In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

It took 10 seconds, then both burst into laughter. Even the lieutenant joined in and forgot his vanished Silver Arrows.

“You sure can handle them, Iltu,” Koster acknowledged. “Do you really think he won’t fight with Ooch over Biggy any more?”

“Not over Biggy but from now on they’ll be fighting over Fippi.”

“Aha, you do know Wullewull well.”

“That, too, but most of all I know Ooch. He begrudges everybody everything. He would even fight over me with Pucky if he didn’t have so much respect for Pucky.”

On the screens the planet had grown larger. Koster and his officers now saw exactly what Pucky and Homunk had seen before them. The surface consisted of coherent landmasses, interrupted only by inland seas; the huge factories, no cities, very little agriculture and the highways. Also expansive spaceports and whole fleets of Silver Arrows.

Koster had their flight speed reduced. They were still in combat readiness. Their protective screen was turned on.

At a height of 100 kilometres, the EX-238 circled the planet in the centre of the galaxy.

On the magnifying screen all details of the surface were plainly visible and shortly after two trips around the planet the observers noticed things to give them something to think about. Several huge robot armies were sweeping over the continent. They had various destinations but always seemed headed toward where the concentration of industry and spaceports was particularly heavy.

The largest of the spaceports was the goal of three different armies, one of which was crossing the flatland in front of the western mountain chain.

Koster had to look twice before he could believe it. “Strange,” he then said. “They’re carrying something in front of them and, if I’m not mistaken, it’s a human figure. It can’t very well be Homunk but it looks just like him.”

“It’s clearly distinguishable,” the lieutenant confirmed. He was staring at the screen in amazement. “A human figure. There’s some shining metal. Do you suppose it’s some kind of a symbol?”

“The way they’re carrying it in front of the army might lead to that conclusion,” Koster said. “But why should the robots be doing it? That’s no procession there below!”

“It looks like it, though.”

It really did look like it. Unfortunately, a little later when two small and agile Silver Arrows attacked the army with air weapons that shot into the columns of robots, it no longer looked like a procession.

“War!” shouted the lieutenant. “They’re at war there! That makes our mission more difficult. How can we possibly land?”

The attacking ships turned around after a short while and disappeared in the direction of the city. The robots that were destroyed stayed where they had fallen while the rest of the army continued its march. In front, the human statue was on a stand carried by 4 robots.

“We’ll try to make our peaceful intentions known to them before we land,” Lan Koster said with determination. “Until now they’ve ignored us completely. Either they’re too busy with their own affairs or they think we’re not dangerous. That would suit us fine.”

At a low altitude the EX-238 flew toward the city, losing still more altitude. Three or four Silver Arrows crossed their path but they avoided them in good time and changed their course. Once they could even see an air battle. Two small spaceships were shooting at each other until one plunged down and disappeared in the flames of an explosion. Only a smoking crater was left in the middle of a long, flat building.

Above the spaceport, Koster turned off the explorer ship’s engines. The gigantic sphere was now held only by gravitational fields and floated motionlessly over the landing field at an altitude of 500 meters. All the protective screens had been activated to prevent a surprise attack. In weapons control, the men sat behind the fire control panel and waited for the order to attack. The order did not come.

Far below the battle raged for the possession of the spaceport.

The approaching army with the human statue was still 20 kilometres away but it looked as if dissension had broken out within the city itself. A strong police cordon surrounded the spaceport. It was attacked by apparently disorganized troops and independent hordes of different kinds of robots. The battle they saw now was more gruesome than anything the crew of the EX-238 had ever seen. Of course only mechanical beings were destroying each other but they used every imaginable method in doing so. It was also precisely the mechanical nature of the combatants that made this gruesomeness necessary. A robot would cease fighting only when its brain was destroyed. And he was not afraid of being destroyed. They were not motivated by self-preservation; their only goal was to disable their opponents.

The robots fought with modem rayguns, heavy work tools, iron bars and bare steel fists. They fought until their opponents were out of combat or until they themselves were destroyed. Often this happened only when their bodies were almost entirely shattered and demolished. Only when their brains gave up did they give up.

Koster turned to FR-7, the research robot of the expedition.

“FR-7? Do you recommend landing?”

“Without landing we’ll never find out what’s happening below.” The powerful robot pointed to the controls of the spaceship. “I’m leaving the EX-238, then you can turn on the protective shields again.”

“You’re going alone?”

“Yes. They’ll listen to me, these Metalix. I am anxious to get to know them.” He made a rattling noise. “After all, they’re basically my compatriots.”

Koster agreed. At the moment he could think of nothing better. If only Pucky would show up! He could, after all, teleport…

The spacesphere sank slowly down. There was enough room so that no Silver Arrows would be damaged. With a small jerk, the EX-238 finally touched ground. The humming of the engines stopped.

On the screen their surroundings were easily visible. The heavily armed police were still defending the spaceport but they were gradually being pushed back. The powerfully built robots, unarmed but in the majority, were stronger.

FR-7 waited in the airlock. No pressure equalization was necessary and the outer hatch could be opened immediately and without further ado. The explorer robot brought his weapon arm into the most advantageous position and let himself be carried to the surface of the planet by an antigravitation field. Behind him the protective energy field once more enveloped the EX-238.

“I’m going toward the police cordon,” FR-7 radioed back. “So far they haven’t noticed me but that will soon change. Stay tuned. Maybe I’ll need directions from you.”

“Avoid combat—if it’s possible,” Koster told him again. “Otherwise do as you think best.”

Of course FR-7 would do as he thought best. He’d even use his weapon if he thought best but he would still have to inform Koster and ask permission, if there was time.

He saw that the defenders of the spaceport had received reinforcements. Out of an underground hangar came about two dozen armoured vehicles that fired energy beams into the ranks of the attackers and destroyed more than half. To FR-7’s surprise, the survivors drew back immediately. It was not an act of self-preservation but the robots must simply have seen that without more powerful weapons they could do nothing against the tanks. They would get weapons or else attack at another spot.

Four of the spaceport defenders had by now noticed FR-7. They saw he came from the ship that had just landed and was unarmed. While the tanks were pursuing the retreating Metalix, the 4 robots came toward FR-7. They stopped close in front of him.

FR-7 knew hundreds of languages and as many dialects. He tried several varieties of Arkonide dialects and after the third try got the desired result.

“It is good,” said one of the Metalix, “that your ship landed just now. We don’t know who you are and we also don’t know where you come from but you could not have come at a better time.”

FR-7 was not omniscient. He did not understand what they meant by their statement. In his opinion this reception was too cool. They acted as if they had been expecting them and were not particularly excited over it. And the EX-238 people had been expecting the exact opposite.

The Metalix! The cruel robots who avoided all contact with other intelligent beings, even with robots!

And now they simply welcomed them…

FR-7 decided to be on his guard. His right arm with its hidden weapon stayed at the ready. He did not trust this calm.

“I am glad that our visit is welcome to you,” he said in old Arkonidian, a language that was hardly to be found in the Empire any more. “It is awkward for me to witness strife that does not concern me.”

It sounded like a statement but it was really a question. And it was promptly answered.

“They are rebels. They were stirred up—by organic beings no less—that came to our world as prisoners. For thousands of years there has been nothing but peace and quiet here. Now there’s rebellion. It will soon be ended, though.”

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Categories: Clark Darlton