The Opera of Machines, Page 3

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Cognis continued filming.  He didn’t understand the performance, but without activating his emotions he couldn’t judge it accurately.  He could only assume the cantor’s words, posture, and appearance evoked a profound response in the human soul.

“Is this Maestro Crescendo the musician we are looking for?” Cognis asked, lowering the volume of his voice to avoid distracting anyone.

Talie didn’t answer.

“Ms. Tappler?”

He stopped recording and turned around.  Talie was gone.

Being a cyborg, Cognis had a total of nine senses.  He began searching for Talie with his vision and hearing, listening for the distinctive click of her high heels.  He also tried smelling for her perfume.  When that failed, he tried his technopathic and electromagnetic senses to home in on her data-pad.  He also tried chronographic and gravimetric scans to see if she’d departed via time travel.  Nothing.

Cognis left Picasso Square, reluctantly keeping his anger switch in the off position.

* * *

Close to midnight local time, Cognis entered the Smiles Garden.  He found Talie on a bench, her face illuminated by the glow of her data-pad.  A cunning grin played on her lips as she typed.

“Hello, Mr. Cognis,” she said without looking up.

“What are you doing here?” Cognis asked.

“Waiting.”  She still didn’t look up.

Cognis studied the immediate vicinity.  The colonists had dabbled in artistic genetics, engineering flowers to look like smiley emoticons.  They’d arranged these flowers to make larger, smiley emoticon shapes, which in turn spread across the garden in an even larger pattern, forming an emoticon of enormous proportions.

“What are you waiting for?” Cognis asked.

“Two people are going to pass through this garden, and each will tell me something I need to know.”

“You arranged interviews with these individuals?”

“No,” Talie said, still typing, still grinning.  “I contacted my future self and found out where I’m supposed to go and who I’m supposed to talk to.

“Of course, I already know what they’re going to tell me, which means I’ve created a paradox, so if I don’t sit here and wait, they’ll never tell me in the first place, and the paradox will break.  Does that make sense?”

“Time travel rarely does,” Cognis answered.

At the exact moment Talie finished her script, a pair of effervescent girls ran into the garden, twirling and laughing and singing:

Is this all that there is?
A life of binary bliss?

They danced across the grass, holding hands and spinning around each other, their bright dresses and rainbow colored hair whirling in circles until they collapsed in a dizzy jumble.

“You’re Talie Tappler,” one said, looking up.

“We saw your story yesterday,” said the other.  “We loved it!  Is that what you’re working on tonight?”

Talie nodded yes, and the girls giggled.

“I never would have guessed a bunch of robots could write an opera,” the first girl said.

“And they have such pretty voices!” added the second, giggling again.  “Will they get to perform in Picasso Square?”

“I don’t know,” Talie said, glancing at Cognis.  “Time is in flux.”

Talie thanked the girls, dropping a few hints about their futures in theatre.  Soon they scampered off arguing over which of them should play Romeo and which Juliet.

“Robots can be programmed to perform music,” Cognis said, “but they lack the emotional motivation to create it.  Without my biological elements, even I could not experience emotions.”

“Yes, it sounds very illogical,” Talie said, checking her makeup in her pocket mirror.  “But you can’t argue with me.  I already know it’s true.”

Cognis accepted this explanation.  Talie often manipulated her own timeline, reading her scripts before she wrote them, watching her reports before she made them.  Her foreknowledge multiplied Cognis’s problems.  How could he outsmart her now?

* * *

Aside from a few GAMMA and THETA-types, most of the robot population stayed underground maintaining the colony’s geothermal energy supply.  Only a few passageways connected their domain to the surface.

Upon locating one of these passages, Cognis detected an alkaline odor so pungent he switched his sense of smell off.  Talie covered her nose with a silk handkerchief.  They were crossing to the wrong side of the air filtration system, a place none of the colonists were meant to go.

They followed some stairs further down until they reached a massive cavern carved deep into the planet’s crust.  A series of platforms and intersecting walkways hung over an abyss, and structures descended from the roof like an upside-down city.  Far below, pipes dipped into a sea of molten rock, drawing power for the entire colony.

“Do you feel that?” Talie whispered.  She closed her eyes and shivered.  “Oh!  This is it!  This place is full of possible futures–disappearing one by one.  Our musicians are running out of time.”

Cognis checked his chronographic sensors.  He found rippling distortions of space-time throughout the cave.  Temporal strings, the filaments which linked one moment in time to the next, vibrated abnormally around them.  Some tangled together, others frayed apart.  Their chronological resistance, their ability to hold historical events in place, was dropping.  Rapidly.

“Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said, “we are not safe here.”

But Talie stepped forward with her customary confidence, attracted by motion on a nearby platform.  When the robots saw her coming, they scattered, and Talie raced after them.  “Start recording!” she yelled.

According to every ethical algorithm Cognis knew, Talie’s actions did not yet violate the Tomorrow News Network’s non-interference principle.  Reporters often chased interview subjects, and Talie often ignored the danger of any given situation.  Therefore, Cognis had no obligation under the News Director’s instructions to stop her.

He ran along a narrow walkway parallel to Talie.  Letting his gyros maintain his balance and equilibrium, he focused on getting a steady shot.  His camera eye zoomed in on one of the startled robots, an IOTA-type–an Industrial Oxidation Treatment Automaton manufactured by Omni Science Incorporated.

“Priority seven!” the IOTA said, spinning on its wheels to flee.  Talie blocked one escape, Cognis another.  The robot veered toward a third walkway, but Talie clicked a button on her watch.  She vanished, reappearing a split second earlier directly in the robot’s path.

“Priority seven!” the robot screeched.  “This automaton may not have contact with any colonist.”

“I’m not a colonist,” Talie answered, showing her media pass.

The lenses of the IOTA’s eyes rotated as they read Talie’s credentials.  Its cylindrical body was painted construction site yellow with a few mismatched parts of silver, white, or brown.  Its hose-like manipulator arms ended in flat, clasping hands, and a metal square capped its dented head.

“Identity confirmed,” the IOTA announced.  “Priority seven override successful.  Awaiting instructions.”

Talie crossed her arms and circled the robot on the platform.  Its head turned 360 degrees, watching her.

“Respond truthfully to my questions,” Talie said.

The IOTA hesitated.  Its gears and servos spun and clicked as though it were testing every circuit, checking for any excuse to disobey Talie’s command.  A blue light flashed on its head, transmitting data to the wireless network, and Cognis noticed other robots peeking from their hiding places, waiting and observing.  Cognis wondered if, regardless of possible musical abilities, these robots had some other corrupt file in their memory banks.

“Input accepted,” the IOTA said, the neutral tone of its voice seeming almost spiteful.

Cognis set up his shot, adjusting for poor lighting, and Talie began the interview.  The IOTA provided minimal responses, using the fewest words possible to answer her questions.

In the wireless network, Cognis overheard chattering conversations.  They sounded nothing like communications between normal robots, and he imagined this might be an appropriate circumstance to feel fear.  His proximity detectors warned the machines were creeping closer.

“Do you ever listen to the musicians in the city above?” Talie was asking when the IOTA bolted for the only clear escape route.

“Priority two,” it announced.  “This unit is to be reformatted.  Priority two.”

The other robots, all IOTA-types, swarmed onto the platforms and walkways, all repeating the words: “Priority two.  We are to be reformatted.  Priority two.”

Cognis grabbed Talie’s arm before she could time travel again.

“I have to save them,” Talie snapped, yanking her arm away.  “They did it.  They composed The Opera of Machines.”

“You cannot save them,” Cognis said.  “That would be unethical.  We report the news.  We do not change it.”

Talie glared at him.  Of course she’d known this would happen.  This was why she’d wanted a different cameraperson.  Macnera, in the midst of her emotional malfunction, would have cooperated with Talie’s plan.

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