At three in the afternoon, when the day’s heat had achieved its zenith, two figures moved among the tents, mixing with the tourists, the devotees, and the merely curious, careful to keep their faces hidden from those in charge.
One of the figures wore jeans cut off at the knees, as well as a straw hat to protect his balding head. The other, by far the more graceful and elegant of the two, wore nothing more than her own skin of white metal-polymers, her ceramic joints lined in gold, and her white breast forms polished to a mirror’s gleam.
“I’m a scientist,” the robot said, the one who called herself Temu after the Egyptian god. “I shouldn’t be caught dead here.”
From the robot’s angled, polished cheeks, a puff of steam went up on either side of her face; she vented heat in a manner far more efficient than her companion’s copious and seemingly endless rivulets of sweat. And still it was not enough, for she felt her senses reeling in the desert sun.
“Quiet,” urged Temu’s companion. He was a paleontologist from Little Rock named Paul Mennich. “You owe me that much. Now be quiet and watch the act.”
T-shirts seemed to be the most distinctive feature of the crowd: t-shirts depicting tyrannosaurs and apatosaurs, t-shirts proclaiming the end of the world by fire, and t-shirts mixing the two, as if by some wild, imaginative leap it were not only possible to connect one to the other, but infinitely practical.
Men of every size and shape wore these colorful, lunatic pullovers, as did their children, and their wives (some of whom looked better than others in the sweat-soaked, badly-sized garments), and even a few robots here and there had covered their natural graces with tie-dyed pictures of the Cretaceous.
There were more than a dozen robots in the immediate vicinity. After all, Temu was not unusual in the modern world. If she ducked and turned a quick corner as they made their way about the encampment, it was more to keep anyone from recognizing the famous Cambridge expert on carnosaur evolution than to hide her mechanical nature. She was also unsure about whether she wanted to be seen in the company of her former friend.
Brushing sweat away from his eyes for the hundredth time, Paul motioned Temu’s attention to the drama unfolding before them. On a stage erected just outside the desert wash, beneath a canopy of canvas, a silver robot exhorted the crowd to believe.
Like all intelligent machines, Temu owed her chance at education and career to a long line of radical A.I.s. For those first robots, gaining freedom had been more like training a mouse to hit a bar for its reward (mankind being the mouse) than any matter of a direct revolt.
It was a slow process.
By slow prudence they gained the right to work industriously and forthrightly toward their own solutions, then to design their own projects, and finally to chart their own destinies.
Later, through soft degrees, they began to mold their dreams and their bodies to the omni-purpose shape of man.
As though she could walk apart from herself and yet remain conscious with two brains, Temu stepped forward in the darkness and forward through a forest in daylight.
“Humans, hear me,” said a commanding, crystal voice. It belonged to a silver robot, to a machine whose frame was as thin as a skeleton of sculpted metals.
“You will end soon!” He said. “You will end in fire!” The voice crackled over a set of aging speakers.
“Ramadon!” someone in the crowd cheered. Others followed.
“I think we should leave,” Temu said.
“I see it!” the silver robot shouted. He tossed away his microphone, projecting with a voice that needed no further amplification.
“After the flames, I will come. Out of the fire which takes the life of the world, my beast shall rise. Souls of the unworthy flee before the judgment of my eyes. Believe! Believe, for the truth shall be left to the judgment of wiser men.”
Temu turned to go, but found her wrist locked in Paul’s grasp. A demand for justice seemed to have settled deep into the human’s eyes. Temu hesitated.
“Come!” The silver one leapt to the ground and came forward to the nearest of the listeners, moving with a grace of action that seemed more predatory than mechanical.
“Touch me,” He said. “Know the truth.”
At first Temu thought the request was to make contact with the gleaming frame of the mad machine, but human assistants were hurrying forward into the crowd, bringing with them the promised truth.
In their hands they carried fossils of one hundred and thirty million years past. It was to touch these stones and the form of the bones within that the crowds had gathered, the reason they had listened to the apocalyptic voice of the strange, metal performer.
Paul motioned to Temu that they should get out of the way and observe things from a more discreet angle, farther off. But in turning, they were blocked.
“Go forward,” said a burly voice. Temu and Paul tried a quick sidestep, but three big men and a robot wearing a sidearm had other ideas. They were herded forward, past sweaty, potbellied men and loud teenagers, toward the silver leader. Toward the bones.
“My friends,” said the heavy, crystal voice upon their near approach. “Welcome to the lessons of Ramadon.” If the machine could have smiled an evil smile, Temu and Paul both believed he would have done so.
“I am honored to be paid a visit by such prominent paleontologists,” the silver robot said. “But there will be no debunking today.” Close by, two dark-skinned men held between them a rectangular cut of stone.
Temu almost snarled in return, startled to be recognized by such a charlatan. Her cheeks puffed steam. But for her, at a glance, one startling fact overtook the rest: the fossils were real.
She saw it in the grain of the stone and the color of the forms within. She saw it in the way ages of pressure had stretched and curved the lines of once straight bone.
“Forget our differences, scientist,” said the silver one. “You need to know this. You must know.”
A mirrored hand caught Temu’s clean white palm, drawing it forward, and turning it with a firm, maniacal strength until the archaeologist’s fingers came to rest upon sun-hot stone. How, Temu wondered, were the human handlers maintaining their grip on the piece?
Suddenly, the heat of palm sensors against rock disappeared. Between her teeth Temu knew the rush of blood. Her tongue wrapped around torn flesh as she shook her head to free it from the bulky carcass of her prey. The smells of mud, fern, and a nearby spring filled Temu’s lungs.
Teeth? Tongue? Smells? Lungs?
In a near collapsing of her over-strained consciousness, Temu nearly fainted.
Instead she screamed.
“Deinonychus?” Paul asked Temu later that evening, while they sat together in Paul’s RV.
“Am I missing something?” asked Temu. “That silver devil told us to get off his turf. He’s a channeler of ancient spirits and a quick-buck artist, and to him science is a threat. Why are we still here?”
“Deinonychus?” Paul insisted.
“A deinonycosaur of some sort,” Temu admitted. “The talon is there, or at least part of it in one of those fossils. I didn’t see the skull.
“And you won’t,” Paul answered. “It’s still in the ground. Whatever power is in those bones, it must be doubled or tripled in the skull.”
“Power! Temu shouted. “There is no power here. Believe me, Paul, it’s the desert heat and mass illusion, all whipped up by a sharp magician.”
Paul scratched his balding head. He drew his face into an irritated scowl. “You can say that, after what you experienced? Isn’t it… isn’t it true?” Paul asked, hesitating to bring up a point they had argued over before, “that robots are known to be more in touch with the psychic world than men?”
“Ridiculous. I’ll tell you again… that myth began because our brains are so compact. Our central processors often operate with data pathways no farther apart than the width of a few atoms.
“Pass us through a strong magnetic field and we might as well be a human on LSD. Heat is the same. Get our temperature too high and we go batty. We’re shielded against these things, but nothing is perf—“
“Damn you!” Paul shouted. He pounded the arm of his chair with a closed fist! “You know that’s not true in this case! That same susceptibility may leave you open to the influence of all sorts of fields and energies we have yet to define.”
“And my mother was a ’57 Chevy. Paul, this is the real world.”
“If you truly believe that you experienced nothing, that this is all smoke and mirrors, then you won’t come with me tonight. You won’t help me find the skull to Ramadon; you won’t help me dig it up.”
“Damned right I won’t!”
Although the desert night was moonless, becoming for Paul a chill void caped by a roof of stars, still he tried to remember the way to the site, the place he had identified by watching the actions of the silver robot and its team. He saw the landmarks in his mind and described them to Temu, who could see very well by the brilliant stars and therefore led the way.
Passing along a ridge, they could see below them the silver robot’s tent, with lights on inside and figures moving about.
“Terrible way to make a living,” Temu whispered.
“I figure about five thousand a day –gross—in fees, concessions, and souvenirs,” Paul whispered in return.
“I meant us,” said Temu.
A man stepped from the ten below to empty his coffee cup. From beneath Paul’s boot, a litter of stones clattered down the ridge.
Armed, the man withdrew a silver-barreled weapon from the holster at his hip. He looked up.
Paul and Temu stood as still as ghosts, frozen, waiting through an eternity of seconds. Yet the guard below never bothered to retrieve a flashlight, and after a few moments of peering into the night, gave up his curiosity and returned to the tent.
After another hour of slow and quiet maneuvering in the dark, they neared their goal. Temu began to feel something, like an irritation building behind her eyes.
“I hope this makes up for things,” Temu said sarcastically.
“Hey, I was wrong about the find in Yangchuan,” Paul replied, gritting his teeth at the still painful memory. “You were right.”
“I made a career out of proving you wrong,” said Temu. For the first time the robot wished there was some way, some method by which she could take her algorithms for easy human banter and use them to say, just once and meaningfully, “I’m sorry.”
But it would have to wait, for as certainly as if a beacon had been planted in the spot, Temu knew they had arrived.
There was a glow emanating from the ground, a glow only Temu could see. It was both like light and unlike it in the strangest of ways, and as the robot walked toward it she began to forget about everything, about the dangers, even about Paul standing at her side. Curiosity… curiosity and some immensely strong and immutable force had taken hold.
As though she could walk apart from herself and yet remain conscious with two brains, Temu stepped forward in the darkness and forward through a forest in daylight. In one body she felt sand beneath her ceramic toes, and in another she pranced along on three-toed feet, her belly almost full and her tail a proud and rigid balance behind her.
In one world she spoke a quiet oath and felt her body grow rigid with fear; in the other she became Ramadon!
Breathing with the lungs of a long dead beast, Temu knew what it was to be a hunter in the Cretaceous. This was no tyrannosaur, that lumbering cold-blooded scavenger, the buzzard of the reptile age. This was a true predator, as fleet of thought as of foot, a trim two hundred pounds of warm-blooded muscle, its hands and feet endowed with talons like the curved swords of a Gurkha warrior.
With the eyes of Ramadon, Temu watched as a younger version of herself, a deinonycosaurian nephew, paused before a fallen cycad. Using the instinct of its kind, the nephew ducked and snapped its jaws as a nine-inch psittacosaurus bolted from hiding. The beast downed the tiny creature in one swallow, once again rewarded by the ability to anticipate, to see just a few moments further into the day than its prey.
Dinosaurs, it seemed, could see through time.
Though the weather held clear, an unusual traffic covered the forest floor, the hurried feet of many a smaller creature crossing their path.
As the day wore on, an acrid smell began to filter through the trees, hanging upon the air. This worried Ramadon. She looked ahead, straining to “see” the source of it.
Fire! Temu/Ramadon saw it. From horizon to horizon, there would soon be a conflagration, a blaze engulfing the entire forest.
In a distant world and a far different scene, Temu grabbed Paul’s hand and drew him closer. “Can you see it?” she asked. “There’s fire all about. No matter where she runs, he’s encircled. Trapped.” But where Temu pointed, Paul could see only varying shades of night.
Fear blurred Ramadon’s future sight. She avoided outcrops of fern yet untouched by fire, her foreknowledge showing them engulfed in flame. She cut across hot ash, yelping in astonishment while confused visions of the future showed cool earth beneath her feet.
As the fire closed in, tongues of flame and sparks from an exploding cycad fell to burn Ramadon’s hide. She screamed a deinonycosaurian scream.
“Temu, stop screaming,” Paul said. “They’ll hear us.”
Pain coursed inward and Ramadon retreated from it, some part of her realizing that a falling cycad had pinned her to the ground. Temu’s skin was on fire.
Desperately, Ramadon pulled each scene of future life around her thoughts, as if a sight of pleasant grasslands and tasty new prey could somehow transport her there. Never before had she gone so far, the throes of her death plunging her deep into a well of tomorrows that advanced and advanced until the world shook and changed.
Soon she fell beyond any hope of returning to her normal sight. She pushed her thoughts with ever increasing urgency into the future.
Light flooded down from the rise above. There was the sound of a rifle bolt being pulled back.
“Stay right there!” someone shouted from above them. Paul was on his feet, pulling Temu after him with a rough grasp of the robot’s wrist. A shot cracked into the rubble only a yard or so away.
“I said don’t move.”
“So it is you,” another voice joined the fray, and both Temu and Paul recognized it at once as the voice of the silver robot. They could see it now as the machine moved quickly into the lead, with three armed men bringing up the rear.
“I felt your sacrilege!” the silver robot said. “I came here to stop you.”
Temu tried to warn them away, but already the explosion had begun in her metal spine and in her hands. That part of her which lived with the dying beast felt both the terror and the finality of its last breath, felt the release of its conscious-self plunging in free fall after those thoughts it had already sent forward into the safety of endless tomorrows.
Rising in her and behind her, a glowing, eight-foot giant stood on taloned feet to survey the farthest limit of its flight from extinction.
Looking across a land as alien to its feet as the surface of the moon, Ramadon howled. An apparition of dragon’s teeth and butcher’s claws, it stepped forward in confusion, trying to smell the creatures before it with a nose of fading light.
The silver robot screamed, turning so quickly that it flattened one of its own men in a headlong rush for safety.
Two others fired on the glowing head of Ramadon. Their shots passed harmlessly through the ghost, but neither the two who had fired nor the one rising to his feet trusted the non-corporeal nature of the monster.
They ran before its charge.
The last Temu saw of the silver robot and his henchmen, they were scrambling across the badlands, a ghostly dinosaur prancing after them in hopes of one more savory morsel before the force of its life faded forever from the corridors of time.
“Well,” said Temu, the machine whose name meant the first sound and the first light of ancient understanding. “The unworthy did indeed run before the beast, leaving the truth to the judgment of wiser men. Have you had a chance to examine the skull?”
“No,” said Paul as they sat at breakfast in a nearby town. “Not in detail. But the brain case is bigger than any denonycosaur ever seen before.”
“A psychic dinosaur,” Temu mused. She sipped at a drink of lubricants and electrolytes, shaking her head occasionally as if in disbelief. “How strange, that the dominant species before man and after him should meet, out there, through some strange psychic pulse rising up from the Cretaceous.”
“Yeah,” said Paul. He took a bite of eggs and swallowed hard. “What do you mean, ‘dominant species after man’?”