Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid online

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They were fluting sounds. They grew louder as the party from Earth went
up and up. They reached a landing, and here also there was a metal door
with rounded corners. Through it and from beyond it came the piping
notes that Burke had heard in his dream some hundreds of times and that
lately had come to Earth from emptiness. The sounds seemed to pause and
to begin again, and once more to pause. It was not possible to tell
whether they came from one source, speaking pathetically, or from two
sources in conversation.

Sandy went utterly white and her eyes fixed upon Burke. He was nearly
as pale, himself. He stopped. Here and now there was no trace of
ribbony-leaved trees or the smell of green things, but only air which
was stuffy and lifeless as if it had been confined for centuries. And
there was no sunset sky with two moons in it, but only carved and
seamless stone. Yet there were the familiar fluting sounds....

Burke put his hand to the curiously-shaped handle of the door. It
yielded. The door opened inward. Burke went in, his throat absurdly
dry. Sandy followed him.

And again there was disappointment. Because there was no living
creature here. The room was perhaps thirty feet long and as wide.
There were many vision-screens in it, and some of them showed the
stars outside with a precision of detail no earthly television could
provide. The sun glowed as a small disk a third of its proper diameter.
It was dimmer, too. The Milky Way showed clearly. And there were very
many screens which showed utterly clear views of the surface of the
asteroid, all broken, chaotic, riven rock and massy, unoxydized metal.

But there was no life. There were not even symbols of life. There were
only machines. They noticed a large transparent disk some ten feet
across. Specks of light glowed within its substance. Off at one side an
angular metal arm held a small object very close to the disk's surface,
a third of the way from its edge. It did not touch the disk, but under
it and in the disk there was a little group of bright-red specks
which quivered and wavered. They were placed in a strict mathematical
arrangement which very, very slowly changed so that it would be hours
before it had completed a rotation and had exactly the same appearance
again.

The flutings came from a tall metal cone on the floor. Another machine
nearby held a round plate out toward the cone. "There's nobody here,"
said Sandy in a strange voice. "What'll we do now, Joe?"

"This must be the transmitter," he murmured. "The sound-record for the
broadcasts must be in here, somehow. It's possible that this plate is a
sort of microphone - "

Keller, beaming, pointed to a round spot which quivered with an eerie
luminescence. It glowed more brightly and dimmed according to the
flutings. Burke said "The devil!" and the round spot flickered up very
brightly for an instant.

"Yes," said Burke. "It's a mike. It's quite likely - " the round spot
flared up and dimmed with the modulations of his voice - "it's quite
likely that what I say goes into the broadcast to Earth."

The cone ceased to emit fluting noises. Burke said very steadily - and
the spot flickered violently with the sounds - "I think I am
transmitting to Earth. If so, this is Joe Burke. I announce the arrival
of my ship at Asteroid M-387. The asteroid has been hollowed out and
fitted with an air-lock which admitted our ship. It is a - a - "

He hesitated, and Holmes said curtly, "It's a fortress."

"Yes," said Burke heavily. "It's a fortress. There are weapons we
haven't had time to examine. There are barracks for a garrison of
thousands. But there is no one here. It has been deserted, but not
abandoned, because the transmitter was set up to send out a call when
some occasion arose. It seems to have arisen. There is a big plate
here which may be a star map, with a scale on which light-years may
be represented by inches. I don't know. There are certain bright-red
specks on it. They are moving. There is a machine to watch those
specks. Apparently it actuated the transmitter to make it call to all
the solar system."

Keller suddenly put his finger to his lips. Burke nodded and said
curtly, "I'll report further."

Keller flipped over an odd switch with something of a flourish - after
which he looked embarrassed. The transmitter went dead.

"He's right," said Holmes. "Back home they know we're here, I suspect,
and you've told enough to give them fits. I think we'd better be
careful what we say in the clear."

Burke nodded again. "There'll be calls from Earth shortly and we can
decide whether or not to use code then. Keller, can you trace the leads
to this transmitter and find the receiver that picked up that West
Virginia beam-signal and changed the first broadcast to the second? It
should be as sensitive as this transmitter is powerful."

Keller nodded confidently.

"It'll take thirty-some minutes for that report of mine to reach Earth
and an answer to get back," observed Burke, "if everything works
perfectly and the proper side of Earth is turned this way. I think we
can be sure there's nobody but us in the fortress."

His sensations were peculiar. It was exciting to have found a fortress
in space, of course. It was the sort of thing that might have satisfied
a really dedicated scientist completely. Burke realized the importance
of the discovery, but it was an impersonal accomplishment. It did
not mean, to Burke, that he'd carried out the purpose behind his
coming here. This fortress was linked to a dream about a world with
two moons in its sky and someone or something running breathlessly
behind unearthly swaying foliage. But this place was not the place of
that dream, nor did it fulfill it. Mystery remained, and frustration,
and Burke was left in the state of mind of a savage who has found a
treasure which means much to civilized men, but doesn't make him any
happier because he doesn't want what civilized men can give him.

He grimaced and spoke without elation.

"Let's go back to the ship and get a code message ready for Earth."

He led the way out of this room of many motionless but operating
machines. The incredibly perfect vision-screen images still portrayed
the cosmos outside with all the stars and the sun itself moving slowly
across their plates. They saw sunshine and starlight shining on the
broken, chaotic outer surface of the asteroid. Wavering, curiously
writhing red specks on the ten-foot disk continued their crawling
motion. Keller fairly glowed with enthusiasm as he began to investigate
this apparatus.

They all went back to the ship, except for Keller. They retraced their
way along the long and brilliantly lighted galleries. They descended
ramps and went along more brilliantly lighted corridors. Then they
came to the branch which had been blocked off by a door that would not
open. It was open now. They could see along the new section for a long,
long way. They passed places where other doors had been closed, but
now were open. What they could see inside them was almost exclusively
a repetition of what they saw outside of them. They passed the place
where hundreds of ten-foot metal spheres waited for an unknown use.
They passed the table with a single leg, and the compartment with many
metal ingots stored in it.

Finally, they came to the door with rounded corners, went through it,
and there was their ship with its air-lock doors open, waiting in the
brightly lighted tunnel.

They went in, and the feeling was of complete anticlimax. They knew, of
course, that they had made a discovery beside which all arch├Žological
discoveries on Earth were trivial. They had come upon operating
machines which must be old beyond imagining, unrusted because preserved
in emptiness, and infinitely superior to anything that men had ever
made. They had come upon a mystery to tantalize every brain on Earth.
The consequences of their coming to this place would re-make all of
Earth's future. But they were singularly unelated.

"I'll make up a sort of report," said Burke heavily, "of what we saw as
we arrived, and our landing, and that sort of thing. We'll get it in
code and ready for transmission. We can use the asteroid's transmitter."

Holmes scowled at the floor of the little ship.

"You'll make a report, too," said Burke. "You realized that this is a
fortress. There can't be any doubt. It was built and put here to fight
something. It wasn't built for fun. But I wonder who it was meant to do
battle with, and why it was left by its garrison, and why they set up a
transmitter to broadcast when something happened! Maybe it was to call
the garrison back if they were ever needed. But thousands of years - You
make a report on that!"

Holmes nodded.

"You might add," said Pam, shivering a little, "that it's a terribly
creepy place."

"What I don't understand," said Sandy, "is why nothing's labelled.
Nothing's marked. Whoever built it must have known how to write, in
some fashion. A civilized race has to have written records to stay
civilized! But I haven't seen a symbol or a pointer or even a color
used to give information."

She got out the papers on which she would code the reports as Burke
and Holmes turned them over for transmission. She began to write out,
carefully, the elaborate key to the coding. Almost reluctantly, Pam
prepared to do the same with Holmes' narrative of what he'd seen.

But if enthusiasm was tempered in the ship, there was no such reserve
in the United States. Burke's voice had cut into one of the space
broadcasts which arrived every seventy-nine minutes. There had been the
usual cryptic, plaintive piping noises, repeating for the thousandth
time their meaningless message. Then a human voice said almost
inaudibly, "_... 'll we do now, Joe?_" It was heard over an entire
hemisphere, where satellite-tracking stations and radar telescopes
listened to and recorded every broadcast from space.

It was a stupendous happening. Then Burke's voice came through the
flutings. "_This must be the transmitter. The sound-record for the
broadcasts must be in here, somehow. It's quite possible that this
plate is a sort of microphone...._" A few seconds later he was heard to
say, "_The devil!_" And later still he addressed himself directly to
his listeners on Earth.

He'd spoken the words eighteen and a fraction minutes before they
arrived, though they traveled at the speed of light. Broadcast and
ecstatically reported in the United States, they touched off a popular
reaction as widespread as that triggered by the beginning of the
signals themselves. Broadcasters abandoned all other subject matter.
Announcers with lovely diction stated the facts and then expanded
them into gibbering nonsense. Man had reached M-387. Man had spoken
to Earth across two hundred seventy million miles of emptiness. Man
had taken possession of a fortress in space. Man now had an outpost, a
stepping-stone toward the stars. Man had achieved.... Man had risen....
Man now took the first step toward his manifest destiny, which was to
occupy and possess all the thousands of thousands of planets all the
way to the galaxy's rim.

But this was in the United States. Elsewhere, rejoicing was much less,
especially after a prominent American politician was reported to have
said that America's leadership of Earth was not likely ever to be
challenged again. A number of the smaller nations immediately protested
in the United Nations. That august body was forced to put upon its
agenda a full-scale discussion of U.S. space developments. Middle
European nations charged that the purpose of America was to monopolize
not only the practical means of traveling to other members of the
solar system, but all natural and technical resources obtained by such
journeyings. With a singular unanimity, the nations at the edge of the
Russian bloc demanded that there should be equality of information on
Earth. No nation should hold back scientific information. In fact,
there was bitter denunciation of the use of code by the humans now on
M-387. It was demanded that they answer in the clear all scientific
inquiries made by any government - in the clear so everybody could
eavesdrop.

In effect, the United States rejoiced in and boasted of the
achievements of some of its citizens who, after escaping attack by
American guided missiles, had found a stepping-stone toward the stars.
But the rest of the world jealously demanded that the United States
reap no benefit from the fact. International tension, in fact, rose to
a new high.

And Burke and the others laboriously gathered this bit of information
and discovered the lack of that. They found incredible devices whose
purpose or workings they could not understand. They found every
possible evidence of a civilization beside which that of Earth was
intolerably backward. But the civilization had abandoned the asteroid.

By the second day the mass of indigestible information had become
alarming. They could marvel, but they could not understand. And not
to understand was intolerable. They could comprehend that there was
a device with red sparks in it which had made another device send a
fluting, plaintive call to all the solar system. Nothing else was
understandable. The purpose of the call remained a mystery.

But the communicators hummed with messages from Earth. It seemed
that every radar telescope upon the planet had been furnished with a
transmitter and that every one bombarded the asteroid with a tight beam
carrying arguments, offers, expostulations and threats.

"This ought to be funny," said Burke dourly. "But it isn't. All we know
is that we've found a fortress which was built to defend a civilization
about which we know nothing except that it isn't in the solar system.
We know an alarm went off, to call the fortress' garrison back to
duty, but the garrison didn't come. We did. We've some evidence that
a fighting fleet or something similar is headed this way and that it
intends to smash this fortress and may include Earth. You'd think that
that sort of news would calm them down, on Earth!"

The microwave receiver was so jammed with messages that there was no
communication at all. None could be understood when all arrived at
once. Burke had to send a message to Earth in code, specifying a new
and secret wavelength, before it became possible to have a two-way
contact with Earth. But the messages continued to come out, every one
clamoring for something else of benefit to itself alone.




Chapter 7


In the beginning there was nothing at all, and then things were
created, and the wonder of created things was very great. When men
became, they marveled at the richness and the beauty about them, and
their lives were filled with astonishment at the myriads of things in
the air and on the earth and in the sea. For many centuries they were
busy taking note of all the created things that were. They forgot that
there was such a condition as emptiness.

But there were six people in a certain solar system who really knew
what emptiness amounted to. Five of them were in a fortress which was
an asteroid and a mystery. One was in a small, crude object which
floated steadily out from Earth. This one's name was Nikolai. The
rest of it does not matter. He had been born in a small village in
the Urals, and as a little boy he played games with mud and reeds and
sticks and dogs and other little boys. As a growing youth he dutifully
stuffed his head with things out of books, and some seemed to him
rational and marvelous, and some did not make much sense but were
believed by everybody. And who was he to go against the wise comrades
who ran the government and protected the people from wars and famines
and the schemes of villainous capitalists?

As a young man he was considered promising. If he had been interested
in such matters, he might have had a moderately successful career in
politics, as politics was practised in his nation. But he liked things.
Real things.

When he was a student in the university he kept a canary in his
lodgings. He loved it very much. There was a girl, too, about whom
he dreamed splendidly. But there was a need for school teachers in
Bessarabia, and she went there to teach. She wept when she left him.
After that Nikolai studied with something of desperation, trying to
forget her because he could not have her.

He thought of such past events as he drifted outward from Earth. He
was the passenger, he was the crew of the manned space-probe his
government had prepared to go out and investigate strange signals
coming from emptiness. He was a volunteer, of course. It was a great
honor to be accepted, and for a while he'd almost forgotten the girl
who was teaching school in Bessarabia. But that was a long time
ago, now. At first he'd liked to remember the take-off, when brisk,
matter-of-fact men tucked him in his acceleration-chair and left him,
and he lay staring upward in dead silence - save for the ticking of an
insanely emotionless clock - until there was a roar to end all roars
and a shock to crush anything made of flesh and bones, and then a
terrible, horrible feeling of weight that kept on and on until he lost
consciousness.

He could remember all this, if he chose. He had a distinct recollection
of coming back to life, and of struggling to send off the signal which
would say that he had survived the take-off. There were telemetering
devices which reported what information was desired about the bands
and belts of deadly radiation which surrounded the planet Earth. But
Nikolai reported by voice, because that was evidence that he had passed
through those murderous places unharmed. And his probe went on and on
outward, away from the Earth and the sun.

He received messages from Earth. Tinny voices assured him that his
launching had gone well. His nation was proud of him. Enormous rewards
awaited him on his return. Meanwhile - The tinny voices instructed him
in what he was to say for them to record and broadcast to all the world
in his honor.

He said it, with the Earth a small crescent-shaped bit of brightness
behind him. He drifted on. The crescent which was Earth grew smaller
and smaller as days went by. He took due care of the instruments of his
space-vehicle. He made sure that the air apparatus behaved properly.
He disposed of wastes. From time to time he reported, by voice,
information which automatic devices had long since given in greater
detail and with superior accuracy.

And he thought more and more about the girl - teaching school in
Bessarabia - and his canary, which had died. Days went by. He was
informed that it was time for him to make contact with a drone
fuel-rocket sent on before him. He watched the instruments which would
point out where it was.

He found it, and with small auxiliary rockets he made careful tiny
blastings which guided his vehicle to contact with it. The complex
machinery for refueling took effect. Presently he cast off the emptied
drone, aimed very, very carefully and blasted outward once more. The
shock was worse than that on Earth, and he knew nothing for a long,
long time. He was horribly weak when he regained consciousness. He
mentioned it in his reports. There was no comment on the fact in the
replies he received from Earth.

He continued to float away from the sun. It became impossible to pick
out Earth among the stars. The sun was smaller than he remembered.
There was nothing to be seen anywhere but stars and more stars and the
dwindling disk of the sun that used to rise and set but now remained
stationary, shrinking.

So Nikolai came to know emptiness. There were points of light which
were stars. They were illimitable distances away. In between was
emptiness. He had no sensation of movement. Save that as days went
by the sun grew smaller, there was no change in anything. All was
emptiness. If his vehicle floated like this for ten thousand times ten
thousand years, the stars would appear no nearer. If he got out and
ran upon nothingness to get back to where he could see Earth again, he
would have to run for centuries, and generations would die and nations
fall before he caught the least glimmer of that thin crescent which was
his home.

If he shouted, no man would ever hear, because emptiness does not
carry sound. If he died, there was no earth into which his body could
be lowered. If he lived, there was nowhere he could stand upright
and breathe clean air and feel solidity beneath his feet. He had a
destination, to be sure, but he did not really believe that he would
ever reach it, nor did he imagine he would ever return. Now he
dismissed it from his thoughts.

He found that he was feverish, and he mentioned it when the tinny
voices talked urgently to him. He guessed, without emotion, that he had
not passed through the deadly radiation-belts around Earth unburned.
He had been assured that he would pass through them so swiftly that
they would be quite harmless. Now he knew that this was a mistake. His
body obeyed him only sluggishly. He was dying of deep-seated radiation
burns. But he felt nothing.

Voices waked him to insist that he make contact with another
fuel-drone. He exhausted himself as he dutifully obeyed commands. He
was clumsy. He was feeble. But he managed a second refueling. And even
as he performed the highly technical operation with seemingly detached
and reluctant hands, he thought of a schoolteacher in Bessarabia.

Before he fired the new fuel which would send him onward at what
would be more than escape velocity, he almost humorously - yet quite
humorlessly - reviewed his life. He considered that he might have no
later opportunity to do so. There were three things he had done which
no man had done before him. He had loved a certain small canary, and
he remembered it distinctly. He had loved a certain girl, and in his
weakened and dying state he could see her much more clearly than the
grubby interior of the space-probe. And the third thing -

He had to cast about in his mind to remember what it was. His hand
poised upon the rocket-firing key, he debated. Ah, yes! The third thing
was that he had learned what emptiness was.

He pressed the firing-key. And the space-probe spouted flames and went
on. Before the fuel was exhausted it had reached a velocity so great
that it would go on forever through interstellar space. It would never
fall back toward the sun, not even after thousands of years.

* * * * *

The knowledge of emptiness possessed by the five in the asteroid was
different. A totally empty room is intimidating. A vacant house is
depressing. The two-mile-long asteroid, honeycombed with tunnels and
corridors and galleries and rooms, was like a deserted city. Those who
had left it had carefully stripped it of personal possessions, but
they'd left weapons behind, ready to be manned and used. They'd left
a warning device to call them. The recall device was proof that the
danger had not been destroyed and might return. And the plaintive call
through all the solar system proved that it was returning.

There was irony in the fact that Earth had panicked when it seemed
that intelligent non-human beings signaled from space, and that shrill
disputes for advantage began instantly Burke reported no living
monsters at the signals' source. The fortress and its call meant
more than the mere existence of aliens. It was proof that there were
entities of space who needed to be fought. It proved the existence of
fighting ships of space; of deadly war in emptiness; of creatures who
crossed the void between star systems to conquer and to murder and
destroy.

And such creatures were coming.

Burke ground his teeth. Earth had fusion bombs and rockets which could
carry them for pitifully short distances on the cosmic scale. This
fortress was incomparably more powerful than all of Earth's armament
put together. A fleet which dared to attack it must feel itself
stronger still. What could Earth do against a fleet which dared attack
this asteroid?

And what could he and Holmes and Keller do against such a fleet, even
with the fortress, when they did not yet understand a single one of its
weapons?

Burke worked himself to exhaustion, trying to unravel even the simplest
principles of the fortress' armament. There were globes which were,
obviously, the long-range weapons of the garrison. They were stored in
a launching-tube at the far back of the compartment. But Keller could
not unravel the method of their control. There was no written matter
in the fortress. None. A totally unknown language and an unfamiliar
alphabet would prevent written matter from being useful, ordinarily,


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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 8 of 14)