In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

What ‘the end of time’ was, no one could imagine. Not Rhodan, and least of all Pucky. Harno indicated that from his vantage point he could look back upon the past of the universe and thus could foresee its relative future. More he would not say. All this was enough fodder for the maddest of speculations.

“Harno?” Homunk suddenly took on such a disapproving expression that Pucky could make nothing of it.

“There are only three telepaths among you—I wonder whether that’ll be enough.”

“We’ve already done it with just us three telepaths from Earth.”

“So what! That doesn’t mean too much!”

“Something, anyway.” Pucky shrugged.

Homunk concentrated again on the screen. The Silver Arrow was still two million kilometres away from EX-238. Apparently motionless. But as they were watching, a star on their right grew larger and larger and turned into a huge flaming sun. The instruments registered planets that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. Then the sun grew smaller again and sank off to the right into the deeps of the universe.

“‘Something’ is not enough,” said Homunk and with this dismissed Pucky’s idea.

Pucky made no reply. He was listening inside himself and slid off his chair. “Sorry,” he murmured, a bit embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’d better get back to my friends. Iltu’s just sent a message.”

Homunk smiled knowingly. “Trouble?”

“A little, maybe.”

“Rascals—to use a human expression. Bell was right: 10 million fleas are more easily controlled than a mere 10 mousebeavers. That other time, the shenanigans with the antigravity gravity shaft…”

“It’s not so bad this time. It’s only a private misunderstanding.”

“I see,” signified Homunk and turned toward the screens.

Pucky waited another 2 or 3 seconds, then he dematerialised. He would show those ten ilts from Mars who was boss.

Besides, he wanted to cut a good figure in front of Iltu.

* * * *

After the rest period, Maj. Lan Koster returned to central control. The navigation officer sighed with relief. It was not to every one’s liking to work with a robot who could not be told apart from a man of flesh and blood.

The Silver Arrow was still 7 liseks (light-seconds) away and had hardly altered its course. It looked as if it were heading straight for its home base. But assuredly that could not be the case. On both sides, the closer suns pulled slowly away. Like beacons, thought Koster involuntarily and sat down. If one could know each sun in this sector, it wouldn’t be difficult to use them as points of reference. They would, in fact, enable knowledgeable persons to find their way surely and without hazard, while they would stand as life-threatening dangers to those not in the know. Under these circumstances, they might even prove to be a trap.

* * * *

That was it!

Suddenly Koster thought he knew why the Silver Arrow was moving ahead of them so unperturbed, always remaining at an equal distance and the same speed. It had no intention to escape; rather, it wanted you simply to follow it. Almost certainly it would not lead you to its home base.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Homunk.

Koster explained.

Homunk nodded slowly, then said: “If it’s really as you think, we must adopt opposite tactics to get closer to the Silver Arrow. We must slow down.”

“You mean…?”

“Exactly. The aliens will assume we’ve given up pursuit. They’ll reduce speed, too, so that we won’t lose them. Maybe we should even pretend we’ve had a breakdown. It’s quite possible that this way we may lead them to some slip­up.”

“There’s also the risk of losing the Silver Arrow altogether. Anyway, we shouldn’t do anything without consulting Pucky. He is, after all, the leader of this expedition.”

“I’m surprised he’s not here yet,” said Homunk.

“It won’t take long,” Koster assured him; meanwhile he had gathered much experience. “Wherever he happens to be on the ship, he will snap up my thoughts. We won’t have to call him especially for that. Any second he may…”

The door opened and Pucky came strolling into central control. His fur was dishevelled. His usually soft brown eyes glittered with anger and he closed the door behind him with unusual abruptness. “And you think,” he growled in annoyance, “that the aliens in that ship up ahead will fall for your trick? I don’t believe it but maybe it’s no more senseless than to keep on flying after it.”

“Right,” nodded Koster. “You agree, then?”

“Not necessarily. First I’d like to try something else. I’d like to take a good look at the Silver Arrow from close quarters. Homunk will go with me. You, Koster, will maintain your present speed while Homunk and I teleport ahead. It won’t be difficult; I can sight the target directly. The return trip won’t be much different.”

“Do you think it’s wise to let the aliens know that you have teleportation powers?”

“I won’t let them know, Major. If possible, we won’t even let ourselves be seen; but I want to know what kind of crew is on that ship. If there are only robots, as before, there must be a way to outwit them. It was nothing but a wrecked craft when I found a Silver Arrow for the first time. Even if the robot crew had wanted to, it would have been impossible for them to help me. There was also no communication with them.

“What do you think, Homunk?” Koster turned to the android.

“I’m ready,” said Homunk briefly. He looked at Pucky. “You look as if your 10 friends had beat you up. More trouble?”

“I beat up Wullewull!” asserted Pucky energetically. “He’s always creating problems. Besides, he’s much too ugly for Biggy. In addition, she’s engaged to Ooch.”

“Complicated family affairs,” droned Koster and shook his head. “Hopefully, even under these circumstances, you’ll be in, a position, when necessary, to set up the telekinetic block that was planned. I can imagine that through the lack of unity…”

“Don’t worry, Major,” Pucky assured him. “Really, it’s all in fun. If it comes right down to it, I can rely on my friends. Homunk, do you need a spacesuit?”

“Not really. A vacuum doesn’t bother me.”

“Then wait here; I’ll be right back.”

When Pucky had dematerialised, Koster stared darkly at the screen. “I’m not sure we’re doing it the right way. Maybe the pretended wreck would have been the best solution.”

“Pucky’s the boss,” Homunk said, and grinned in a very human way. “And frankly, I’m glad of a change. Maybe we’ll know all in another hour.”

It didn’t take even that long.

* * * *

The two figures stood on the round hull of the EX-238 quite near the North Pole. The gravity of the huge sphere held them fast. Around them was the universe. To the naked eye the Silver Arrow was not visible but Pucky was in thought-contact with Koster. From him he found out what the coördinates were. Iltu acted as relay station and gave Pucky’s directions to the commander.

“Over there, the shimmering red sun, Homunk. That’s our direction. It would be simpler if I could receive thought impulses from the aliens but there aren’t any. Either the whole crew consists of robots or they know something about telepathy. It could be that they habitually shield their thoughts. The way back to the EX-238 will be easy, though. We only have to take bearings on the thoughts of the crew, that’ll be enough. Besides, I’m maintaining contact with Iltu.”

It was an unforgettable sight, even Pucky had to admit. The dense conglomeration of stars here in the Milky Way outshone everything else. From here, one could no longer recognize the neighbouring galaxies. Their dim nebulas were outdone by the gleam of the million suns that here were concentrated in a relatively confined area. It was bright on the artificial body named EX-238 but Homunk and Pucky threw no shadows for the light emanated equally from all directions.

“Let’s go—what are we waiting for?” Homunk extended his hand to Pucky. “I hope you can manage this long stretch. After all it’s 7 light-seconds.”

“I’ve teleported across light-years!”

Pucky took Homunk’s hand, concentrated for a last time on Koster’s running stream of information, closed his eyes—and dematerialised. Homunk disappeared with him.

When Pucky could see again, he and the android were floating in space. The EX-238 had disappeared, lost somewhere in the jumble of suns. They had missed their objective by a few kilometres. The Silver Arrow stood seemingly motionless in front of them; in reality it was streaking through space at the same rate as they.

A short tele-jump brought them onto the hull of the alien vessel.

Homunk switched his com-set on minimal range to lessen the danger of being overheard.

“You’ve noticed nothing, I suppose. Still no thought-impulses, Pucky? There must be somebody on this ship!”

“The pilot, for sure, but he must be a robot.” Pucky examined the metal of the hull and then bent down for a closer look. “Exactly as before: an unknown alloy. And old, very old. This ship has been in space for a long time.”

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