Murray Leinster.

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but in technical descriptions there are bound to be diagrams. Burke
felt desperately that in even the most meaningless of scripts there
would be diagrams which could be puzzled out. But there was nothing.
The builders of the fortress could have been illiterate, for all the
signs of writing that they'd left.

Keller continued to labor valiantly. But there was no clue to the
operation of anything but the transmitter. That was understandable
because one knew where the message went in, and where it came out for
broadcast. With the apparatus before one, one could deduce how it
operated. But no one could guess how weapons were controlled when he
hadn't the least idea of what they did.

On the third night in the asteroid - the third night by ship-time, since
there was neither day nor night in the great empty corridors of the
fortress - Burke dreamed his dream again. It was perfectly familiar,
from the trees with their trailing leaves, to the markings on the
larger moon. He felt the anguished anxiety he'd so often known before.
He grasped the hand-weapon and knew that he was ready to fight anything
imaginable for the person he feared for. He heard small fluting sounds
behind him, and then he knew that someone ran breathlessly behind the
swaying foliage just ahead. He felt such relief and exultation that his
heart seemed about to burst. He gave a great shout and bounded to meet
her -

He waked in the small ship in the entrance tunnel. All was silent.
All was still. The lights in the control-compartment of the ship were
turned to dim. There was no sound anywhere. The opened air-lock doors,
both inner and outer, let in a fan-shaped streak of brightness which
lay on the floor.

Burke lay quiet, still wrought up by the vivid emotions of the dream.

He heard a stirring in the compartment below, occupied by Sandy and
Pam. Someone came very quietly up the ladder-like stairway. Burke
blinked in the semi-darkness. He saw that it was Sandy. She crossed the
compartment to the air-lock. Very quietly, she closed the outer door
and then the inner. She fastened them.

Burke said, sitting up, "Why'd you do that, Sandy?"

She started violently, and turned.

"Pam can't sleep," she said in a low tone. "She says the fortress is
creepy. She feels that there's something hiding in it, something deadly
and frightening. When you leave the air-lock open, she's afraid. So I
closed it."

"Holmes and Keller are out," said Burke. "Keller's trying to trace down
power-leads from the instrument-room to whatever power-source warms and
lights everything. We can't lock him out."

Sandy obediently opened the air-lock doors again. She turned toward the
ladder leading downward.

"Sandy," said Burke unhappily, "I know I'm acting like a fool."

"You're doing all right," said Sandy. She paused at the top of the
ladder. "Finding this - " she waved her hand about her - "ought to put
your name in the history books. Of course you'll be much disliked by
people who intended to invent space travel themselves. But you're doing
all right."

"I'm not thinking of that," said Burke. "I'm thinking of you. I was
going to ask you to marry me. I didn't. If we live through this, will
you?"

Sandy regarded him carefully in the dim light of the ship's interior,
most of which came through the air-lock doors.

"There are some conditions," she said evenly. "I won't play second
fiddle to an imaginary somebody behind a veil of dreamed-of leaves.
I don't want to make conditions, Joe. But I couldn't stand your
feeling that maybe in marrying me you'd give up your chance of finding
her - whatever or whoever she is."

"But I wouldn't feel that way!" protested Burke.

"I'd believe you did," said Sandy. "And it would amount to the same
thing. I think I made a mistake in coming along in the ship, Joe.
If I weren't along you might have missed me. You might even - " she
grimaced - "you might even have dreamed about me. But here I am. And I
can't compete with somebody in a dream. I won't even try. I - I can't
imagine marrying anybody else, but if I do get married I want to be the
only girl my guy dreams about!"

She turned again to the ladder. Then said abruptly, "You didn't ask why
Pam feels creepy, or where. There's a place up on the second gallery
where there's a door that's still locked. Pam gets the shivers when she
goes by it. I don't. The whole place is creepy, to me."

She went down the ladder. Minutes later Holmes and Keller arrived.

Holmes said curtly, "The machinery in the transmitter-room reached a
change-point just now. Those red dots in that plastic plate apparently
started the transmitter in the first place. When its calls were
answered it changed the broadcast, adding a directional signal. Just
before we started out from Earth the red sparks passed another place
and changed the broadcast again. Now they've passed a third place.
We were there when the machinery shifted all around on a signal from
that thing which hovers close to the red sparks and watches them. The
transmitter probably blasted out at four or five times its original
volume. There must have been a hundred thousand kilowatts in it, at
least. It looks serious. Whatever those red sparks represent must be
close."

Keller nodded in agreement, frowning, then he and Holmes wearily
prepared to turn in. But Burke was upset. He knew he wouldn't be able
to sleep.

"Pam gets the creeps when she passes a certain locked door up on the
second gallery. I never noticed it, but I'm going to get that door
open. We got to look into every compartment of this thing! There's
bound to be something informative somewhere! Close the air-lock behind
me so Pam can sleep."

He went out. Behind him, Holmes looked at Keller.

"Funny!" he said drily. "We're all scared. I feel uneasy all the time,
without knowing why. But if he's as scared as I am, why doesn't he
worry about going places alone?"

The same question occurred to Burke. The atmosphere of the brightly
lighted halls was ominous and secretive. A man alone in a vast empty
building would feel queer even in broad daylight with sunshine and
other humans to be seen out of any window. But in this monstrous
complex of tunnels and rooms carved out of solid stone, with
uncountable millions of miles of pure emptiness without, the feeling
of loneliness was incredible. He reflected wryly that a dog would be a
comforting companion to have on such a journey as his.

He went down the long gallery with doors on either side. Past the
room with the piled metal ingots. Past the door through which one saw
hundreds of ten-foot metal globes. Up a ramp. Past the rooms where
something like bunks must once have stood against the walls. A long
way along this corridor. Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness. Innumerable
echoings of his footsteps on the stone.

Three times he stopped at doors that had swung shut, but none was fully
closed. All yielded readily. Then he came to the door Sandy had spoken
about. He worked the handle repeatedly. It was firmly shut. He kicked
the door and with a loud click it swung open.

There were lights inside this room, as everywhere else they had
explored. But it was nearly impossible to see any distance. This was
an extremely long room, and it contained racks of metal which reached
from floor to ceiling. Each rack was a series of shallow metal troughs,
and in each trough there was a row of crumbly black metal cubes, very
systematically arranged. Each side was about three inches square, and
they were dull black, not glistening at all. They filled the racks
completely. There were narrow aisles between the rows of racks, through
which Burke could make his way easily enough, but which a more portly
man might have found inconvenient.

He stared at a trough, and was stunned. He picked up one of the
cubes, and immediately recognized the object in his hand. It was a
dull-black, smudgy cube exactly like the one his uncle had brought back
from the Cro-Magnon cave in France. He knew that if he dropped this
object - found two hundred seventy million miles from the other one - it
would split into thousands of tissue-thin, shiny pieces.

He did drop it. Deliberately. And it shattered into layers which lay
like films of mica on the floor.

For no clearly understandable reason, Burke found that his flesh
crawled. He had to force himself to stay in this room with so many
thousands of the enigmatic cubes. There had been a cube of this kind
on Earth. The one he'd known as a child had belonged to a Cro-Magnon
tribesman ten thousand, twenty thousand, how many years ago? And it
could only have come from this asteroid. Which meant -

Presently he made his way back to the spaceship. He carried one of
the cubes, rather gingerly. He meant to show it to Sandy. But the
implications were startling.

Members of the garrison of this fortress, thousands of years gone by,
had visited Earth. One of them, doubtless, had carried that other
cube. Why? When the garrison abandoned the asteroid they left these
cubes behind. They left behind intricate machinery to call them back.
They left squat machines and ten-foot globes which must be weapons.
They left nothing that would be useful in the place to which they had
removed. But they'd left these cubes, hundreds of thousands of them.

The cube, then, could be anything. It could be impersonal, like
equipment for the fortress that would be useless elsewhere. The
fortress' equipment was designed to deal out death. Were the cubes?
No. Burke had owned one without damage. When that cube split into
glistening, tissue-thin plates, no one was injured. To be sure, there
was his dream. But the cube wasn't a weapon. Whatever else it might be,
it was not dangerous.

He went into the spaceship and for no reason whatever firmly locked
both air-lock doors. Holmes and Keller were asleep. There was no sound
from the lower compartment occupied by Sandy and Pam.

Burke put the black object on the control-desk. The single cube
on Earth had been meaningless. The museum which joyfully accepted
Cro-Magnon artifacts from his uncle had dismissed it as of no
importance. It was fit only to be given to an eleven-year-old boy. But
a roomful of such cubes couldn't be without meaning!

He dismissed this newest mystery with an almost violent effort of his
will. It was a mystery. Yet there was no intention to have the fortress
seem a mystery to whoever answered its call to space. He could guess
that the signals were notification of some emergency which needed to be
met. The automatic apparatus of the ship-lock was set to aid those who
came in response to the call. But everything presupposed that those who
came would know why they came.

Burke didn't. The thing must be simple, an explanation not yet thought
of. But there was nowhere to start to think about it! His recurrent
dream? No. That was as mysterious as the rest.

Burke was very, very lonely and depressed. He could look for no help
in solving the mystery. Earth was now past the point of conjunction
with M-387, and moved nearly a million miles a day along its orbit,
with nearly half of them away from the fortress. At the most hopeful
estimate, it would be three months or later before an emergency space
fleet of replicas of his own ship could lift off from Earth for here.

And Burke was reasonably sure that the red sparks would have reached
the center of the disk in much less time than that. If it were in some
fashion like a radar, making a map of the surroundings of the asteroid,
the observer's place would be in the middle. In that event, whatever
the red sparks represented would reach the fortress before more ships
came out from Earth.

He sat with his chin on his chest, wearily debating the impossibility
of meeting a situation in which all humanity might well be involved.
His achievement of space travel provided no sense of triumph, and the
discovery of the abandoned fortress produced no elation. Not when a
desperate emergency requiring a non-existent garrison to report for
duty was so probable. Burke sat in the control-chair and could find no
encouragement in any of his thoughts....

* * * * *

_He heard a trumpet-call and was on his feet, buckling familiar
equipment about him. There were other figures all around in this
bunkroom, similarly equipping themselves. Some grumbled. There was a
rush for the doorway and he found himself one of a line of trotting
figures which swung sharply out the door and went swiftly down one of
the high-ceilinged corridors. The faces he saw were hardbitten and
resentful. They moved, but out of habit, not choice. There were other
lines of men in motion. Some rushed in the same direction. Others ran
stolidly into branching corridors and were lost to sight. Up a ramp,
with the pounding of innumerable feet filling his ears with echoed
sound. Suddenly there were fewer men before him. Some had darted
through a doorway to the right. More vanished. He was at the head of
his line. He turned into the doorway next beyond, and saw a squat and
menacing object there. He swung up its side and seated himself. He
dropped a helmet over his head and saw empty space with millions of
unwinking stars beyond it. He waited. He was not Burke. He was someone
else who happened to be the pointer, the aimer, of the weapon he sat
astride. This might be a drill, but it could be action._

_A voice spoke inside his helmet. The words were utterly strange, but
he understood them. He tested the give of this lever and the response
of that. He spoke crisply, militarily, in words that somehow meant
this - a word missing - was ready for action at its highest rate of fire._

_Again he waited, his eyes examining the emptiness he saw from within
his helmet. A star winked. He snatched at a lever and centered it,
snapping sharp, bitten-off words. The voice in his helmet said, "Flam!"
He jerked the firing-lever and all space was blotted out for seconds by
flaming light. Then the light faded and far, far away among the stars
something burned horribly, spouting fire. It blew up._

_Yet again he waited. He doggedly watched the stars, because the Enemy
had some way to prevent detection by regular instruments, and only
the barest flicker of one among myriad light-specks could reveal the
presence of an Enemy craft._

_A long time later the voice in his helmet spoke again, and he relaxed,
and lifted the helmet. He nodded to the others of the crew of this
weapon. Then a trumpet blew again, and he dismounted leisurely from
the saddle of the ungainly thing he'd fired, and he and his companions
waited while long lines of men filed stolidly past the doorway. They
were on the way back to the bunk-rooms. They did not look well-fed.
His turn came. His crew filed out into the corridor, now filled with
men moving in a bored but disciplined fashion. He heard somebody say
that it was an Enemy scout, trying some new device to get close to the
fortress. Eight weapons had fired on it at the same instant, his among
them. Whatever the new device was, the Enemy had found it didn't work.
But he knew that it needn't have been a real Enemy, but just a drill.
Nobody knew when supposed action was real. There was much suspicion
that there was no real action. There was always the possibility of real
action, though. Of course. The Enemy had been the Enemy for thousands
of years. A century or ten or a hundred of quietude would not mean the
Enemy had given up...._

* * * * *

Then Burke found himself staring at the quietly glowing monitor-lights
of his own ship's control-board. He was himself again. He remembered
opening his eyes. He'd dozed, and he'd dreamed, and now he was awake.
And he knew with absolute certainty that what he'd dreamed came from
the black cube he'd brought back from the previously locked-up room.
But there was a difference between this dream and the one he'd had for
so many years. He could not name the difference, but he knew it. This
was not an emotion-packed, illusory experience which would haunt him
forever. This was an experience like the most vivid of books. It was
something he would remember, but he would need to think about it if he
were to remember it fully.

He sat stiffly still, going over and over this new memory, until he
heard someone moving about in the compartment below.

"Sandy?"

"Yes," said Sandy downstairs. "What is it?"

"I opened the door that bothered Pam," said Burke. Suddenly the
implications of what had just occurred began to hit him. This was the
clue he'd needed. Now he knew - many things. "I found out what the
fortress is for. I suspect I know what the signals were intended to do."

Silence for a moment. Then Sandy's voice. "I'm coming right up."

In minutes she ascended the stairs.

"What is it, Joe?"

He waved his hand, with some grimness, at the small black object on the
control-desk.

"I found this and some thousands of others behind that creepy door.
I suspect that it accounts for the absence of signs and symbols. It
contains information. I got it. You get it by dozing near one of these
things. I did. I dreamed."

Sandy looked at him anxiously.

"No," he told her. "No twin moons or waving foliage. I dreamed I was a
member of the garrison. I went through a training drill. I know how to
operate those big machines on the second level of the corridor, now.
They're weapons. I know how to use them."

Sandy's uneasiness visibly increased.

"These black cubes are - lesson-givers. They're subliminal instructors.
Pam is more sensitive to such stuff than the rest of us. It didn't
affect me until I dozed. Then I found myself instructed by going
through an experience in the form of a dream. These cubes contain
records of experiences. You have those experiences. You dream them. You
learn."

Then he said abruptly, "I understand my recurrent dream now, I think.
When I was eleven years old I had a cube like this. Don't ask me how it
got into a Cro-Magnon cave! But I had it. One day it dropped and split
into a million leaves of shiny stuff. One got away under my bed, close
up under my pillow. When I slept I dreamed about a place with two moons
and strange trees and - all the rest."

Sandy said, groping, "Do you mean it was magnetized in some
fashion, and when you slept you were affected by it so you dreamed
something - predetermined?"

"Exactly," said Burke grimly. "The predetermined thing in this
particular cube is the way to operate those machines Holmes said were
weapons." Then he said more grimly, "I think we're going to have to
accept the idea that this cube is an instruction device to teach the
garrison without their having to learn to read or write or think.
They'd have only to dream."

Sandy looked from him to the small black cube.

"Then we can find out - "

"I've found it out," said Burke. "I guessed before, but now I know.
There is an Enemy this fortress was built to fight. There is a war
that's lasted for thousands of years. The Enemy has spaceships and
strange weapons and is absolutely implacable. It has to be found. And
the signals from space were calls to the garrison of this fortress
to come back and fight it. But there isn't any garrison any more.
We answered instead. The Enemy comes from hundreds or thousands of
light-years away, and he tries desperately to smash the defenses of
this fortress and others, and when he succeeds there will be massacre
and atrocity and death to celebrate his victory. He's on the way now.
And when he comes - " Burke's voice grew harsh. "When he comes he won't
stop with trying to smash this place. The people of Earth are the
Enemy's enemies, too. Because the garrison was a garrison of men!"




Chapter 8


"I don't believe it," said Holmes flatly.

Burke shrugged. He found that he was tense all over, so he took some
pains to appear wholly calm.

"It isn't reasonable!" insisted Holmes. "It doesn't make sense!"

"The question," observed Burke, "isn't whether it makes sense, but
whether it's fact. According to the last word from Earth, they're still
insisting that the ship's drive is against all reason. But we're here.
And speaking of reason, would the average person look at this place and
say blandly, 'Ah, yes! A fortress in space. To be sure!' Would they? Is
this place reasonable?"

Holmes grinned.

"I'll go along with you there," he agreed. "It isn't. But you say its
garrison was men. Look here! Have you seen a place before where men
lived without writings in its public places? They tell me the ancient
Egyptians wrote their names on the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Nowadays
they're scrawled in phone booths and on benches. It's the instinct of
men to autograph their surroundings. But there's not a line of written
matter in this place! That's not like men!"

"Again," said Burke, "the question isn't of normality, but of fact."

"Then I'll try it," said Holmes skeptically. "How does it work?"

"I don't know. But put a cube about a yard from your head, and doze
off. I think you'll have an odd dream. I did. I think the information
you'll get in your dream will check with what you find around you. Some
of it you won't have known before, but you'll find it's true."

"This," said Holmes, "I will have to see. Which cube do I try it with,
or do I use all of them?"

"There's apparently no way to tell what any of them contains," said
Burke. "I went back to the storeroom and brought a dozen of them.
Take any one and put the others some distance away - maybe outside the
ship. I'm going to talk to Keller. He'll make a lot of use of this
discovery."

Holmes picked up a cube.

"I'll try it," he said cheerfully. "I go to sleep, perchance to dream.
Right! See you later."

Burke moved toward the ship's air-lock.

"Pam and I have some housekeeping to do," Sandy said.

Burke nodded abstractedly. He left the ship and headed along the
mile-long corridor with the turn at the end, a second level and another
turn, and then the flight of steps to the instrument-room. As he
walked, the sound of his footsteps echoed and re√ęchoed.

Behind him, Holmes set a cube in a suitable position and curled up on
one of the side-wall bunks in the upper compartment of the spaceship.

"We'll go downstairs," said Sandy.

Pam parted her lips to speak, and did not. They disappeared down the
stair to the lower room. Then Sandy came back and picked up the extra
cubes.

"Joe said to move them," she explained.

She disappeared again. Holmes settled himself comfortably. He was one
of those fortunate people who are able to relax at will. Actually, in
his work he normally did his thinking while on his feet, moving about
his yacht-building plant or else sailing one of his own boats. He
simply was not a sit-down thinker. Sitting, he could doze at almost any
time he pleased, and for a yachtsman it was a useful ability. He could
go for days on snatched catnaps when necessary. Conversely he could
catnap practically at will.

He yawned once or twice and settled down confidently. In five minutes
or less ...

* * * * *

_He wriggled down into an opening barely large enough to admit his
body. The top clamped and sealed overhead. He fitted his feet into
their proper stirrup-like holders and fixed his hands on the controls.
There was violent acceleration and he shot away and ahead. Behind him
the jagged shape of the fortress loomed. He swung his tiny ship. He
drove fiercely for the tiny rings of red glow which centered themselves
in the sighting-screen before him. He drove and drove, while the
fortress dwindled to a dot and then vanished._

_On either side of his ship a ten-foot steel globe clung. He checked
them over, tense with the realization that he must very soon be within
the practical timing-range of the new Enemy solid missiles. He made
minute adjustments in the settings of the globes._

_He released them together. They went swinging madly away at the
end of a hair-thin wire which would sustain the tons of stress that
centrifugal force gave the spheres. They spiraled toward darkness with
its background of innumerable stars. The Enemy would be puzzled, this
time! They'd developed missile-weapons with computing sights. In their
last attack, five hundred years before, the Enemy had been defeated by
the self-driving globes that had an utterly incredible acceleration.
It was reported from the Cathor sector that in this current attack
they had missile-weapons with a muzzle-velocity of hundreds of
miles per second, which could actually anticipate a globe with a
hundred-sixty-gravity drive. They could fire a solid shot to meet it
and knock it down, because of some incredible computer-system which was


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Online LibraryMurray LeinsterThe Wailing Asteroid → online text (page 9 of 14)