To Pucky’s understandable fury were added instincts of self-preservation.
Lightning-fast he activated the telekinetic sector of his mutant brain. The robots’ hands froze in mid-motion. And then the bodies of metal were lifted high by an invisible force and floated weightlessly in the air before they disappeared through the antechamber of the converter like so many pancakes. Pucky sent the third robot after them for good measure. It wasn’t hard for Pucky to close the hatchway without coming near it. For safety’s sake he let the door mechanism click shut. With the energy obtained from the conversion of three robots, the Silver Arrow should be able to cross the centre of the Milky Way three times easily.
The other robots had put their work aside. Pucky saw that they were unarmed. There were four of them, all technicians. Though they had seen what was happening certainly they did not understand. One thing they must, however, have understood: the little mousebeaver was their enemy.
Like the other robots before them, they acted in unison, as if according to a silent arrangement. They came at Pucky from all sides while he was calmly considering whether to avoid any further battles by teleporting himself to another part of the ship. But then the thought that four enemies more or less might play an important role at a later stage of the game won the upper hand. Besides, it was time to unveil his own personality so that the robot commander would see what a mistake he had made by underestimating a mousebeaver. Such an underestimation had never yet done anyone any good.
The 4 assailants suddenly ran against an invisible obstruction in the middle of the room; they stood around perplexed. Then, before they could adopt other tactics, they were taken hold of by an irresistible force that picked them right off the floor. The same force flung them against each other, after they had a good running start in midair. The length of the room must have been 15 meters and the acceleration that Pucky imparted to them was enormous.
There was a frightful din as metal clanged against metal. The crash landing of a small aircraft could not have sounded worse.
With battered and partly damaged bodies, the 4 robots were hurled onto the floor as Pucky released them. They stayed where they had fallen and did not stir.
They had not exactly been turned into scrap iron but extensive repairs would have to be made to get them functioning again. For the time being Pucky had reached his goal. His fury had evaporated and he was no longer in danger.
This part of the ship now belonged to him.
He thought of Homunk and set the communications equipment on short-wave. “Homunk! Can you hear me? Where are you?”
There was no reply.
That did not mean much. Very likely Homunk had not turned on his receiver, since he would see no occasion for it. Him at least they were treating with all due respect.
“I’ll worry about him later,” murmured Pucky, put on his space helmet and locked it. Then he teleported himself to the outer shell of the ship where he could decide in perfect peace what he was to do next. It wasn’t going to be simple. The robots would not give him recognition, and he had now dealt them a grievous blow. He was an enemy, while they had taken in Homunk with special courtesy. Really only because he was humanoid? Or perhaps they recognized his android construction?
Around him Pucky saw the bright spherical shell formed by millions of suns. They were now so concentrated that there could be no talk of constellations. Races evolving in this part of the galaxy must have quite a different idea about the creation of the universe than human beings. What did their gods look like, what was their religion? On Earth, the clear night sky was dark, for the few thousand stars visible even to acute eyes threw but little light there. But from here the universe must seem like a collection of stars crowding in upon each other and mutually influencing their orbits.
Somewhere out there in the swarm of uncountable stars must be the EX-238, alone and lost. Iltu would be trying to reestablish contact with Pucky without letup. Even Ooch might be helping her. If only they knew the direction, they would succeed; but without directional beaming their thought impulses would simply be lost somewhere in infinity.
Pucky turned the sender onto maximum range and called the EX-238 several times running. Then he asked for verification and turned the set to ‘receiving’.
At this precise moment he realized that the radio equipment was useless in this part of the galaxy. The interference of the many suns and radio stars was such that all sensible oral communications were rendered impossible. In the loudspeaker there was nothing but an unending crackling and ringing. No radio transmission could ever penetrate all this.
Pucky turned off the set. Helpless, lost and small, he stood on the hull of the alien ship, surrounded by the splendour of the million suns and the cold loneliness of the universe. He was alone, for the first time. in his long life, really alone. Only eternity stood by him but gave him no comfort. On the contrary, it mocked at him. In the middle of uncountable sun systems, perhaps even inhabited systems, he stood abandoned and waited in vain for help.
The robots! Only they could be of help now. If they wouldn’t help of their own free will, they would have to be forced.
Pucky shook his head. To resort to force was senseless. The purpose of the entire expedition would be thwarted by it. Besides, there was Homunk. They had treated him better, and if the android was smart enough, perhaps he could manage to…
Pucky broke off his train of thought. It was clear that the initiative was taken out of his hands. There was nothing else for him to do but keep quiet and await developments. He should hide in the ship until Homunk had the chance to come to an agreement with the robots. So long as that was not the case, every attempt to get them to do something would fail.
The Silver Arrow’s course pointed directly to a yellow sun that could not be more than one or two light-years away. It occurred to Pucky that they were in an area of relatively sparse suns, an area that stretched outward like a sphere. The nearest stars were almost all at an equal distance. Without any special flights of fancy, it could easily be determined that the yellow sun occupied an unusual position.
It had the effect of a focal point of the concentration of stars in the centre of the Milky Way.
If that was so, then it was the centre of the Milky Way.
And the Silver Arrow was flying directly towards it.
Then Pucky grasped that the trip into uncertainty would soon be at an end.
But not the uncertainty itself.
2/ PUCKY IN PERIL
As the Silver Arrow disappeared from the screen, Maj. Lan Koster had the EX-238 hurtle into space at an unheard-of speed. His thoughts alarmed Iltu who appeared immediately in central control along with Ooch.
It had always been difficult for Koster to differentiate between one mousebeaver and another. They all looked alike as far as he was concerned. But Iltu was a bit smaller than Pucky and built more gracefully; besides which, her incisor wasn’t white but a soft rose. At first glance, though, these differences did not matter. Ooch however could well have been Pucky’s twin brother. He had the same crafty expression, the same broad beaver tail and the same red-brown fur. Only he could not teleport himself.
Iltu brought him along. “We’ve lost contact,” she piped up excitedly.
Koster pointed to the empty screen.
“I’m not surprised—the alien ship accelerated fast enough to make me suspect a jump through hyperspace—that they can fly at greater speeds than light. They have simply taken a gigantic leap and disappeared.”
“Why have we lost contact?”
“Because the Silver Arrow radically changed not only its speed but its direction. Telepathic thought impulses are effective over great distances but only if they are beamed in a definite direction. Our radio contact is also off but that does not surprise me. There are too many radio suns in the neighbourhood. The interference is so bad that we can’t even get through to Terra. It was ill-advised to let Pucky and Homunk go…”
“We must find them!”
Iltu’s voice was still ringing in Koster’s ears. He knew how much the little mousebeaver loved Pucky but there was no trace of despair and hopelessness to be heard. The little voice sounded worried, all right, but not really despondent and defeated. For a moment Koster was ashamed of having even thought of giving up in the face of a seemingly impossible assignment. Iltu read his thoughts. She came closer and took hold of his hand.