In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

“I can’t understand a word!” Pucky’s squeaky voice could hardly be heard. Two robots had grabbed the mousebeaver and were dragging him in the opposite direction. “I have to disappear, Homunk. I’ll get help from Koster. Just wait until I come back with my army…”

There was really nothing for Pucky to do except to dematerialise. The robots grabbed at him carelessly and nearly broke his bones. He had an idea they wanted to do away with him, even if he had no idea what for. Even so, before he disappeared, he wanted to teach these robots a lesson that they wouldn’t soon forget.

He turned on his telekinetic powers and freed himself from both his torturers. Before they could recover from their surprise and draw their weapons, Pucky had lifted them into the air.

The other robots had never seen anything like it. They stared at the miracle that was taking place right before their very eyes.

Weightlessly the two Metalix, suddenly helpless, floated upward. Pucky even pinned their arms to their sides so they couldn’t make use of their rayguns. After a minute, both were tiny points on high. Then—Pucky let go of them.

They fell like two stones, bounced into the middle of the gaping crowd, ripping 4 or 5 others down with them. The clang of bursting metal mingled with the outcry of the believers. Then all was suddenly silent.

Everyone was looking at Pucky. Steel hands reached for their weapons.

Pucky, who had decided to free Homunk no matter what, gave up the project. With lightning speed he teleported to an altitude of five kilometres and held himself there through telekinesis.

Below him, the army was undulating. Details were no longer recognizable at this altitude but this much was certain: the army was no longer marching. The spaceport was only a kilometre away and on the landing field rested the EX-238 with its mighty telescoping supports.

The hatchway was open.

Ten men in the uniform of the Terranian spacefleet went toward the cordons of robots, unarmed and sure of themselves. Pucky delayed leaping into the EX-238. He would rather await developments here.

And he saw the cordon close and take the 10 men into their midst. Steel hands searched them for weapons.

Then they whisked them from the field in a wagon.

Pucky understood that a powerful change had taken place. Something must have happened to bring this about. It was the only way their sudden turning against Homunk was to be explained.

Pucky teleported into the central control room of the EX-238.

Lt. Schlenkowa sat in front of the controls and was staring at the screens. His right hand lay on the control button for the weapons centre. One push and the EX-238 would be spewing death and destruction.

But the lieutenant did not push the button.

“You’re right, Iltu,” he said to Pucky. “They shouldn’t have gone. Now they’re in a spot and we can’t rescue them without putting them into the greatest of dangers.”

“I’m Pucky, not Iltu,” Pucky told him. “You Terranians will never learn to tell the difference between us. Man, if you’d pay attention to Iltu’s rose-red incisor, you couldn’t go wrong! You observe everything else so exactly. But now explain—what has happened?”

“Pucky!” the lieutenant was obviously relieved and seemed not even apologetic for his mistake. One mousebeaver, he must be thinking, is just like another. And Iltu knew how to teleport herself, too. “At last! We’ve been expecting you for ages.”

Briefly, he sketched out what had happened. He concluded: “When FR-7 told us that these robots here took their creators and therefore all humanoids for gods, Maj. Koster thought it would not be dangerous to leave the ship. It was the only chance to establish contact, since we received no reply to our radio messages. Then the surprise attack took place. We couldn’t possibly interfere without endangering Koster and his people.”

Before Pucky could answer, Iltu materialized in central control. She had received the thought-impulses of her mousebeaver and knew that he had returned. After a short greeting, she said: “The little pole-cats are burning to prove themselves right. Ooch said that if you hadn’t come back now, he, along with Wullewull and Axo, would have smashed up the whole spaceport. We’ve all been asking ourselves how they were proposing to do that.”

“Me, too,” Pucky grinned fleetingly. “It’s not quite so simple. Even so, I still don’t really understand what’s happened. Nearly half the Metalix were on our side and now they’ve suddenly turned against us. Homunk must know, but they’ve taken him prisoner.” He looked at the screens. “They’re leading Koster and his people away. To the dome over there. A robot brain, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps there everything will be explained. Iltu, fetch Ooch, Wullewull and Axo. Get an aero-glider ready. We’re going to free Homunk.”

“And Koster?”

“Homunk is in greatest danger—I believe.”

He was right, for fallen gods plummet deep. Mostly so deep as to be dashed to pieces.

* * * *

The fighting between the two different robot parties had stopped. Their leaders had declared a truce. On the other hand, the work robots who had been stirred up by Homunk had declined all negotiations and had drawn back into the tunnels after their first attack had failed. They could not have cared less whether the “prophet” Homunk was an organic being or a robot. Their indignation at having had to work for thousands of years under false assumptions and so having been led around by the nose could not, however, be so easily appeased.

In the meantime, the priest had arrived from the holy city. With great powers of persuasion and through a practical test he proved to the leaders of the believers that Homunk was in fact a synthetic and not an organic creature.

“We’re all convinced,” he finally shouted while his harangue was at the same time being broadcast over the symbol screens, “that the gods are still living somewhere and will return one day. They are not extinct, as the non-believers maintain. Some stayed in our world, degenerated and disappeared. There can be no doubt about that. Even the appearance of the impostor tells us that the masters are alive. He has their form; he was created in their image. How could that happen if they were no longer alive? That’s why we have to wait for them but first we’ll make an example of this traitor. Together with other false gods, we’ll destroy him publicly.”

Homunk looked at the priest and tried to fathom his motives. It was difficult to imagine the psychological impulses of a full robot. In this case, though, there was no other explanation. Robots thought reasonably and logically. One could only believe in miracles. If they actually took place, a reasonable and possible explanation must be found for them, so that belief would continue. At the same time, it was apparent that the priest himself was the last one who really believed in the return of the gods. He knew that there were no miracles and no gods but if the others would know it too, he would lose his position of leadership. That was why he saw a deadly enemy in Homunk.

“Am I allowed to say something in my own defence?” Homunk asked the two robots who stood on either side of him. “I’m afraid your priest is making too simple a thing of his accusations. May I speak?”

“Every defendant has the right to speak in his own defence.”

Homunk stepped forward.

The army of the believers had withdrawn to the second robot brain in the city. It was one of those that had been re-programmed. With its help, symbols and direct images could be broadcast throughout the planet. Since air communications were impossible during the day, they used cable circuits.

Homunk now stood next to the priest on the podium. The dome had been rolled back and only the free sky vaulted over the technological array. In the hall itself, more than a thousand robots had gathered. The rest of the army was camped outside. It would have been impossible to break through the tight ring of metal bodies by force.

“I have to make clear,” said Homunk, as he stood in front of the cameras, “that the accusation of the priest is built on false premises. I have never said that I was one of the gods. All I said was that they had sent me. And that’s true! I have also never said that I was an organic being. The gods would be unwise not to conform to circumstances. Once they had created you in their own image, what would have been better than to send you an emissary who was built along similar lines? Yes, I’m a robot, but I’m more like the creators than any of you.”

Homunk paused. He did not expect any answer. At least not yet. For a moment he had to think of the immortal of the planet Wanderer to whom he owed his own existence. Perhaps It was really something like a god but it was ridiculous to designate human beings as such. But the robots did not know this. In their opinion, it was the humanoids—whether Arkonides or Terranians—that were God.

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