Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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designed to knock down jet bomb carriers or ballistic missiles which
travel at a constant speed. Target-seeking missiles can lock onto
the radar echo from a coasting ship, or one going at its highest
speed because their computers predict where their target, traveling
at constant speed, can be intercepted. We were never there. We were
accelerating. Missile-guidance systems can't measure acceleration and
allow for it. They shouldn't have to."

Four of the six television screens showed dark sky with twinkling
lights in it. On one there was the dim outline of the sun, reversed to
blackness because its light was too great to be registered in a normal
fashion. The other screen showed Earth.

There was a buzzing, and Keller looked at Burke.

"Rocket?" asked Burke. Keller shook his head. "Radar?" Keller nodded.

"The DEW line, most likely," said Burke in a worried tone. "I don't
know whether they've got rockets that can reach us. But I know fighter
planes can't get this high. Maybe they can throw a spread of air-to-air
rockets, though.... I don't know their range."

Sandy said unsteadily, "They shouldn't do this to us! We're not
criminals! At least they should ask us who we are and what we're doing!"

"They probably did," said Burke, "and we didn't answer. See if you can
pick up some voices, Keller."

Keller twirled dials and set indicators. Voices burst into speech.
"_Reporting UFO sighted extreme altitude coördinates - First rocket
exhausted fuel in multiple attacks and fell, sir._" Another voice, very
brisk, "_Thirty-second squadron, scramble! Keep top altitude and get
under it. If it descends within range, blast it!_" Another voice said
crisply, "_Coördinates three-seven Jacob, one-nine Alfred...._"

Keller turned the voices down to mutters because they were useless.

Burke said, "Hell! We ought to land somewhere and check over the ship.
Keller, can you give me a microphone and a wavelength somebody will be
likely to pick up?"

Keller shrugged and picked up masses of wire. He began to work on an
as yet unfinished wiring job. Evidently, the ship was not near enough
to completion to be capable of a call to ground. It had taken off with
many things not finished. Burke, at the controls, found it possible to
think of a number of items that should have been examined exhaustively
before the ship left the mould in which it had been made. He worried.

Pam said in a strange voice, "I thought I might rate as a heroine for
stowing away on this voyage, but I didn't think we'd have to dodge
rockets and fighter planes to get away!"

There was no comment.

"I'm a beginner at navigation," said Burke a little later, more worried
than before. "I know we have to go out over the north magnetic pole,
but how the hell do I find that?"

Keller beamed. He dropped his wiring job and went to the imposing bank
of electronic instruments. He set one, and then another, and then a
third. The action, of course, was similar to that of an airline pilot
when he tunes in broadcasting stations in different cities. From each,
a directional reading can be taken. Where the lines of direction
cross, there the transport plane must be. But Keller turned to
shortwave transmitters whose transmissions could be picked up in space.
Presently, eighty miles high, he wrote a latitude and longitude neatly
on a slip of paper, wrote "North magnetic pole 93°W, 71°N, nearly," and
after that a course.

"Hm," said Burke. "Thanks."

Then there was a relative silence inside the ship. Only a faint mutter
of voices came from assorted speakers that Keller had first turned on
and then turned down, and a small humming sound from a gyro. When they
listened, they could also hear a high sweet musical tone. Burke shifted
this control here, and that control there, and lifted his hands. The
ship moved on steadily. He checked this and that and the other thing.
He was pleased. But there were innumerable things to be checked. Holmes
went down the ladder to the other compartment below. There were details
to be looked into there, too.

One of the screens portrayed Earth from a height of seventy miles
instead of eighty, now. Others pictured the heavens, with very many
stars shining unwinkingly out of blackness. Keller got at his wires
again and resumed the work of installing a ship-to-ground transmitter
and its connection to an exterior-reflecting antenna.

Sandy watched Burke as he moved about, testing one thing after another.
From time to time he glanced at the screens which had to serve in the
place of windows. Once he went back to the control-board and changed an
adjustment.

"We dropped down ten miles," he explained to Sandy. "And I suspect
we're being trailed by jets down below."

Holmes meticulously inspected all storage places. He'd packed them when
the ship lay on her side.

Burke read an instrument and said with satisfaction, "We're running on
sunshine!"

He meant that in empty space certain aluminum plates on the outside
of the hull were picking up heat from the naked sun. The use of the
drive-shaft lowered its temperature. Metallic connection with the
outside plates conducted heat inward from those plates. The drive-shaft
was cold to the touch, but it could drop four hundred degrees
Fahrenheit before it ceased to operate as a drive. It was gratifying
that it had cooled so little up to this moment.

Later Keller tapped Burke on the shoulder and jerked his thumb upward.

"We go up now?" asked Burke.

Keller nodded. Burke carefully swung the ship to aim vertically. The
views of solid Earth slid from previous screens to new ones. The stars
and the dark object which was the sun also moved across their screens
to vanish and reappear on others. Then Burke touched the drive-control.
Once more they had the sensation of being in a rising elevator. And at
just that moment spots appeared on the barren, icy, totally flattened
terrain below.

They were rocket-trails from target-seeking missiles which had reached
the area of the north magnetic pole by herculean effort and were aimed
at the radar-detected little ship by the heavy planes that carried them.

From the surface of the Earth, it would have seemed that monstrous
columns of foaming white appeared and rose with incredible swiftness
toward the heavens. They reached on, up and up and up, seeming to draw
closer together as they became smaller in the distance, until all eight
of them seemed to merge into a single point of infinite whiteness in
the sunshine above the world's blanket of air.

But nothing happened. Nothing. The ship did not accelerate as fast
as the rockets, but it had started first and it kept up longer. It
went scuttling away to emptiness and the bottoms of the towers of
rocket-smoke drifted away and away over the barren landscape all
covered with ice and snow.

When Earth looked like a huge round ball that did not even seem very
near, with a night side that was like a curious black chasm among the
stars, the atmosphere of tension inside the ship diminished. Keller
completed his wiring of a ship-to-ground transmitter. He stood up,
brushed off his hands and beamed.

The little ship continued on. Its temperature remained constant. The
air in it smelled of growing green stuff. It was moist. It was warm.
Keller turned a knob and a tiny, beeping noise could be heard. Dials
pointed, precisely.

"We couldn't go on our true course earlier," Burke told Sandy, "because
we had to get out beyond the Van Allen bands of cosmic particles in
orbit around the world. Pretty deadly stuff, that radiation! In theory,
though, all we have to do now is swing onto our proper course and
follow those beepings home. We ought to be in harmless emptiness here.
Do you want to call Washington?"

She stared.

"We need help to navigate - or astrogate," said Burke. "Call them,
Sandy. I'll get on the wire when a general answers."

Sandy went jerkily to the transmitter just connected. She began to
speak steadily, "Calling Earth! Calling Earth! The spaceship you just
shot all those rockets at is calling! Calling Earth!"

It grew monotonous, but eventually a suspicious voice demanded further
identification.

It was a peculiar conversation. The five in the small spaceship were
considered traitors on Earth because they had exercised the traditional
right of American citizens to go about their own business unhindered.
It happened that their private purposes ran counter to the emotional
state of the public. Hence voices berated Sandy and furiously demanded
that the ship return immediately. Sandy insisted on higher authority
and presently an official voice identified itself as general so-and-so
and sternly commanded that the ship acknowledge and obey orders to
return to Earth. Burke took the transmitter.

"My name's Burke," he said mildly. "If you can arrange some sort of
code, I'll tell you how to find the plans, and I'll give you the
instructions you'll need to build more ships like this. They can follow
us out. I think they should. I believe that this is more important than
anything else you can think of at the moment."

Silence. Then more sternness. But ultimately the official voice said,
"I'll get a code expert on this."

Burke handed the microphone to Sandy.

"Take over. We've got to arrange a cipher so nobody who listens in can
learn about official business. We may use a social security number for
a key, or the name of your maiden aunt's first sweetheart, or something
we know and Washington can find out but that nobody else can. Hm. Your
last year's car-license number might be a starter. They can seal up the
records on that!"

Sandy took over the job. What was transmitted to Earth, of course,
could be picked up anywhere over an entire hemisphere. Somebody would
assuredly pass on what they overheard to, say, nations the United
States would rather have behind it than ahead of it in space-travel
equipment. Burke's suggestion of a cipher and instructions changed his
entire status with authority. They'd rather have had him come back, but
this was second best, and they took it.

From Burke's standpoint it was the only thing to do. He had no official
standing to lend weight to his claim that lunatic magnet-cores with
insanely complicated windings would amount to space-drive units. If he
returned, in the nature of things there would be a long delay before
mere facts could overcome theoreticians' convictions. But now he was
forty-five thousand miles out from Earth.

He had changed course to home on the beeping signals from M-387, was
accelerating at one full gravity and had been doing so for forty-five
minutes. And the small ship already had a velocity of twenty miles
per second and was still going up. All the rockets that men had made,
plus the Russian manned-probe drifting outward now, had become as much
outdated for space travel as flint arrowheads are for war.

Burke returned to the microphone when Sandy left it to get a pencil and
paper.

"By the way," he said briskly. "We can keep on accelerating
indefinitely at one gravity. We've got radars. We got them from - "
He named the supplier. "Now we want advice on how fast we can risk
traveling before we'll be going too fast to dodge meteors or whatnot
that the radar may detect. Get that figured out for us, will you?"

He gave back the instrument to Sandy and returned to his inspection of
every item of functioning equipment in the ship. He found one or two
trivial things to be bettered. The small craft went on in a singularly
matter-of-fact fashion. If it had been a bomb shelter buried in the
pit beside the mould in which it was built, there would have been very
little difference in the feel of things. The constant acceleration
substituted perfectly for gravity. The six television screens, to
be sure, pictured incredible things outside, but television screens
often picture incredible things. The wall-gardens looked green and
flourishing. The pumps were noiseless. There were no moving parts in
the drive. The gyro held everything steady. There was no vibration.

Nobody could remain upset in such an unexciting environment. Presently
Pam explored the living quarters below. Holmes took his place in the
control-chair, but found no need to touch anything.

Some time later Sandy reported, "Joe, they say we must be lying, but
if we can keep on accelerating, we'd better not hit over four hundred
miles a second. They say we can then swing end for end and decelerate
down to two hundred, and then swing once more and build up to four
again. But they insist that we ought to return to Earth."

"They don't mention shooting rockets at us, do they?" asked Burke. "I
thought they wouldn't. Just say thanks and go on working out a code."

Sandy set to work with pencil and paper. Federal agents would be
moving, now, to impound all official records that were in any way
connected with any of the five on the ship. The key to the code would
be contained in such records. It would be an agglomeration of such
items as Burke's grandmother's maiden name, Holmes' social-security
number, the name of a street Burke had lived on some years before,
the exact amount of his federal income taxes the previous year, the
title of a book third from the end on the second shelf of a bookcase
in Keller's apartment, and such unconsidered items as most people can
remember with a little effort, but which can only be found out by
people who know where to look. These people would keep anybody else
from looking in the same places. Such a code would be clumsy to work
with, but it would be unbreakable.

It took hours to establish it without the mention of a single word
included in the lengthy key. The ship reached four hundred miles a
second, turned about, and began to cut down its speed again.

Pam spoke from beside an electric stove, "Dinner's ready! Come and get
it!"

They dined; Sandy weary, Burke absorbed and inevitably worried, Holmes
placid and amiable, and Keller beaming and interested in all that went
on, which was practically nothing.

They did not see the stars direct, because television cameras were
preferable to portholes. Earth had become very small, and as it swung
ever more nearly into a direct line between the ship and the sun,
night filled more of its disk until only a hairline of sunshine showed
at one edge. The microwave receivers ceased to mutter. The working
astronomers on Earth who'd sent a message to M-387 were suddenly
relieved of their disgrace and set to work again to equip the West
Virginia radar telescope for continuous communication with Burke's
ship. Other technicians began to prepare multiple receptors to pick
up the ship's signals from hitherto unprecedented distances for human
two-way communication.

And on Earth an official statement went out from high authority. It
announced that a hurriedly completed American ship was on the way to
M-387 to investigate the signals from space. It announced that measures
long in preparation were now in use, and that an invincible fleet of
spacecraft would be completed in months, whereas they had not been
hoped for for another generation. An unexpected breakthrough had made
it possible to advance the science of space travel by many decades,
and a fleet to explore all the planets as well as M-387 was already
under construction. It was almost true that they were. The blueprints
of Burke's ship had been flown to Washington from the plant, and an
enormous number of replicas of the egg-shaped vessel were ordered to be
begun immediately, even before the theory of the drive was understood.

There was one minor hitch. A legal-minded official protested that
Congressional appropriations had been for rocket-driven spaceships
only, and the money appropriated could not be used for other than
rockets. An executive order settled the matter. Then theorists began to
object to the principle of the drive. It contradicted well-established
scientific beliefs. It could not work.

It did, but there was violent opposition to the fact.

Publicly, of course, the shock of such an about-face by the national
government was extreme. But newspapers flashed new headlines. "U.S.
SHIP SPEEDING TO QUERY ALIENS!" Lesser heads announced, "_Critical
Velocity Exceeded! Russian Probe Already Passed!_" The last was not
quite true. The Russian manned probe had started out ten days before.
Burke hadn't overtaken it yet.

Broadcasters issued special bulletins, and two networks canceled top
evening programs to schedule interviews with prominent scientists who'd
had nothing whatever to do with what Burke had managed to achieve.

In Europe, obviously, the political effect was stupendous. Russia
was reduced to impassioned claims that the ship had been built from
Russian plans, using Russian discoveries, which had been stolen
by imperialistic secret agents. And the heads of the Russian spy
system were disgraced for not having, in fact, stolen the plans and
discoveries from the Americans. All other operatives received threats
of what would happen to them if they didn't repair that omission. These
threats so scared half a dozen operatives that they defected and told
all they knew, thereby wrecking the Russian spy system for the time
being.

Essentially, however, the recovery of confidence in America was as
extravagant as the previous unhappy desire to hear no more about
space. Burke, Holmes, Keller, Sandy and Pam became national heroes and
heroines within eighteen hours after guided missiles had failed to
shoot them down. The only criticism came from a highly conservative
clergyman who hoped that other young girls would not imitate Sandy's
and Pam's disregard of convention and maintained that a married woman
should have gone along to chaperon them.

The atmosphere in the ship, however, was that of respectability carried
to the point where things were dull. The lower compartment of the ship,
being smaller, was inevitably appropriated by Sandy and Pam. They
retired when the ship was twenty hours out from Earth. Each of them had
prepared for stowing away by wearing extra garments in layers.

"Funny," said Pam, yawning as they made ready to turn in, "I thought it
was going to be exciting. But it's just like a rather full day at the
office."

"Which," said Sandy, "I'm quite used to."

"I do think you ought to have barged in when they designed the ship,
Sandy. There's not one mirror in it!"

In the upper compartment Keller took his place in the control-chair and
took a trick of duty. It consisted solely of looking at the instruments
and listening to the beeping noises which came from remoteness every
two seconds, and the still completely cryptic broadcasts which came
every seventy-nine minutes. It wasn't exciting. There was nothing to be
excited about. But somebody had to be on watch.

On the second day out, Washington was ready to use the new code. The
West Virginia radar bowl was powered to handle communications again.
Sandy painstakingly took down the gibberish that came in and decoded
it. From then on she worked at the coding and transmission of messages
and the reception and decoding of others. Presently Pam relieved her at
the job. Pam tended to be bored because Holmes was as much absorbed in
the business of keeping anything from happening as was Burke.

The messages were almost entirely requests for, and answers to requests
for, details about the ship plans. The United States had not yet
completed a duplicate drive-shaft. Machinists labored to reproduce
the cores, which would then have to be wound in the complicated
fashion the plans described. But it was an unhappy experience for the
scientific minds assigned to duplicate Burke's ship. No woman ever
followed a recipe without making some change. Very few physicists can
duplicate another's apparatus without itching to change it. There were
six copies of the drive under construction at the same time, at the
beginning. Four were made by skeptics, who adhered to the original
plans with strict accuracy. They were sure they'd prove Burke wrong.
Two were "improved" in the making. The four, when finished, worked
beautifully. The two doctored versions did not. But still there was
fretful discussion of the theory of the drive. It seemed flatly to
contradict Newton's law that every action has a reaction of equal
moment and opposite sign - a law at least as firmly founded as the law
of the conservation of energy. But that had lately been revised into
the law of the conservation of energy and matter, which now was gospel.
Burke's theory required the Newtonian law to be restated to read "every
action of a given force has a reaction of the same force, of the same
moment," and so on. When the reaction of one force is converted into
another force, the results can be interesting. In fact, one can have
a space-drive. But there was bitter resistance to the idea. It was
demanded that Burke justify his views in a more reasonable way than by
mere demonstration that they worked.

After a time, Burke gave up trying to explain things. And when one and
then another duplicate drive worked, the argument ceased. But eminent
physicists still had a resentful feeling that Burke was cheating on
them somehow.

Then for days nothing happened. One of the three men in the ship always
stayed in the control-chair where he could check the ship's course
against the homing signals from the asteroid. He might have to correct
it by the fraction of a hair, or swing ship and put on more drive
if the radar should show celestial debris in the spaceship's path.
Every so many hours the ship had to be swung about so that instead of
accelerating she decelerated, or instead of decelerating gained fresh
speed. But that was all.

On the fifth day there was the flash of a meteor on the radar. On
the seventh day an object which could have been the second or third
unmanned Russian probe showed briefly at the very edge of the radar
screens. In essence, however, the journey was pure tedium. Burke
wearied of making sure that his work was good, though he congratulated
himself that nothing did happen to break the monotony. Holmes admitted
that he was disappointed. He'd wanted to make the journey because he'd
sailed in everything but a spaceship. But there was no fun in it.
Keller alone seemed comfortably absorbed. He prepared daily lists of
instrument-readings to be sent back to Earth. They would be of enormous
importance to science-minded people. They were not of interest to Sandy.

Even when she talked to Burke, it was necessarily impersonal. There
could be no privacy which was not ostentatious. The two girls used the
lower compartment, the three men the upper and larger one. For Sandy
to talk privately with Burke, she'd have had to go to the small bottom
section of the ship. Holmes and Pam faced the same situation. It was
uncomfortable. So they developed a perfectly pleasant habit of talking
exclusively of things everybody could talk about. It did not bother
Keller, who would hardly average a dozen words in twenty-four hours,
but Sandy muttered to herself when she and Pam retired for what was a
ship-night's rest.

When they went past the orbit of Mars, agitated instructions came out
from Earth. The asteroid belts began beyond Mars. Elaborate directions
came. The ship was tracked by radar telescopes all around the world,
direction-finding on its transmission. Croydon kept track. American
radar bowls picked up the ship's voice. South American and Hawaiian and
Japanese and Siberian radar telescopes determined the ship's position
every time a set of code symbols reached Earth from the ship. Of
course, there were also the beepings and the seventy-nine-minute-spaced
identical broadcasts from farther out from the sun.

Somebody got a brilliant idea and authority to try it. An interview for
broadcast on Earth was sought with somebody on the ship. It was then a
hundred thirty million miles from Earth, and ninety-two million more
from the sun. Largely out of boredom Sandy agreed to answer questions.
But at the speed of light it required eleven minutes to reach her
from Earth, and as long for her reply to be received. It did not make
for liveliness, so she spoke curtly for five minutes and stopped. She
talked at random about housekeeping in space. Without knowing it, she
was praised for her domesticity in many pulpits the following Sunday,
and eight hundred ninety-two proposals of marriage piled up in mail
addressed to her in care of the United States government. Twelve were
in Russian.

But nothing really exciting happened aboard the spaceship. It was
Burke's guess that they could go directly through the asteroid belt
along the plane of the ecliptic, and not get nearer than ten thousand


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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 6 of 14)