“Hey, cyborg,” one of Talie’s men said, “have you rescued your princess yet?”
“Negative,” Cognis responded.
“Oh well,” the man said. “Plenty of other fish in the sea.”
“Funny you mention that,” Talie said, “because there aren’t. You’ll find surprisingly few fish in this planet’s ocean. In fact, aside from our amphibious hosts and their sea serpent pets, you won’t find much life on this planet at all. Certainly not enough to establish a stable ecosystem.”
“You are so sexy when you talk about science,” the dark skinned human to Talie’s left said.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes fluttering at him, “I know.”
“How did the amphibians evolve here without a stable ecosystem?” Cognis asked.
“How old do you think this planet is?” Talie replied. “Until five thousand years ago, no one had ever heard of it. Even I didn’t know this place existed, Mr. Cognis, until you told me about it.”
Talie glared at Cognis, a flash of anger in her eyes, then she took another sip of her drink.
“Would the lady like a refill?” an amphibian waiter asked.
“You stay away from me!” Talie shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at him.
Shocked silence filled the lounge.
“What I mean,” Talie said, staggering to her feet and raising her glass, “is I’ve had one too many already.”
The room filled with laughter.
“Of course, ma’am,” the waiter said, bowing and taking a step back. The soft whispering soon resumed, interrupted by sporadic giggling and light splashes in the pools. The amphibians, however, watched Talie. Every single one stared at her, their expressions blank.
Talie sauntered over to Cognis, placing a hand on his chest right above his heart. A puzzled look came to her face.
“Where is Macnera?” Talie asked.
“A man named Bernando ‘kidnapped’ her. It is part of a game. I am supposed to find her.”
“She went willingly?” Talie said.
Talie frowned. She removed her hand from Cognis’s chest, walked back to the bar, and grabbed a bottle of thetaberry wine from the counter. She refilled her own glass with the amber liquid.
“Did you know,” she said, “a spaceship once came here on a survey mission. They reported distortions in the local gravitational field, irregularities in that binary star’s movements, and the presence of zero planets? After that final transmission, no one ever heard from them again. This happened five thousand years ago.”
“Are you sure about that?” someone asked. “It doesn’t say anything like that in the brochures.”
“She is positive,” Cognis said. “Ms. Tappler doesn’t make mistakes.”
Talie smirked and sipped her drink.
“You’ve deactivated your love program,” Talie said.
“It was too distracting,” Cognis said. “I will require 100% of my computational power to determine Ms. Macnera’s current location.”
“If you want to save Macnera, you must reactivate it.”
Cognis nodded and turned the program back on. Jealousy, heartbreak, and several other unpleasant subroutines kicked in at once. The emotion seemed to trigger a physiological response as well: a tightening sensation in the chest and an accumulation of moisture in Cognis’s human eye. He attempted wiping the tears away, but more formed in their place.
His continued existence seemed meaningless without Macnera standing by his side. Yet she was somewhere far away, potentially engaged in acts of infidelity. Why hadn’t Cognis proceeded with this game at a faster pace?
“Love is not always fun, Mr. Cognis,” Talie said, “but you must suffer through it.”
Talie reached into her pocket and pulled out her ancient watch. The device utilized primitive gears and cogwheels, but the internal mechanisms also existed in a quantum superposition displaced by temporal energy and charged with chronomagnetic particles. It functioned in a similar fashion to the time machine built into Cognis’s own circuits.
Talie tossed the watch to Cognis. “You’ll need that,” she said. “Just remember I’ll want it back.”
“Time travel is against the rules of this game,” Cognis said.
“Who told you that?”
“One of the amphibians.”
“Mr. Cognis,” Talie said, her face contorted with a kind of rage he’d never witnessed in her before, “this is not a game. There are no rules.”
Cognis did not know how to respond.
“I’m sorry, boys,” Talie said, setting her glass down and rising to her unsteady feet, “but I refuse to stay on this vile planet a moment longer. If any of you value your lives, I suggest you book the next available ship out of here.”
The throng of men at the bar chuckled at her.
“Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said, “how can you leave without your time machine?”
Talie smirked. “I don’t need a machine to help me travel through time.”
Cognis frowned. Talie’s statement contradicted everything he knew about chrono-theoretical physics. Perhaps, Cognis speculated, she was more intoxicated than she seemed.
“If you don’t need it, why do you use this watch at all?” he asked.
Talie’s eyes went misty, and her lips fell into an expression associated with the emotion called sorrow.
“Sentimental reasons,” she said. “It belonged to my mother.”
Talie disappeared in an eerie flash, a flash made eerier by the fact that it was impossible. The amphibians resumed their previous activities, serving and entertaining their guests, acting as if nothing abnormal had occurred.
* * *
Cognis reexamined his surroundings. In the course of their work, he and Talie had gone to many dangerous places and interviewed some truly evil people: the Gronogians, the Planet Eaters, the Prince of the Hykonian Undead… They tended to live in dark, foul smelling places, not planets with golden suns, clear, blue water, and so much dancing. Cognis concluded with 97% probability the term vile should not apply to Bliss, yet Talie had used that word to describe it. Talie did not make mistakes.
However, given her inebriated state, Cognis could not determine if he should trust her judgment. The logical course of action called for more study of the map and the list of artificial islands.
But the love program was running. What was Bernando doing to Macnera? What was Macnera doing with Bernando? Where did the planet Bliss come from, and what did the amphibians really want?
Love produced chaos in Cognis’s mind, and he ran toward the beach.
* * *
Cognis secured an inflatable raft from an amphibian at the pier and rowed himself out into the ocean, following the exact path Bernando’s sea monster had taken.
In the constant misting and spraying of water, Cognis detected molecular damage to some of his external metal surfaces. Prolonged exposure would cause severe corrosion. Soaking in water might damage internal systems as well. Coming to a planet of 90% water must be one of the stupid things Talie had tried to warn him about.
As water would corrode his mechanical parts, love would corrupt his mechanical mind. When all his metal rusted away and his mind stopped operating in binary code, he could no longer call himself a cyborg, no longer think of himself as a member of a superior species. This concerned Cognis. Though he did not have his fear program running, he experienced fear at the thought of losing his identity.
But he felt greater fear about losing Macnera. Love program or not, he depended on her. She made his life worth living.
The island disappeared beyond the horizon. Both suns had set, and the light of the Triangulum Galaxy’s 40 billion stars filled the night sky. In the distance, a sea monster breached the ocean’s surface.
Cognis had once read a book called Moby Dick. He hadn’t enjoyed it. It contained too many subjective statements and too few objective facts. The narrator, a primitive human named Ishmael, was too biased against whales to serve as an accurate source of information about them. Cognis never understood why Talie recommended the book to him. Standing on his raft watching the sea monster approach, Cognis wondered if this situation would help him better identify with the Ishmael character.
“Take me to Central Island!” Cognis shouted as the beast rose up, water streaming off its back.
The monster grunted. Its mouth stretched open, its needle-like teeth glinting in the starlight. Just before it swallowed him, Cognis saw a flashing, blue light in the creature’s gullet.
* * *
The inside of the monster was metal. A high-density alloy reinforced by a compressed carbon superstructure. For a moment, Cognis wondered if the sea monster was a cyborg too, but he didn’t detect any biological components. The beast was machine all the way through.
Several amphibians stood in the creature’s belly. They stared at Cognis. Seeing them together in the same place under the same lighting all facing the same direction, Cognis confirmed his earlier theory. They were identical. Possibly clones. Their bulbous, yellow eyes blinked in unison.
“Is this part of the game?” Cognis asked.
“The game is over,” they said, speaking as one. “We win.”
A small, blue light flashed on a control panel. Cognis’s camera eye zoomed in, and he read the words “Destination: Central Island.” According to his gravimetric scans, the sea monster was rapidly descending through the ocean depths.
“Central Island is at the center of this planet,” Cognis concluded. “That is why it does not appear on the map.”
The amphibians did not reply.