“Let me worry about that, Fatso.” Pucky leaped from the table and waddled around the room a couple of times. “I guarantee that they’ll listen to me and behave. I’m picking out those just right for the trip.”
Bell looked at Rhodan questioningly.
Rhodan nodded and said: “Very well, Pucky, your vacation wish is granted. But be careful. I’m not happy about letting you go and I’d sure hate to lose you. The Silver Arrows… we don’t know who sent them. We also have no idea what’s on the minds of this unknown race, since they avoid every chance at contact. They avoid not only us but everyone else, too. No one knows who these aliens are. No one knows where their home base is. We can only guess that it’s probably a planet revolving around a star in the centre of the Milky Way. It’s dangerous to fly there at more than speol (speed of light) because the hazard of collision is too great. There are stars, too, that don’t register on our radar. There are thousands of dangers that perhaps we even don’t know the names of. You’ve chosen yourself an uncomfortable place to spend your vacation, Pucky.”
The mousebeaver had stopped in front of Rhodan.
“Exactly,” he said shortly and succinctly. “I will take a vacation but at least I’ll stay fit. I want to get my rest but not get fat from it.” He looked pointedly at Bell and then grinned with satisfaction. “So my request is granted—excellent. Then Bell can help me arrange all the necessary things. Gentlemen—we thank you.”
With that, Pucky disappeared.
Bell stared at the spot where the mousebeaver had stood. “What a crazy idea,” he murmured, and hit the table with his fist. “Really, an absolutely crazy idea!” He hesitated, then added: “I’d really like to join that little rascal but when I think of being cooped up in a spacecraft with 12 mousebeavers, I’d rather forego this pleasure. Maj. Lan Koster has my full sympathy! He doesn’t know what he’s in for!”
A prediction that was to be fully verified.
Pucky had flown to the moon with Bell. The spaceship EX-238 awaited orders to start. Maj. Koster knew how to hide his surprise when Bell handed him his orders from Rhodan. Then there was the stopover on Mars, where the colony of mousebeavers was in the highest state of excitement as they listened to what Pucky had in mind. When volunteers nearly overran him and Bell and almost stormed the ship, it became evident just what influence Pucky had over his own kind. In less than an hour he had chosen his companions and brought them into the EX-238. With wise foresight, he had taken not only male but also female mousebeavers. After all, he was travelling in the company of Iltu, so, to maintain peace, he had to put the others in the same position.
Then the leave-taking from Bell. With his well-wishes still in his ear, Pucky gave the order to start.
The EX-238 began its flight.
And now they were here, not far from the centre of the galaxy. Today they had met a Silver Arrow for the third time, and this time Pucky had told himself, it must finally work.
They only had to get close enough to their quarry.
He teleported the rest of the way and materialized next to Homunk in central control. Homunk did not betray his surprise at the sudden appearance of the mousebeaver by a single twitch of his features.
“Where is it?”
Homunk pointed at the screen.
“Distance the same: 7 light-seconds. Course unchanged. Speed increased. Navigation getting more difficult.”
Pucky did not answer fight away. He gazed at the screen. The Silver Arrow was easily recognizable in the magnification—a long, slender vessel like a torpedo. There was no indication what mode of propulsion might be guessed. The bow was rounded, the stem almost blunt. If the instruments registered the fight data, it was 100 meters long and 15 meters thick in the middle.
On the screen, which showed only a small section of the universe, more stars were to be seen than from the Earth even on a clear night. Star stood next to star. The protective shield, now in constant operation, reflected their rays. The stars’ pressure of light alone would have been enough to drive a propulsionless vessel to the edge of the galaxy, it was that strong.
“We must get to within a half light-second of the alien,” Pucky said at last. “Then—perhaps—we’ll succeed.”
“A half lisek? Whenever we step up speed, so does the Silver Arrow. It sets its pace according to us, not we according to it. Even now they’re forcing their tactics on us. Maybe this time there aren’t any robots on board, only their lords and masters.”
Pucky jumped into the seat next to Homunk.
“Tell me, Homunk, what do you really think? You’re from Wanderer, a world that no longer exists, the abode of the Immortal who created you. What do you know about the aliens we’re pursuing? What do you know about the creators of the Silver Arrows? Why do they avoid all contact with us?”
The android needed no time to reflect. “I’ve never heard of them. There are no data for them in my memory bank. I can’t help you—at least not yet.”
Pucky stared darkly before him, poorer by one secretly treasured hope. He could not read the thoughts of the android, so he did not know whether Homunk spoke the truth. But why should the android lie?
Pucky looked at the screen again.
“How fast are we going?”
“Ten times the speed of light; we can’t do more without danger.”
Compared to what was possible in linear propulsion, their speed was almost ridiculous. Three million kilometres per second. Even so, it was too fast if a dark star should appear, a sun that could not be detected until the last moment.
“Let’s try it at eleven; maybe then we’ll get closer.
Homunk shook his head. “Hopeless. When we were cruising at speol 3 they kept their distance. When we increased our speed, the aliens did, too. Now we’re going 10. And if we could speed up to 100 times the speed of light—the aliens can too. We know that they can go even faster. It’s senseless, Pucky. We can catch the Silver Arrow only if we can outwit it. Since they’ve already spotted us, though, that seems a small hope indeed.”
“Krosh!” Pucky was crestfallen. Yet his brain sought feverishly for a way out. There was the objective, so close, yet he could not reach it. The Silver Arrow was only a little more than two million kilometres away. A swift spurt of speed…
“No,” said Homunk when Pucky suggested this to him, “that’s just as senseless. The commander of the Silver Arrow most likely is a robot brain. He reacts in a fraction of a second. Before we can speed up, or at least at the same moment, he speeds up too. We’ve tried it already.”
“How, then, can we possibly outwit him?” Pucky looked pretty helpless. He had thought the whole thing would be much simpler. To sight a Silver Arrow, to get close, to set up a telekinetic block—and it was as good as done. The rest would be routine. They’d enter the vessel, disable the robots and interrogate the masters. That is, if the masters could be interrogated. But then…?
“It’s hardly changed its course till now,” Homunk offered into the silence. “Only when a sun’s been in its way and had to be avoided. We can only guess that it’s going to its home base.”
“They can’t be that stupid, Homunk. They know we’re following them.”
“But they also know that they can accelerate if they have to. I would bet that at the last moment the Silver Arrow will increase its speed to a thousand times the speed of light and then make a sharp curve. We’ll lose him, and while we’re still looking for him, he’ll have long ago landed. Within 5 light-years we’ve got more than 500 suns. Would you want to search these one by one? You don’t have enough vacation time!”
“Only three weeks,” Pucky admitted, discouraged.
“For just one sector of 10 light-years diameter,” Homunk continued, “we’d need about two years here in the centre, if we are to search it systematically. Besides, to accomplish even that in the time given, we’d have to hurry like hell.”
“Would it do any good to ask Harno for help?”
That question had preyed on Pucky’s mind for a long time. Harno, the mysterious manifestation in the form of a round black ball, had lost himself in the oceans of space and time for many years. When the mutants, in a concerted telepathic effort, called on him, they were to some extent successful. But so far, this strange being, which definitely lacked any organic structure, had not extended the help they’d asked for. As a rule, Harno would appear simply as a chrono-projection and had maintained that he could not come himself—or was not allowed to. He was at the very end of time, Harno had said the last time. And there he must stay.