1/ MENACE OF THE SILVER ARROWS
The silver arrow was certainly no mirage—its image was right there on the telescreen. Seemingly motionless, it hung among the thousands of stars that constituted the centre of the Milky Way. This inner centre had a diameter of only 30 light-years and a volume of more than 8000 cubic light-years. In an average cubic light-year there was one sun.
“There’s another!” Maj. Lan Koster, in charge of the EX-238, tried, understandably, to keep his voice calm but his excitement was immediately detected. And no wonder, for his first officer was Homunk, an android from the planet Wanderer.
“This time we mustn’t lose it, sir,” said the artificial humanoid. “We’re getting closer and closer to its probable base—and we’ve got to find it.”
Lan Koster nodded agreement. He was a middle-aged man, corpulent yet lithe. A look at his papers would have revealed, to one’s surprise, that he had been in charge of various space exploration craft for nearly 20 years.
“Direct course toward alien object!” navigation officer Koster commanded and then turned toward Homunk. “Take over now, Homunk. I have to… er… talk to my commander. You understand…”
The android nodded. Something like a human smile flickered over his almost Terran features, then he took his place in the commander’s seat vacated by Koster. The next second he seemed to have forgotten the major. He lifted his eyes to the front screen. It was as if he were trying thus to hold onto the alien ship that they had now been following for hours.
Lan Koster left central control and slowly proceeded toward the main elevator. He took his time. He had every reason to, for when he rightly thought about it, this was the craziest assignment of his life.
Never before had he had such a mixed crew aboard, especially if he counted the passengers along with the crew. He could put up with Homunk, even though the android seemed to have little sense of humour. Also the research robot FR-7 would do in a pinch, even though he was always wanting to be smarter than anybody else and was fully aware of the superiority of his positronic thought processes. As to the rest of the company—except for the basic crew…
Koster sighed. He entered the antigravitation elevator and floated downwards.
As for himself, he would have thought it perfectly normal to decline the assignment. Not really because it was particularly dangerous—that would hardly have put Koster off—but because of the conditions connected with the undertaking.
First of all, Homunk. An artificial man, an android had become his first officer and deputy. Koster had nothing against Homunk except that he just wasn’t human. But he was the personal adviser and friend of Perry Rhodan and that was decisive. Homunk knew the answer to practically every question.
FR-7 did not have the same eerie effect because one could tell just by looking at him that he was a real robot out of the factory. His walk betrayed a certain helplessness that afflicted all robots, no matter how well engineered. But this helplessness was deceptive. FR-7 was really built for research and resembled a walking laboratory completely equipped for immediate analyses of newly discovered organisms or inorganic materials. His miraculous positronic brain forgot nothing and learned something new every day. His right arm was built like a weapon.
It wouldn’t have mattered to Koster to take these two robots on board. But occupying important positions—that was more than unusual.
Still—what wasn’t unusual on this flight of the Explorer-238?
Koster walked out of the elevator and into the wide hallway that led to the passenger cabins. Since the EX-238 was a spacesphere with a diameter of 200 meters, it provided such unusual luxuries for its passengers.
Passengers! he thought angrily. Some passengers!
He should not have thought that.
He felt a strong shove against his back and stumbled a few steps forward. When he finally regained his balance and turned around, there was no one in sight. The hall was as empty as before.
“You rotten espers!” Koster shouted, and clenched his fist threateningly. “What underhanded methods! To read the thoughts of harmless men and then resort to telekinesis and assault them in such a wretched, dastardly fashion! Just you wait—!”
He had stopped by a door that suddenly opened by itself, as if guided by ghostly hands. Koster clenched his teeth and went in.
Shrill laughter met him as the door closed behind him. By itself, of course. A dozen small figures, hardly measuring a meter in height and covered with reddish brown fur, danced excitedly over beds, tables and chairs, until a curt command stopped them.
The command did not come from Koster but from one of the dwarfs.
The dwarf’s name was Pucky.
“You wouldn’t take our little prank amiss, I hope,” squeaked the little creature, pretending to look harmless as he squatted in front of the major and saluted him with his right paw. “I’ve often enough warned you to keep your thoughts well in hand. It was Ooch who pushed you. Except for Iltu and me, he is the only real telepath of the clan.”
The clan, Koster thought to himself, is the right expression for the group. Twelve mousebeavers at once’ No man could stand all of them together for any length of time, especially not when he thinks he’s normal.
And Koster figured he was normal. At least until the moment when Rhodan asked him to take command of the EX-238. Now he was no longer so sure.
“We’re getting a Silver Arrow on the screen, Lt. Pucky,” said the commander, trying to be polite to the small creature, not from any inner compulsion but from pure instincts of self-preservation. “We’re pursuing it.”
“Great!” piped Pucky and grinned. All the other mousebeavers grinned too. A parade of 12 glistening incisors. Expectantly, they looked at Koster. “Then we’ll soon get it.”
Koster had doubts. “You know that we’ve already lost a Silver Arrow twice because we hesitated to intercept it.”
“There’s some reason for it, Major.” Pucky was once more serious. “I don’t have to remind you. You know it as well as I. Standard procedure holds for this instance, too.”
“OK, Lieutenant,” Koster agreed and took pains not to think badly about the mousebeavers. “If you’d like to go to central control-robot Homunk is in charge now. I’ll be in my cabin if you need me.”
He turned around and kept his face frozen as the door was again opened and shut by ghostly hands. Regally he stepped into the hallway. He disappeared in the direction of his cabin.
“We’ll catch it yet,” piped up Ooch enthusiastically and leaped onto one of the beds. He was the only one of the mousebeavers except for Pucky and Iltu who had mastered not only telekinetics but also telepathy. It was no wonder, then, that he thought a lot of himself. “Is this our ship or not?”
“Maj. Koster is, after all’s said and done, the commander. “Pucky tried to dampen Ooch’s enthusiasm. “We can’t really complain.”
“If you look at it realistically,” chirped in a mousebeaver with striking curly hair who was standing off to one side, “he’s quite a rational individual, even though he’s a human being.”
Pucky threw the speaker a devastating look. “That was an entirely superfluous remark, Wullewull. Besides, it was stupid. Where would we be without the Terranians, hm? Have you forgotten that they rescued us when our own home planet was destroyed? Wasn’t it they who brought us to Mars where we grew up?” He cleared his throat. “You at least.”
“I didn’t mean it quite that way,” said Wullewull ruefully.
Pucky was silent and regarded the little band.
Besides himself and Iltu, 10 mousebeavers—it was more than anyone alive could bear. Ten half-grown mousebeavers perpetually ready to play practical jokes; mischievous menaces born with telekinetic abilities. Worse yet: they insisted that these abilities were primarily for play. On all possible and impossible occasions, they ‘played’ at it. For the past few days they had put the EX-238 antigravitation elevator out of order and had assumed for themselves the role of the gravitational fields. Nobody had noticed a thing. Officers and crew were swept up or down as usual, but now they were held only by the telekinetic powers of the mousebeavers. Until Pucky caught onto it. The unlucky one was a fat technician who happened to be in the elevator at the time. He fell the last two meters into the shaft, landing on his hind end. Ten seconds later, the elevator was again functioning normally.
“Keep your hands off Biggy!” Ooch’s shrill voice startled Pucky out of his thoughts. He looked up. Wullewull had used the interval to waddle up to pretty Biggy who was known by all to be Ooch’s favourite. Since Ooch was the leader of their colony on Mars, no one tried to win pretty Biggy’s favours. No one except Wullewull. He stood next to Biggy and stroked her fur.