by Madeline Bridgen
“The way I see it, human life is entirely overrated. Someday we will move beyond this ill-adept thing we call life.” — Doctor Manning.
* * *
Conjoined in awareness, the brothers awoke at the same time in the factory bay. It was four in the morning and they were already glad for the day. Above them a network of cables fell from the distended belly of the ceiling like intestines from a bloated corpse. The Ankylosaurus swung his neck, straining the rubber hide to see his brother, the Troodon.
“What do you think the day will hold?” he asked.
The Troodon cranked his jaws and jerked into a position where he could see his brother. “There is nothing to wonder about.”
With a creak, the Troodon was the first to be released from his bay. Being the older model of the two, his crude needs were met quickly. He stalked about the room, his dainty industrial claws tack-tacking on the aluminum floor. His curiosity was stunted by his seriousness, but his eye was still caught by the machines around him, whirling as the lenses focused on the lit computer bank. Several minutes later they were both free to leave the enclosure.
Outside they stood, as they always did, looking around the cul-de-sac. The office behind them was hidden in shadow, the lights illuminating the nearby willow as the branches sagged. As with every other morning, the house across the path was what their attention was drawn to, laying low in the dark. It was a void that had opened up in their lives, something they yearned to close again but in their naivety, could not. They had been forbidden to enter the house after their creator, Doctor Manning, had locked himself inside.
“How many families would you guess will be visiting today?” asked the Ankylosaurus.
The Troodon grated his jaws, a noise like a bicycle’s gears turning, and a damaged bolt creaked inside his skull. “The tourist season is over. Not more than two dozen families.” He paused, processors whirling. “More activists, probably.”
The Ankylosaurus waved his head.
The Troodon eyed his brother. “Are you going to leave them alone today?”
“I can’t,” the Ankylosaurus said. “They need to talk to me, or so they say, and Manning intended for me to be subservient to everyone.”
“Yes, and that makes you nothing more than a passive little sycophant.”
“And you are a rude person.”
“When Manning comes back outside he will certainly need to fix you,” said the Troodon. “You’re wasting his time and mine when you humour these idiots.”
The Ankylosaurus stopped on the path. “But the activists say they’re trying to help us.”
“They are not,” said the Troodon. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. As if there’s anything to be feared in Manning’s scientific pursuits. Pah!”
The path was of loam, full of pebbles and soft under their plastic claws. They came to a green fence that blocked off their hidden part of the park. Spelled backwards on the fence were the words PARK STAFF ONLY. There was a tiny slit in the gate that no one would ever have noticed, and into this the Troodon slid a tiny key, previously hidden in his claw. They continued down the path into the park grounds.
* * *
The sun eventually rose. The Troodon was wrong; it was a much slower day than he had expected. They led tours through the exhibits, answered questions related to Earth’s history and palaeontology. As the day wore on, they told the old tales of the early discoveries and the people who had scoured the land searching for the remains of ancient times.
The hired staff arrived and went about their duties, and in the later morning they politely evaded the questions of the police crew that had shown up.
When the tours shut down for lunch, the Ankylosaurus found one of the hired hands. “How is your job today, Susan?” he asked. Susan was his attempt at a friend.
“It’s been busy,” Susan said.
“In a good sort of way?”
“No,” she replied, “not really.”
He moved as though in a waltz, one step back, his tail sweeping behind him.
She noticed his agitation and paused in her meal, looking at him with pity in her eyes. “Some detectives showed up earlier.”
“Oh, what did they want?”
“More of the same crap.”
He paused. “Is there anything I can do about it?”
She frowned. “Well, you know it’s about Manning locking himself up.” She looked at him, wondering, How can I make him understand controversy? “Is it true he thought he could live forever?”
The Ankylosaurus laughed, a trick that usually alarmed those who had not known him for long. “That was a joke of his.”
“Well, people don’t find it funny.” She didn’t wait for the dinosaur to respond before adding, “He’s a rich eccentric who funnels money into projects that scare people, and now he’s locked himself inside his house with computer interfaces that have been outlawed in seven different countries and a bunch of backdoor surgical bots. It’s really weird, and you know the public hated his inventions enough before this was added to their plate. You and your brother are his pets, why don’t you go bring him outside?”
“He instructed us not to interrupt him—”
“Yeah, well, the police said they’ll be back in a day or so with a warrant to break him out.”
The dinosaur was silent for a long time, so Susan continued. “This bad publicity is doing more to hurt Manning’s park than anything the activists could do. If you really want to save what Manning’s made, you’ll have to convince him to rejoin society.
“If you really have free will, and he’s always said you have it, then you can go against his orders and go inside the house. Stop whatever crackpot scheme he’s up to and get him out of there. If it’s done by you two, then the situation will be salvageable.”
After some consideration, the Ankylosaurus nodded. “I can see the logic in it.”
“Good. When the park closes, go get your brother and run this by him. The two of you together should be able to talk Manning out of there.”
* * *
At five-thirty the sun was down behind the clouds, showing just as a golden tinge on the western horizon. The dinosaurs waited until they were done their rounds. The second floor of the office building lit up at the end of the cul-de-sac, the light distorted behind the willow tree.
On the other side of the cul-de-sac, next to where they stood on the path, lay Manning’s long single-story house. Barely hidden behind it were the modern extensions housing their master’s labs.
The Ankylosaurus walked up the low cement incline to the entrance. The black tracks of the wheelchair had faded from the long month of disuse.
The Troodon looked over his shoulders as his brother’s tongue stretched and produced the house key. With a mechanical twist, the door opened. The Troodon glanced about, feeling as though he were a burglar.
Inside, the Ankylosaurus checked the house’s life reader. The machine indicated that no one was in the house.
“He must be in the labs,” said the Troodon, flinching as he considered the hidden entrance.
The Ankylosaurus lumbered up behind him, and his tongue came out again, this time to punch in a code into to the key pad. The door, faux oak covering steel, opened and closed behind them.
The area behind it was plain, with beige wallpaper and cabinets with articles about the Doctor’s exploits. They had seen them all many times but still glanced over them, taking in the decades that had led up to their creation, the steady build-up of prototypes. Their evolution, so to say.
They moved as quietly as they could. They glanced in both of the engineering rooms, looking through air-sealed doors at the immaculate machines inside.
Manning wasn’t in the engineering rooms.
Neither was he in the computer labs.
His dinosaurs came to a room that was sealed with deadbolts and electricity, the only unfriendly door in Manning’s house. This was the nexus of his lab, the room where he archived all his work. Inside were computers built flush into the floor and the walls.
“How do they work?” asked the Troodon.
“I’ve seen Manning use them,” the Ankylosaurus said, turning on the main console.
A prompt came up for a password. The Ankylosaurus struggled to get his head in a position to reach the keyboard. The Troodon slid it out of its partition, although a chain connecting it to the table let him lower it only so far. But it was far enough. The computer started up.
They searched through the myriad files. They watched Power Point presentations about neural computing, read essays, notes, watched lectures, all by their father. They didn’t really know what they were looking for.
“There’s too much,” the Troodon said. They were bewildered by all the information.
The two of them plugged their USB ports into the computer and downloaded all the files into their hard drives. It took a while to sort through it all. They watched their father’s work go from the theoretical to the strange, and still they never suspected, never understood why he was laughed out of news conferences. Understanding his insanity was not part of their skill set.
They saw the plan for his eternity machine.
“What is all this?”
“This crap you’ve gotten me into!” shouted the Troodon. “I never wanted to know this!”
They ran back into the house as quickly as they could. An unintentional dirge held onto their minds as they entered Manning’s chambers. In his sickness he had turned the room into his own personal laboratory, full of sinister machines and IV drips borrowed from foreign countries. There were wires and tubes all over his body, stuck into him every which way, his body bloated and purple from the poisons still being forced into his corpse from the lunatic contraption he had made.
“How did this happen?” cried the Troodon. They looked at everything in the room. It was immaculate except for the month’s worth of dust on the still humming computer banks and the sopping mess on the bed. They could not understand what they were seeing, but still they knew that it was their father full of cruel needles and surrounded by his painkillers — scores of bottles of painkillers — the tail ends of a dozen years of them being over-prescribed to him; but the reality of his death was too great for them to accept.
“Get him out of there!”
“I can’t pick him up—”
“Get out of my way!” The Troodon pushed past his brother, and tried to lift Manning with his flimsy arms. He dragged Manning out of the bed, ripping him from the machines, leaving tattered flesh behind on the wires that, with a strain, managed to pull free of his scalp and body. Underneath the soiled nightshirt his father’s skin tore apart, and a stew of rotten blood seeped through the polyester.
“Help me carry him!” cried the Troodon.
The Ankylosaurus picked up Manning’s leg in his mouth. His beak broke the fabric and cut through the body. Blood seeped into his mouth, and still he could barely keep a hold on the bone that slipped from his grasp.
Together they crab-walked down the hall, leaving a trail of brown crud and death behind them. With great difficulty they managed to get him outside.
After dragging their father’s remains into the cul-de-sac the Ankylosaurus stopped. He lifted his head. “What are we going to do?” he asked.
“We need to find help!” his brother snapped.
“Why? He’s gone.”
The Troodon struggled to drag his former master by himself, but the arm was too torn and slippery for him to hold properly. “How can you stop!” he shrieked. “We need someone to help us!”
“There’s no helping him.” The Ankylosaurus was having trouble speaking, he realized, because his tongue was gummed up with gore.
The Troodon struggled in futility for a while longer, and then dropped Manning. He thrashed his arms and ran about in frustration, beating a tattoo on the ground, until in his spasming he overbalanced and collapsed in a seizure. He kicked up the loam, raking his talons across the sky while making noises like breaking glass.
The Ankylosaurus stared at the ruined mess in front of him. His mind struggled to move forward from the terrible present. His brain fed his inference engine the same serial process over and over again in a desperate attempt to disprove the evidence of his eyes. “Troodon?” he called.
He walked dumbly over to his brother. “We need to find the people who did this to him,” the Troodon said. His mouth cracked about, but otherwise he did not move.
Someone screamed behind them. The Ankylosaurus looked about. People were coming out of the office building, and a familiar woman was approaching them. “Susan?”
“Oh my God!” Susan screamed. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t.”
She ran over to them, and asked, “What is this on the ground?”
“What happened to him?”
Susan ran back to the office building. The other evening workers edged closer but still kept their distance. They looked at the brothers as though they were animals that could no longer be trusted.
The Ankylosaurus turned back to the Troodon. “Don’t worry, Troodon, Susan’s getting help. Are you still listening?”
But his brother’s mind had shut down, overloaded from the night’s events.
The sky was black except for the lamps, casting silver light on the yard like the gleam of knives. A cloud of insects settled over the man and his bloody children, and they sang their whirling song as they fed through the night, the song of their feast, of creeping things and the dreams of animals.
Eventually the police drove onto the scene, led in from the gate by the employees. He said death had no meaning, the Ankylosaurus thought, but I feel it does.
He watched the cars drive up.
Watched the officers leave the cruisers.
Heard their steps, soft in the loam.
* * *
“The only thing religion’s got going for it is transcendence. Of course we’ll overcome death; if you give me some time, I’ll let you live for all eternity as a long string of code.” — Doctor Manning.
Copyright © 2011 by Madeline Bridgen