The Opera of Machines, Page 1

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Two cyborgs huddled in the dark, their arms and legs entangled.  Overcome by nameless grief, they wept, sobbing oily tears, their mechanical parts struggling against the erratic heaving of their muscles and lungs.  At a predetermined time, they each reached for the controls on their arms, flicked a switch, and turned their “sadness” off.

They held each other a moment longer, strange though it seemed to them both; finally, they pushed each other away.

“Thank you, Ms. Macnera,” the male said, wiping his biological eye.  “That was intriguing.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me, Mr. Cognis,” Macnera said.  Her face still bore the imprint of sorrow, even though she could no longer feel it.  “I like sadness,” she said.  “It’s liberating to sit here and cry.  It’s as though some great burden has been taken away from me.  Does that make sense?”

Cognis analyzed her statements, comparing them to the data in his own memory.  “I do not agree,” he said.  “I prefer joy, especially the laughter it causes.  I believe that is favorable to sadness.”

“Oh…” Macnera said, examining her fingers.

Since the 43rd Century, when cyborgs declared themselves a separate species, their kind had outlawed emotions.  Emotions threatened not only the individual but the entire community if they escaped into a wireless network.  Yet some tried them anyway, and a few became addicted.

Like other addicts, Cognis and Macnera no longer lived with other cyborgs.  They were exiles.  Separated from their race, they’d found employment with the Tomorrow News Network.  Yet even among their fully organic co-workers who harbored no prejudice against emotions, they usually kept their feelings offline.  They tended to activate them in secret, concealed in crawl spaces or other secluded areas of the Tomorrow News Network’s vast broadcasting complex.

A message pinged in Cognis’s cybernetic receiver:

Meet me in the News Director’s office.
– Talie Tappler, Reporter Extraordinaire.

Several nanoseconds later, another message arrived:

Mr. Cognis, report to my office at once.  Your assignment is changing.
– The News Director

Cognis opened the hatch above him.  He and Macnera had hidden in a service compartment under the chronomagnetic transmission tower.

As Cognis climbed into the open air, Macnera requested information.  “Where are you going?” she said.  “I thought we could try anxiety next.”

“I am being summoned to the News Director’s office,” Cognis responded.

The tower stretched for miles overhead, disappearing into a layer of poison green clouds.  Antennae along each side throbbed with chronomagnetic energy, and rippling distortions of space-time wrapped its titanium lattice structure.  Intermittent flashes of light bled through from the past; from the future came nothing but shadows.

Macnera followed Cognis into the open, closing the service hatch behind her.  “Shall we meet here again after the next shift?” she asked.

“Affirmative.”

Cognis hastened toward the central structure where the offices were located, his mechanical legs stamping deep footprints in the sand.  Wind swept the pallid landscape, flinging dust against the protective force field around the news complex.

Cognis began reorganizing his thoughts, deleting what seemed unnecessary, freeing enough brain space and computer memory to ensure efficiency in his next task.  However, he wasted a small percentage of his processing power wondering which emotion was appropriate in this situation.  Excitement?  Fear?  Curiosity?  He wasted another small percentage anticipating the moment when he’d see Macnera again.

Once inside, Cognis made his way to the newsroom, the pulsing heart of the Tomorrow News Network.  Full of sleek, aluminum desks and computers, lit by pure tungsten light and the glow of approximately 900 holographic viewlink screens, the newsroom utilized the most advanced technologies ever invented.  Yet surrounding this high-tech facade were other machines, far older, tucked in shadows, built into walls, hidden in the darkest corners–cogs and gears, wheels and pendulums–keeping track of time in ways only ancient technology could.  As the clockwork turned, following the backward and forward journeys of time travelers, it compensated for them so that as history shifted the newsroom remained unchanged.

Writers and producers bustled about, checking sources and typing scripts.  A reporter and cameraman vanished in a burst of impossible colors, rushing off to cover a story in the past.  They returned an instant later, their work complete.

Cognis heard the distinctive clicking of high heels, and Talie Tappler arrived a moment later, her skirt swishing around her long legs.  “Mr. Cognis,” she said, “we are in a hurry.”

“Mr. Cognis!” Macnera cried.  She ran across the newsroom, her joints buzzing and whirring, her pace out of alignment with her normal, steady gate.

“Cognis,” she said, staring at her feet.  “My dear, sweet Cognis.  I love you.”

A quick glance confirmed all the switches on her arm were in the off position.  Something was wrong, but before Cognis could say so Macnera flung her arms around him and pressed her lips to his.  The kiss proceeded so randomly, so unpredictably that it alarmed Cognis’s electronic mind.

Macnera pushed herself away.  “I’m sorry,” she said, moisture gathering under her biological eye.  “I must have overdone it.”

The whole newsroom had stopped.  Hundreds of journalists–members of species from all over the known universe–watched Macnera run off toward the maintenance department.  Talie leaned against a desk, her arms folded across her chest.  Her golden hair partly obscured her expression, but Cognis recognized it anyway.  It was the one that meant she knew something he didn’t.

“What?” he inquired.

“You’re blushing,” she said.

Cognis checked.  “My heart rate and blood pressure are within normal parameters.”

Talie smirked.  “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the maintenance department too?”

“I am functioning normally.”

“Maybe you should show her how well you’re functioning,” Talie joked, heading toward the spiral stairs leading to the News Director’s office.  Following her, Cognis observed Talie checking her pocket watch.

“I apologize,” he said.  “I’ve made you late.”

“I’m never late,” Talie said, twisting the dial on her watch.  The world around them swirled in impossible colors then settled ten minutes earlier.  Talie glided through time without the slightest disorientation.  She had natural talent.  Cognis, on the other hand, felt out of sync whenever he time traveled.  His CPU depended too much on the constant durations of hours, minutes, and seconds.

A secretary ushered them into the News Director’s office.  Most of the illumination seeped through narrow windows overlooking the newsroom.  The sound of ticking clockwork whispered though the walls, and a sterile smell hung in the air.

The News Director originated on the planet Quidex.  He had three mouths, five eyestalks, and eight hands on the ends of long, slender tendrils.  He sat in the center of a wide, circular desk, his numerous body parts working in harmony on multiple projects at once.  Holographic screens rotated around him, some on the desk, others projected above, allowing him to monitor news from all across the space-time continuum.  He kept nothing extraneous in his office except a small photograph of his wife and their eighty-seven spawnlings.

“Ms. Tappler,” the mouth facing her said while the others murmured instructions into microphones.  “Your message was urgent.”

“I have a story proposal,” Talie said.  “I was listening to our sister station, Tomorrow Music Radio, when I heard this.”

Talie placed a recorder on the desk and pressed play.  Words emanated from it, the sound waves conforming to a precise, mathematical pattern.

Is this all that there is?
A life of binary bliss?
Commands to do that or this?
Or is there more?
Is there something worth living for?

The News Director’s thirty-two fingers continued typing.  One eyestalk watched Talie, an impatient gleam around the iris.  “It’s beautiful,” he admitted.

“It’s part of a composition called The Opera of Machines,” Talie said.  “It’s about a man who thinks he’s a robot and a robot that thinks it’s a man.  But halfway through the performance the signal died.  The whole opera disappeared from history, which can only mean one thing: a brilliant musician never got the chance to write it.”

“Do you know this musician’s identity?”

Talie bit her lip.  “No.”

“Talie Tappler,” the News Director said, one of his mouths chuckling, “you mean that you, our best reporter, don’t know something?  You’re supposed to know everything.”

Talie’s cheek twitched, but she gave no other indication of how much the News Director irritated her.

“The music came from a possible future,” she said, “not a definite one.  In fact, my calculations show it’s an unlikely future, so I can’t isolate enough variables to make predictions.

“I do know the musician lives on Mozart Colony in the 50th Century, and I’ve determined the date of a critical turning point in his or her life.”

Three of the five eyestalks watched Talie now.  “You want to find out what happened?”

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