In the Centre of the Galaxy by Clark Darlton

The last seconds of the drama were approaching. Pucky watched the screen as if glued to it, without reflecting on whether this was a trick film or a genuine portrayal.

The hull of pure arkonite began to glow as the solar flares shot into space and enveloped the ship. Now it was naturally much too late for the crew to try to break away with a life boat—if indeed there ever had been any hope of that. It was much more likely that no one in the ship was any longer alive.

And then the exploration cruiser exploded and burst into a thousand pieces that disappeared like comets into the sun’s fiery furnace. Seconds later there was no trace left. The screen went blank.

Homunk and Pucky stared at the robot dumbly. They couldn’t say a word. Certainly they had an explanation of what had happened to the missing ship at last but they felt anything but satisfied. On the other hand, there had been definite signs that the Silver Arrow had wanted to rescue the lost Terranian ship.

The robot looked at them calmly and patiently. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction. What he had wanted to tell them was clear enough now. But it was not at all clear how they should reply.

Homunk did not move as he said: “He wants to tell us that they have no evil intentions. They tried to rescue our ship. There must have been a second Silver Arrow nearby to shoot the film, though. Maybe the whole thing was staged just to gain our confidence.”

“When it was all happening, though, no one could know that we’d ever show up here. I think the film was genuine.”

“Assuming it was—what should we do now?”

Pucky had no chance to answer. It had also become superfluous since the robots now set the pace for any further action. The mechmen displayed a set of double standards towards the two intruders. It remained a mystery for the time being why the two of them were treated so differently.

The robot had stood up. He bowed to Homunk and then went to the door. Homunk had understood the invitation, stood up and followed him. Pucky, who was slowly beginning to burn over being ignored, wanted to stand up, too, but the robot stopped and made a preventive gesture with his hand. At the same time, he opened the door. Outside, two other robots were waiting. They came into the room and approached Pucky. Their movements were determined and purposeful. Their assignment seemed to concern only the mousebeaver, for they ignored Homunk altogether.

“Get your paws off me,” Pucky screamed as both robots grabbed for him. “If you touch me, I’ll scare the hell out of you.”

Homunk had stopped. “Looks like they sure are differentiating between us—racial prejudice after all!” he said. “I don’t think I have anything to fear, and you can certainly handle them alone all right. So go on, and I’ll follow the commander. If necessary, teleport yourself and look for me. We must find out what they’re planning, why they’re separating us, and how they think. Maybe it can’t be called a mentality, but they do seem to have some kind of self-concept. And it looks like you don’t make the grade here.

“They’ll soon get over that,” Pucky threatened and remained standing uncertainly. “But I should find out what they’re planning to do with me.”

“That would be useful. We have to know where we stand with them. Haven’t you noticed the respect they pay me? There must be a reason for it.”

“Do you think they’ve decided you’re not a human being after all but an android?”

“Seems more likely it’s the reverse: they think I’m human.”

Pucky sighed.

“Well, OK, I’ll behave. But if they treat me too badly, they’ll get the surprise of their lives. Just wait, Homunk, and see who it is around here who’s prejudiced. If only you were a telepath!”

“We still have our communications set. Don’t let them take it.”

Pucky grimaced as if to say: have you ever seen anyone take anything away from me? Then he let the two robots take him between them and actually march him off. It was just possible that they wanted to show him something.

Pucky had no idea how right he was in that assumption.

While Homunk and the commander disappeared in the direction of central control, the mousebeaver was gently urged the opposite way. Both robots seemed very sure of what they were doing and apparently had no idea with whom they were dealing. At this moment, it would have been more than easy for Pucky to teleport himself outside into space with his two attendants, to leave them there and jump back into the ship. But he saw that Homunk was right. First of all, they had to find out what was with these curious beings—artificial or not. I’m a fool, Pucky scolded himself as he reached a point in his reflections when he began to consider the robots as live creatures. They had been built and put on ships in which they made a wide area of the galaxy dangerous. But someone must have designed and produced them. To find these creators was the whole sense and purpose of their expedition.

But that was no reason to let himself be treated like a bothersome pest!

Pucky firmly planted his feet on the metal floor and stopped. The two robots grabbed him the harder—no trace any more of restraint or courtesy—and pulled him along against his will. It took all of Pucky’s will power not to hurl them against the wall telekinetically. That satisfaction he wanted to save for later. The first order of business was to find out what they wanted from him.

Certainly nothing good.

They passed the inner hatchway of the airlock. Farther on toward the stern, the hallway ended in a rectangular door. The robots steered him towards it.

“Do they want to explain their method of propulsion to me?” Pucky brightened and stopped fighting against the rough way they were handling him. “But that’s very friendly of you. For a long time I’ve tortured my head over which system you favoured.” He shook his head. “Your creators must have been real idiots, though. They gave you a mouth—not to talk but to lubricate you!”

Speech was useless. There was no reply.

But when he finally got it, it was a real shock.

The two robots had pulled him through the rectangular door that closed behind them automatically. They were in a square room that took up the entire width of the ship. Directly behind it must be the propulsion machinery in which Pucky was so interested. The separating wall was crammed with instruments and switchboards. Robot technicians attended them, gliding silently back and forth without paying any attention to the new arrivals.

Pucky was dragged all the way to this wall of control panels.

The grip the two robots had on him was so hard that without his parapsychological abilities he would have had no chance of escaping them. The metal fists held him so that he could hardly stir but he didn’t try to get free. He had to find out what they intended to do with him. This wouldn’t take very long.

A third robot came up to them. The two must have transmitted an order to him, silently and without any gestures. Maybe they had some kind of broadcasting and receiving equipment in their positronic brains whose emissions could not be registered by Terranian instruments.

The third robot opened a round hatch about half a meter in diameter in the middle of the wall. Behind it there was a small dark compartment. Enough was visible, though, to tell Pucky what it was.

It was the antechamber to the atomic converter.

At least now the question of the Silver Arrow’s source of energy was clarified. They had an installation by which they could get energy from any material through atomic conversion. Whatever material was on hand could be put into the antechamber where it would be scanned by a tracing apparatus and then forwarded for further processing. Whatever couldn’t be used would be shoved out the refuse lock. The rest would be advanced to the converter where the conversion would take place automatically.

Conversion of any material was possible.

Even organic material.

Pucky understood immediately that the robots had decided he should die. They did not take him for a fully developed living being and wanted to get rid of him. That was the reason for their contemptuous behaviour. Homunk had been accepted but he, Pucky, had not.

This realization filled him with such fury that for a few seconds he forgot all good resolutions. With one jerk he freed himself from the hands of the robots, who meanwhile had loosened their iron grip. In a single leap he sprang back two meters but the closed door prevented complete retreat. Stopping, he saw that his antagonists had drawn their side arms—small pistols that looked deadly. Probably rayguns. In this small room, absolutely deadly.

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Categories: Clark Darlton