Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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miles to any bit of shattered stone or metal in orbit out there. He was
almost right. There was only one occasion when his optimism came into
doubt.

It was on the ninth day out from Earth. Experimentally, the ship
coasted on attained momentum, using no drive. There was, then, no
substitute for gravity and everyone and everything in the ship was
weightless. The power obtainable from the sun as heat had dwindled
to one-ninth of that at the Earth's distance. But what was received
could be stored, and was. Meanwhile the ship plunged onward at very
nearly four hundred miles per second. Burke, Keller, and Holmes
together labored over a self-contained diving suit which they hoped
could be used as a space suit in dire emergency and for brief periods.
They wanted to get the feel of using it with internal pressure and
weightlessness as conditions. Sandy sat at the transmitter, working at
code which by now she heartily loathed. Pam sat in the control-chair,
watching the instruments.

There was a buzz. Burke snapped his head around to see the radar
screen. A line of light appeared on it. It aimed directly at the center
of the screen, which meant that whatever had been picked up was on a
collision course with the ship. Burke plunged toward the control-chair
to take over. But he'd forgotten the condition of no-gravity. He went
floating off in mid-air, far wide of the chair.

He barked orders to Pam, who was least qualified of anybody aboard
to meet an emergency of this sort. She panicked. She did nothing.
Holmes took precious seconds to drag himself to the controls by what
hand-holds could be had. The glowing white line on the radar screen
lengthened swiftly. It neared the center. It reached the center. Burke
and Holmes froze.

There was a curious flashing change in a vision-screen. An image
flashed into view. It was a jagged, tortured, irregularly-shaped mass
of stone or metal, distorted in its representation by the speed at
which it passed the television lens. It was perhaps a hundred yards in
diameter. It could never have been seen from Earth. It might circle the
sun in its lonely orbit for a hundred million years and never be seen
again.

It went away to nothing. It had missed by yards or fathoms, and Burke
found himself sweating profusely. Holmes was deathly white. Keller very
carefully took a deep breath, swallowed, and went back to his work on
the diving-suit-qua-space-suit. Sandy hadn't noticed anything at all.
But Pam burst into abrupt, belated tears, and Holmes comforted her
clumsily. She was bitterly ashamed that she'd done nothing to meet the
emergency which came while she was at the control-board, and which was
the only emergency they'd encountered since the ship's departure from
Earth.

After that, they put on the drive and used reserve fuel. It was
necessary to check their speed, anyhow. They were very near the source
of the beeping signal they'd steered by for so long. The directional
receiver pointed to it had long since been turned down to its lowest
possible volume, and still the beepings were loud.

On the eleventh day after their take-off, they sighted Asteroid M-387.
They had traveled two hundred seventy million miles at an averaged-out
speed of very close to three hundred miles per second. Despite muting,
the beepings from the loud-speakers were monstrous noises.

"Try a call, Holmes," said Burke. "But they ought to know we're here."

He felt strange. He'd brought the ship to a stop about four or five
miles from M-387. The asteroid was a mass of dark stuff with white
outcroppings at one place and another. The ship seemed to edge itself
toward it. The floating mass of stone and metal had no particular
shape. It was longer than it was wide, but its form fitted no
description. A mountain which had been torn from solidity with its
roots of stone attached might look like Schull's Object as it turned
slowly against a background of myriads of unblinking stars.

There was no change in the beeping that came from the singular thing.
It did rotate, but so slowly that one had to watch for long minutes to
be sure of it. There was no outward sign of any reaction to the ship's
presence. Holmes took the microphone.

"Hello! Hello!" he said absurdly. "We have come from Earth to find out
what you want."

No answer. No change in the beeping calls. The asteroid turned with
enormous deliberation.

Sandy said suddenly, "Look there! A stick! No, it's a mast! See, where
the patch of white is?"

Burke very, very gingerly drew closer to the monstrous thing which hung
in space. It was true. There was a mast of some sort sticking up out
of white stone. The direction-indicators pointed to it. The beeping
stopped and a broadcast began. It was the standard broadcast Earth
heard every seventy-nine minutes.

There was no reply to Holmes' call. There was no indication that
the ship's arrival had been noted. On Earth the ignoring of human
broadcasts to M-387 had seemed arrogance, indifference, a superior and
menacing contempt for man and all his works; somehow, here the effect
was different. This irregular mass was a fragment of something that
once had been much greater. It suddenly ceased to seem menacing because
it seemed oblivious. It acted blindly, by rote, like some mechanism set
to operate in a certain way and unable to act in any other.

It did not seem alive. It had signaled like a robot beacon. Now it felt
like one. It was one.

"Look, coming around toward us," said Holmes very quietly. "There's
something that looks like a tunnel. It's not a crevasse. It was cut."

Burke nodded.

"Yes," he said thoughtfully. "I think we'll explore it. But I don't
really expect we'll find any life here. There's nothing outside to see
but a single metal mast. We've got some signal lights on our hull. If
we're careful - "

No one objected. The appearance of the asteroid was utterly
disappointing. Its lifelessness and its obliviousness to their coming
and their calls were worse than disappointing. There was nothing to be
seen but a metal stick from which signals went out to nowhere.

Burke jockeyed the little ship to the tunnel-mouth. It was fully a
hundred feet in diameter. He turned on the ship's signal lights.
Gently, cautiously, he worked down the very center of the very large
bore.

It was perfectly straight. They went in for what seemed an indefinite
distance. Presently the signal lights showed that the wall was
smoothed. The bore grew smaller still. They went on and on.

Suddenly Keller grunted. He pointed to one of the six television
screens which aimed out the length of the tunnel and showed the stars
beyond.

Those stars were being blotted out. Something vast moved slowly and
deliberately across the shaft they navigated. It closed the opening.
Their retreat was blocked. The ship was shut in, in the center of a
mountain of stone which floated perpetually in emptiness. Burke checked
the ship's forward motion, judging their speed by the side walls shown
by the ship's outside lights.

Very, very slowly, faint illumination appeared outside. In seconds
they could see that the light came from long tubes of faint bluish
light. The light changed. It grew stronger. It turned green and then
yellowish and then became very bright, indeed.

Then nothing more took place. Nothing whatever. The five inside
the ship waited more than an hour for some other development, but
absolutely nothing happened.




Chapter 6


There was a tiny shock; in a minute, trivial contact of the ship with
something outside it. Drifting within the now brightly lighted bore, it
had touched the wall. There was no force to the impact.

Keller made an interested noise. When eyes turned to him, he pointed to
a dial. A needle on that dial pointed just past the figure "30." Burke
grunted.

"The devil! We've been waiting for things to happen, and they already
have! It's our move."

"According to that needle," agreed Holmes, "somebody has kindly put
thirty point seven mercury inches of air-pressure around the ship
outside. We can walk out and breathe, now."

"If," said Burke, "it's air. It could be something else. I'll have to
check it."

He got out the self-contained diving apparatus that had been brought
along to serve as a strictly temporary space suit.

"I'll try a cigarette-lighter. Maybe it will burn naturally. Maybe it
will go out. It could make an explosion. But I doubt that very much."

"We'll hope," said Holmes, "that the lighter burns."

Burke climbed into the diving suit, which had been designed for
amateurs of undersea fishing to use in chilly waters. On Earth it
would have been intolerably heavy, for a man moving about out of the
ocean. But there was no weight here. If M-387 had a gravitational field
at all, which in theory it had to have, it would be on the order of
millionths of the pull of Earth.

Keller sat in the control-chair, watching the instruments and the
outside television screens which showed the bore now reduced to fifty
feet. Somehow the more distant parts of the tunnel looked hazy, as
if there were a slight mist in whatever gas had been released in
it. Sandy watched Burke pull on the helmet and close the face-plate.
She grasped a hand-hold, her knuckles turning white. Pam nestled
comfortably in a corner of the ceiling of the control-room. Holmes
frowned as Burke went into the air-lock and closed the inner door.

His voice came immediately out of a speaker at the control-desk.

"I'm breathing canned air from the suit," he said curtly.

There were scrapings. The outer lock-door made noises. There was what
seemed to be a horribly long wait. Then they heard Burke's voice again.

"I've tried it," he reported. "The lighter burns when it's next to the
slightly opened door. I'm opening wide now."

More noises from the air-lock.

"It still burns. Repeat. The lighter burns all right. The tunnel is
filled with air. I'm going to crack my face-plate and see how it
smells."

Silence, while Sandy went white. But a moment later Burke said crisply,
"It smells all right. It's lifeless and stuffy, but there's nothing in
it with an odor. Hold on - I hear something!"

A long minute, while the little ship floated eerily almost in contact
with the walls about it. It turned slowly. Then there came brisk,
brief fluting noises. They were familiar in kind. But this was a short
message, of some fifteen or twenty seconds length, no more. It ended,
was repeated, ended, was repeated, and went on with an effect of
mechanical and parrot-like repetition.

"It's good air," reported Burke. "I'm breathing normally. But it might
have been stored for ages. It's stale. Do you hear what I do?"

"Yes," said Sandy in a whisper to the control-room. "It's a call. It's
telling us to do something. Come back inside, Joe!"

They heard the outer air-lock door closing and its locking-dogs
engaging. The fluting noises ceased to be audible. The inner door swung
wide. Burke came into the control-room, his helmet face-plate open. He
wriggled out of the diving suit.

"Something picked up the fact that we'd entered. It closed a door
behind us. Then it turned on lights for us. Then it let air into the
entrance-lock. Now it's telling us to do something."

The ship surged, ever so gently. Keller had turned on an infinitesimal
trace of drive. The walls of the bore floated past on the television
screens. There was mist in the air outside. It seemed to clear as the
ship moved.

Keller made a gratified small sound. They could see the end of the
tunnel. There was a platform there. Stairs went to it from the side of
the bore. There was a door with rounded corners in the end wall. That
wall was metal.

Keller carefully turned the ship until the stairway was in proper
position for a landing, if there had been gravitation to make the
stairs usable. Very, very gently, he lowered the ship upon the platform.

There was a singular tugging sensation which ceased, came again,
ceased, and gradually built up to a perfectly normal feeling of weight.
They stood upon the floor of the control-room with every physical
sensation they'd felt during one-gravity acceleration on the way out
here, and which they'd have felt if the ship were aground on Earth.

"Artificial gravity! Whoever made this knew something!" Burke said.

Pam swallowed and spoke with an apparent attempt at nonchalance.

"Now what do we do?"

"We - look for the people," said Sandy in a queer tone.

"There's nobody here, Sandy!" Burke said irritably. "Can't you see?
There can't be anybody here! They'd have signaled us what to do
if there had been! This is machinery working. We do something and
it operates. But then it waits for us to do something else. It's
like - like a self-service elevator!"

"We didn't come here for an elevator ride," said Sandy.

"I came to find out what's here," said Burke, "and why it's signaling
to Earth. Holmes, you stay here with the girls and I'll take a look
outside."

"I'd like to mention," said Holmes drily, "that we haven't a weapon on
this ship. When they shot rockets at us back on Earth, we didn't have
even a pea-shooter to shoot back with. We haven't now. I think the
girls are as safe exploring as they are here. And besides, we'll all
feel better if we're together."

"I'm going!" said Sandy defiantly.

Burke hesitated, then shrugged. He unlatched the devices which kept
both doors to the air-lock from being open at the same time. It was
not a completely cautious thing to do, but caution was impractical.
The ship was imprisoned. It was incapable of defense. There was simply
nothing sensible about precautions that couldn't prevent anything.

Burke threw open the outer lock door. One by one, the five of them
climbed down to the platform so plainly designed for a ship of space - a
small one - to land upon. Nothing happened. Their surroundings were
completely uninformative. This landing-platform might have been built
by any race on Earth or anywhere else, provided only that it used
stairs.

"Here goes," said Burke.

He went to the door with rounded corners. There was something like a
handle at one side, about waist-high. He put his hand to it, tugged
and twisted, and the door gave. It was not rusty, but it badly needed
lubrication. Burke pulled it wide and stared unbelievingly beyond.

Before him there stretched a corridor which was not less than twenty
feet high and just as wide. The long, glowing tubes of light that
illuminated the ship-tunnel were here, too, fixed in the ceiling. The
corridor reached away, straight and unbroken, until its end seemed a
mere point in the distance. It looked about a full mile long. There
were doorways in both its side walls, and they dwindled in the distance
with a monotonous regularity until they, too, were mere vertical
specks. One could not speak of the length of this corridor in feet or
yards. It was a mile.

It was incredible. It was overwhelming. And it was empty. It shone in
the glare of the light tubes which made a river of brilliance overhead.
It seemed preposterous that so vast a construction should have no
living thing in it. But it was absolutely vacant.

They stared down its length for long seconds. Then Burke seemed to
shake himself.

"Here's the parlor. Let's walk in, even if there's no welcoming
committee."

His voice echoed. It rolled and reverberated and then diminished very
slowly to nothing.

Burke strode forward with Sandy close to him. Pam stared blankly, and
instinctively moved up to Holmes. Once they were through the door, the
sensation was not that of adventure in a remote part of space, but of
being in some strange and impossible monument on Earth. The feeling of
weight, if not completely normal, was so near it as not to be noticed.
They could have been in some previously unknown structure made by men,
at home.

This corridor, though, was not built. It was excavated. Some process
had been used which did not fracture the stone to be removed. The
surface of the rock about them was smooth. In places it glittered.
The doorways had been cut out, not constructed. They were of a size
which made them seem designed for the use of men. The compartments to
which they gave admission were similarly matter-of-fact. They were
windowless, of course, but their strangeness lay in the fact that they
were empty, as if to insist that all this ingenuity and labor had been
abandoned thousands of years before. Yet from somewhere in the asteroid
a call still went out urgently, filling the solar system with plaintive
fluting sounds, begging whoever heard to come and do something which
was direly necessary.

A long, long way down the gallery there were two specks. A quarter-mile
from the entrance, they saw that one of the rooms contained a pile of
metal ingots, neatly stacked and bound in place by still-glistening
wire. At half a mile they came upon the things in the gallery itself.
One was plainly a table with a single leg, made of metal. It was
unrusted, but showed signs of use. The other was an object with a
hollow top. In the hollow there were twisted, shriveled shreds of
something unguessable.

"If men had built this," said Burke, and again his voice echoed and
rolled, "that hollow thing would be a stool with a vanished cushion,
and the table would be a desk."

Sandy said thoughtfully, "If men had built this, there'd be signs
somewhere marking things. At least there'd be some sort of numbers on
these doorways!"

Burke said nothing. They went on.

The gallery branched. A metal door closed off the divergent branch.
Burke tugged at an apparent handle. It did not yield. They continued
along the straight, open way.

They came to a larger-than-usual opening in the side wall. Inside it
there were rows and rows and rows of metal spheres some ten feet in
diameter. There must have been hundreds of them. Beside the door there
was a tiny shelf, with a tinier box fastened to it. A long way farther,
they came to what had appeared to be the end of this corridor. But it
did not end. It slanted upward and turned and they found themselves in
the same corridor on a different level, headed back in the direction
from which they had come. Their footsteps echoed hollowly in the
still-enormous emptiness. There were other closed doors. Burke tried
some. Holmes tried others. They did not open. Keller moved raptly,
gazing at this and that.

Everything was strange, but not strange enough to be frightening. One
could have believed this place the work of men, except that this
was beyond the ability of men to make. There must be miles of vacant
rooms carved out of solid rock. They came upon some hundreds of yards
of doorways, and in every room on which they opened, there were metal
frames about the walls. Holmes said suddenly, "If men had built this
place, those could be bunks."

They came to another place where there was dust, and a group of six
huge rooms communicating not only with the corridor but with each
other. They found hollow metal things like cook pans. They found a
hollow small object which could have been a drinking vessel. It was
broken. It was of a size suitable for men.

"If men built this," said Holmes again, "these could be mess-halls. But
I agree with Sandy that there should be signs."

Yet another closed door. It resisted their efforts to open it, just
like the others. Keller put out his hand and thoughtfully touched the
stone beside it. He looked astonished.

"What?" asked Burke. He touched the stone as Keller had. It was
bitterly, bitterly cold. "The air's warm and the stone's cold! What's
this?"

Keller wetted the tip of his finger and rubbed it on the rocky side
wall. Instantly, frost appeared. But the air remained warm.

The gallery turned again, and again rose. The third-level passageway
was shorter; barely half a mile in length. Here they passed door after
door, all open, with each compartment containing a huge and somehow
malevolent shape of metal. And beside each doorway there was a little
shelf with a small box fastened to it.

"These," said Holmes, "could be guns, if there were any way for them to
shoot anything. Just by the look of them I'd say they were weapons."

Burke said abruptly, "Keller, the stone being freezing cold while the
air's warm means that this place has been heated up lately. Heat's been
poured into it. Within hours!"

Keller considered. Then he shook his head.

"Not heat. Warmed air."

Burke went scowling onward. He followed, actually, the only route
that was open. Other ways were cut off by doors which refused to
open. Sandy, beside him, noted the floor. It was stone like the walls
and ceiling. But it was worn. There were slight inequalities in it,
beginning a foot or so from the walls. Sandy envisioned thousands of
feet moving about these resonant corridors for hundreds or thousands
of years in order to wear away the solid stone in this fashion.
She felt age about her - incredible age reaching back to time past
imagining, while the occupants of this hollow world swarmed about its
interior. Doing what?

Burke considered other things. There were the ten-foot metal spheres,
ranged by hundreds in what might be a magazine below. There were the
squat and ugly metal monsters which seemed definitely menacing to
somebody or something. There were the metal frameworks like bunks.
There was no rust, here, which could be accounted for if Keller
happened to be right and warmed air had been released lately in
corridors which before - for ten thousand years or more - had contained
only the vacuum of space. And there were those rooms which could be
mess-halls.

These items were subject matter for thought. But if what they hinted
at was true, there must be other specialized compartments elsewhere.
There must be storerooms for food for those who managed the guns - if
they were guns - and the spheres, and lived in the bunk-rooms and ate
in the mess-halls. There'd be storerooms for equipment and supplies of
all sorts. And again, if Keller were right about the air, there must be
enormous pressure-tanks which had held the asteroid's atmosphere under
high pressure for millennia, only to warm it and release it within the
hour so that those who came by ship could use it.

An old phrase occurred to Burke. "A mystery wrapped in an enigma."
It applied to these discoveries. Plainly the release of air had been
done without the command of any living creature. There could be none
here! As plainly, the signals from space had been begun without the
interposition of life. The transmitter which still senselessly flung
its message to Earth was a robot. The operation of the ship-lock, the
warming of air, the lighting of the ship-lock and the corridors - all
had been accomplished by machinery, obeying orders given to the
transmitter first by some unguessable stimulus.

But why? Other mysteries aside, there had plainly been meticulous
preparation for the welcoming of a ship from space. No, not welcoming.
Acceptance of a ship from space. Somebody had been expected to respond
to those plaintive fluting noises which went wailing through the solar
system. Who were those waited-for visitors expected to be? What were
they expected to do? For that matter, what was the purpose of the
asteroid itself? What had it been built for? At some time or another it
must have contained thousands of inhabitants. What were they here for?
What became of them? And when the asteroid was left - abandoned - what
conceivable situation was to trigger the transmitter to send out urgent
calls, and then a directional guiding-signal the instant the call was
answered? When Burke's ship came, the asteroid accepted it without
question and carried out mechanical operations to make it possible
for that ship's crew to roam at will through it. What activated this
mechanism of so many eons ago?

The five newly-arrived humans, three men and two girls, trudged along
the echoing gallery cut out of the asteroid's heart. Murmurous sounds
accompanied them. Once they came to a place where a whispering-gallery
effect existed. They heard their footsteps repeated loudly as if the
asteroid inhabitants were approaching invisibly, but no one came.

"I don't like this!" Pam said uneasily.

Then her own voice mocked her, and she realized what it was, and
giggled nervously. That also was repeated, and sounded like something
which seemed to sneer at them. It was unpleasant.

They came to the end of the gallery. There was a stair leading upward.
There was nowhere else to go, so Burke started up, Sandy close behind
him, and Holmes and Pam behind them. Keller brought up the rear. They
climbed, and small noises began to be audible.


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