Does this suggest anything to you? Bikermien inquired, without speaking, the telebeam open between them.


So Bikermien explained it:

Hand-to-hand combat with a full-grown male ape might seem like an uninteresting, easy challenge at first glance; a robot was the mental and physical superior of any ape. However, one could always modify oneself in order to even the odds of what might appear to be a sure thing. If a robot couldn't fly, couldn't see as well at night as in the daylight, couldn't communicate except vocally, couldn't run faster than an antelope, couldn't hear a whisper at a thousand yards—in short, if all of his standard abilities were dulled, except for his thinking capacity, might not a robot find that a hand-to-hand battle with an ape was a supremely exciting event?

I see your point, Curanov admitted. To understand the grandeur of simple things, one must humble himself.


And so it was that, on the following day, Curanov boarded the express train north to Montana, where he was scheduled to do some hunting in the company of four other robots, all of whom had been stripped to their essentials.

Ordinarily they would have flown under their own power. Now none had that ability.

Ordinarily they would have used telebeams for communication. Now they were forced to talk to one another in that curious, clicking language that had been designed especially for machines but that robots had been able to do without for more than six hundred years.

Ordinarily, the thought of going north to hunt deer and wolves would have profoundly bored them. Now, however, each of them felt a curious tingle of anticipation, as if this were a more important ordeal than any he had faced before.

* * *

A brisk, efficient robot named Janus met the group at the small station house just outside of Walker's Watch, toward the northernmost border of Montana. To Curanov, it was clear that Janus had spent several months in this uneventful duty assignment, and that he might be near the end of his obligatory two years' service to the Central Agency. He was actually too brisk and efficient. He spoke rapidly, and he behaved altogether as if he must keep moving and doing in order not to have time to contemplate the uneventful and unexciting days that he had spent in Walker's Watch. He was one of those robots too eager for excitement; one day, he would tackle a challenge that he had not been prepared for, and he would end himself.

Curanov looked at Tuttle, another robot who, on the train north, had begun an interesting if silly argument about the development of the robot personality. He contended that until quite recently, in terms of centuries, robots hadn't possessed individual personalities. Each, Tuttle claimed, had been like the other, cold and sterile, with no private dreams. A patently ridiculous theory. Tuttle had been unable to explain how this could have been, but he'd refused to back down from his position.

Now, watching Janus chatter at them in a nervous staccato, Curanov was incapable of envisioning an era when the Central Agency would have dispatched mindless robots from the factories. The whole purpose of life was to explore, to carefully store data collected from an individual viewpoint, even if it was repetitive data. How could mindless robots ever function in the necessary manner?

As Steffan, another of their group, had said, such theories were on a par with belief in Second Awareness. (Some believed, without evidence, that the Central Agency occasionally made a mistake and, when a robot's allotted life span was up, only partially erased his accumulated memory before refitting him and sending him out of the factory again. These robots—or so the superstitious claimed—had an advantage and were among those who matured fast enough to be elevated to duty as counselors and, sometimes, even to service in the Central Agency itself.)

Tuttle had been angered to hear his views on robot personality equated with wild tales of Second Awareness. To egg him on, Steffan also suggested that Tuttle believed in that ultimate of hobgoblins, the "human being." Disgusted, Tuttle settled into a grumpy silence while the others enjoyed the jest.

"And now," Janus said, calling Curanov back from his reverie, "I'll issue your supplies and see you on your way."

Curanov, Tuttle, Steffan, Leeke, and Skowski crowded forward, eager to begin the adventure.

Each of the five was given: binoculars of rather antique design, a pair of snowshoes that clipped and bolted to their feet, a survival pack of tools and greases with which to repair themselves in the event of some unforeseen emergency, an electric hand torch, maps, and a drug rifle complete with an extra clip of one thousand darts.

"This is all, then?" Leeke asked. He had seen as much danger as Curanov, perhaps even more, but now he sounded frightened.

"What else would you need?" Janus asked impatiently.

Leeke said, "Well, as you know, certain modifications have been made to us. For one thing, our eyes aren't what they were, and—"

"You've a torch for darkness," Janus said.

"And then, our ears—" Leeke began.

"Listen cautiously, walk quietly," Janus suggested.

"We've had a power reduction to our legs," Leeke said. "If we should have to run—"

"Be stealthy. Creep up on your game before it knows you're there, and you'll not need to chase it."

"But," Leeke persisted, "weakened as we are, if we should have to run from something—"

"You're only after deer and wolves," Janus reminded him. "The deer won't give chase—and a wolf hasn't any taste for steel flesh."

Skowski, who had thus far been exceptionally quiet, not even joining the good-natured roasting the others had given Tuttle on the train, now stepped forward. "I've read that this part of Montana has an unusual number of ... unexplained reports."

"Reports of what?" Janus asked.

Skowski swept the others with his yellow visual receptors, then looked back at Janus. "Well ... reports of footprints similar to our own but not those of any robot, and reports of robotlike forms seen in the woods."

"Oh," Janus said, waving a glittering hand as if to brush away Skowski's suggestion like a fluff of dust, "we get a dozen reports each month about `human beings' sighted in wilder regions northwest of here."

"Where we're going?" Curanov asked.

"Yes," Janus said. "But I wouldn't worry. In every case, those who make the reports are robots like yourselves: They've had their perceptions decreased in order to make the hunt a greater challenge for them. Undoubtedly, what they've seen has a rational explanation. If they had seen these things with their full range of perceptions, they would not have come back with these crazy tales."

"Does anyone besides stripped-down robots go there?" Skowski asked.

"No," Janus said.

Skowski shook his head. "This isn't anything at all like I thought it would be. I feel so weak, so ..." He dropped his supplies at his feet. "I don't believe I want to continue with this."

The others were surprised.

"Afraid of goblins?" Steffan asked. He was the teaser in the group.

"No," Skowski said. "But I don't like being a cripple, no matter how much excitement it adds to the adventure."

"Very well," Janus said. "There will be only four of you."

Leeke said, "Don't we get any weapons besides the drug rifle?"

"You'll need nothing else," Janus said.

Leeke's query had been a strange one, Curanov thought. The prime directive in every robot's personality—installed in the factory—forbade the taking of any life that could not be restored. Yet, Curanov sympathized with Leeke, shared Leeke's foreboding. He supposed that, with a crippling of their perceptions, there was an inevitable clouding of the thought processes as well, for nothing else explained their intense and irrational fear.

"Now," Janus said, "the only thing you need to know is that a storm is predicted for northern Montana early tomorrow night. By then you should be to the lodge that will serve as your base of operations, and the snow will pose no trouble. Questions?"

They had none they cared to ask.

"Good luck to you," Janus said. "And may many weeks pass before you lose interest in the challenge." That was a traditional send-off, yet Janus appeared to mean it. He would, Curanov guessed, prefer to be hunting deer and wolves under severely restricted perceptions rather than to continue clerking at the station house in Walker's Watch.

They thanked him, consulted their maps, left the station house, and were finally on their way.

Skowski watched them go and, when they looked back at him, waved one shiny arm in a stiff-fingered salute.

* * *

They walked all that day, through the evening, and on into the long night, requiring no rest. Though the power supply to their legs had been reduced and a governor put on their walking speed, they did not become weary. They could appreciate the limitations put on their senses, but they could not actually grow tired. Even when the drifts were deep enough for them to break out their wire-webbed snowshoes and bolt those in place, they maintained a steady pace.

Passing across broad plains where the snow was swept into eerie peaks and twisting configurations, walking beneath the dense roof of crossed pine boughs in the virgin forests, Curanov felt a tingle of anticipation that had been missing from his exploits for some years now. Because his perceptions were so much less acute than usual, he sensed danger in every shadow, imagined obstacles and complications around every turn. It was positively exhilarating to be here.

Before dawn, a light snow began to fall, clinging to their cold steel skin. Two hours later, by the day's first light, they crested a small ridge and looked out across an expanse of pine woods to the lodge on the other side of a shallow valley. The place was made of a burnished, bluish metal: oval windows, Quonset walls, functional.

"We'll be able to get some hunting in today," Steffan said.

"Let's go," Tuttle said.

Single file, they went down into the valley, crossed it, and came out almost at the doorstep of the lodge.

* * *

Curanov pulled the trigger.

The magnificent buck, decorated with a twelve-point rack of antlers, reared up onto its hind legs, pawing at the air, breathing steam.

"A hit!" Leeke cried.

Curanov fired again.

The buck went down onto all four legs.

The other deer, behind it in the woods, turned and galloped back along the well-trampled trail.

The buck shook its huge head, staggered forward as if to follow its companions, stopped abruptly, and then settled onto its haunches. After one last valiant effort to regain its footing, it fell sideways into the snow.

"Congratulations!" Steffan said.

The four robots rose from the drift where they'd concealed themselves when the deer had come into sight, and they crossed the small open field to the sleeping buck.

Curanov bent and felt the creature's sedated heartbeat, watched its grainy black nostrils quiver as it took a shallow breath.

Tuttle, Steffan, and Leeke crowded in, squatting around the creature, touching it, marveling at the perfect musculature, the powerful shoulders, and the hard-packed thighs. They agreed that bringing down such a brute, when one's senses were drastically damped, was indeed a challenge. Then, one by one, they got up and walked away, leaving Curanov alone to more fully appreciate his triumph and to carefully collect and record his own emotional reactions to the event in the microtapes of his data vault.

Curanov was nearly finished with his evaluation of the challenge and of the resultant confrontation—and the buck was beginning to regain its senses—when Tuttle cried out as if his systems had been accidentally overloaded.

"Here! Look here!"

Tuttle stood two hundred yards away, near the dark trees, waving his arms. Steffan and Leeke were already moving toward him.

At Curanov's feet, the buck snorted and tried to stand, failed to manage that yet, and blinked its gummed eyelids. With nothing more to record in his data vault, Curanov rose and left the beast, walked toward his three companions.

"What is it?" he asked when he arrived.

They stared at him with glowing amber visual receptors that seemed especially bright in the gray light of late afternoon.

"There," Tuttle said, pointing at the ground before them.

"Footprints," Curanov said.

Leeke said, "They don't belong to any of us."

"So?" Curanov asked.

"And they're not robot prints," Tuttle said.

"Of course they are."

Tuttle said, "Look closer."

Curanov bent down and realized that his eyes, with half their power gone, had at first deceived him in the weak light. These weren't robot prints in anything but shape. A robot's feet were crosshatched with rubber tread; these prints showed none of that. A robot's feet were bottomed with two holes that acted as vents for the antigrav system when the unit was in flight; these prints showed no holes.

Curanov said, "I didn't know there were any apes in the north."

"There aren't," Tuttle said.


"These," Tuttle said, "are the prints ... of a man."

"Preposterous!" Steffan said.

"How else do you explain them?" Tuttle asked. He didn't sound happy with his explanation, but he was prepared to stick with it until someone offered an acceptable alternative.

"A hoax," Steffan said.

"Perpetrated by whom?" Tuttle asked.

"One of us."

They looked at one another, as if the guilt would be evident in their identical metal faces.

Then Leeke said, "That's no good. We've been together. These tracks were made recently, or they'd be covered over with snow. None of us has had a chance, all afternoon, to sneak off and form them."

"I still say it's a hoax," Steffan insisted. "Perhaps someone was sent out by the Central Agency to leave these for us to find."

"Why would Central bother?" Tuttle asked.

"Maybe it's part of our therapy," Steffan said. "Maybe this is to sharpen the challenge for us, add excitement to the hunt." He gestured vaguely at the prints, as if he hoped they'd vanish. "Maybe Central does this for everyone who's troubled by boredom, to restore the sense of wonder that"

"That's highly unlikely," Tuttle said. "You know that it's the responsibility of each individual to engineer his own adventures and to generate his own storable responses. The Central Agency never interferes. It is merely a judge. After that fact, it evaluates us and gives promotions to those whose data vaults have matured."