The Opera of Machines, Page 2

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“It makes a good headline: artist’s potential tragically lost.”

Cognis glanced through the windows and saw himself and Macnera from ten minutes ago.  She threw her arms around him.  The whole newsroom gawked.  This time, seeing it from afar, Cognis did detect a slight change in his heart rate and breathing which he could not account for.  Perhaps he did need to visit the maintenance department.

“This doesn’t sound like your usual kind of story,” the News Director said.  “No death and destruction, unless this musician was murdered.”

Talie shrugged.  “It’s possible.”

“You’re determined to do this?”

“Yes.”

All the News Director’s eyes returned to other tasks.  “Approved,” he said.  “You and Cognis can go.”

Talie hesitated.  She glanced at Cognis, her expression unreadable.  “Could I have someone else for this?  Macnera, perhaps?”

“You and Cognis can go,” the News Director repeated.

Talie led the way back to the newsroom, Cognis trailing a few steps behind.  He speculated that he should feel offended, since Talie no longer wanted to work with him, but he’d never downloaded that emotion and couldn’t activate it right now.

“I may require maintenance…” Cognis began.

“You can join your girlfriend later,” Talie snapped, adjusting the knobs and dials of her watch.

Before she could send them off to the 50th Century, another message pinged in Cognis’s cybernetic receiver:

I’ve known Talie for a long, long time, and I know how she gets when she’s in this mood.  This Opera of Machines must be a true masterpiece, and she’ll want to hear the rest of it.  She’ll try to change history to have her own way.  Mr. Cognis, you must ensure she does not.  Remember our Code of Ethics.
– The News Director

P.S.: Keep your emotions off.  She’ll use them to manipulate you.

Cognis reevaluated his immediate future.  He had little data on what that future would bring, but it would involve outsmarting Talie.  Success was highly improbable.

They stood together in the middle of the newsroom.  Talie’s watch was ready; she only had to click the button.  But she stared at Cognis, her thoughts indecipherable.  She was the Tomorrow News Network’s best reporter and one of the greatest time travelers to ever live.  She always knew the future, even her own, and no doubt she knew her cameraman–her best friend–was going to betray her.

Without a word, she clicked the button, and impossible colors swirled around them.

* * *

Talie and Cognis reappeared on Mozart Colony, materializing under the western gate.  The sky was lilac, the purple ocean reached for the horizon, and the air contained a high percentage of argon gas.  A dozen startled artists, caught in the midst of painting the sunset, stared at the two time travelers.  “Get out of the way!” one of them hissed.

Cognis didn’t feel worry, but his situation was unpleasant.  Sometimes the smallest, most innocent-seeming act could change history.  Talie knew that.  Any detail could prove important in her plan, and Cognis devoted a large portion of his memory banks to cataloguing everything–the artists, the sunset, the argon gas–just in case.  For a cyborg, the accumulation of so much excess information was cause for concern, if not worry.

Talie stepped out of the painters’ view, nearly tripping over a short, stubby robot.  Cognis noted this too as the robot, a GAMMA-type, or General And Mechanical Maintenance Automaton, returned to its task, clearing away sand blown through the open gate.

“We have an appointment with the Minister of Music,” Talie said, heading toward the central plaza.

So Talie had already arranged an interview for her story.  Words like “before” and “after” meant little to professional time travelers, but Cognis felt 97% certain she must have done this before talking to the News Director.  Premeditation: another fact with potential significance.

* * *

Talie presented her media pass, and the Minister of Music welcomed her into his studio.  He had a bulbous, lumpy face which cast heavy shadows on itself, and Cognis had to adjust the filters on his massive, mechanical eye to get the shot he wanted.

The Minister sat at one of his polyphonic pianos, an elaborate instrument with superfluous pumps and levers and what appeared to be bicycle pedals.  His studio had tall, glass windows all the way around, allowing him to see the entire colony and, more importantly, allowing the entire colony to see him.  He described himself as a dramatic pianist, saying audiences loved watching him perform and that he added visual flare to even the blandest compositions.

“I’ve been writing a new piece,” he said, smacking his lips.  “It must be the one you’re looking for, Ms. Tappler.  I haven’t finished it yet, but of course you’ve already heard it in the future.”

Talie lounged in a chair opposite him, her arm flung over the back.

The Minister struck the keys with percussive force and pedaled madly to generate a warbling effect.

Love is a thing
That can be anything.
It can make you sing
Or buy a diamond ring,
And then it will bring
That absolute most amazing thing…

In the beginning
You don’t know what you’re doing
Except kissing and frolicking
Most likely in the Spring…

Talie straightened in her seat, dropping her arm.  “That’s enough, thank you,” she said.

“But I haven’t gotten to the part about love’s bitter sting!” the Minister said, the piano pedals squeaking to a halt.

Talie didn’t respond.

After the preliminaries of getting the Minister’s full name and title, the interview began.

“Mozart Colony,” the Minister said, his hands clenched on his knees, “is a haven for artists.  Our founders escaped the Earth Empire, where all but patriotic art is illegal, and built this sanctuary beyond imperial control.  Their work was astounding: bold experiments in color, sculptures that seemed almost alive, and music so beautiful even I am not worthy to perform it.”

“What about art produced today?” Talie asked.

“Our citizens spend their lives studying and practicing, but I admit none can match the founders’ skill.”

“None?” Talie said.

“None besides myself and perhaps the famous flutists, Milo and Lianna.”

Talie shook her head.  “I don’t think I’ve heard of them.”

She jotted something on her data-pad, and Cognis used the brief pause to change his shot.  He framed the Minister’s lumpy face against the backdrop of the fading sunset.  According to his calculations, the sunset would add symbolic meaning.

“We have many great artists, some better than others, of course; but it’s been centuries since a true master of the arts lived here.”

“What about the labor class?” Talie asked.

“We have robots for that.”

Talie frowned.  “No underclass?  No one buffing floors by day and toiling away at night writing songs in secret?”

The Minister gasped.  “Why would anyone compose music in secret?  Ms. Tappler, if this opera is as beautiful as you claim, we must all hear it.  To keep any art secret would disgrace everything Mozart Colony represents!”

* * *

As they left the Minister’s studio, Cognis wondered if he could risk turning on pride for a brief moment.  The interview had gone well.  He’d gotten some excellent shots and a few good cutaways, as well as the Minister’s piano performance, which would make good b-roll if Talie chose to use it.

But the News Director had warned him.  Talie could use even a short moment of pride to her advantage.

Cognis watched Talie.  He’d seen many dark moods settle over her, from anger to frustration to sadness, but this was something new.  Not one of the emotions Cognis had downloaded himself, but one he’d heard of: disappointment.  Talie was disappointed.  That could be bad.  Cognis had no idea what she might do when she was disappointed.

Her violet eyes flicked to him, and the disappointment intensified.  “Let’s try the plaza,” she said.  “Maybe a few man-on-the-street interviews will help.”

A babbling crowd had gathered in the colony’s central plaza, Picasso Square.  A group of musicians were tuning their instruments on stage, and several ushers in poufy hats ran around, handing out folded papers.  One of them shoved a paper into Cognis’s hands and another into Talie’s.  It was a pamphlet saying the concert was entitled “The War in Orion: An Honest Dishonesty” composed by Maestro Crescendo.

On some unseen signal, the crowd became quiet and the performance began.  Bells chimed in uniform sequence.  A man banged a big, wooden stick against an aluminum barrel.  Mixed with these sounds came the wispy tooting of a broken clarinet–broken deliberately, the pamphlet explained, to represent all the broken hearts in war.  Finally, a cantor stepped forward, bowed to the crowd, and proceeded to stand on his head, letting his robe fall around him, exposing his unnecessarily tight underwear–which represented the repressive nature of war, the pamphlet said.

“Depravity, depravity!” the cantor sang.  “Oh despicable depravity!  Because the people yes!”

“They call this art?” Talie mumbled.

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