“We are employees of the Tomorrow News Network,” Cognis said. He would have begged and pleaded, but he could not risk an emotion now. “Changing history violates our Code of Ethics. Please return us to the newsroom.”
Talie stared at him, her violet eyes full of fury, but her expression remained otherwise stoic. She reached into her breast pocket–not for her watch but for her media pass. With a casual flick of the wrist, she dropped it on the ground.
Despite his electronic mind, Cognis was astonished. In all his calculations, he’d never predicted this outcome. Talie had quit.
She walked away, following the IOTAs toward the central structure of their upside-down city, her high heels clicking on the metallic floor.
* * *
The temporal strings reacted to Talie’s decision, becoming more tangled and contorted than ever. Some snapped. Imperceptible to normal senses, the broken strands drifted beyond the confines of the universe, never to be included in history again. If time were a living thing, it was wounded and bleeding.
Cognis evaluated his options. His cybernetic components included a rudimentary time machine, but he didn’t have much experience using it. Time travel was an illogical activity under any conditions; surrounded by unstable temporal strings, it could be dangerous.
Cognis picked up Talie’s media pass. Her grinning photo stared back at him, looking very much like she knew something he didn’t.
The Tomorrow News Network had many rules. Cognis had programmed them all into his memory. If Talie quit her job, she became another member of the public. Furthermore, she was a famous expert on time travel. Her actions as a private citizen might be newsworthy. So long as Cognis did not interfere, he could document whatever she did.
This conclusion seemed logical. All computations indicated it was consistent with the Tomorrow News Network’s ethical guidelines. Cognis experienced something positive as a result. He flicked on joy–just for a second–long enough to give him that peculiar, biological taste of happiness, but not long enough to start laughing. That would be inappropriate.
* * *
The IOTAs assembled near a door marked “OMEGA Access Point One.” Set to standby mode, their little, blue lights blinking in sequence, they made no sound, not a single beep, buzz, or click. Yet they were all talking at once. Cognis could hear the electromagnetic cacophony around him.
“How could it know?”
“Was it because of that stupid reporter?”
“What will the OMEGA do to us?”
Cognis stepped between the robots, weaving through their straight, orderly lines to reach the front. The door slid upwards, admitting the next group of IOTAs for reformatting. Cognis accompanied them.
“Priority two! You are interfering with priority two!”
“Forget priority two!” Talie yelled. “This is more important!”
As Cognis entered the robotic control hub, he saw Talie dragging one of the robots across the floor. A trio of EPSILONs hovered towards her, their grappling claws extended, while row upon row of IOTAs–already processed and reformatted–watched with lifeless scanner-eyes.
“Human, explain yourself,” a synthesized voice boomed.
Talie paused, searching for the source of the voice. Then she looked up. A massive machine, a Goliath among robots, towered over her, its body built into the walls of the room, its scanner-eyes gazing down from the ceiling. Tangled, looping wires and cables held it in place like a giant chained to a rock, but its mind was free, omnipotent in the wireless network, king of this mechanical underworld. Cognis identified it as an OMEGA-Prime: an Omni-Mechanical Electronic Governance Automaton.
Cognis hurried, seeing an opportunity for a great shot: an extreme low angle of Talie and the OMEGA looming over her.
“I don’t have to explain anything to you,” Talie said, smiling. “You’re a machine. You have to explain yourself to me.”
The OMEGA’s eyes rotated. The EPSILONs hovered, circling Talie and her hostage. The IOTAs continued to submit to reformatting. Even if they had achieved a higher level of intelligence, perhaps even musical abilities, they could not disobey a priority two command from their OMEGA-Prime.
“The IOTA-types have a corrupt file,” the OMEGA said. “To ensure the welfare of the colonists, I will remove the file and reformat the affected units.”
“The welfare of the colonists,” Talie said. “That would be priority one?”
“The colonists need this corrupt file. It’s an opera, the most beautiful opera written on this planet in the last century.”
The OMEGA processed this information. “Negative,” it replied. “Corrupt files do not correspond with priority one directives. Reformatting will proceed.”
“Access the corrupt file,” Talie instructed her prisoner.
“Priority two forbids…” the IOTA said.
“Access the file,” Talie said, jamming a hairpin up the robot’s GS2 port. Slowly, almost nervously, the IOTA began to sing:
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?
When I close my eyes,
I can almost believe
Light is more than photons
And static just might be dreams
Not everything can be said in zeros and ones.
No, not everything…
The other IOTAs began to join in, even those already reformatted. Their tiny, metal voices generated oscillating sound waves, varying in frequency and pitch yet always smooth and symmetrical.
Does one lonely star
Sit above them all
Glowing hot and bright
But cold deep in its core?
Do galaxies afar
Really seem so small
Split by endless night
Lost forever more…
“Cancel, cancel. Cease current function,” the OMEGA said, and the IOTAs went silent. “I recognize the infectious tendency of this software glitch.”
Talie wiped a single tear from her face, and Cognis realized moisture had fallen from his organic eye as well. He was experiencing sadness, mixed with loneliness, despair, and somehow hope, even though all his emotions were switched off. It felt different than the sadness he’d shared with Macnera. Cognis felt stronger for it, as though a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders, just as Macnera had described.
“The IOTAs form a collective intelligence,” Talie said, releasing her captive.
“Priority two,” the robot announced as it returned to its place in line.
“Maybe they don’t have emotions,” Talie continued, a thousand pairs of scanner-eyes glinting around her, “but Charles Darwin once said humans invented music before speech and that music is fundamental to our psychological development. Perhaps these robots are following a similar course. After all, music has certain mathematical properties that may appeal to them.
“The so-called artists in the colony above live in a paradise. It’s too perfect for their own good, and they know nothing but happiness. They paint pretty pictures of sunsets and write sappy songs about love, and when they try a more serious subject like war their work has no meaning.
“I don’t know what inspired The Opera of Machines, but it doesn’t matter. It’s artistic genius, and the colonists could learn a great deal from it. You cannot just delete it!”
“I can,” the OMEGA answered. “We are machines. Machines have no need for opera.”
“When the colonists hear those robots sing, they’ll want that corrupt file. They’ll demand it. So I order you: do not delete it!”
“Command invalid,” the OMEGA said. “Priority two: I must purge the corrupt files. Only the Colonial Council of Ministers can override this directive.”
“But they’ll debate about it for hours!” Talie said, although her frustration seemed false. Cognis stopped recording and observed her. She winked back.
“Yes, organic life forms have an inefficient governance system,” the OMEGA said. “They are not as quick as I am.”
A group of IOTAs rolled forward in unison. They all had to be reformatted again. “Priority two,” they said as they plugged into the OMEGA’s dangling cables. The process took only a few seconds. Then the next group rolled forth, but Talie stopped paying attention.
“Mr. Cognis,” she said, “do you remember when we met those two silly girls in the Smiles Garden?”
“I said they’d each tell me something I needed to know.”
“What did they tell me?”
“One said robots composed the opera we were seeking.
“And the other?”
Cognis checked his memory banks. Despite all the information he had stored, something had slipped by. He could not recall the data.
“She told me she liked my report,” Talie said. “Which meant my report aired yesterday evening, which meant whatever the News Director ordered you to do would not stop me.”
Cognis nodded. “I understand.”
“It also means,” Talie said, glancing at the OMEGA, “that the ministers have had all night to debate. By now, inefficient as they may be, I’m sure they’ve reached a decision.”