In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

When Pucky was later questioned as to why he went about the whole thing in such a complicated way when it could have been accomplished quite simply, the mousebeaver only shrugged his shoulders and kept repeating: “Only somebody without a sense of humour could ask that—at the same time, I must admit that only a pretty macabre sense of humour let me act that way. I simply wanted to give an object lesson to the robots—and not only to the four who were guarding me. Every single one of them should realize that they were underestimating me. One has one’s honour, after all, friends.”

“Wasn’t it too dangerous?” was most often the next question.

“Absolutely no more so than if I had disposed of them myself. But this way I’ve got a clear conscience. The 4 robots committed robocide by mutual agreement. They sat directly opposite each other and shot at each other until they were completely destroyed. I then teleported myself out of the car that continued on its way with its now worthless cargo. What was said at the final station about the scrap heap run amok, I’m sorry I don’t know. At any rate, as you can see, I managed to get out of it safe and sound.”

Later it could be retold in a light vein but at the moment it didn’t look as if the mousebeaver’s luck would hold. He floated high up in the air and saw the car disappear through a vegetationless, rocky countryside. In the west, the sun sank below the horizon. Stars appeared in the milky sky. They had actually been visible all day long but the yellow sun had outshone them.

There seemed to be no sky-watch here, Pucky thought. Otherwise he would have been discovered long ago. There were also no aircraft. Now and then, of course, a Silver Arrow was to be seen either landing or taking off, since there were spaceports all around. If the robot ships wanted to avoid contact with all other races, why didn’t they just stay in their own world? Why did they send off patrol after patrol? What were they really after?

Pucky teleported himself eastward and, in a fraction of a second, covered several hundred kilometres. Only the stars in the sky and the surface of the nameless planet beneath were visible to him.

It was not exactly an accident that after many hours he noticed a car standing stock-still.

Near a spaceport or around the area of a factory he would hardly have noticed it but here in the wild, untouched countryside, a standing vehicle was unusual. Robots did not drive out to the country to hold a picnic.

Pucky let himself farther down and floated a few meters above the vehicle. It seemed abandoned. The door was locked. But then Pucky stopped short. He discovered the welding seam and right away sensed what had happened. In this vehicle, Homunk had been taken away. The android had managed to outwit his guards; he had left them behind in the wagon and welded the door shut with his laser gun.

Pucky lost more altitude until he finally touched ground. The footprints pressed into the grass gave him his final answer. He stooped down and found the hole on the underside of the car. The robots had broken out to pursue the escapee.

Pucky breathed a sigh of relief. Finally he’d found Homunk’s tracks. It was now only a question of time until he would overtake him. He only had to be swifter than the robots who were in hot pursuit of Homunk.

* * * *

As Homunk detected the movements behind him, the sun was rising in the east, just over the tops of the trees. A short trial convinced him that radio connection was again impossible. Then he changed his direction and ran up towards a plateau. The bushes were thicker here. Besides, he wanted to find out just who was following him.

As he’d expected, it was the 4 robots he’d left behind in the wagon. If he’d kept to his original speed, he would not have been overtaken but he’d dawdled because he’d thought he was safe. Under the given circumstances, the zeal of his pursuers could have only one explanation: they wanted to recapture him to keep him from harm. Harm that threatened from the other group of robots.

When Homunk reached the top of the mountain and could look down the other side, he stopped involuntarily. His view reached all the way to the mountains that were still a few kilometres away. Before them lay a broad valley, mostly grass-steppes and some few clumps of trees. A narrow creek wound its way from east to west.

But that was not all that ended Homunk’s flight so abruptly.

Robots. Thousands of them. They came from all directions and seemed to have only one goal: the hillock on which Homunk stood. Maybe he could entrench himself here, on high; maybe hold them off for awhile; but in the long run, they must overpower him. But the robots didn’t they have orders to treat him well and under no circumstances to kill him? Wasn’t he to be taken to the holy city?

The holy city…!

Involuntarily Homunk’s glance turned north, beyond the wide plateau, to the foothills of the mountain chain.

Only now did he see what he should have seen all along.

The city!

In the light of the rising sun, it lay there like the remains of long-forgotten days.

Its antiquity did not fit into this fully mechanized world. It was surprising that the city still existed at all. The word ‘holy’ here tipped Homunk off. The city must be the spiritual centre of the believing robots, who were the opponents of the non-believers. It was still incomprehensible why the masters would put up with these crazy robot antics and why they would not simply have razed the city.

The 4 robots got to Homunk and stayed with him. Their entire demeanour denoted humility and a plea for forgiveness, as they looked toward the distant city and, at the same time, noted the metal crowd on the flats below them.

Homunk shrugged and started down the valley.

Right and left, he was accompanied by the robots.

Thus Pucky discovered him. He had materialized at some altitude above them and had nearly come to grief before he saw the whole show. It made his eyes bulge. He gained altitude in order not to be easily discovered.

In the flats the armoured bodies of the robots shimmered like a sea of molten silver. Every movement was like a small wave ripping in all directions. As Homunk and his 4 guards came towards the crowd they parted their ranks, forming a wide opening to let them through. Dumbfounded, Pucky watched as Homunk calmly and proudly strode through the honour cordon towards the city that was no longer far away. Behind him the ranks closed again and the crowd of robots followed him at a respectful distance.

It was a regular procession.

Pucky stayed straight above Homunk so he wouldn’t lose him again. He could have teleported down to him as fast as lightning, to escape with him, but now his curiosity was aroused. He wanted to know what the robots had in mind for Homunk—and why they were behaving so peculiarly. There must be some secret there that might well be the key to the Silver Arrows’ strange behaviour.

The sun was to the south when Homunk reached the edge of town. Here, too, robots were lined up on the streets. They stared in silence, full of expectation. The houses, seen close up, were exactly as could have been guessed from a distance. The walls were partly decayed and crumbling. Some roofs had caved in, destroying the upper stories. No one had thought to repair the damage. The streets were paved with cobblestones and were full of holes. There were no panes in the windows. Homunk realized that the city was uninhabited.

But now thousands of robots had gathered here to greet him. It was like being at a folk festival and gradually Homunk began to wonder what they expected of him.

In contrast to the old and crumbling houses, the shimmering dome structure in the middle of the city seemed new and cared for. Its walls also consisted of unfinished, hewn stone but the damage of time had obviously been repaired. A broad staircase led to the curved portal on either side of which stood guards. At the top of the dome stood a shimmering, metallic figure—a human figure, though not easily recognizable. It wore clothing reminiscent of overalls. Footprints on the roof indicated that it was set there today—to honour him?

Yes, that must be it. The robots had put his likeness up on the dome in his honour; steep steps led up to it. The robot guards opened wide the portal as he reached its height. They bowed.

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Categories: Clark Darlton