In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

“Pucky, I hope you can hear me. We are approaching a yellow sun that has one planet. It must be the home base of the robots. We’re going to land. Stay in the background until we find out what they have in mind for us. What they have in mind for you seems clear enough. They have acknowledged me but not you.”

He then turned the set to receiving, only to turn it off completely right away.

The interference was unbearable. Here there could be no wireless communication. This might explain why all races in this part of the galaxy lived isolated in their worlds and despite modem technology were backward in certain ways. But if so, nature should have helped out with telepathy!

But not for robots, Homunk thought, and scolded himself for a fool. Robots could never be telepaths. They react to speech and planned programming, perhaps they also possess a limited independence; but telepaths…?

Homunk had at this moment no idea how badly he was in error.

The sun had grown gigantic. It glided sideways out of sight as the ship sank down upon the planet. Homunk could now see all the details of the surface on the screen. No one tried to stop him but then no one could know that he had a photographic memory. Later he could present an exact map of this world that had until now been unknown.

It was a world of the most modern robot technology, that was obvious at first glance. Extensive factories of flat, long buildings stretched along huge spaceports in which stood thousands of ships ready for flight. They were all Silver Arrows with only slight variations in size. The factories and spaceports were connected by wide avenues on which there was much traffic. Low, slender vehicles flitted back and forth, apparently guided electronically. The passengers were hard to make out but Homunk saw that they were also humanoids.

Oceans appeared, then again factories. In between, bald mountains and forests. Broad highways ran through it all.

And then it suddenly occurred to Homunk: Cities! There were no cities!

There were spaceports, takeoff and landing fields, huge factories and model highways. But cities were missing.

Did the masters of the robots live underneath the surface of their world? There was, after all, enough space available—the mountains and the forests. The beaches that seemed uninhabited.

With the last orbital approach, the Silver Arrow flew still lower. At the foot of a mountain Homunk then discovered a city. It seemed disappointingly small and seemed to be deserted. The buildings were anything but modem. They looked like the grey houses of a Terranian city of the 20th century. On the narrow streets there were old-fashioned vehicles, motionless and deserted like the houses. Nothing stirred.

Before Homunk could see any more details, the Silver Arrow lost more altitude and flew towards the next spaceport. With a gentle jerk the ship finally landed and stood upright on its stem next to ramps that rose up from the ground.

The commander turned off the motors with a final movement of his hand. The humming and vibration gradually subsided completely.

Then he signalled to Homunk to leave the cabin with him. The glass lenses of the other robots stared expressionlessly after him.

* * * *

Pucky woke up as the ship landed.

He sat up and listened. The propulsion machinery was silent. If he did not want to lose Homunk, he could no longer remain here in the ship. In an alien world—and where else could they have landed?—it would be well-nigh impossible to find the android again.

Pucky could not fly but he possessed powers of teleportation and telekinetics as no other of the mutants. In the course of his long experience he had managed to combine the two abilities. Plainly put, he could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, something that was impossible for any other living being. Through teleportation he could take himself any place he wanted and through the help of telekinetics he could hold himself there. Even when the place was several kilometres above the surface of a planet.

As a precaution, he screwed on his space helmet, for he didn’t have the slightest idea whether the atmosphere of the alien world was breathable or not. Homunk did not have to worry about it but Pucky was an oxygen-breather like the Terranians. Since most of the inhabited worlds of the galaxy were oxygen worlds, that could be assumed to be the case here too. But he didn’t want to take any chances.

He concentrated on an invisible point two kilometres above the ship. That would be enough for a first survey. Then he dematerialised.

Pucky saw at first glance that it was a huge and modem spaceport. Its limits to one side could barely be seen even from this height. Below him was the Silver Arrow. Other ships stood quite near it. Behind lay the endless warehouses or factories that Homunk had noticed.

Slowly Pucky let himself sink lower in order to be able to make out details.

The hatchway of the Silver Arrow opened. Homunk was the first to come out, accompanied by a robot, probably the commander. Pucky had to keep in mind that the fellow had condemned him to death. Now would be a good time to help him take a free flight without a parachute. It would tinkle nicely to have such a robot fall from a height of a few kilometres and be smashed to pieces on the hard concrete.

But Pucky postponed his revenge to a later time. Now he couldn’t let Homunk out of his sight.

A teardrop-shaped car drove up and stopped in front of the Silver Arrow.

Homunk got in first, followed by the robot. The vehicle started up and glided across the landing field toward the flat buildings. At a safe altitude, Pucky followed them.

Homunk had no idea that he was being watched over in this way but, had he known it, he would no doubt have felt better. Silently he sat next to his equally silent companion and tried to understand the workings of the remote-control vehicle. Its operation seemed very simple, and after a few changes in direction to other guide runners, he was firmly convinced that he could drive such a thing himself.

They passed a few Silver Arrows that were obviously being prepared for takeoff. Here, too, the work was performed exclusively by robots. Even in the vehicles they met sat robots. They paid no attention to him or to the commander.

The real inhabitants of the planet must have reached the highest stage of civilization when they themselves didn’t have to lift a finger any more. They manned their ships with robots and stayed at home. Apparently they led a comfortable and lazy life underneath the surface, a life that doubtless camouflaged the danger of early degeneration.

Calmly Homunk analysed the planet’s environment.

The atmosphere was breathable—Pucky would have no difficulties. The gravity was slightly under one G, a little less than on Earth. The revolution time of the planet was two Earth years. The existing tilt along its longitudinal axis ensured seasons between the equator and the poles, and a temperate climate. The rotation took twice as long as on Terra. Long days and long nights and seasons that were twice as long. The climate was tolerable.

The buildings came closer. Homunk was firmly convinced that the robot next to him was already in contact with his superior. He seemed as sure of himself and his objective as only a robot who was receiving running orders could be.

The avenue turned slightly to the left and the wagon was now fast approaching the buildings that had a cold and sobering effect on Homunk. Cold and sobering, like everything else he had come upon in this world and on the Silver Arrow. The aliens must have left the surface of their world entirely to the robots in order to be less disturbed in their own living quarters.

And yet something didn’t entirely fit.

Homunk didn’t know what it was but all his questions should soon be answered when he would finally stand face to face with the aliens who had him brought here.

The vehicle turned off the main avenue and approached a dome-like structure that, from the outside, did not appear to be as functional as the flat buildings. It was connected to the other structures by concrete tunnels 3 meters high. On top of the silvery shining dome there was a tall pole, at the upper end of which was a sphere.

The car stopped; the robot got out. Homunk followed him across an open court and entered next to him into the dome structure whose door opened in front of them as if moved by ghostly hands. A wide hall bathed in brilliant light was before them. In the middle of this hall, surrounded by half-buried generators and other machines, stood a huge shape that vaguely resembled the control brain of the Silver Arrow. A hemisphere formed the base from which the robot brain protruded. Its front consisted of switchboards and dials, and a series of screens forming a semicircle, levers and countless manipulation devices. Most striking, though, was the oval vaulted screen in the middle. It was positioned to face the entrance exactly.

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Categories: Clark Darlton