“Right,” she said, “we must find them…?”
“Of course we’ll find them,” he nodded. “Even if we have to land on every planet in this sector of space. Even if it takes years, we’ll find Pucky and Homunk. Maybe we’ll meet another Silver Arrow and can follow that.”
“Och!” said Ooch. It was his favourite expression in all possible situations and the real reason for his name. “If we do find another such ship, we’ll try the telekinetic experiment Pucky was planning.” He grew suddenly silent and listened inwardly. Then he continued, quite excitedly: “I have to go to the others! Wullewull has taken advantage of all this and…”
He ran to the door and was out in the hall before anyone could say anything.
“What’s the matter with him?” Koster asked, puzzled.
“Biggy!” Iltu, explained, then pointed to the screen. “Which sun are we going to start with?”
From the very first it had been a hopeless enterprise. The EX-238 was somewhere among a million suns and just one could be the right one. And hitting on the right one was the only way to rescue Pucky and Homunk.
The first three they came to had no planets. They were recorded to prevent a repeat flight.
The fourth sun had seven planets; the second one was inhabited. Koster circled it several times before he landed near a recently built city. The analysts reported that the inhabitants were a distant humanoid race, apparently colonists of the Arkonides. They had planetary space transportation and a robot technology.
Lan Koster assigned FR-7 to contact the natives, let him out through the locks and then threw a protective energy screen around the EX-238. He did not want to risk a surprise attack.
The robot marched directly toward the city. The landing of the alien spaceship had been noted and appropriate preparations had been made. On a small spacefield stood 7 ships, all spherical. Not one of them a Silver Arrow.
Even before FR-7 could reach the city, several motor vehicles met him. They kept a respectful distance and soldiers deployed into a protective chain. They did not come closer. Three beings in uniform set themselves in motion and came toward FR-7.
FR-7 had a positronic brain with a memory bank that put to shame any human memory. His training had crammed him with knowledge he could use instantly without having to ponder it. His insides began to work and before the three beings reached him he knew almost everything about them.
More than 5,000 years ago the Arkonides had forged ahead to this part of the galaxy. Altogether 10 different expeditions vanished in the concentration of stars at the Centre. They were never heard of again and were simply recorded as lost. This much FR-7 knew. The rest was the result of logical deductions.
The planet here was one of the many that were settled by the Arkonides. The assumptions were thus confirmed. Already FR-7 knew that he was not facing the creators of the Silver Arrow. He now activated his speech sector to be ready to understand and answer any sound symbols the aliens might have. His combination positronic structure enabled him to make sense of any vocalized speech after he had heard a sample of it.
The middle one of the uniformed beings was a robot. FR-7, having been built and programmed by Terranians, bowed in greeting, but to the robot last. With this gesture he announced himself as a messenger of humanoids.
“Welcome to Zermalonka,” said one of the beings in a loud voice. “We don’t often have visitors. Who are you?”
FR-7 registered the information that here they didn’t know anything about either the rise or fall of the Terranian-Arkonide stellar empire. This particular race lived off to itself and even in 300 years of intensive exploration the Terranians had not been able to penetrate this region. The Europeans, who, a thousand years ago had landed in Africa or America for the first time, must have felt something like FR-7 now.
“I come to you from the Terranians, a mighty race, but with a request.” FR-7 did not behave instinctively but logically—and thus naturally as programmed in a human way. He stressed the power of Terra but added immediately that he was asking for something. That should assure him the good will of the Zermalonkites. “We’re looking for a ship. Did any ship land in your world just a short while back?”
“The last alien ship landed here 10 revolutions of the sun ago,” sounded the ready answer. In a fraction of a second, FR-7 figured the date. He knew the rotation and the revolution times of the planets. The ship the aliens were referring to landed about 7 years ago. “It was an exploration expedition from a neighbouring system. It stayed for half a revolution of the sun and then left. Is that the ship you’re looking for?”
“No,” replied FR-7. “We’re looking for a slender, silver torpedo with robots on board. If it was here, it must have landed three rotations ago, or even later.”
“It didn’t—we can’t help you.” For a moment it looked as if both beings and the robot wanted to turn around and go away. Then they hesitated. “A silver torpedo? And robots on board? Do you mean the Metalix?”
“The Metalix?” FR-7 searched his memory bank in vain. The Metalix were not recorded. “Who are they?”
“A very intelligent but cruel race who give no quarter nor show no mercy. A non-organic race.”
“You may call them that but they’re different.”
“They act and think on their own. Their masters are unknown, perhaps non-existent. You can’t deal with them.”
“How do you know all this?”
It was the key question. FR-7 had driven his interrogators into a corner. They now had to show their colours—how they’d gotten their information without being destroyed because of it. For if the owners of the Silver Arrows could not be dealt with, and destroyed everything that came their way, then the Zermalonkites could not possibly survive—that is, if indeed they had the information.
“We received reports to that effect.”
FR-7 had to admit that it was a plausible explanation. If this planet had even some connection with other worlds, there could not be a better one.
“A last question and request: do you know where the home base of the Metalix is? And if so, would you mind telling us?”
Shocked, the two beings retreated a step; only the robot in the middle stayed where he was.
“The position of the home base of the Metalix? You want to know where it is? Whoever knows that will be destroyed and we don’t know a living soul who’s ever seen their world. We cannot help you, stranger.”
“I’m only the messenger of the Terranians,” FR-7 said and bowed stiffly. “On their behalf, I thank you. May we go?”
“Could we stop you?”
FR-7 shook his head, turned around and went back to the EX-238.
The Zermalonkites spoke logically and reasonably. FR-7 liked them. They didn’t waste any time on unnecessary things. Organic beings should take a lesson from them; then they could accomplish twice as much.
As the Zermalonka planet sank away from the EX-238 and they crossed to the next nearest sun system, FR-7 said to Koster: “Considering all the circumstances, it will take us 3,000 years to get to all the planets within the circumference of 10 light-years.”
Koster did not reply.
* * * *
After eight days the log of the EX-238 had the following entry:
Today, System Mora, three planets. Second planet inhabited. Reptile race, half intelligent. Agricultural civilization. No indication of our expedition’s target. First contact.
Koster, over-tired and exhausted, shook his head as Mora 2 disappeared from screens and instruments.
“That was the 40th try, Iltu. Negative. It’s senseless, believe me. This way we won’t ever again find Pucky and Homunk. No one knows anything about the Silver Arrows. There is only the hint the Zermalonkites gave us. It was the first and last one. It seems that the Silver Arrows don’t exist at all.”
“But they do!” The little mousebeaver had changed inside the week. She was of a more serious nature than Pucky and had always been silent and retiring. Now she seemed rather discouraged and despondent. But inwardly she did not give up hope. “We must find him! We simply must!”
Koster, who had never differentiated between the men of his regular crew and the mousebeavers, now bowed towards her and stroked her fur.
“We’ll find them, Iltu. Most certainly we’ll find them. I could never face Rhodan again if I had to go back without Pucky and Homunk.”
“I love Pucky,” Iltu whispered shyly.
It didn’t sound sentimental or mushy. Koster was deeply moved. Did it really make a difference with whom you were in love? Didn’t it also depend on how you loved? And Koster felt that Iltu’s love for Pucky was genuine.