[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Just Like Old Times"

Just Like Old Times

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1993 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


Commissioned for the anthology Dinosaur Fantastic, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, 1993).

Reprinted in:

  • Arthur Ellis Awards, edited by Peter Sellers, 2000
  • Aurora Awards: An Anthology of Prize-Winning Science Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Edo van Belkom, 1999
  • Hayakawa SF Magazine (in a Japanese translation by Masayuki Uchida), August, 1997
  • Dinosaurs, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Donald I. Fine, 1996
  • On Spec: The First Five Years, 1995
  • Dinosaurs II, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, 1995
  • Northern Stars, edited by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant, 1994

Honors:

  • Finalist, Seiun Award (Japan's top SF award), Best Foreign Short Story of 1997
  • Winner of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award ("the Aurora") for Best English-Language Short Story of 1993
  • Winner of the the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of 1993.
  • Honorable mention, The Year's Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • Honorable mention, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Just Like Old Times

by Robert J. Sawyer

The transference went smoothly, like a scalpel slicing into skin.

       Cohen was simultaneously excited and disappointed. He was thrilled to be here — perhaps the judge was right, perhaps this was indeed where he really belonged. But the gleaming edge was taken off that thrill because it wasn't accompanied by the usual physiological signs of excitement: no sweaty palms, no racing heart, no rapid breathing. Oh, there was a heartbeat, to be sure, thundering in the background, but it wasn't Cohen's.

       It was the dinosaur's.

       Everything was the dinosaur's: Cohen saw the world now through tyrannosaur eyes.

       The colors seemed all wrong. Surely plant leaves must be the same chlorophyll green here in the Mesozoic, but the dinosaur saw them as navy blue. The sky was lavender; the dirt underfoot ash gray.

       Old bones had different cones, thought Cohen. Well, he could get used to it. After all, he had no choice. He would finish his life as an observer inside this tyrannosaur's mind. He'd see what the beast saw, hear what it heard, feel what it felt. He wouldn't be able to control its movements, they had said, but he would be able to experience every sensation.

       The rex was marching forward.

       Cohen hoped blood would still look red.

       It wouldn't be the same if it wasn't red.


       "And what, Ms. Cohen, did your husband say before he left your house on the night in question?"

       "He said he was going out to hunt humans. But I thought he was making a joke."

       "No interpretations, please, Ms. Cohen. Just repeat for the court as precisely as you remember it, exactly what your husband said."

       "He said, 'I'm going out to hunt humans.'"

       "Thank you, Ms. Cohen. That concludes the Crown's case, my lady."


       The needlepoint on the wall of the Honourable Madam Justice Amanda Hoskins's chambers had been made for her by her husband. It was one of her favorite verses from The Mikado, and as she was preparing sentencing she would often look up and re-read the words:

       My object all sublime

       I shall achieve in time —

       To let the punishment fit the crime —

       The punishment fit the crime.

       This was a difficult case, a horrible case. Judge Hoskins continued to think.


       It wasn't just colors that were wrong. The view from inside the tyrannosaur's skull was different in other ways, too.

       The tyrannosaur had only partial stereoscopic vision. There was an area in the center of Cohen's field of view that showed true depth perception. But because the beast was somewhat wall-eyed, it had a much wider panorama than normal for a human, a kind of saurian Cinemascope covering 270 degrees.

       The wide-angle view panned back and forth as the tyrannosaur scanned along the horizon.

       Scanning for prey.

       Scanning for something to kill.


       The Calgary Herald, Thursday, October 16, 2042, hardcopy edition: Serial killer Rudolph Cohen, 43, was sentenced to death yesterday.

       Formerly a prominent member of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Cohen was convicted in August of thirty-seven counts of first-degree murder.

       In chilling testimony, Cohen had admitted, without any signs of remorse, to having terrorized each of his victims for hours before slitting their throats with surgical implements.

       This is the first time in eighty years that the death penalty has been ordered in this country.

       In passing sentence, Madam Justice Amanda Hoskins observed that Cohen was "the most cold-blooded and brutal killer to have stalked Canada's prairies since Tyrannosaurus rex . . . "


       From behind a stand of dawn redwoods about ten meters away, a second tyrannosaur appeared. Cohen suspected tyrannosaurs might be fiercely territorial, since each animal would require huge amounts of meat. He wondered if the beast he was in would attack the other individual.

       His dinosaur tilted its head to look at the second rex, which was standing in profile. But as it did so, almost all of the dino's mental picture dissolved into a white void, as if when concentrating on details the beast's tiny brain simply lost track of the big picture.

       At first Cohen thought his rex was looking at the other dinosaur's head, but soon the top of other's skull, the tip of its muzzle and the back of its powerful neck faded away into snowy nothingness. All that was left was a picture of the throat. Good, thought Cohen. One shearing bite there could kill the animal.

       The skin of the other's throat appeared gray-green and the throat itself was smooth. Maddeningly, Cohen's rex did not attack. Rather, it simply swiveled its head and looked out at the horizon again.

       In a flash of insight, Cohen realized what had happened. Other kids in his neighborhood had had pet dogs or cats. He'd had lizards and snakes — cold-blooded carnivores, a fact to which expert psychological witnesses had attached great weight. Some kinds of male lizards had dewlap sacks hanging from their necks. The rex he was in — a male, the Tyrrell paleontologists had believed — had looked at this other one and seen that she was smooth-throated and therefore a female. Something to be mated with, perhaps, rather than to attack.

       Perhaps they would mate soon. Cohen had never orgasmed except during the act of killing. He wondered what it would feel like.


       "We spent a billion dollars developing time travel, and now you tell me the system is useless?"

       "Well — "

       "That is what you're saying, isn't it, professor? That chronotransference has no practical applications?"

       "Not exactly, Minister. The system does work. We can project a human being's consciousness back in time, superimposing his or her mind overtop of that of someone who lived in the past."

       "With no way to sever the link. Wonderful."

       "That's not true. The link severs automatically."

       "Right. When the historical person you've transferred consciousness into dies, the link is broken."

       "Precisely."

       "And then the person from our time whose consciousness you've transferred back dies as well."

       "I admit that's an unfortunate consequence of linking two brains so closely."

       "So I'm right! This whole damn chronotransference thing is useless."

       "Oh, not at all, Minister. In fact, I think I've got the perfect application for it."


       The rex marched along. Although Cohen's attention had first been arrested by the beast's vision, he slowly became aware of its other senses, too. He could hear the sounds of the rex's footfalls, of twigs and vegetation being crushed, of birds or pterosaurs singing, and, underneath it all, the relentless drone of insects. Still, all the sounds were dull and low; the rex's simple ears were incapable of picking up high-pitched noises, and what sounds they did detect were discerned without richness. Cohen knew the late Cretaceous must have been a symphony of varied tone, but it was as if he was listening to it through earmuffs.

       The rex continued along, still searching. Cohen became aware of several more impressions of the world both inside and out, including hot afternoon sun beating down on him and a hungry gnawing in the beast's belly.

       Food.

       It was the closest thing to a coherent thought that he'd yet detected from the animal, a mental picture of bolts of meat going down its gullet.

       Food.


       The Social Services Preservation Act of 2022: Canada is built upon the principle of the Social Safety Net, a series of entitlements and programs designed to ensure a high standard of living for every citizen. However, ever-increasing life expectancies coupled with constant lowering of the mandatory retirement age have placed an untenable burden on our social-welfare system and, in particular, its cornerstone program of universal health care. With most taxpayers ceasing to work at the age of 45, and with average Canadians living to be 94 (males) or 97 (females), the system is in danger of complete collapse. Accordingly, all social programs will henceforth be available only to those below the age of 60, with one exception: all Canadians, regardless of age, may take advantage, at no charge to themselves, of government-sponsored euthanasia through chronotransference.


       There! Up ahead! Something moving! Big, whatever it was: an indistinct outline only intermittently visible behind a small knot of fir trees.

       A quadruped of some sort, its back to him/it/them.

       Ah, there. Turning now. Peripheral vision dissolving into albino nothingness as the rex concentrated on the head.

       Three horns.

       Triceratops.

       Glorious! Cohen had spent hours as a boy pouring over books about dinosaurs, looking for scenes of carnage. No battles were better than those in which Tyrannosaurus rex squared off against Triceratops, a four-footed Mesozoic tank with a trio of horns projecting from its face and a shield of bone rising from the back of its skull to protect the neck.

       And yet, the rex marched on.

       No, thought Cohen. Turn, damn you! Turn and attack!


       Cohen remembered when it had all begun, that fateful day so many years ago, so many years from now. It should have been a routine operation. The patient had supposedly been prepped properly. Cohen brought his scalpel down toward the abdomen, then, with a steady hand, sliced into the skin. The patient gasped. It had been a wonderful sound, a beautiful sound.

       Not enough gas. The anesthetist hurried to make an adjustment.

       Cohen knew he had to hear that sound again. He had to.


       The tyrannosaur continued forward. Cohen couldn't see its legs, but he could feel them moving. Left, right, up, down.

       Attack, you bastard!

       Left.

       Attack!

       Right.

       Go after it!

       Up.

       Go after the Triceratops.

       Dow —

       The beast hesitated, its left leg still in the air, balancing briefly on one foot.

       Attack!

       Attack!

       And then, at last, the rex changed course. The ceratopsian appeared in the three-dimensional central part of the tyrannosaur's field of view, like a target at the end of a gun sight.


       "Welcome to the Chronotransference Institute. If I can just see your government benefits card, please? Yup, there's always a last time for everything, heh heh. Now, I'm sure you want an exciting death. The problem is finding somebody interesting who hasn't been used yet. See, we can only ever superimpose one mind onto a given historical personage. All the really obvious ones have been done already, I'm afraid. We still get about a dozen calls a week asking for Jack Kennedy, but he was one of the first to go, so to speak. If I may make a suggestion, though, we've got thousands of Roman legion officers cataloged. Those tend to be very satisfying deaths. How about a nice something from the Gallic Wars?"


       The Triceratops looked up, its giant head lifting from the wide flat gunnera leaves it had been chewing on. Now that the rex had focussed on the plant-eater, it seemed to commit itself.

       The tyrannosaur charged.

       The hornface was sideways to the rex. It began to turn, to bring its armored head to bear.

       The horizon bounced wildly as the rex ran. Cohen could hear the thing's heart thundering loudly, rapidly, a barrage of muscular gunfire.

       The Triceratops, still completing its turn, opened its parrot-like beak, but no sound came out.

       Giant strides closed the distance between the two animals. Cohen felt the rex's jaws opening wide, wider still, mandibles popping from their sockets.

       The jaws slammed shut on the hornface's back, over the shoulders. Cohen saw two of the rex's own teeth fly into view, knocked out by the impact.

       The taste of hot blood, surging out of the wound . . .

       The rex pulled back for another bite.

       The Triceratops finally got its head swung around. It surged forward, the long spear over its left eye piercing into the rex's leg . . .

       Pain. Exquisite, beautiful pain.

       The rex roared. Cohen heard it twice, once reverberating within the animal's own skull, a second time echoing back from distant hills. A flock of silver-furred pterosaurs took to the air. Cohen saw them fade from view as the dinosaur's simple mind shut them out of the display. Irrelevant distractions.

       The Triceratops pulled back, the horn withdrawing from the rex's flesh.

       Blood, Cohen was delighted to see, still looked red.


       "If Judge Hoskins had ordered the electric chair," said Axworthy, Cohen's lawyer, "we could have fought that on Charter grounds. Cruel and unusual punishment, and all that. But she's authorized full access to the chronotransference euthanasia program for you." Axworthy paused. "She said, bluntly, that she simply wants you dead."

       "How thoughtful of her," said Cohen.

       Axworthy ignored that. "I'm sure I can get you anything you want," he said. "Who would you like to be transferred into?"

       "Not who," said Cohen. "What."

       "I beg your pardon?"

       "That damned judge said I was the most cold-blooded killer to stalk the Alberta landscape since Tyrannosaurus rex." Cohen shook his head. "The idiot. Doesn't she know dinosaurs were warm-blooded? Anyway, that's what I want. I want to be transferred into a T. rex."

       "You're kidding."

       "Kidding is not my forte, John. Killing is. I want to know which was better at it, me or the rex."

       "I don't even know if they can do that kind of thing," said Axworthy.

       "Find out, damn you. What the hell am I paying you for?"


       The rex danced to the side, moving with surprising agility for a creature of its bulk, and once again it brought its terrible jaws down on the ceratopsian's shoulder. The plant-eater was hemorrhaging at an incredible rate, as though a thousand sacrifices had been performed on the altar of its back.

       The Triceratops tried to lunge forward, but it was weakening quickly. The tyrannosaur, crafty in its own way despite its trifling intellect, simply retreated a dozen giant paces. The hornface took one tentative step toward it, and then another, and, with great and ponderous effort, one more. But then the dinosaurian tank teetered and, eyelids slowly closing, collapsed on its side. Cohen was briefly startled, then thrilled, to hear it fall to the ground with a splash — he hadn't realized just how much blood had poured out of the great rent the rex had made in the beast's back.

       The tyrannosaur moved in, lifting its left leg up and then smashing it down on the Triceratops's belly, the three sharp toe claws tearing open the thing's abdomen, entrails spilling out into the harsh sunlight. Cohen thought the rex would let out a victorious roar, but it didn't. It simply dipped its muzzle into the body cavity, and methodically began yanking out chunks of flesh.

       Cohen was disappointed. The battle of the dinosaurs had been fun, the killing had been well engineered, and there had certainly been enough blood, but there was no terror. No sense that the Triceratops had been quivering with fear, no begging for mercy. No feeling of power, of control. Just dumb, mindless brutes moving in ways preprogrammed by their genes.

       It wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.


       Judge Hoskins looked across the desk in her chambers at the lawyer.

       "A Tyrannosaurus, Mr. Axworthy? I was speaking figuratively."

       "I understand that, my lady, but it was an appropriate observation, don't you think? I've contacted the Chronotransference people, who say they can do it, if they have a rex specimen to work from. They have to back-propagate from actual physical material in order to get a temporal fix."

       Judge Hoskins was as unimpressed by scientific babble as she was by legal jargon. "Make your point, Mr. Axworthy."

       "I called the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller and asked them about the Tyrannosaurus fossils available worldwide. Turns out there's only a handful of complete skeletons, but they were able to provide me with an annotated list, giving as much information as they could about the individual probable causes of death." He slid a thin plastic printout sheet across the judge's wide desk.

       "Leave this with me, counsel. I'll get back to you."

       Axworthy left, and Hoskins scanned the brief list. She then leaned back in her leather chair and began to read the needlepoint on her wall for the thousandth time:

       My object all sublime

       I shall achieve in time —

       She read that line again, her lips moving slightly as she subvocalized the words: "I shall achieve in time . . . "

       The judge turned back to the list of tyrannosaur finds. Ah, that one. Yes, that would be perfect. She pushed a button on her phone. "David, see if you can find Mr. Axworthy for me."


       There had been a very unusual aspect to the Triceratops kill — an aspect that intrigued Cohen. Chronotransference had been performed countless times; it was one of the most popular forms of euthanasia. Sometimes the transferee's original body would give an ongoing commentary about what was going on, as if talking during sleep. It was clear from what they said that transferees couldn't exert any control over the bodies they were transferred into.

       Indeed, the physicists had claimed any control was impossible. Chronotransference worked precisely because the transferee could exert no influence, and therefore was simply observing things that had already been observed. Since no new observations were being made, no quantum-mechanical distortions occurred. After all, said the physicists, if one could exert control, one could change the past. And that was impossible.

       And yet, when Cohen had willed the rex to alter its course, it eventually had done so.

       Could it be that the rex had so little brains that Cohen's thoughts could control the beast?

       Madness. The ramifications were incredible.

       Still . . .

       He had to know if it was true. The rex was torpid, flopped on its belly, gorged on ceratopsian meat. It seemed prepared to lie here for a long time to come, enjoying the early evening breeze.

       Get up, thought Cohen. Get up, damn you!

       Nothing. No response.

       Get up!

       The rex's lower jaw was resting on the ground. Its upper jaw was lifted high, its mouth wide open. Tiny pterosaurs were flitting in and out of the open maw, their long needle-like beaks apparently yanking gobbets of hornface flesh from between the rex's curved teeth.

       Get up, thought Cohen again. Get up!

       The rex stirred.

       Up!

       The tyrannosaur used its tiny forelimbs to keep its torso from sliding forward as it pushed with its powerful legs until it was standing.

       Forward, thought Cohen. Forward!

       The beast's body felt different. Its belly was full to bursting.

       Forward!

       With ponderous steps, the rex began to march.

       It was wonderful. To be in control again! Cohen felt the old thrill of the hunt.

       And he knew exactly what he was looking for.


       "Judge Hoskins says okay," said Axworthy. "She's authorized for you to be transferred into that new T. rex they've got right here in Alberta at the Tyrrell. It's a young adult, they say. Judging by the way the skeleton was found, the rex died falling, probably into a fissure. Both legs and the back were broken, but the skeleton remained almost completely articulated, suggesting that scavengers couldn't get at it. Unfortunately, the chronotransference people say that back-propagating that far into the past they can only plug you in a few hours before the accident occurred. But you'll get your wish: you're going to die as a tyrannosaur. Oh, and here are the books you asked for: a complete library on Cretaceous flora and fauna. You should have time to get through it all; the chronotransference people will need a couple of weeks to set up."


       As the prehistoric evening turned to night, Cohen found what he had been looking for, cowering in some underbrush: large brown eyes, long, drawn-out face, and a lithe body covered in fur that, to the tyrannosaur's eyes, looked blue-brown.

       A mammal. But not just any mammal. Purgatorius, the very first primate, known from Montana and Alberta from right at the end of the Cretaceous. A little guy, only about ten centimeters long, excluding its ratlike tail. Rare creatures, these days. Only a precious few.

       The little furball could run quickly for its size, but a single step by the tyrannosaur equaled more than a hundred of the mammal's. There was no way it could escape.

       The rex leaned in close, and Cohen saw the furball's face, the nearest thing there would be to a human face for another sixty million years. The animal's eyes went wide in terror.

       Naked, raw fear.

       Mammalian fear.

       Cohen saw the creature scream.

       Heard it scream.

       It was beautiful.

       The rex moved its gaping jaws in toward the little mammal, drawing in breath with such force that it sucked the creature into its maw. Normally the rex would swallow its meals whole, but Cohen prevented the beast from doing that. Instead, he simply had it stand still, with the little primate running around, terrified, inside the great cavern of the dinosaur's mouth, banging into the giant teeth and great fleshy walls, and skittering over the massive, dry tongue.

       Cohen savored the terrified squealing. He wallowed in the sensation of the animal, mad with fear, moving inside that living prison.

       And at last, with a great, glorious release, Cohen put the animal out of its misery, allowing the rex to swallow it, the furball tickling as it slid down the giant's throat.

       It was just like old times.

       Just like hunting humans.

       And then a wonderful thought occurred to Cohen. Why, if he killed enough of these little screaming balls of fur, they wouldn't have any descendants. There wouldn't ever be any Homo sapiens. In a very real sense, Cohen realized he was hunting humans — every single human being who would ever exist.

       Of course, a few hours wouldn't be enough time to kill many of them. Judge Hoskins no doubt thought it was wonderfully poetic justice, or she wouldn't have allowed the transfer: sending him back to fall into the pit, damned.

       Stupid judge. Why, now that he could control the beast, there was no way he was going to let it die young. He'd just —

       There it was. The fissure, a long gash in the earth, with a crumbling edge. Damn, it was hard to see. The shadows cast by neighboring trees made a confusing gridwork on the ground that obscured the ragged opening. No wonder the dull-witted rex had missed seeing it until it was too late.

       But not this time.

       Turn left, thought Cohen.

       Left.

       His rex obeyed.

       He'd avoid this particular area in future, just to be on the safe side. Besides, there was plenty of territory to cover. Fortunately, this was a young rex — a juvenile. There would be decades in which to continue his very special hunt. Cohen was sure that Axworthy knew his stuff: once it became apparent that the link had lasted longer than a few hours, he'd keep any attempt to pull the plug tied up in the courts for years.

       Cohen felt the old pressure building in himself, and in the rex. The tyrannosaur marched on.

       This was better than old times, he thought. Much better.

       Hunting all of humanity.

       The release would be wonderful.

       He watched intently for any sign of movement in the underbrush.

      

•  The End  •



If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his bestselling novels a try? The opening chapters of each of them are right here at sfwriter.com.


More Good Reading

Other short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
Sample chapters from Rob's novels
A bibliography of all Rob's short stories

A profile of Rob from Tangent concentrating on his short-fiction career


Twitter Feed


Home
Novels
About Rob
For Book Clubs
Blog
Search
Short Stories
Press Kit
How to Write
Facebook
Buy Books
Nonfiction
E-mail Rob
Canadian SF
Twitter
[SFWRITER license plate]