In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

Slowly the light in the hall dimmed; it became dusk.

The robot strode on and remained standing 10 feet from the technical giant. Instinctively Homunk kept a step behind him, although he had no idea what was to happen now. He noted that the oval screen got brighter as it grew darker in the hall.

And then the first colour patterns flickered over the milky surface.

They were meaningless for Homunk but he got the idea that the machine was saying something to his attendant. A kind of optical communication, perhaps even a language. Other than the humming of hidden machines, nothing was to be heard. If it was a language, it was a soundless one.

Homunk reflected that this robot brain could very well be a relay station. The masters of this world gave their orders to the robots in this way, and so did not have to be seen themselves. These relay stations must be all over the surface. Homunk was convinced that he was being photographed now by hidden cameras that would project his image onto the screens of the aliens. They could now see him, while he had not caught sight of any of them. His expression changed into an iron mask. This way, they would find out nothing. If they wanted something from him, they would have to come to him and show themselves. Perhaps then they could come to an understanding.

The coloured patterns were now changing more slowly and often stood still for several seconds. Sometimes the same symbols appeared many times running. They were abstract and meaningless.

Deep in Homunk’s memory banks something suddenly stirred. It was one of those chronicle-memories conveyed to him by the immortal and it was activated only when there was a stimulus to it. It could happen acoustically or optically—as in this case.

The patterns!

They were not so strange as Homunk’s consciousness had at first assumed. They closed a relay and thereby a circuit. Here memory changed now to knowledge.

The colour patterns came fast and almost automatically; whoever was activating the keyboard knew his job well. It was hard for Homunk to follow the text but whatever fragments he could make out were sufficient for him to get an overview.

Homunk’s expression did not change. It was much too early to let the aliens know that he had decoded their secret. He pondered over which of the symbols that were familiar to him were contained in the structure of that language, in order to get an indication of the aliens’ origin.

Arkonidean perhaps?

The Arkonides had also sat in front of screens in their leisure hours and watched abstract colour patterns. For edification and recreation, without ever having understood any deeper meaning. They had simply enjoyed the orchestration of colours and forms, nothing more. It hadn’t even occurred to them there was anything more to it than pleasure. In reality, however, Homunk understood now that there was something more behind it. A language. The language of a race of which the Arkonides knew nothing any more. Not even the Akons who were considered the forebears of the Arkonides.

It was a language that must be even older.

How old, then, Homunk asked himself, must this race be?

He concentrated anew on the colour patterns.

At first he understood only fragments.

“…treat with utmost care… origin uncertain… the little companion is still alive… capture… not kill…”

The patterns died away.

Homunk’s attendant, the commander of the Silver Arrow, took 10 steps forward and laid his hands on the keys of the switchboard. He waited a few seconds, then began to play with the levers and the push buttons. Immediately the screen lit up again.

This time the screen served only as a control. The image that appeared on it must also be appearing simultaneously on the screens of the aliens somewhere on or beneath the planet. The robot was answering his superiors.

“…attempts at communication unsuccessful… will keep on… the little companion disappeared… converter… seek directions…”

So now! The robot was asking for instructions. He was a receiver of orders, as Homunk had thought all along.

More than ever Homunk was now determined to find the aliens, to confront them and to demand an accounting. An accounting of what they had done with Pucky. He was alive, or so the patterns of the aliens indicated. They also did not want to kill him but they did want to capture him.

Was he, Homunk, not also a captive?

He looked at the screen again; the aliens’ reply was:

“…avoid adding more fuel to the superstition. We must find out where he comes from and whether there are more of his kind. Communication is therefore necessary. Afterwards he must be destroyed in public to provide the proof that they are mortal organisms.”

Homunk understood faster than human beings. He thought nearly as fast as a robot brain. The robots wanted to kill him after the trial. They wanted to prove something by it. They wanted to prevent the spread of an existing superstition.

Since when did robots have superstitions?

Matters were getting more and more mysterious and insane. Homunk was aware that he was dealing with especially able and thinking robots but it was still incredible that they would therefore have developed a philosophy, even if this philosophy was made up only of superstitions. That was simply impossible.

The commander waited until the colour patterns finally died out, then he came back to Homunk. His eyes reflected both determination and doubt. Homunk was shocked to realize that in these artificial crystal eyes there was real life that could express feelings.

He met the robot’s glance as if he were facing a human being whom he wanted to force under his spell. It was easy for him to behave with determination for Homunk had no brain centre that would allow him to feel fear of death. If he had any will to live, it was only to help human beings, for he owed them a duty. His own existence meant nothing to him.

The robot stood his glance for nearly two minutes, then turned away. He avoided the forceful spell of Homunk’s eyes. His movements betrayed uncertainty and even shyness. But only for a few seconds, then the crystal eyes flashed into hardness. The orders of his superiors were stronger than any doubts.

The door opened. Ten robots marched into the dome hall and approached in step. They surrounded Homunk and the commander.

A bodyguard?

Instinct told Homunk not to wait any longer. The instinct was the end result of his experience, logically considered and used by his inpotronic brain with unimaginable speed. If the robots were really superstitious, then this unusual characteristic had to be encouraged, not checked. Besides, no understanding could be reached with the robots; however, he might be able to do so with their superiors who must now be found as soon as possible.

Homunk ducked under the outstretched arms of the robots and ran as fast as he could to the robot brain. With one leap he was on the wide base, reached into his pocket and drew his laser pistol. Its fine ray was hot enough to melt any metal. And the robots would hardly dare to put any similar weapon to use, for then they would run the danger of damaging the robot brain.

They hesitated before doing anything.

As they finally came at him with bare hands, Homunk raised his weapon and destroyed the first one.

But then he stared uncomprehendingly at what happened next.

The robots split forces. The commander and 4 of the newly arrived artificial beings stormed on while the 5 remaining robots attacked them from behind. A regular scuffle arose during which the robots hit each other with their steel fists. Dumbfounded, Homunk stood on the base of the robot brain and asked himself what the aliens might say to this peculiar and inexplicable behaviour of their thinking robots. And if they could observe the incident, why didn’t they interfere?

The commander caught a fist on his head, stumbled and then sank to the floor. The concussion must have severed a circuit. The 4 robots who had sided with the commander immediately backed away and gave up the fight. They turned to Homunk who waited tensely for what would happen next.

It was obvious that they had no intention of carrying out the orders of the fallen commander, so Homunk hid his weapon again. He watched as the robots approached and stopped a few steps away from him. In their eyes he again saw an uncertainty that had already posed enough puzzles for him. He was almost shocked when the 9 robots bowed courteously in his direction and through gestures asked him to step down from the base of the robot brain.

Homunk saw no reason to refuse. There must be in this world different groups of robots and he had now fallen into the hands of the others. Perhaps he could get along with them better. Only the question was left unanswered as to what the real masters of this world would say about it. In the end, it was they who would make the decisions.

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