Perry Rhodan Lemuria 1: Ark of the Stars - Frank Borsch - ebook

Perry Rhodan Lemuria 1: Ark of the Stars ebook

Frank Borsch

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After a tragic accident Perry Rhodan discovers a huge space ship, two miles long and traveling almost at the speed of light. The ship turns out to be an ark, carrying a population of humans who set out on their journey 55,000 years ago, from Earth - Lemurians, the legendary forefathers of mankind. But Rhodan is not the only one to have noticed the ark. A ship of the Akons, Earth's arch enemies, has also set its sights on this galactic mystery ...

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#1 Ark of the Stars

by Frank Borsch

After a tragic accident Perry Rhodan discovers a huge space ship, two miles long and traveling almost at the speed of light. The ship turns out to be an ark, carrying a population of humans who set out on their journey 55,000 years ago, from Earth – Lemurians, the legendary forefathers of mankind.

But Rhodan is not the only one to have noticed the ark. A ship of the Akons, Earth's arch enemies, has also set its sights on this galactic mystery ...

LEMURIA 1

Ark of the Stars

by Frank Borsch

Translated

by Dwight R. Decker

About Perry Rhodan

Perry Rhodan the series was born in Germany in 1961. Originally planned as a thirty-issue periodical, its unexpected success prompted the publisher to extend that plan to fifty issues. Now, fifty-four years and more than 2,800 magazine novels (plus a plethora of related products) later, Perry Rhodan stands as the longest-running ongoing science-fiction storyline in existence.

Perry Rhodan the character was born on June 8, 1936 in Manchester, Connecticut, the son of Jakob Edgar Rhodan (a German émigré post-WWI) and Mary Rhodan (nee Tibo). He graduated from the US Air Force Academy and began a career as a pilot. On June 19, 1971, Major Perry Rhodan commanded the atomic-powered spaceship Stardust on the first manned moon-landing, accompanied by three other astronauts.

On the far side of the moon, the men discovered the scientific research vessel of an extraterrestrial race; the humanoid Arkonides had been forced to make an emergency landing. Perry Rhodan established contact with the Arkonides, as a result receiving some of their superior technology. Unwilling to place this unimaginably powerful technology in the hands of a single political power, upon his return to Earth Rhodan landed in the Gobi Desert, rather than the United States.

The world currently was facing the very real possibility of WWIII. With the influence of the Arkonide technology, Perry Rhodan managed to prevent the war, and even bring the various political blocs to a new level of cooperation. He established what he named the New Power, a neutral entity that owed allegiance to all of humanity, rather than a nation or ideology. Further, he declared his new citizenship to the planet Terra, calling himself a Terran. He gained many allies to his cause, among them a group of parapsychologically gifted people known as mutants. The Mutant Corps possessed telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis and other abilities. Rhodan united humanity—and opened the gateway to the stars ...

Ark of the Stars is a journey into the future of humanity—and into its distant past.

1

The stars called to him.

Venron had never seen them. Not with his own eyes. Only in ancient visual recordings. Secretly and furtively, always in fear that the Tenoy would catch him and the other Star Seekers.

The Seekers had surrendered in utter amazement to the glory of the stars. Had attempted to count them and finally given up. There were too many; one could never succeed in grasping the sheer number of them. And to what purpose? Even in the depictions shown by the slowly but inexorably decaying memory units, the stars were the most beautiful things they had ever seen.

Venron had to see them.

With his own eyes.

He had to be certain that he was not yearning for a delusion.

Venron took off the thick plastic apron and gloves that had protected him for the past few hours from the thorns of the protein plants. The protein these plants provided was the richest available. But why the protein plants so reluctantly parted with their fruits remained a mystery to Venron. Perhaps the tenkren who developed them weren't in complete control of their own handiwork. Or perhaps the difficulty of harvesting had some intention he didn't understand.

A voice wrenched him out of his thoughts.

"Doing anything after your shift?" asked Melenda.

Venron looked up in surprise. He hadn't noticed Melenda come into the supply shed. She was his age, a voluptuous, outgoing woman with long hair and a swing in her hips that he had dreamed about for many nights after she had been assigned to his Metach'ton. But the stars had won out in the end. Now he seldom dreamed of Melenda.

"Yes. I ... I wanted to read some more," he lied. "You know, study."

Melenda looked puzzled. "I don't understand why you want to hide from the rest of the world." She stepped close to him, reached out her hand as though she wanted to take his, but then let her arm drop. "You should occasionally come out of that hole you've dug for yourself. I'm getting together with the others at the bow—Delder's plants have new blossoms. He says a shot of the juice will give you a kick like you've never felt before. And Delder knows his stuff! I bet he'll be a tenkren one of these days. You know the others don't especially like you, but I can put in a good word for you."

"Thanks," Venron said, "but I can't. Maybe some other time?"

"Some other time? You don't even believe that yourself!" Melenda dropped her apron carelessly on the bench and stormed out of the shed. The door banged behind her, making the whole structure shake.

Venron stared at the door for a few moments, then folded his apron carefully and shoved it and the gloves in the pigeonholes provided for them. Then he picked up Melenda's carelessly discarded apron and repeated the procedure.

He did it even though it wasn't logical. No one would come into the supply shed before the next shift, which didn't start until the next morning. But Venron couldn't bring himself to go against his training. "Waste is our downfall," he had been taught since childhood. "Our resources are limited and few!" Some traitor you are! he thought. You even clean up after those you plan to betray!

Venron left the shed. It was already getting dark. A bicycle leaned against a post nearby. He typed an inquiry on the handlebar screen display; the status indicator showed the bicycle was not in use. Good. It would make things go faster. Venron rode off, cruising with the familiarity of long years through the maze of paths that wound through the fields and gardens of the Outer Deck. He enjoyed the breeze that poured over his skin and streamed through his hair as he rode. On the bicycle, it was easy to forget the high gravity trying to pull him to the ground. The higher gravity of the Outer Deck made their limbs tire quickly during work. By noon, most of the metach thought only of catching their breath and of the Middle Deck, where they would be allowed to return after their shift.

At long intervals, Venron met other metach. Only a few were out and about at this hour; most were sitting with the rest of their Metach'ton and lingering over their evening meal. Why waste time on the Outer Deck where there was only sweat and hard work? He waved in greeting to the people he passed. His pulse sped up each time, returning to normal only when he went around a curve and didn't hear a shout of, "Hey, stop! What are you up to?"

People seemed to assume he was just what he appeared to be: a somewhat distracted metach occupying the time after his shift by taking a spin. His activity was uncommon, but also not remarkable, viewed mostly as a harmless whim.

No one seemed to realize he was a traitor.

In the distance, Venron spotted a young woman on a bicycle, her upper body bent well forward in order to offer less resistance as she rode.

Immediately yanking the handlebars to the left, he shot down between rows of bushes. Sliding off the seat, he crouched down so that he could see the path without being seen, and didn't move until the woman had passed.

It was Denetree. She had tied her hair into a knot as she usually did when she made her rounds. Her legs rose and fell in a swift rhythm. She rode in a high gear not only to develop her muscles but to be able to increase her speed at a moment's notice.

Venron waited for almost half an hour before he dared come out of the bushes. He couldn't have faced his sister. She would have guessed his plan, read it from his face, from his body language. And would have insisted on going with him ...

But that was impossible. Venron had no idea what awaited him. He would look for Denetree later and apologize to her for not saying good-bye.

I've done what I could for her, he tried to console himself. He would leave, but would leave a trace of himself behind. He had planned for that.

Venron continued on his way, finally stopping at a remote shelter. The simple plastic construction, a roof supported by four slender poles about the height of a man, would be torn away by even a mild storm—but there were no storms. The shelter sufficed to protect against the artificial rain.

Venron leaned the bicycle against one of the poles, switched it to FREE so the next person to find it could use it, and knelt on the ground. A thin layer of moldering grass and plant stems covered the floor of the shelter. Venron brushed it to one side to uncover the bare metal surface. Near the middle of the cleared space he found what he was looking for: a scratched display screen. Even though it was now fully dark, the screen glowed enough to be readable.

He spread the thumbs and index fingers of both hands, then pressed them simultaneously against all four corners of the display. A keyboard appeared on the screen and Venron entered a random series of numbers.

He didn't need a code: The input was only necessary so that the mechanism wasn't activated by accident. This mechanism opened the hatch to the pressurized air chambers below the surface that would ensure their survival in an emergency. As far as Venron knew, such an emergency had never occurred—and he strongly doubted that the chambers would be of much use if an emergency came to pass. One could survive for a day or a week in them—but then what?

Venron heard a clicking. A square section of the floor lifted creakingly to stand on one edge over a man-sized hole. The Net had released the hatch. Good. The Net had also been informed that there had been a request to open a hatch. Not so good. Everything now depended on how the Net interpreted the action. Playing children opened the hatches on a regular basis. The Net expected it. Testing the limits of their world and what was allowed was part of children's normal development. To a point.

If it was Venron's bad luck that children had been using this entrance a little too often recently, the Net would confine him in the chamber below until the Tenoy came. It would be very difficult to explain what he was doing in the underground chambers: He was an adult who ought to know better than to stick his nose into things that didn't concern him.

Venron climbed down a narrow metal ladder into the dark. Each time he rested his weight on a new rung, the ladder squeaked and sagged. Above him, the hatch closed automatically. Faint light came on, making the outlines of objects visible. Venron looked at the ceiling. Only every third light was illuminated.

Our resources are limited.

Venron had not been down in the pressurized chambers since his childhood. He was surprised by how small and cramped it felt. He was in a long, narrow corridor with a low ceiling, lined on both sides with benches. Baggy pressure suits hung in wall niches, looking like sacks with helmets attached. They would fit anyone of any size or build, and even untrained persons could slip them on in seconds. But they condemned their wearers to immobility. It would be impossible to move through the narrow corridor wearing the pressure suits, especially if the corridor was jammed full of people.

Venron didn't want to imagine it. He already felt oppressed by the confined space.

He started walking, counting the pressure suits as he went. When he reached sixty-three, an opening yawned in the apparently endless row. There was a narrow passageway in the wall where another pressure suit should have hung. Venron squeezed himself inside. After a few meters, the passageway opened onto another corridor lined with pressure suits. Venron turned left and counted the suits again. At ninety-six, he found a new gap and squeezed his way into it.

The throat-constricting feeling that he was caught in a trap gradually subsided. The conditions he had found so far matched the description he had read, which encouraged him to hope that all of it would be accurate. As yet he had not heard the heavy footsteps of the Tenoy racing through the corridors to seize him, nor any warnings from the Net.

Again Venron counted. He stopped at thirty-three. This time, there was no gap. He was looking at a pressure suit that was exactly the same as the hundreds he had already passed. He grasped the suit by the neck ring, lifted it up, and set it down on the opposite side. The suit was surprisingly light. Once, as a child, he had put on a suit just to be daring, and without understanding what he was playing at. The other children had teased him for weeks afterwards because the suit had been such a tight fit. "You're so fat!" they had called over and over again. "Fat! Fat! Fat!" Only Denetree hadn't laughed at him. She simply took him into her arms without a word and held him until he had calmed down.

Venron still remembered how hard it had been to lift the helmet over his head at that age. But he had grown up slim and strong.

Moving the suit revealed bare metal. Venron leaned close, narrowed his eyes and felt the wall. It seemed massive. Doesn't matter, he assured himself.

He ran his fingers over the surface, searching for any unevenness. Not an easy task: Dust had settled on the wall over the centuries and hardened, so much so that it had withstood the efforts of the maintenance and cleaning crews that still serviced these chambers at regular intervals. Twice he thought he had found what he was looking for, twice he was disappointed. Then he found the hidden switch, and to his right a concealed display screen slid out of the wall.

An input field lit up in front of Venron.

He mentally repeated the password that he had stumbled across a few weeks earlier when he was looking for new star pictures to show the Seekers. He had succeeded in temporarily isolating a memory unit from the Net without being noticed, a success that could only last a few minutes. A dummy virtual unit wouldn't fool the Net any longer than that. To his disappointment, he hadn't found any new star pictures, only boring construction plans. Without giving it much thought, he copied some of them to his portable memory unit, reversed his manipulation of the system and slipped away.

When he examined his plundered data later, he found—hidden in a dry mass of construction plans and circuit diagrams—a door to the stars.

Would he be able to open it?

He entered the password, and a section of the wall slid back. The hatch was not completely open when Venron dove into the darkness beyond.

From this point forward, he had very little time.

The opening of this hatch, a door most likely unknown to even the highest levels of the naahk's leadership circle, would alert the Net to his location. Venron had to be quick.

Spotlights blazed on and bathed the corridor beyond the hatch with glaring light. Venron felt as though the eyes of a thousand faces were staring at him. Blinded for a moment, he stumbled, then he caught himself and ran. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, relying entirely on the map that was burned into his mind, the layout that he had memorized so exactingly in the past few weeks.

The plans had overtaken even his unconscious mind, and his nightly dreams of the stars were interrupted by nightmares of winding corridors. He woke up screaming, only to look into the apprehensive and angry faces of the metach with whom he shared sleeping quarters.

"Venron," they had whispered. "What's gotten into you? What are you yelling about? Go back to sleep! We have to work tomorrow!"

He never told them what woke him, not even when they threatened to beat him if he didn't keep quiet. Not even when they carried out their threat.

Venron kept his eyes shut. His pulse raced faster, and his lungs drew in air that smelled different, so cold and metallic.

He heard a crackling sound and waited for the peremptory voice of the Net, which from a myriad of loudspeakers would order him to turn around.

It didn't come.

The light grew weaker. He felt a slight breeze. Had he reached his goal? He slowed down to a trot, ready at any second to leap to one side or take off running again.

He opened his eyes once more, just a crack. The light was less harsh now, and came from far, far overhead.

In front of him loomed a shape so large that it blocked some of the light as he approached.

Venron stretched out both arms and walked on. When his fingers touched cool metal, he stopped, laid his head back, and fully opened his eyes.

He was in a huge room, nearly half a kilometer high. His hands rested on the massive hull of a craft secured to a ramp that inclined sharply upwards and ended at a hatch outlined on the wall of the chamber.

The shuttle! The schematics had been correct!

Venron cried out with joy, the fear and doubt that had threatened to overwhelm him vanishing in an instant. His exultation echoed back from the walls—and beyond those walls, the stars awaited him!

Venron ran around the hull. The shuttle's lower rear hatch was open, as though the ship was waiting for him. Venron hurried up the ramp and ran through the cargo bay, intent on reaching the cockpit. The plans he had downloaded were not complete. Venron had been able to learn little more from them than that the shuttle existed and was kept constantly ready for use.

And that it was armed.

He reached the cockpit. It was small, with room for only one person, and hung like a transparent blister from the bow of the shuttle. A second, separate cockpit, probably for the co-pilot, bulged from the bow close by. Venron slid into the pilot's seat. Over the gap into which his legs disappeared hung an expansive display screen showing status indicators. Venron touched one and immediately received a more detailed view of that information.

The shuttle did not demand authentication to respond to commands!

Venron had counted on that. Anything else would have been illogical. Among other purposes, the shuttle was intended for use in emergencies. A restrictive access procedure might mean that a shuttle would fail to launch because no authorized pilot was aboard. Further, even an average metach could operate the shuttle by virtue of an interactive help system.

But Venron would have been able to manage even without such a system. He knew his way around computers.

His fingers manipulated the touch screen. First, he verified that the on-board computer was not connected to the Net, then he closed the stern hatch and requested the system status. All indications were green. The shuttle was ready for takeoff.

He initiated engine start-up. The craft shuddered, then, after a few moments, the shuddering transitioned into a gentle vibration. A control lever extended itself and pressed into his hand. Venron grasped it. A countdown appeared on the display, showing the seconds until the engines were ready for ignition. The time was shorter than he had dared hope. Just a few moments more, and he ...

The image on the pilot's display suddenly changed. Venron now was looking from the shuttle's stern out on the rear part of the hangar. Large doors were sliding open, and through the openings swarmed men and women in the black uniforms of the Tenoy, their weapons aimed and ready.

"Stop right there!" a loud voice resounded through the hangar. It was not the voice of the Net, so it had to belong to one of the Tenoy. It penetrated even the nearly soundproof cockpit.

"Think of the disaster you bring on us!" the voice continued. "And on yourself! Only death waits for you outside! Come back! You can still turn around!"

It was too late for second thoughts or regrets. The Naahk would show a traitor no mercy.

Venron switched the image on the display from the stern camera back to the countdown. Still a few more seconds. He gripped the control lever more tightly, then touched a button. The Tenoy, who had nearly surrounded the shuttle, hit the floor as though cut down by a scythe.

The men and women crawled away, desperately searching for cover the hangar did not provide. Venron couldn't see any of their faces; they were hidden by their helmet visors. He was happy about that. He wouldn't have liked to see anyone he knew.

The triple cannon installed under the bow completed its sweep without Venron discharging it. He didn't have any intention of being a murderer. He only wanted to reach the stars.

The cannon was now aimed directly at the closed hatch. Venron pressed the discharge control.

A fireball exploded in front of him, immediately followed by a hailstorm of particles and debris that drummed on the cockpit canopy. A cloud of black smoke billowed through the hangar. Venron pressed the control a second time. There was a second fireball, followed by another shower of debris, but this time no smoke cloud rose. Instead, the smoke was sucked outside as though by a pump.

Venron, who had dreamed of the stars without suspecting what they actually were, who didn't realize that there was a vacuum between them, watched in astonishment for several moments as the atmosphere in the hangar streamed outward. Then he activated the engines.

The shuttle shot out of the hangar. The pressure of acceleration pushed Venron deep into his seat. It went black in front of his eyes—a merciful blackness, since it prevented him from seeing how the Tenoy were pulled by the escaping air into the vacuum where they suffocated. Venron tasted blood and felt something soft and solid rubbing against his teeth: the tip of his tongue, which he had bitten off when he clenched his jaws.

But Venron didn't feel any pain. As he grew used to the acceleration and his blood circulation returned to normal, his eyesight came back.

He saw the stars.

They were brighter than in the films. More glittering. And more colorful. In one direction, they shone red, in another white like in the photographs, and violet in a third. They were close enough to touch. They belonged to him. He had only to reach out his hand to them and ...

A jolt slammed the shuttle. The pilot seat jerked up and Venron would have been thrown against the canopy if he hadn't been automatically strapped in at takeoff. He heard the tearing of overstrained steel, then the display in front of him went dark, along with the light that had illuminated the joystick.

The stars began to spin. Faster and still faster.

Venron screamed, but the stars didn't hear him.

2

"Crawler Six to Mama. Initiating landing procedure. You'll hear from us as soon as we're down."

"Roger. Good luck and good hunting!"

Alemaheyu Kossa, hypercommunications officer of the prospecting ship Palenque, switched the crawler's channel to the background. The syntrons of both ships would exchange a constant stream of data without his intervention: position, systems status, instrument readings—an umbilical cord of communication, intangible and yet real. Alemaheyu's task was to ensure that the stream did not break. Without the data stream, the Palenque's crawlers were helpless, in a sense, blind and deaf. When they ventured out into the endless void of space, there was only one point of contact connecting them with the world: Mama Kossa.

The prospector ship's twelve crawlers were more than auxiliary craft; they were compact laboratories to which an impulse engine, a rudimentary faster-than-light drive, and a pressurized cabin, large enough for a crew of three, had been attached.

Experience had taught the men and women of the Palenque that that crew had better consist of people who could stand to be together in cramped quarters for several weeks at a stretch without going for each other's throats. It was a common truth that, after the first week together, a crawler crew felt either burning hatred or unbreakable comradeship. Teams that had worked together for years so preferred the company of their crewmates that they often shared three-person cabins on the Palenque, quarters that were only slightly more spacious than the steel cages on the crawlers.

"Crawler Four to Mama," called a shrill, chirping voice. It belonged to the Blue named Yülhan-Nyulzen-Y'sch-Takan-Nyül. Either him or his brother, Trülhan. Alemaheyu could never tell them apart. The brothers were Blues, or "Dishheads," as they were still insultingly referred to on many Terran worlds, the only nonhumans in the Palenque crew aside from Gresko the Gurrad. "We are entering the planet's shadow in 20 seconds. Exit from shadow projected in 13 minutes and 34 seconds. Don't worry when you don't hear from us, Mama!"

"You, I don't need to worry about. You're big enough to play by yourselves for a quarter of an hour. Have fun, but don't pull any crap!"

In the beginning, Alemaheyu had resisted the nickname. Prospectors were a rough breed, and while the crews had long consisted of a mix of males and females—and occasionally beings whose gender could not be determined with any accuracy—the reference to presumed femininity was a favorite strategy for insulting your coworkers. So when the crawler teams began calling him "Mama Kossa" ...

It was not until his watchfulness prevented, at the last moment, the total loss of a crawler that Alemaheyu understood the nickname was intended as a sincere indication of respect. For the men and women out there in their steel shells, he was the Palenque, the mother ship, proof that the prospectors, out among the cold and pitiless stars, had not been forgotten.

"Everything all right with you, Alemaheyu?" called Sharita Coho, commander of the Palenque.

"Of course. What else?"

"Good."

As always, the commander wore her uniform, an outfit that seemed to reflect an adolescent's idea of a spaceship captain's uniform rather than a practical, utilitarian design. And as always, she wore a beamer at her belt. Alemaheyu couldn't remember ever seeing her wear any other outfit, even away from the ship. Today, despite the uncomfortable warmth of the control center, she had fastened the front of her jacket all the way to the top. She must be sweating buckets—no, boiling alive—but apparently the extra psychological security she gained from the formality of the uniform was worth the unpleasantness.

Today, her sweatiness had a specific name: Perry Rhodan.

A low cheeping tone brought Alemaheyu back to tending his console. Since the unforgettable near-wreck of the crawler, Alemaheyu had formed the habit of checking the data stream at regular intervals. Usually, hourly checks were often enough, but here in the Ochent Nebula, with its five-dimensional anomalies, hyperstorms and unusually active stars, he was checking more frequently.

He called up the data for each of the crawlers in quick succession. Seven of them were on the surface of various planets and moons, gathering rock samples and readings, while the other five were either on the way to a highly promising celestial body or already returning to the Palenque, their missions completed. Crawler Four was still in the communications shadow of a Jupiter-like planet five light-years from the prospecting ship.

Concentrating, Alemaheyu reviewed the data streams. Everything looked normal, no anomalies, though Crawler Nine's data did show a tiny deviation—so tiny that he almost missed it.

He zoomed in on the irregularity and directed the syntron to analyze the data status. It found that the crawler's g-force absorber currently would function at 99.93 percent capacity, which was insignificant as long as the vehicle operated on the airless surface of the moon it was surveying. This variance could possibly be deadly when the crawler lifted off and accelerated.

Alemaheyu considered. A hardware failure? Improbable. G-force absorbers were the product of a proven, safety-critical technology in common use for thousands of years. And the crawlers' technology had been selected with especial care: in order to save precious space, the mini-labs carried no redundant components. Every system had to function at 100 percent.

A software error? Alemaheyu went through the crawler's log data. After a few minutes of searching, he found an entry that struck him as unusual. He followed that lead, and finally found the problem. Part of a software update package installed a week earlier had somehow been skipped. This exact issue was a point of contention between him and the syntron specialists.

Alemaheyu felt that since the crawlers operated flawlessly, they shouldn't be changing things. But nobody on board listened to him. To the control-center crew on the Palenque, he was just the comm officer, not Mama.

Alemaheyu sent the update to Crawler Nine, then tested the absorber with a simulation routine. All the values showed 100 percent.

A disturbance at the entrance to the control center distracted Alemaheyu. The men and women whispered to each other, then he heard a series of "Good mornings."

Their passenger must have arrived on the bridge. The most effusive greeting even the commander herself could hope for from the control center crew was a nod and a murmur.

"Good morning, Perry," Sharita Coho said a moment later, confirming Alemaheyu's conclusion. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you. Is there any news?"

"No. No ores. And no Akonians."

Alemaheyu wondered for the nth time if he should buy Rhodan's story. The Ochent Nebula was a no-man's-land, officially unclaimed by any of the galaxy's great powers. The region bounded the spheres of influence of various Blue races and the Akonians, but up to now had proven too uninviting to inspire any desire to possess it. The number of life-bearing worlds was small, the frequency of hyperstorms high, and the strategic value precisely zero. Anyone who occupied the Ochent Nebula would take on diplomatic complications and outrageous maintenance expenses for new bases on which expensively trained soldiers would die of boredom.

But the sector was hardly deserted. In recent years it had attracted an increasing number of prospectors: Terrans, Blues, mixed crews without a common origin but united by the expectation of a big find and, most recently, Akonians. So far, the prospectors had invested considerable work and capital with nothing to show for it, but the probability of that suddenly changing grew with each day that passed.

A vein of five-dimensionally radiant quartz ... the high-tech relics of an extinct race ... an ore deposit of high purity—any such find could trigger a race of the galactic powers and change the undeclared cold war that gripped the galaxy to an active conflict.

Rhodan had come on board the Palenque to seek contact with the Akonians in order to preempt such a crisis. He wanted to draw the Forum Raglund, of which the Akonians were among the most important members, to Terra's side.

Alemaheyu had laughed loudly when he heard that. Just how naive was the Immortal, anyway? The Ochent Nebula was one of the few remaining galactic frontiers. Did he expect that the Akonians—and even the Blues, who historically could not get along with themselves—would withdraw based on his suggestion, taking a pass on the opportunity to make the find of their lives? God only knew that Alemaheyu had no love for the Dishheads and the arrogant Akonians, but to dream that they would simply pull out on the basis of a request and an analysis of the galactic political situation? Even they weren't that crazy ... .

"They'll show up yet," Rhodan said, facing the commander.

"Yes, sooner or later," she replied. It was clear that Sharita was not exactly excited about the prospect of having the Immortal on board for weeks on end.

Alemaheyu observed Perry Rhodan from the corner of his eye. He was a man of average height with dark blond hair. The simple uniform he wore revealed nothing of his rank. If Alemaheyu had encountered Rhodan on the street, he wouldn't have recognized the man who had led the human race to the stars nearly three thousand years ago. Rhodan seemed like an average man.

Really.

The Palenque's comm officer didn't have any words for it, but something changed on the ship's bridge every time Rhodan appeared. Of course, small, external things changed. The control-center crew attempted, with varying degrees of success, to suppress the curses; the conversational tone wasn't quite as rude; there was less talk in general. But all that was easy to explain. People were like that: they sought tight communities, and when they found them, they closed themselves to outsiders.

But it was more than that. Alemaheyu caught himself sitting bolt upright at his console instead of lounging in his usual posture. And his work ethic kicked up a notch, too. Not that he would have otherwise been tempted to take his eye off the crawlers—a mama does everything for her children, doesn't she?—but he even conscientiously took care of the bothersome minor duties that human lives didn't depend on.

And it was all because of Perry Rhodan.

It was the same for Alemaheyu as it was for the commander of the Palenque. He wasn't able to ignore the knowledge that in his long life, Rhodan had encountered an unimaginable number of people, and had mastered dangers and tests of his skill and courage that Alemaheyu could only guess at. Much as it annoyed the Palenque's comm officer, he simply wasn't able to behave naturally in Rhodan's presence—even though the Immortal hadn't so much as hinted with a single word or gesture that he expected special treatment. On the contrary: Rhodan slept in a standard cabin, ate the standard food, and performed standard duties. Yesterday, in fact, he had turned up in a hangar and helped a technician with the maintenance on one of the crawlers.

Rhodan was the friendliest and most sociable passenger the Palenque had carried in a long time, and yet it was only with an effort that Alemaheyu could keep from stuttering with excitement when he spoke with the Immortal. It was enough to drive him up the wall.

After greeting Rhodan, Alemaheyu and the rest of the control-center crew went back to their duties. There was not much to do. The crawlers did the actual work. The Palenque stood ready in case something unexpected happened. Akonians appearing, or something like that, which certainly wouldn't happen as long as they had Rhodan on board. That was life: if you wanted to avoid something, it was always on your heels. But if you were looking for it, it was nowhere to be found.

"Mild hyperstorm," the hyperdetection officer called out. "Sectors 72Z to 84R."

Not unexpected. Hyperstorms were the rule rather than the exception in this area. Alemaheyu called up the hyperdetection data. No reason to worry. The storm wasn't strong enough to endanger the crawlers. Besides, only one of them was in the affected area.

Alemaheyu made contact. "Crawler Eleven!"

"What is it, Mama?"

"There's a hyperstorm brewing along your course. Rather weak, nothing that should bother your crate."

"Okay. Then why are you calling us?"

"Because Mama always worries." The two men, Alemaheyu Kossa on the Palenque and Mikch Theyner on the crawler, laughed. The joke had long since worn out, but they couldn't resist making it. It had been Mikch who had given Alemaheyu the nickname in the first place. "But seriously," the comm officer went on, "it's possible the data stream will be interrupted for a few minutes. I just wanted to let you know so you don't worry about it."

"Too late. Our pants are already sticky and stinky. Catch you later!"

"Be seeing you!"

Alemaheyu had barely finished speaking when the data stream broke off. The crawler had been caught in the storm. The craft would now be thoroughly shaken. It would do Mikch and his people good. Remind them of how comfortable they had it on the Palenque, remind them of their place. Very little could go wrong. Without guidance from the Palenque, the crawler was effectively blind from a navigational standpoint, but it was operating in a slow, sublight flight.

It would be hours before it came near a moon or a planet.

Sharita Coho and Rhodan had retreated to the rear section of the control center and were conversing in whispers. Alemaheyu tried to eavesdrop, but they were too far away. He only caught the word "Akonians" a few times.

A soft chirping reminded the comm officer that it was again time for a routine check. He immersed himself in the work, exchanging a few words with the crews of the various crawlers. Four reported in. The craft had left the planetary shadow and was in the process of landing on a highly promising high plateau after an optical scan of the surface.

Alemaheyu wished the crew good luck in finding pay dirt. When he returned to his status review, he felt a stab of unease. What was going on with Crawler Eleven? The data stream was still out.

"Hyperdetection!" Alemaheyu called. "What about the hyperstorm? Is it still going on?"

"Yes," came the reply. "It'll reach its peak in about an hour."

"Roger," Alemaheyu said. Then he had a thought. "Position?"

"Shifted to Sector ... "

"Shifted? What about the area where it originated?"

"Nearly normal readings now."

Alemaheyu called up the communications module on the holoscreen and attempted to make contact with Crawler Eleven. No result, either from the crew or the crawler's syntron. The comm officer gave the hypercom maximum transmitting power, focusing the beam on the sectors in which the hyperstorm had raged. No response. It was as though the crawler had ceased to exist.

A lump developed in Alemaheyu's throat. He suddenly wished he had a joint to smoke to calm his nerves. But all that would've gotten him was a burst of Sharita's wrath. The comm officer leaped up and hurried over to Rhodan and the commander.

"Sharita," he said, as she looked up at him angrily, "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I think we have an emergency."

3

A vague sense of unease drove Denetree that evening.

She was used to taking off on her bicycle after the shift. Most metach on field duty were too tired afterwards to do more than drag themselves back to the half-gravity of the Middle Deck, eat with their Metach'ton, plug into the Net for an on-line game, or just sit and wait for the next day.

Not Denetree.

Yes, the work was hard, but after a Ship-year—more than half her obligation as a field hand was behind her—she had gotten used to it. In the beginning, only her thighs had developed, and she had otherwise looked like a beanpole. But now she had put on some flesh. Her arms, her entire body had become muscular. In the first months, the effort of cycling had almost completely burned her out. The gravity of the Outer Deck crushed newcomers mercilessly toward the ground, after a few minutes making every movement a torture. There was very little help from machinery in the fields, allegedly to save the always limited supply of energy on board. Denetree felt certain that was true, but exhausting the young metach in performing their service for the Ship seemed to her an equally likely intention. It kept them from getting dumb ideas.

In theory, at least. In practice, Denetree became an example of the opposite. In the unanimous opinion of everyone who knew her, Denetree's endless rounds through the Ship on a bicycle after the end of her shift fell clearly into the category of dumb ideas. Except that it was harmless. Denetree didn't bother anyone, and as long as her rides always took her back to her Metach'ton, and her work performance the next day didn't suffer, no one tried to stop her. Not her neighbors, not the Naahk or the Net.

Immediately after the end of her shift, Denetree climbed on the bicycle she considered "hers." Of course, it wasn't really her own. None of the metach owned their own bicycle, no matter how highly they were placed. The bicycles belonged to all equally—which didn't necessarily mean that every metach could use every bicycle.

Denetree had made a number of changes to the bicycle she used: "optimizations," as she called them. Her bicycle's rims had a smaller diameter than the standard model and the tires were wider with a studded tread—designed for better traction rather than minimal rolling resistance, as was typical. Denetree pumped the tires full enough that only the center of the tire rested on the ground, creating a narrow, smooth strip that made it easier to ride on uneven terrain, but was apparently inferior in direct comparison to the standard ultrathin tires.

The other members of her metach had laughed at her when she rode her bicycle to her shift the first time. "Look, that crazy Denetree has built a plow!" they mocked. "Come on, dig us a furrow!" Only after she had beaten the loudest mocker in a race, handily leaving him in the dust, did they stop their open teasing.

It had been Denetree's luck to end up with one of the heaviest men in the metach as her opponent. He weighed more than a hundred kilos, and she weighed less than half that. Even though his weight should have given him an edge, Denetree beat him, and on the relatively unfavorable surface of the road.

But her bicycle wasn't designed for speed. It had a low center of gravity and a computer-supported gear-shifter, into which she had secretly installed new firmware she had written herself. Those three assets made it possible for her to leave the assigned paths and ride between the fields, and even travel through the Ship's wilderness tracts where only a few metach ever wandered, since they lay away from the settlements and fields.

And the firmware had a second, equally important function: it made the bicycle effectively Denetree's. If anyone else climbed onto the seat, the firmwear switched to neutral. The spectacle that followed had many variations, but only one conclusion: the unhappy would-be rider got off the bicycle cursing, sent a DAMAGED report to the Net over the guidance computer, and left the bicycle in the ditch without another thought. Thanks to Denetree's firmware, none of those reports ever reached the Net.The Net only ever saw a standard green indication from the guidance computer: "Bicycle intact. No maintenance required."

Pedaling furiously in high gear, Denetree left behind the field where she had spent today's shift. Her arms and neck ached. Harvesting jakulent was hard labor. The long-stemmed plants were cultivated by the Ship for the sturdy fibers in their stalks. But choosing which of the stalks were ripe for harvest, cutting them and separating them into their individual fibers was a nasty grind—such hard work that a person was rarely assigned to the work for more than two weeks.

Denetree ignored the pain. She would forget it completely in half an hour, when the exertions of pedaling would bring her pulse to a constant 140 beats per minute, and the blood that pulsed through her veins took the pain with it.

Today, her thoughts were somewhere else.

She was worried about her brother. Venron had become more taciturn in recent weeks than ever before. Not that he had ever said very much, but he had opened up to her, at least, especially when the feeling of being locked in, of there being no way out, threatened to overwhelm him. Then he had laid his head in her lap and looked up at the sky. It hung overhead, close enough to touch—close enough to make one weep—and was always the same. By day, bright, though never blinding; by night, an oppressive, impenetrable black.

Denetree and Venron had endured considerable mockery and nasty remarks over time. Not because of their shared yearning for the stars, which they kept to themselves, but because the brother and sister shared a close relationship. The Ship did not support families. Children were raised in groups according to their ages; siblings rarely knew each other, and only a few cared to try. What would have been the point?

By chance, Denetree and Venron had been assigned to adjacent Metach'tons. And ever since they had run into each other that first time, they had been inseparable. A connection existed between them that even they could not explain.

The strongest bond between them was their common desire to escape to the stars, to find a new life away from the prison of the ship. Venron had often wept as he dreamed of that possibility, but Denetree waited in vain for relieving tears to come to her. The hard grip of his hands around her body relaxed to a gentle touch and his breath evened out as he lost himself in the fantasy of escape.

Denetree had never managed to flee into her dreams to find peace. She only had her bicycle, the pumping of her heart, the protesting throb in her thighs, and the endless rounds through the ship that took her nowhere.

Denetree reached the fields where Venron's Metach'ton was currently assigned. The hut that served the two dozen men and women as a shelter, changing and storage room was deserted. They must have finished their shift already. Denetree thought for a moment, then went on in the direction of the bow. All day long, the members of her Metach'ton had enthused over the party that would be taking place there tonight; perhaps the news had reached Venron's Metach'ton also.

After a few minutes, she saw a group of people moving slowly through the fields. She pedaled faster and quickly caught up. It was Venron's Metach'ton. A swarm of bicycles surrounded an electric-powered harvest platform. It was strictly forbidden to use the platforms for anything other than work—energy was too valuable to waste it on leisure activities—but the young men and women didn't care about the rules. Half the members of the Metach'ton had made themselves comfortable on the dirty platform, while the rest rode on bicycles, trying to hang on to the platform with one hand so they could be pulled along. The metach were exhausted from the day's labors, but the urge to feel something other than exhaustion pushed them on.

"Watch out!" one of the men on bicycles called when he saw Denetree approach. "Here comes that pale little speed demon again!"

The group made no effort to stop. Denetree came alongside, shifted to a lower gear, and shot with perfect aim through a gap in the bicycle riders to the platform.

"Melenda!"

The young woman cuddled in the lap of another metach. When she saw Denetree coming, she deliberately turned her head and, her eyes closed, gave the man a long, deep kiss.

"Melenda, please!"

The woman disengaged from the embrace and stared at Denetree in annoyance. "What do you want with me? Can't you see I'm busy?"

"I'm looking for Venron. Do you happen to know where he is?"

"Venron ... " Melenda rolled her eyes. Her pupils were dilated. Had she already been smoking? The jakulent stalks could be used for more than one purpose, especially ones of which the Ship didn't approve. "Oh, now I know who you mean! That lazy slacker who thinks he's too good for us! He was on his shift."

"And?"

"As usual, he did only half his quota. We had to slog away for him so he could he wander around the field and daydream."

One of the men on the bicycles came closer, making a game out of trying to force Denetree away. Without looking, Denetree took her right foot out of the pedal's magnetic stirrup and gave the man a kick.

"And after the shift?"

"Who cares about that?"