Homunk had not released the mousebeaver’s hand. He had to stand bent over for he was nearly twice as tall. Since he had spurned a spacesuit, he wore the communications device on his chest. Only thus was it possible to communicate with Pucky. At the same time, if he increased the set’s range, he could also talk with Maj. Koster.
“A hundred meters long—the navigator figured it right. Up front, there, you can see the outlines of a hatchway. Maybe the entrance.”
“We don’t need it. If we wanted to get into the ship we could teleport ourselves. Iltu has just sent word that its speed and course are still the same. If both keep it up, there’s a gigantic blue sun in their flight path. We should reach it in about 11 hours.”
“So there will be a change in course,” said Homunk. “Probably at the last moment. It would be better if we didn’t stand exactly here, on the outside of the hull. Gravitational fields will no longer be effective.”
Before Pucky could answer, something happened: the hatchway began to open.
It was about two meters long and a meter wide, an oval metal covering. Behind the flap a brightly-lit room arrayed with tools and instruments was visible. The inner hatchway remained closed.
Homunk had pulled Pucky back a few paces and had raised his right arm. In his hand there was suddenly a small but most deadly raygun. A precaution that at first proved superfluous.
“It could be coincidence,” Pucky whispered, still ready to teleport himself and his companion to safety. “Or do you think they’ve noticed us?”
“For certain!” Homunk had stopped and was staring at the open hatchway. “But what’s this? The inner hatch remains closed. So, nobody can come out to us without letting the air of the ship escape. They want us to go inside.”
That sounded logical. Opening the outer hatchway was beyond doubt an invitation that anybody would certainly understand. Not to take advantage of it would have meant abandoning a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pucky saw this right away. But he was unwilling to fall into a well-prepared trap.
If a trap, then it had better be a profitable one.
“Inform Koster,” he whispered to Homunk. “I’ll give Iltu the necessary instructions. Hurry! Two minutes, no more.”
He turned off his communications set in order not to be distracted by Homunk’s conversation with the commander, and took up thought communication with Iltu instead. Luckily, no transmitter was needed for that. Their telepathic connection could not be severed.
“Listen, Iltu, you know what’s happened. We’re going into the alien ship and you must maintain contact. If we’re in any immediate danger, we’ll teleport ourselves back to the EX-238. But in case we encounter no trouble we’ll try to establish some sort of communication with the alien crew. Koster is to follow us and not let the Silver Arrow out of sight. Do you understand?”
“Be careful, Pucky, Please!”
A smile flitted over Pucky’s face.
“Don’t worry. We’ll look after ourselves but we can’t let the chance to learn more about the aliens pass us by. They’re inviting us to board their ship. No other explanation for their opening the outer hatch while leaving the inner hatchway locked. They know we’ve been following them. They want to speak to us—if they can speak. I’m afraid they’re not telepaths. I’m even afraid they don’t emit any thought-impulses whatever.
“It seems that way. As always: no living being on board, only robots. Who their master is we’ll learn later—maybe.”
“And if we lose you?”
“That’s quite possible. In that case, build a telepathic block with Ooch and try to track me down. In fact, Iltu, the thought’s not so bad. Maybe it will be the only way of finally finding the alien planet. They may carry us off but you will be right behind.”
“And if we lose contact with you, Pucky?”
The mousebeaver twitched his shoulders involuntarily. “Then it’s going to be a very long vacation, my sweet.”
He tuned in again on the communications set. He listened as Homunk gave final instructions to the commander and then again switched to minimal distance.
“Koster is informed,” said Homunk. “He will keep on behind us.”
Pucky nodded. “Let’s go—what are we waiting for?”
The airlock proved rather spacious but nothing in it indicated that any human or other organic beings were on board. No spacesuits, no air purifiers, no weapons—nothing. Only the hardware for the outer hatchway, the ventilation ducts and…
“Ventilation ducts!” said Pucky as they stood in the enclosure and waited for the outer hatchway to close. “Robots don’t usually need any atmosphere. Are our friends an exception?”
“The hatchway!” Homunk exclaimed. “It’s closing. It would be the usual procedure if human beings were manning the ship. Suppose all your conjectures are—right?”
When the hatchway was closed, they waited for the hiss of air flowing in.
They did not wait in vain.
“I do believe,” murmured Pucky in an excited voice, “this time we’re in luck and will meet the masters of the robots—even if robots are manning the ship. They’re letting air into the airlock. I don’t think robots need air. When I entered a Silver Arrow for the first time. I had changed into a quantum of light due to the ultradimensional changeover of the molkex…”
There was not enough time for Pucky to describe his previous encounter for at that moment the inner hatch opened. Behind it one could see a bright hallway. It was as well lit as the pressure lock. The floor was metal, not covered by any carpets.
Homunk had once more hidden his weapon in his belt. With his quick reactions it would have taken only a fraction of a second for him to get it ready for action. It made no difference whether the weapon was in his belt or in his hand.
Pucky informed Iltu of all that was happening by merely thinking about what he saw and experienced. Now and then he received confirmation that his connection with her was still good. The EX-238 was following them at the same distance and at the same speed. Ten times the speed of light and the huge red sun was still 10 hours flying time distant.
“Apparently we’re to leave the lock,” Homunk guessed and started ahead. He kept close to Pucky, though, for if any danger should suddenly arise he did not want to be without the possibility of returning by teleportation. Without this possibility, the whole undertaking would have been sheer insanity.
Undecided, they stopped in the hallway. It led off to both right and left for about an equal distance. To the left was the bow, apparently the ship’s central control
“Let’s go,” Pucky proposed and dragged Homunk along with him. “When the aliens invite us so kindly, we shouldn’t hesitate to pay them a visit. Do you see the doors? Cabins? Do robots need cabins? It seems to me they’re behaving in a very human way—and, if I’m not mistaken, they’ll look that way too.”
Homunk had stopped in the hallway and was starting some analyses. To this day, Pucky did not know how Homunk managed it, for he had no instruments to work with.
“The atmosphere is suitable for human beings,” he said. “So, for you, too. Plenty of oxygen and other air constituents. I think we’re going to see something surprising.”
“I think so too,” said the mousebeaver. “We must be dealing with a special kind of robots who love surprises. Before, the time I first…”
Again he could not continue the tale of his adventures for Homunk, as just now they heard footsteps. They sounded from the left and were coming closer. Then a figure appeared in the hallway.
It was a shimmering metallic robot without any clothing. Its walk was a bit heavy but one noticed it only if looking for it. And one looked for it because even from the very first it was plain that it was a robot that had to be dealt with. Its entire build suggested human engineers. It had two legs, two arms, hands with five fingers, and a small trunk with a humanoid head. Its two eyes glittered under its bald metallic skull. Under it was set a well-shaped nose. The mouth was angular. Both ears were round, copied from the human.
A humanoid robot—as they had expected.
So, no surprise.
Pucky had taken Homunk’s hand. He concentrated on the sudden leap that would bring them to safety, if necessary.
The robot came toward them and stopped close in front.
Pucky would not have been surprised to have heard human sounds from that angular mouth but he waited in vain. The robot only looked at them and it appeared that it analysed even their most secret thoughts, so sharp and penetrating did its cold gaze become.
Then it turned around and went ahead.
Pucky took off his helmet and hung it on his belt. Homunk disconnected the communications set. Then they followed the robot.