In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

From Harno they knew that nearly everywhere under the cities there were living quarters that reached down 200 meters below the surface of the planet. A miscalculated leap was practically impossible, especially if Pucky was careful.

They materialized 50 meters below ground in a rectangular, bare room. There was no furniture at all. Several doors led into other rooms that seemed as cheerless as the first. It was cold, and if ever there had been a heating system here, it was no longer functioning.

“It doesn’t look very livable,” Pucky complained in disappointment.

“Let’s look farther. I don’t think these were living quarters. If so, there should have been at least the remains of some furnishings. They’re made of durable materials.”

After a few more tries, they landed in a huge hall with a low ceiling. In the middle was a nearly square basin, about three meters deep.

“A swimming pool!” said Homunk in wonder. “So they did not even do without that. I think we’re getting closer. Well, what does your famous nose say? Any scent yet?”

Pucky sniffed around the air.

“Plenty stale, I’d say. Look at this dust, Homunk! Nobody’s cleaned up for years. Since the robots established themselves as the masters of the surface, they couldn’t care less about the nice underground quarters. Let’s go on. I’m curious about what all we’ll find.”

The farther they went, the more livable the rooms became. Harno had been right; the furnishings were of durable material that not even time could attack. The projection equipment and the receiving screens were still functioning properly, as a brief trial demonstrated. Homunk was interested in a control station as described and shown them by Harno. On the screen appeared, one after the other, various images of the capital city and the spaceports as seen from a small distance above ground. It was a puzzle how these pictures were made, for Pucky had seen neither low-flying satellites nor aircraft.

“We could await developments in peace and quiet down here,” Homunk suggested. “We should go up only after Koster has landed.”

Pucky did not reply. He was busy trying to open a heavy door. He could simply have teleported himself through the door but it was too risky. No one knew what lay beyond the door. He cautiously probed the electronic locks by telekinesis until he had familiarized himself with the wiring and switches. Then he started his move. Slowly the door swung open.

A frightful smell met the two explorers. Shocked, they retreated. Pucky closed the door as fast as possible.

“There you’ve got your something to eat,” said Homunk.

Pucky made a face.

“Wager lost,” he stated. “If you don’t say anything to Bell, I can still keep my carrots.”

“You didn’t bet with Bell but with me. You’re lucky you lost, otherwise you’d have to give me Bell’s scalp. But you can keep your carrots. Still, there’s something I don’t understand: if the food was going to spoil, it should have done so thousands of years ago. There should be no trace left of it, also no smell. The ventilation here is working perfectly.”

Before Pucky could answer, they heard footsteps.

Homunk reacted immediately. He took Pucky by the sleeve and pulled him into a niche next to a cupboard. They ducked down. The footsteps came closer. They were hard and even but also a bit unsteady, as if the alien were not used to walking any more.

The door opened and a robot came into the room. It stopped as it noticed the light shining down from the ceiling.

It was broadly and powerfully built, on its chest a screen that now lit up. The familiar symbols appeared in rapid succession.

Homunk nodded reassuringly to Pucky and came out of their hiding place. He ignored the robot and went to the controls of the symbol screen.

“Don’t worry, Pucky,” he said. “A worker or servant. Let’s see what it wants.”

The conversation that now took place was entirely silent as both screens flickered. They were the same symbols as came from the great robot brain.

“I await the orders of my master,” he robot said.

Homunk’s brain worked faster than any human brain. From the given facts and the question of the robot he came to conclusions that would have taken more time and more facts for human beings. But Homunk knew immediately that he was facing a robot that had lost every contact with the long-independent robot brains. Apparently it also had no sense of time. At any rate, it took Homunk for a Galacteer.

“Prepare a bath and bring me something to eat,” said Homunk. Before the robot could go again, he added quickly, “And something to drink.”

At the door, the symbol screen of the servant lit up again: “Does my master wish to eat before or after the bath?”

“Before, of course.”

The robot disappeared. Pucky came out of hiding. Quickly Homunk explained what they had ‘said’ to each other. Pucky’s eyes expressed wonder.

“How is it possible? Why isn’t the robot astounded that you’re here? It couldn’t possibly assume that you’ve been sleeping for a couple of thousand years…”

“It doesn’t know, Pucky. I would guess that contact with the surface was lost gradually. The Galacteers let the robots take over their world; Harno has already told us that. They stayed down below with their mechanized servants. As they slowly died out, the servants remained. There was nothing for them to do any more, and with greater and greater pauses from work, they deactivated themselves. The time that has gone by is meaningless for them. Whether it’s a single night or 5,000 years—it doesn’t matter. For the robots only a few hours have passed since they last saw a Galacteer. The robot thinks I’m one. Evidence that they were humanoids.”

“Even so, I can’t understand it. Its brain functions logically and perfectly. Why shouldn’t it know what has happened on the surface? It must have been informed of the change.”

“Didn’t you once say that these robots had race prejudice?” Homunk smiled. “You apparently had no idea how right you were. Between the ordering robots of the surface and the silent waiters of the underworld, there was even then a strong, sociological difference that could be the cause of the present situation. As they gained mastery, the surface robots simply ignored the servants. They did not think it necessary to inform the servants or to reprogram them. So there is a third group of robots in this world, apparently the most friendly towards us.”

“That makes no difference as far as I’m concerned. No doubt this servant will also take me for the devil when he sees me.”

“More likely for a toy of its master’s,” Homunk said. “I’m only curious as to what it’ll bring us. Hopefully not a sample of rotten food.”

Pucky shook himself and disappeared with lightning speed as the door opened and the robot entered.

The robot was pushing a serving cart and steered it towards the low table that was surrounded by wide sofas. It gave Pucky, who was peeking around the comer of the niche in curiosity, a warning glance. The mousebeaver ducked and rolled up his eyes.

An enticing aroma spread throughout the room.

The food, as Homunk ascertained through a quick olfactory analysis, consisted of synthetic materials. They were entirely suitable for a human organism and even the mousebeaver would not suffer any harm from tasting it. Four sizable bottles were also on the tray. In them variously coloured liquids floated back and forth. The robot servant disappeared soundlessly.

Pucky shot out of the niche and fell on the unexpected meal. For awhile he tasted the various dishes sceptically, even though Homunk had assured him that they were edible and he could consume them without risk. Then he decided on a kind of stew.

“Excellent,” he squeezed out while chewing. “Really excellent! I’d like to know what it’s made of.”

“I could tell you but it wouldn’t do your appetite any good. It’s synthetic, as I told you already. But nourishing.”

Pucky ate till he was stuffed. The drink seemed equally palatable. In one flask there was even a trace of alcohol. Just for fun, Homunk joined him in a glass.

Pucky drank all there was in the bottle, stretched himself out on the sofa, crossed his arms under his head and grunted: “You can send me two servants who will carry me to the bath.”

“They’ll carry you there just to drown you,” Homunk prophesied. “If you’ll take my advice, you should sleep for a few hours. I will give the robot appropriate orders.”

“Orders? What do you mean?”

“It’ll guard you while you’re sleeping and I’ll look around some more. I have to find signs of the Galacteers. They are a race whose origins interest me.”

“Me too. I want to…”

“You sleep, Pucky. That’s an order! You can’t do anything with an overtired teleporter even in an emergency. So be reasonable, little one.”

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Categories: Clark Darlton