Mr. Cognis saw the universe in two ways. Through one eye, he saw it as any human would, but through the other he saw as only machines do: in high definition.
Homo machinae were a superior species, a perfect melding of biology and technology. Evolution had robbed them of emotions, but why would cyborgs need emotions anyway?
Light fingers ran along Cognis’s arm, feeling the seams between flesh and hydraulic muscle. He enjoyed the playfulness of the touch. Though cyborgs had no emotions, Cognis sometimes downloaded programs to simulate emotional experiences. He and a fellow cyborg named Ms. Macnera had recently downloaded a new one called “love.”
Cognis looked at Macnera with his human eye. Beauty was not an emotion, not something he could understand with downloaded software. He could appreciate things for their simplicity, their complexity, or their efficiency, but beauty was beyond his comprehension. Yet something about the shape of Macnera’s lips, the curve of her neck, the slight motion of her chest as she breathed–something about the lines where organic and synthetic parts met, about the way light reflected off both metal and bare skin–something about her physical appearance in general fascinated Cognis. He could not be certain, but he estimated with 87% probability that the term beautiful applied to her.
Macnera’s hand slipped over his shoulder and began exploring the contours of his chest. When the two of them had decided to go on vacation, Cognis had resisted wearing the traditional vacation attire. Board shorts did not fit well over his augmented hips and legs, but now he was glad Macnera had persuaded him. Wearing his usual full body-molded suit, he would have missed the subtleties of her gentle caress and the fractional increases in body temperature it produced.
They sat on the sands of an artificial island, the golden light of a binary star shining high in the sky. The ocean smelled salty, a warning of potential corrosive effects to metal, yet Cognis found the smell relaxing rather than alarming. Even the sound of waves rushing up the shore caused him no concern.
“Tell me about Talie Tappler,” Macnera said.
“Why do you want to talk about her?” Cognis asked.
“She’s so strange,” Macnera said. “I heard she was there the day the universe began and will be there when it dies. I heard she’s traveled beyond our universe and that she knows the future of every living creature including herself. I am too rational to believe in religion, but Ms. Tappler seems almost godlike. You’ve worked with her more than I have. What’s she really like?”
“We are on vacation,” Cognis said. “We are not supposed to talk about work.”
“Of course,” Macnera said, snuggling up to him. “Forget I said anything about it.”
Cognis complied and deleted the conversation from his memory banks.
Cognis knew many biological organisms pressed their mouths together, sometimes allowing their tongues to touch. Several other vacationers were presently engaged in this activity. Once, when Macnera suffered a system-wide malfunction, she did this to Cognis. At the time, the experience had confused him. Now, unhygienic as it seemed, the idea excited him. He wanted to try it again. He turned his head, and at the same time Macnera turned hers. Gazing into her human eye, Cognis initiated his request.
“Ms. Macnera…” he said, but then with a loud pop and the blaring of trumpets a half-dozen indigenous aliens burst from the ground. They wore silvery loincloths and tribal masks, concealing their fish-eyed faces. They began singing some nonsense about itches in your pants as more of their kind came running from the bushes or swimming out of the ocean. As their numbers increased, they danced circles around the two cyborgs, some performing gymnastic tricks, others juggling native fruits, all of them making use of their quadruplet arms. Cognis’s motion tracking function attempted to follow the multiple angles and trajectories involved in this performance and soon became overloaded with data.
Macnera sat up straight, smiling and clapping along with the tune. Cognis wondered if he should imitate her.
“Congratulations,” one of the aliens said, stepping forward while the others continued to dance. He wore a purple sash which identified him as a “lottery official.”
“Have we won the Lovers’ Lotto?” Macnera asked.
“Yes!” the official answered.
“What is the Lovers’ Lotto?” Cognis said.
“I signed us up when we arrived,” Macnera explained. “It’s a contest. The winners receive an opportunity to prove how much they love each other. It should be an effective test of our new love program, to see how well it works.”
“I understand,” Cognis said. “What does this test require us to do?”
“Cyborgs in love! What fun! Ha ha!” the natives sang, continuing to dance.
The lottery official removed his mask, and his wide mouth smiled. His vestigial gills puffed up as he spoke.
“You are two naughty cyborgs,” he said. “Your people outlawed emotions, but of course every species indulges in its own vices. We do not judge. You are on the planet Bliss, and what happens on Bliss stays on Bliss.”
Macnera laughed and clapped again. After a moment’s hesitation, Cognis clapped as well.
“We’ve studied the literature of Earth, your planet of origin,” the lottery official said, “and determined that its most romantic tales involve a kidnapped princess and the brave warrior who rescues her.”
One of the masked aliens presented Macnera with a plastic crown and Cognis with a toy sword.
“Brave warrior,” the official said, “can you save your princess before she succumbs to the seduction of her captor?”
With a high-pitched shriek, a serpentine creature emerged from the ocean, its jaws hanging open, its eyestalks extended forward. It slithered up the beach, staring down at Cognis and Macnera, stopping only a few meters away at a shouted command.
A human male leapt from the sea monster’s back. He had bright eyes, a confident smile, and a nose skewed approximately two degrees off center. He threw back his wavy hair and ran a hand down his smooth, muscular chest.
“I am Bernando!” he said. “I have come for the princess!”
“I did not realize love could be so theatrical,” Macnera said, placing the crown atop her head.
“Baby,” Bernando said, approaching her, “I can teach you everything you need to know about love.”
Macnera cocked her head to the side. “I am eager to learn,” she said.
Bernando lifted her into his arms and carried her toward the waiting sea monster. Macnera held her crown in place with one hand. Her other arm wrapped around Bernando’s shoulders, and Cognis observed her taking a deep breath, inhaling the scent of his skin.
“Take us to Central Island!” Bernando shouted as he climbed up the monster’s back, gripping it by the scales. The serpent hissed and turned toward the ocean.
Cognis proceeded to follow, but with a thrashing of its tail the beast swam off. It would be unfortunate if rust formed in the joints of his feet, so Cognis stopped at the water’s edge. He directed all his cybernetic senses toward Macnera, trying to determine what he should do. His enhanced hearing picked up her voice inquiring about pheromones and other issues of body chemistry. She also asked for more information on kissing.
“That’s hard to explain,” Bernando answered, “but easy to demonstrate.”
For Cognis, the love program only worked on one person. He’d assumed it operated in the same way for Macnera, but for the first time he questioned that assumption. Perhaps she had downloaded a different version, one which responded to the presence of any attractive male. Based on his observations of love in the Homo sapiens species, he knew such things were possible.
The masked, amphibious aliens were singing and dancing again, some flipping through the air, jumping on each other’s backs. They’d started a new song: something called “Love Machine.”
A crowd had gathered, and Cognis heard them urging him to “go after her.” He intended to do so, but he remained uncertain as to how he should proceed.
* * *
Talie Tappler was a time traveler and a journalist, one of the best in the time travel journalism industry. She reported the news before it happened. She’d won multiple intergalactic journalism awards and already knew how many more she was going to win. She said and did a lot of illogical things, but Cognis had learned to trust her. She always turned out to be right.
“Be careful with that one,” she’d said when he told her about the love program. “It will make you do stupid things.”
Cognis had not understood what she meant, but now he was beginning to.
Certain biological functions were associated with love, functions which cyborgs had little use for. Cyborg technology provided more efficient methods of procreation. However, Macnera had expressed a desire to try these biological functions, and Cognis had anticipated sharing the experience with her. Would she now share it with someone else?