Near the long table in the middle of the room there floated a black, shining sphere. It seemed to swallow up all the light that fell onto its surface and if it reflected anything it surely wasn’t light. It was something indefinable and weird. Koster shuddered. Suddenly he was freezing.
Iltu let go of his hand.
“This is Maj. Koster, the commander, Harno,” she said.
Koster would not have been surprised if this peculiar thing would have answered aloud. But the answer was only in his brain, just like in all the mousebeavers’ brains. It was silent but clear; it even had a certain pressure and ached a little.
“You’ve called me and I’ve come. Pucky is in danger—in great danger. But not only Pucky. One of these days there had to be a meeting with the Metalix. They are a deviant species.”
Koster wondered what the sphere might mean by ‘deviant’. Robots were a normal sight among advanced civilizations of the galaxy. Every civilization, sooner or later, constructed machines and robots. In the course of development, it was natural that these robots would learn to think and act for themselves in order to make life easier for their masters.
“But these robots have no masters!”
Harno’s communication caught Koster in the middle of his reflections. That peculiar being—could the sphere be a being…?—must be a thought-reader. It had answered a question Koster’d never even asked.
“No masters? How can that be? Someone, surely, must have designed and built them. Could robots do it themselves?”
“At a certain stage. But that’s not the point, Koster. For these robots there are circumstances that must still be explained. Not now, not here, but later, when it’s time. First Pucky must be out of danger. I’ll show you where he’s to be found. By the way, this ship is taking the direct course toward Pucky.”
“The centre of the galaxy?” Koster exclaimed.
Or rather, the sun that’s in the Centre. It has only one planet. That is the home base of the Metalix.
The black sphere grew suddenly lighter and translucent. It disintegrated. In doing so, it changed into a half-shell of barely visible matter. Then it grew bigger. Sparkling points appeared from nowhere—stars. They formed themselves into a sphere. In the centre there were no stars, excepting one. It shimmered a quiet yellow light.
“That’s the centre of the Milky Way,” was the thought that penetrated into Koster’s brain from Harno, and into all other brains that were present in the room. “The red point is the EX-238—you can recognize it by its motion. Commander Koster, look to your course! The star-free area takes up two light-years. In the middle, the yellow sun, that is it. It’s easy to find.”
Iltu moved slightly. “Harno,” she said loudly. “What’s happening to Pucky? Can we land there without danger? Will we be attacked? We need your advice, your help.”
“I’ve shown you where Pucky is to be found; more I cannot do now. I’ll hurry on ahead and stay near your friend. No one will see me, no one will even guess at my presence. I can help only when life is in danger. At the moment there is no danger—at least not for Homunk.”
“He knows how to take care of himself,” was the answer.
The stars dimmed and again the black sphere of energy and time appeared. It seemed to pulsate as it floated toward the ceiling.
“You’re going?” Iltu asked in despair.
“I must go,” Harno corrected her. “I will wait for you on the world of the Metalix. Land there. Nothing will make you seem more convincing than your own conviction that you are in the right. That is the only effective weapon against the Metalix, who, deep in their souls, are unsure of themselves. Put this uncertainty to use!”
Harno climbed higher, through the ceiling—and disappeared.
Koster looked at Iltu. “Soul?” he whispered. “Since when have robots had souls?”
Iltu, looked past him. “Pucky! I hope we won’t be too late…”
Koster awakened as if from a dream. “Don’t worry, we won’t be too late. I now know our target. We’ll manage it in one or two days or we’ll never manage it.”
As the door closed behind Koster, Ooch said: “Och!”
3/ ROBOTS VS. ROBOTS
Pucky teleported himself back into the Silver Arrow. Since he didn’t know whether the sight of him might in any way jeopardize the relationship between Homunk and the robot commander, he kept himself hidden, avoiding everyone. Whenever anybody came near his hiding place, he would teleport himself to another part of the ship.
Never in his life had Pucky felt so humiliated. He was a pariah in the artificial crystal eyes of the robots. He simply was not considered an intelligent living being.
Like a hounded wild animal, he had to be alert constantly and flee whenever he heard steps. He dared not defend himself, even though it would have been easy enough for him to do so. They should keep on thinking that he had fallen into the converter with the robots and had been turned into energy. Maybe it would be better that way. Only Homunk would know that his friend was alive and waiting somewhere for the right moment.
The right moment…
Pucky was hungry. It had been hours since he’d had his last meal. Luckily he was wearing his spacesuit for in its pockets were energy and water tablets. Also medicines in case of need.
He swallowed a few pills and thought sorrowfully about the supply of frozen carrots that lay in the cold storage compartments of the EX-238. Then he thought about Iltu, He needn’t worry about her, he knew that, but it disturbed him to think that she would be worrying about him. She would certainly try everything in her power to save him. Maybe she would even think of contacting Harno.
It was a peculiar friendship that bound Pucky and Harno They had not met often, the lively mousebeaver and the mysterious sphere that no one was certain could be called an actual living being or not. One day Harno had been found on an uninhabited moon of a planet. The black sphere was lying there in a star- and light-sparse sector of the Milky Way. It didn’t even have enough energy any longer to change its location. It was the Terranians who helped it gather up life energy again and Harno had never forgotten this friendly service.
Pucky sighed and turned onto his other side. He lay in a dark room under the propulsion engines. Here he would not be found so soon. Yes, Harno could now be of help—and only Harno.
“If only he won’t turn up too soon,” murmured Pucky worriedly. “I have to find the home base of the robots first. Reg would really laugh at me if I went back to Earth without results.” He smiled to himself when he thought of his bosom buddy. “Will he be surprised…!”
The steady hum of the propulsion machinery made him sleepy.
Peacefully, as if he had not a care in the universe, and as full as if he had devoured 10 pounds of asparagus tips, he finally went to sleep.
Meanwhile, the yellow star in front of the Silver Arrow had grown steadily larger.
Homunk sat next to the robot commander before the screen.
They did not communicate, for the robot had never yet opened its mouth nor made any other sound. Homunk had addressed it in Intercosmo but had received no reply. He was being treated with special courtesy, almost with respect. He was not very worried about Pucky because he knew that the mousebeaver could look after himself alright.
He could have turned on the communication equipment but he wanted, if at all possible, to avoid rousing mistrust. Luckily he didn’t need to eat. His semi-organism was kept alive by the same inexhaustible energy source that gave him immortality.
On the screen, stars were retreating right and left. The same held true above and below their flight path. The ship now entered into a spherical space four light-years in diameter in which there was only one sun—the yellow sun that seemed to be the objective of the flight. In the Centre’s tremendous concentration of suns, nearly 35 cubic light-years with just one sun was as good as a vacuum. There, where the planet Earth revolved around its own sun, the identical conditions would have been interpreted as high density.
The yellow star quickly grew larger. Soon Homunk saw on the magnifying screen a planet circling the star. He had long known that the yellow sun was the centre of the Milky Way. It was thus the only star that did not follow the rotation of the galaxy. The Earth took about 200 million years to revolve once around this yellow sun.
“That planet over there—are we going to land?” He asked with a special purpose in mind: he wanted to find out whether the robot would interrupt his speaking. Since he could make out no reaction, he turned on his communications set with an unobtrusive movement of his hand.