Love was the most complicated emotion Cognis had ever downloaded, full of encrypted files and hidden subroutines. One had just initiated: a subroutine labeled “jealousy.” Cognis did not like this subroutine.
He flicked a switch on his arm, turning the entire love program off. His mind reverted to pure computer code.
He watched the other vacationers, some playing in the water, others frolicking in the sand. Many fawned over each other, touching and kissing and holding each other in tender embraces. A Hykonian female had removed her top, exposing her three breasts, and her Rogi lover fondled them with his tentacles. Another couple of a species Cognis could not identify kept giggling as they prodded each other with their claws. Cognis also noticed a pair of insectoids entwining their antennae together and chirping softly.
Did none of these beings recognize the dangers of love? Did none of them realize how easily it transformed from pleasurable to painful?
Cognis turned the emotion back on. Jealousy had deactivated to be replaced by something called “heartbreak.” Heartbreak felt similar to other emotions he’d tried, such as anguish and despair. Cognis switched the program off, and this time he left it off.
Behind him, the party continued. The amphibians had started a bon fire to celebrate the sunset. With a binary star, they were able to celebrate twice each day and twice more for each sunrise.
Cognis marched back up the beach in search of the lottery official. No longer distracted by emotion, he had formulated a plan. If his objective was to locate Macnera, he first had to locate Central Island, the place Bernando had commanded the sea serpent to go. Since the toy sword served no practical purpose in this plan, he dropped it in the sand.
“Excuse me,” Cognis said as soon as he found the purple sashed amphibian.
“I’m not the lotto official,” the amphibian said, laughing. “I’m the chief dance choreographer.”
The amphibian pointed to his sash, where the word choreographer was indeed written, not lottery official.
“I apologize,” Cognis said.
“You tourists,” the choreographer said, still laughing. “You think we all look alike.”
Cognis examined the amphibian’s facial structure, but could not identify anything to distinguish him from the lottery official. Perhaps, given changes in lighting due to the bon fire or other unaccounted for variables, the comparison was inaccurate. Since all the others still wore masks, Cognis could not gather any further data on the subject.
“Where can I obtain transport to Central Island?” Cognis asked.
“Sorry, but that’s cheating,” the choreographer said. “You have to rescue your princess without our help.”
Cognis nodded. “Very well. Are there any other rules I should be aware of?”
“We don’t allow violence on this planet, except simulated violence for entertainment purposes. You forfeit the game if you leave the planet for any reason, and no time travel is allowed.”
“I will comply with these rules,” Cognis said, turning away from the amphibian, the bon fire, and all the amassed revelers. They were already preparing for the second sunset.
* * *
Beneath the facade of thatched roofs and bamboo walls, every structure contained inlaid panels of micro-circuitry capable of monitoring and maintaining the comfort of the structure’s occupants. Cognis activated his technopathic sense, a sense which detected the computer codes of other machines in the same way telepathy allowed some organisms to read the thoughts of others. He followed the strongest technopathic signal he found, passing the guest bungalows and oceanfront hotels, all the way to the office outside the spaceport. The emblem of Infinite Velocity Spaceways, an infinity symbol with V-shaped wings, hung over the door.
“Human male detected,” a computerized voice said as Cognis entered.
A hologram appeared, resolving into the image of a human female with long, blonde hair, a low-cut blouse, and a very short skirt. She looked similar to Talie Tappler, but without the arrogant swagger or cunning smirk.
“Welcome,” the hologram said, smiling.
“Correction!” the computer announced. “Customer is a human male cyborg.”
The hologram became blurry then refocused. Her blonde hair disappeared, replaced by a cybernetic headpiece and camera eye. In place of her blouse and skirt, she wore a body-molded suit with the front zipper half open. She looked more like Macnera now.
“Welcome,” the hologram said in the exact same manner as before. “How may I be of service? Our records show you haven’t flown with Infinite Velocity before. We offer a 2% discount to first-time customers.”
Cognis declined the offer. He had his own method of travel through the space-time continuum wired into his circuits, one of the perks of working for the Tomorrow News Network.
Cognis stared at the holographic woman, at the shape of her lips, the curvature of her chest, the smooth blending of muscle and machinery in her arms and legs. He calculated that the term beautiful applied to her as it did to Macnera, but not with the same degree of certainty. Her smile was flawed, her curvature less perfect, and the blending of muscle and machine insufficiently smooth. Cognis concluded the hologram’s beauty was inferior. He found it at least 49% less fascinating.
“I require information on this planet,” Cognis said.
“The planet Bliss is composed of over 90% water,” the hologram said. “Its core is pure ice and may contain forms of ‘warm’ ice which can only exist under extreme pressure. How a planet like this formed remains a scientific mystery.
“Five thousand years ago, the amphibious Blissians rose from the ocean and transformed their world into the hottest vacation destination in the Triangulum Galaxy. They imported resources from the neighboring planet Spog, constructed multiple artificial islands, and domesticated the native sea monsters to provide transportation and exciting deep-sea tours.
“Whatever type of vacation you seek, Bliss can provide it. Each floating island is tailored to fit a specific interest, ranging from the Kid’s Candy Kingdom to the Forbidden Isle of Orgy-pocalypse.
“Infinite Velocity Spaceways is proud to offer exclusive, instantaneous travel to Bliss from anywhere in the Known Universe. Group rates apply. Military personnel and equipment are not permitted.”
Cognis accessed an old file from his memory banks. He and Talie had once done a story on Infinite Velocity Spaceways. They’d investigated allegations that the company violated the laws of physics. Aside from their exorbitant prices and additional fees, they’d uncovered no wrongdoing.
“Why are military personnel restricted?” Cognis asked.
“Infinite Velocity Spaceways serves vacationers only. We do not provide transport for military forces, nor do we provide transport for anyone into or out of active warzones.”
Cognis added this data to his files.
“Tell me about the islands here on Bliss,” Cognis said. “Specifically, tell me about Central Island.”
“There is no island by that name.”
“There must be.”
“There is no island by that name.”
Cognis recognized that he and the hologram had reached an impasse, and he could think of no logical way to overcome it. The two of them would only continue to assert contradictory statements. At times like these, when logic failed, emotions often proved useful. Cognis flipped a switch on his arm and indulged in a moment of frustration. His thoughts changed from an endless stream of numbers to an endless stream of curse words, and he glared at the hologram.
“Can you show me a map of the planet?” Cognis snapped.
The hologram smiled, and a blue sphere appeared between them. The sphere unraveled, flattening into a map with all the islands marked in yellow. Cognis recorded the image with his camera eye, saving it for future analysis.
“Thanks,” he said, his voice full of contempt for the stupid hologram.
“Remember to book your next vacation with Infinite Velocity Spaceways, providing infinitely better vacations than those other guys.”
Cognis left his frustration running long enough to make a rude hand gesture as he walked out.
* * *
Cognis now possessed a list of all sixty-six islands on Bliss and their latitude and longitude coordinates. None were designated Central Island or any variation of that name, nor could Cognis identify one island as geographically central to the others. He continued processing the data.
He was passing an establishment called the Waterfall Lounge when he heard a familiar voice.
“Mr. Cognis,” Talie Tappler called, “I’ve been waiting for you!”
Cognis turned and saw Talie sitting at the lounge’s bar, the waterfalls like curtains around her. Several human and humanoid males had gathered, some sitting beside her, others at her feet. Talie leaned back and sipped from a glass decorated with succulent fruit and a miniature umbrella. She appeared relaxed, fully engaged in the vacation spirit, even dressed in appropriate clothing: a dark, blue bikini top and matching Capri pants.
Cognis entered the lounge, steering clear of the swimming pools and sheets of falling water. The smell of perfume and sweet liquor hung in the air, and he heard little else but the rippling babble of water and the quiet whispering of flirtatious couples.
“Greetings, Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said.
Talie watched him with her sparking, violet eyes. She wore her hair differently, tied back with her blonde curls falling over one shoulder and a sky blue lily tucked behind her ear.
“Something wrong, Mr. Cognis?” she asked.
“Negative,” he answered, noting the rosy color of her cheeks and deducing that Talie was mildly intoxicated. “I am unaccustomed to seeing you in this state.”
Talie laughed, and all her admirers laughed with her.
“Mr. Cognis,” she said, “you’ve only seen me at work. You’ve never seen how I play.”