cables gave off high-pitched musical notes which went
down in tone as the stress on them slackened. One end of the lathe was
gone - snapped off, broken, flung away into a corner. There was a hole
in the brick wall, over a foot in diameter.

The fifteen-foot object was gone. But they heard a high-pitched
shrilling noise, which faded away into the distance.

That afternoon the Russians announced that their manned space-probe had
taken off for Asteroid M-387. Naturally, they delayed the announcement
until they were satisfied that the launching had gone well. When they
made their announcement, the probe was fifty thousand miles out, they
had received a message from its pilot, and they predicted that the
probe would land on M-387 in a matter of seven weeks.

In a remote small corner of the afternoon newspapers there was an item
saying that a meteorite had fallen in a ploughed field some thirty
miles from where Burke's contrivance broke loose. It made a crater
twenty feet across. It could not be examined because it was covered
with frost.

Burke had the devil of a time recovering it. But he needed it badly.
Especially since the Russian probe had gone out from Earth. He
explained that it was a shipment to his plant, which had fallen out of
an aeroplane, but the owner of the ploughed field was dubious. Burke
had to pay him a thousand dollars to get him to believe.

That night he had his recurrent dream again. The fluting signals were
very clear.




Chapter 4


The public abruptly ceased to be interested in news of the signals.
Rather, it suddenly wanted to stop thinking about them. The public was
scared. Throughout all human history, the most horrifying of all ideas
has been the idea of something which was as intelligent as a man, but
wasn't human. Evil spirits, ghosts, devils, werewolves, ghouls - all
have roused maddened terror wherever they were believed in. Because
they were intelligent but not men.

Now, suddenly, the world seemed to realize that there was a _Something_
out on a tiny frozen rock in space. It signaled plaintively to
Earth. It had to be intelligent to be able to send a signal for two
hundred seventy million miles. But it was not a man. Therefore it was
a monster. Therefore it was horrible. Therefore it was deadly and
intolerable and scarey, and humans abruptly demanded not to hear any
more about it. Perhaps they thought that if they didn't think about it,
it would go away.

Newspaper circulations dropped. News-magazine sales practically
vanished. A flood of hysterical letters demanded that the broadcasting
networks leave such revolting things off the air. And this reaction was
not only in America. Violent anti-American feeling arose in Europe,
which psychologists analyzed as resentment caused by the fact that the
Americans had answered the first broadcast. If they hadn't answered the
first, there wouldn't have been a second. But also, even more violent
anti-Russian feeling rose up, because the Russians had started a man
off to meddle with the monster who piped so pleadingly. This antipathy
to space caused a minor political upset in the Kremlin itself, where
a man with a name ending in _ov_ was degraded to much lower official
rank and somebody with a name ending in _sky_ took his place. This
partly calmed the Russian public but had little effect anywhere else.
The world was frightened. It looked for a victim, or victims, for its
fear. Once upon a time, witches were burned to ease the terrors of
ignorance, and plague-spreaders were executed in times of pestilence


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 4 of 14)