In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

Their god. Since he had first created them.

“The gods never abandoned your world,” Homunk continued. “They came from other worlds and stayed. Perhaps they died of their own free will after they had created you and gave you the powers of thinking. But be assured that there are even now thousands of planets on which they are living. You have ever and again met their ships in outer space, among the stars but you have always avoided them. Why? I know that it was the non-believers who did it but isn’t that more proof that even they believe? They simply did not want any evidence for the existence of the creators, that’s all. But now no one can go against the evidence, for the ship has landed. The very ship whose arrival I prophesied to you.

The priest shouted in between: “And from that very ship, only a robot emerged!”

“Haven’t I said already,” Homunk interrupted him, “that the messengers of the gods are suited to the circumstances in which they find themselves? Naturally a robot must make the first contact. What’s so wrong about that? But in the ship itself there are the masters, the creators—or, if you will, the gods. They are powerful enough to destroy your world. They know things you can’t even imagine. You, with all your thinking, are sterile and rigid, but organic intelligences never stop developing. They are ever broadening out and always learning something new. They are far superior to robots. I tell you…”

Homunk was interrupted.

The screens of the robot brains abruptly went dark. A strong humming filled the hall. The priest sprang to the controls and manipulated them. Then, suddenly, there was a loud voice. It came over the loud speakers amplified many times. It was to be heard all over the planet, wherever there were any robot-brains.

The voice said: “Ten persons have just left the alien ship—natural imitations of the beings whom the backward group would call gods. They were seized immediately. That alone is sufficient evidence that they are neither masters nor creators. If the false priest were right they could never have been taken captive. If there really were gods, stronger and mightier beings than we, then they would never have let us capture them. The evidence will be given in front of the control station; it will be proof enough that the gods are more easily destroyed than we, the robots. The broadcast will begin in 10 minutes.”

This broadcast, Homunk thought, will be a slap at the ‘non-believers’ but no more. Still, at least one Terranian will have to die. In front of the cameras of an entire world. His death would show that he was no robot, that he was a human being.

In other respects, too, the demonstration would have its drawbacks. The so-called believers would see with their own eyes how one of the legendary creators would helplessly bleed to death. They would know that the gods were as mortal as they; in reality, even more mortal and more easily wounded.

He turned to the priest.

“How did you find out that I’m a robot? You knew it without having to kill me first.”

“There are scientific ways.”

“Why shouldn’t they be used in the forthcoming demonstration as well? The death of a god will destroy your planet.”

“A god who lets himself be destroyed is no god.”

Logically, that was right. If the gods were really that mighty, they would know how to take care of themselves. Homunk could find no counter-argument for that. He had only 8 minutes left. If by that time he couldn’t find a convincing solution, one or even all of the crew of the EX-238 would have to die in order to prove that they were no gods.

The devil take all gods! thought Homunk in anger. In reality, though, he was angry with himself, for it had been up to him to explain to the robots in time. But he had only fed their superstitions. And their disappointment must now be so much the greater.

Seven minutes more.

At the entranceway to the door, there was a commotion. After some disturbance, the masses divided and opened a narrow passageway between them. A detail of the powerfully built work robots marched toward the robot brain and the leaders of the believers. It was a contingent of a dozen Metalix who’d been living underground for thousands of years and, until a short time ago, had thought they were busying themselves for their creators.

They crowded their way forward till they were at the podium. One of them stepped up and said in a loud voice: “We demand the release of your prisoners. If, you destroy them, we won’t work any more.”

Homunk was thankful for the workers’ intervention but at this particular moment it meant only delay. The time remaining for the 10 men from the EX-238 was growing inexorably shorter.

The priest spoke before anyone could say anything.

“The creators built you to work for our civilization. If you stop working, it will amount to mutiny. Anyway, you’re superfluous. You, too, will be destroyed.”

Only 5 minutes till the demonstration…

“The creators intended us to work for them. You let them die underground in order to rule yourselves. When the creators return, they will punish you for that.”

“They’ll never find their way back again.”

“They have found their way back!”

Only 4 minutes!

A silvery shadow flitted across the blue sky. Homunk reacted more quickly than a human being; he also reacted more quickly than the robots and so he had recognized the shadow immediately: it was a small glider from the hangars of the EX-238.

The shadow turned back and floated motionlessly above the robot brain. Slowly, it sank farther down. Only now did the thousands of robots in the hall notice it. They waited expectantly.

The glider landed gently on the upper platform of the robot brain.

When Homunk recognized the passengers, his hopes fled. He wondered at the mousebeavers, at Pucky most of all, but he gave them credit for their attainments. Still, he could not imagine of what help they could be to him or to the 10 men of the expedition. Before the announced demonstration—or execution—only three minutes remained.

In the glider sat 4 mousebeavers.

One of the mousebeavers, Pucky, sprang with one leap out of the glider and landed exactly between Homunk and the priest on the lower platform that served as a podium. “Well?” he said triumphantly.

Homunk did not lose any time.

“In the hall of the other robot brain the robots want to execute the 10 people they’ve taken prisoner. We have to do something.”

“Maj. Koster…? Where?”

“On the other side of the city.”

“How do you know?”

“It just came over the communication set.”

Pucky looked around him.

“Can you talk to them from here?”

“I think so.”

“Ask that fellow over there.”

The fellow—Pucky had indicated the priest—had recovered from his surprise. He knew that the mousebeaver was an organic being and no robot. But he was also not one of the creators. So he was the very opposite of a god.

Even so, before he could say anything into the microphone, Homunk was after him: “Turn on the communication set. I’ve got an important message. Quick!”

The priest hesitated.

Homunk forced his way past the priest. With but one glance he comprehended the controls of the robot brain and their functioning. He pressed a button. The screens flickered. On one of them there appeared a clear image. It showed the other robot brain and, before it, the prisoners.

Maj. Koster and his 9 companions stood wedged in among the robots. Now a junior officer—Homunk remembered having seen him in the mineralogy section of the explorer ship—was brought forward in front of the waiting cameras.

“What do you want to say to them, Pucky? They can hear us and see us.”

“Wait,” the mousebeaver counselled with determination. “They will be surprised! There are other methods to serve as evidence in determining whether someone is a human being or a robot.” He turned to the visible camera lenses in the robot brain and spoke louder, this time in the dialect that was used by the Metalix. “Stop! If you kill this man, you will all be destroyed. Consider just what you are doing—or better yet: listen to what I have to say to you. Maybe you don’t like my looks, which says something about your stupidity and narrow-mindedness, but that makes no difference now. I have set a bomb on the other side of your planet. Through teleportation, in case you know what that is. I will describe the place and you can check whether my statements are true. The bomb is no bigger than one of you but if it’s set off it will gobble up your planet in less than two days. Ever hear of chain reaction? Here, look at my hand…” Pucky held up his right arm. In it was a small black box. In the middle of its lid was a white button. “When I push the button, the Arkon bomb-named after its discoverers’ home world—will detonate. The planet will turn into a molten sun since its entire core consists of heavy metals. You must then flee with your ships or else be converted into pure energy. Even if you kill just one of the prisoners, I will set off the bomb. Well, that was what I wanted to tell you. The next move is up to you.”

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