BEATLESS

Chapter 01 CONTRACT

Later that night an incident occurred in a corner of TBRA-2: the Second Tokyo Bay Reclaimed Archipelago.

The sound of a heavy explosion emanated from the base of a building located in the middle of a sprawling research facility. Moments later, acrid smoke started billowing out of the building's entrance.

The 50-metre high building then saw all of its external windows across its 15 storeys implode in quick succession. The black polyfiber walls rippled quietly.

Then all the lights went out. This was the moment that the Memeframe Corporation, one of the chief stakeholders in the country's hIE management systems, saw its Tokyo Research Facility die.

22:08. A large transport helicopter approached TBRA-2 from the sea. A scramble order had been declared seconds after the initial explosion. Hand of Operation, the Private Military Company on retainer to Memeframe, had mobilized for quick recon.

The chopper had launched from the nearby Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture and was carrying a large container.

The pilot, who wore a head-mounted display, turned to speak to the man behind him. “20 minutes, sir, that's what USFJ and the Japan Forces have given us. We've got to be in and out of Tokyo Airspace in that time, don't forget, sir.”

The man he was speaking to, one Shesto Ackerman, was rubbing the back of his own neck with his fingers. He was in the cramped quarters of the chopper's loading bay was where the drone command post was located. To Shesto, a former Green Beret and elite soldier, this work was a pain in the neck, both metaphorically and literally.

“Command to Ackerman Company. Verifying orders. Your objective is to capture dead or alive the five hIE that escaped in the aftermath of the recent explosion. The research center's civilians have finished evacuating to the designated shelter.”

It was an unorthodox order, to say the least.

hIE weren't supposed to escape. They may have looked identical to humans, but their actions were determined almost entirely by external stimuli. A specialist program on the Net utilized a huge databank to determine an hIE's best appropriate action at any given moment. In other words, they were basically sophisticated remote-controlled puppets.

Memeframe was a leading hIE behaviour management cloud platform company. In other words, Shesto's company was being asked by the puppet master to go round up its stray puppets.

The helicopter's blades rotated quietly, so as not to be detected even in the calm of night, and the chopper closed in, maintaining a fixed altitude.

The rapid-response scramble team on board consisted of three men: Sergeant Toma Ryu in the pilot's seat, Sergeant Major Yusuf Marai as the comms and ops man, and the squadron leader, Second Lieutenant Shesto Ackerman. None of them commented on the unusual nature of the mission. They were, after all, seasoned professionals.

Shesto engaged his cranial-implant transmitter to contact Strategic Command. “We're in place, Major. Engaging sensors to track the targets.”

The helicopter's heat sensors zoned in on five human-shaped objects heading towards TBRA-1. A datalink was established so that Strategic Command's AI could calculate an optimal strategy.

Soon, Strategic Command AI---who was responsible for all HOO battle orders---came up with a plan. Let the hIE cross the bridge and enter the Odaiba residential district.

Shesto folded his muscular arms and murmured, “That's pretty extreme.”

Strategic Command was effectively suggesting urban warfare in a built-up residential district. The strategy of last resort when it came to warfare involving unmanned units.

Computer-regulated units were hard-wired to be unable to attack humans on their own judgement---those orders were the sole prerogative of their human owner. A drone that wandered into a crowd of people therefore found itself at a distinct disadvantage, as much of its functionality was temporarily disabled.

The image of a woman wearing a beret and eye-patch appeared in Shesto's retina display.

-We're turning down Strategic Command AI's sensitivity a notch. The client's scramble order has caused it to infer an unusually high threat level from the targets.

The message came from his commanding officer, Major Cordenne Lumière, a quiet enigma of a woman. Shesto knew almost nothing about her.

“Major, do we follow the AI's plan?” Shesto asked. He was unflappable in the face of danger. His was a mindset honed by sixteen straight years in the army, joined at the tender age of eighteen. These days he was tasked with bigger weapons and he had risen through the ranks to Second Lieutenant, his outlook was still the same: that of a solid, loyal footsoldier.

-That's a negative. I'm overruling the proposed plan. Police vehicles are already mustering to close off the bridge. It's unrealistic to expect to lure the targets into the residential district at this time.

The major's decision was not made on humanitarian grounds. She was simply trying to avoid using the bridge as a battleground. Drones couldn't be used underwater---the radio waves necessary to control them couldn't penetrate far enough into liquid. As the HOO emergency response unit consisted entirely of drones, if the targets fell off the bridge they would be out of reach.

“What's the back-up plan then, Major?”

-Our client has secured governmental authorization for the use of heavy-duty firepower. TBRA-2 is a research town, so its night-time population should be negligible. That's where you engage them.

The list of authorized equipment came through. It was total overkill for the simple task of capturing five hIE. Sure, Japan was no longer infected with the pacifist mentality that had plagued its citizens a hundred years ago, but the weapons on the list were not the sort that any rational person would even think of bandying around in the vicinity of a residential district. There was a huge dissonance between the task at hand and the equipment authorized to accomplish it. Which could only mean one thing: there was a big hole in the data somewhere.

“Yusuf, what has the client given us?”

The Afro-French comms operative tapped at the keys on his console with his bony, supple fingers. “The escaped hIE are all female-type. Each one is equipped with their own unique device. That's all we have for now, suh. Man, if this is what passes for 'data' then why bother with intel at all?”

Shesto simply focused on the timer that was steadily counting down. Five minutes of their allotted Tokyo Airspace time had already passed.

“Lower the container,” he said. “We can deploy the land units while the Major does her negotiating.”

The research town had hardly any residences; the roads were straight and wide. The client wasn't even permitting emergency vehicles such as fire trucks or ambulances to enter the area.

The helicopter descended to a height of 20 metres above ground level and dropped its cargo onto the deserted white-lit road below. Just as it was about to crash onto the ground, the container---about twice the size of a standard shipping palette---emitted a violent eruption of gas to slow its trajectory so that it could safely discharge its contents onto the ground.

Its contents being two squadrons of drones: unmanned mechanized units. The first squad was the PMC's own, consisting of a US-standard 11 units. The second squad, on the other hand, was made up of 22 units, each fully loaded with heavy-duty military firearms, easily enough to turn a small district such as Odaiba into sea of flame.

The container's built-in AI put in an automatic request to the helicopter for sensor units. This was promptly granted, and the parent unit was lowered, and from it sprang 64 disposable camera units, which dispersed like so many winged insects to start recording images of the surrounding areas.

64 new palm-sized screens popped up in the 3D monitor of the drone command post in the chopper loading bay.

After it was determined that there were no human-shaped objects showing in any of the screens, an all-clear message flashed up.

The Second Tokyo Bay Reclaimed Archipelago was originally known as the Central Breakwater and Reclamation Disposal Site, as it was the final resting place of much of the rubble resulting from the Hazard. As such, it suffered from “desirability issues”, and never really caught on as a residential district.

The image detection systems on five of the cameras activated at once. These images were automatically enlarged and slid over to center screen.

“We've got them in the target capture sensors, suh,” said Yusuf.

Shesto, who had steadfastly played his part in so many battle plans over the years, now found himself in battle.

But he had forgotten the plan.

He was staring at the things that had wondered into the night vista. The five different colors of lights. The five beautiful women, each one a distinct work of art.

“These would be the special units in question, suh,” said Yusuf, zooming in on his monitor. The hIEs in the picture wore shimmering bodysuits of red, green, yellow and orange, and some of them carried what appeared to be bizarre oversized devices of some description.

A squadron of battle drones erupted from the rectangular drop container, entering the fray. Shesto looked up from the screens to watch the troops as they dispersed across the battlefield. The drones, each one a full two meters tall, quickly found places to take cover, using the features of the terrain to maximum effect. Behind the lines staked out by the humanoid drones, unmanned wheeled vehicles decked with heavy artillery took uptheir positions, ready for the hunt. In the vanguard were auto-levitating SmartMines.

The PMC's behaviour management cloud orchestrated the complex movements of the drones like a puppet-master his marionettes. hIEs were designed to help humans and military drones to hurt them, but the underlying operating principles were the same. Neither needed a heart or soul to operate efficiently---they just needed to act as they were designed to act.

“Once they've closed in to less than 70 meters, hit them with two blasts of the SmartMines. Have the artillery drones concentrate their fire on the closest units, and target them one by one. The frontline troops should fire to hold our positions. After that, we respond according to the enemy's actions.” Shesto's orders entirely consistent with his humble infantryman origins: blunt, direct, to the point. The control cloud registered his orders and immediately set about processing and relaying them to the drones down below.

The unmanned troops moved with ordered precision, gathering and relaying data as they closed in on their targets.

And then...

One of the hIE's, a girl-type who wore her red hair in pigtails, looked up straight into the cameras andgrinned.

She started running, making a beeline for their helicopter. Their helicopter, that was supposed to be silent, dark, hidden, undetectable, on full stealth mode.

Goosebumps appeared on Shesto's thick arms. It was an instinctive reaction: keep that thing away from us. “Toma,” he barked, “bring the chopper back, away from that red thing! All troops to focus on keeping enemy units out of our battle lines!”

And just like that the battle had begun.

The drones that formed the front line of defense opened fire on the hIEs. The sound of gunfire rent the night air, and sky was lit up like a firework display.

Yusuf was tapping away at the keys in silent concentration. He was the epitome of the modern professional soldier: stay calm under pressure, become a machine, and you might just live to fight another day.

The helicopter pilot Sergeant Toma, on the other hand, couldn't keep his surprise hidden. “How can this be happening, Lieutenant? Our 50-caliber shells are just bouncing off the target!”

The wheeled armored vehicles were spewing forth a constant stream of bullets, but the redhead continued charging towards them, using her giant blade-like device as a shield. Each individual bullet was easily powerful enough to pierce through 5-millimeter steel plate, but the girl-shaped hIE seemed completely untroubled by the thousand-bullet hailstorm that was raining right at her.

“Squadrons One through Three, focus your firepower on that red thing's body. The remaining four squadrons, direct full suppressing fire toward the other four hIEs.”

One of the floating SmartMines triggered, and flames burst forth like a flower in bloom. The monitors flared white, as the infrared sensors that fed them went haywire on the sudden heat surge.

But there was no sound of gunfire.

An alarm went off and a warning appeared on the monitors. All four of the wheeled drones were down, immobilized by internal short circuits. Just like that, Shesto had lost his primary source of firepower.

“Bring them back online!” Shesto ordered.

“The system can't identify the fault, suh,” said Yusuf. And now even his deft fingerwork had stopped. The air was thick with tension. These drones were foolproof, designed to work in the deepest Amazonian jungles if necessary. It was inconceivable that four of them would fail at once...

“Shesto to Strategic Command. We've taken some sort of hit from the enemy. Requesting analysis of the enemy's weapons.”

The AI of Strategic Command was informed by a mass of battle data from the ages, and every conceivable scenario was supposed to be accounted for when analysing and informing its decision-making. Yet the only answer that came back was Judgement Pending. After that, only silence. Shesto gulped. This was a weird situation.

Sergeat Toma twisted round from the pilot seat. “Sheesh. Look at all those flowers everywhere, Lieutenant? What is this? Is Memeframe some sort of florist, now?” As far as banter went it was weak, but it did help Shesto snap out of his lull.

As if to recover for lost time, Shesto scanned the monitors for any signs of danger. He saw that the road below---paved with recycled material, like so much else on the island---was covered with scattered flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

The red-haired girl, whose progress had been temporarily hampered by the heavy fire of the armored vehicle drones, was now able to move freely again. The oversized blade that she wielded was giving off a harsh red glow.

Now, if that was me, Shesto wondered, what would I do next?

The girl (was it right to think of her as that?) had been at the epicenter of the mine blast, but she (was she the correct pronoun?) was seemingly unhurt. In fact, she was smiling broadly, as if she were enjoying herself.

“She's gonna go for the container!” Shest roared, and indeed, just as he shouted the warning, the red light turned towards the drop container that the drones had emerged from only a few moments ago.

A thin beam of light cut through the darkness. It pierced the center of the container and disappeared into the empty sky.

The container was designed to withstand even a full frontal blast from the railgun of a main battle tank. And yet its armored walls warped around the holes created by the extreme heat of the blast.

The battle command screen in the helicopter now displayed over 20 different warning messages. The drop container served a dual purpose: not just for transport, but also to act as a hub to relay battle data back to Central Command. Suddenly, the puppeteer was no longer in full control of his marionettes. The drones' virtual puppet strings had slackened.

Just as they received this decisive blow, Central Command's AI finally responded to Shesto's earlier request for information. The drones were most likely short circuited by electrical current diverted from the underground high-voltage lines used to power the island's research facilities.

TBRA-2's high voltage cables were housed in utility ducts that were buried over 10 meters underground. The targets must have been party to this information, and also somehow had the means to draw on this current and utilize it as a weapon.

A transmission arrived from Major Lumière. Her expression was as blank as ever, although it was clear that she had been using the fact of the casualties as a bargaining chip in her negotiations with the client.

-The client has released some data on the targets. Don't try and take down them all down at once. Just focus on whichever one seems the easiest.

Information poured in on the projector screen. “Yusuf, digest that text. I want to keep my eyes peeled on the battlefield below,” Shesto said.

To his eyes, the battle could only go one way from here. That was his individual assessment, though. There had been no orders for retreat. He used the encrypted line to put in an official request to retreat.

Denied.

Shesto ordered the remaining drones to fall back and regroup.

His retina display now showed a concise summary of the new data from Yusuf.Lacia-class humanoid Interface Elements. No information on their intended utility. The devices that they carry are equipped with quantum computers. They are able to make complex decisions independent of network support.

On his retina display, next to a picture of the redhead who destroyed the drop container:

Type-001 Code <Kouka>.
Meanwhile down below, the real was illuminated by firelight, brandishing her giant blade/cannon hybrid device, and laughing gleefully.

Type-002 Code <Snowdrop>.
This was the little girl down below in the white dress who was now sitting on top of one of the immobilized drones, using its corpse as a cushion. Her white dress was decorated with glowing emerald-green ornaments of some sort, and she was surrounded by an unseasonal field of flowers that was as lush as it was out of place.

Type-003 Code <Saturnus>.
corresponded to a flaxen-haired beauty who seemed to be turning the handle on what looked like a giant spinning-wheel embedded in the ground.

Type-004 Code <--->.
Only a shadowy blur could be captured by the realtime monitor. But there was something there, an orange emission of light, dancing in between the drones that didn't even have time to react before they collapsed into broken piles of scrap.

Type-005 Code <Lacia>.
The last of the units was a girl on the brink of womanhood. Her face had a transparent, innocent expression about it. Her slender hands held aloft what looked like a black coffin which seemed to stop all bullets that came her way. Then a fissure ran down the coffin and there was an explosion of white-blue light---

The operations monitor went instantly blank. Just like that, the battle management systems were all down. The helicopter suddenly found itself knocked out of stealth mode, swaying from side to side in the violent air currents. The sound of the rotor echoed all around the night sky, as if someone had switched on a giant blender.

Inside the chopper Shesto had to hold on to the terminal to steady himself. “Yusuf, what the hell is going on? Bring the network back up!”

All the screens that had been showing the battlefield were blank. By the time the 3D monitor recovered, it no longer showed a battlefield, but rather the aftermath of a battle.

“Our comms link with Memeframe was somehow hacked and used to take down our systems, suh. By somebody. Or something. I can't get the link back up.”

“A cyber attack, huh?” Shesto said. Wireless communications were the lifeblood of remote drone warfare. If those---girls---had somehow been able to decipher the military-grade encryption used by Strategic Command and hack into their systems, then they truly were dangerous monsters.

No trace of the girls remained, of course. Strategic Command posited that they had most likely all jumped into the surrounding sea.

The dreaded worst-case scenario had come to pass. Ordinary drones were useless underwater, immobilized once they were out of range of the radio waves used to control them. But the five escapees could operate perfectly well without any network connection.

The sea, then, was a safe escape route. How to try and pick up the chase when Tokyo had such a huge bay---and when Japan was surrounded by ocean on all sides? All hope of pursuit was now hopeless.

If Sergeant Toma Ryu had been laughing sardonically before, he certainly wasn't any more. And Sergeant Major Yusuf Marai's tapping fingers were now still.

Ten minutes of their Tokyo Airspace clearance still remained. From his helicopter that had not the slightest provision for underwater battle or pursuit, Shesto simply gazed down below at the vast expanse of blackness that was the sea.

“What the hell did we just let escape?” he murmured.

The objects that the men had encountered were far greater than anything they had imagined. Unique, even. The reality of the situation started to dawn on them, and they found themselves drenched with sweat, just like way back when they were rookies.

There is a certain sensation that a veteran soldier feels when presented with an new developments in weaponry. No matter how unscalable the wall seems to be, no matter firm the line in the sand is, mankind always finds a way to cross it andprogress, blithely, and with impunity. Why? Because after progress comes feeling, comessensation. Take the atom bomb. Sure, plenty of scientists were ready with an epigram to condemn it, in public. But the reality was that there were plenty of people who were overjoyed by its completion and the results it had on the battlefield. Why? Because when you used the atomic bomb, it meant that your brothers in arms, your fellow soldiers and countrymen wouldn't have to die fighting that war. A soldier might not be able to articulate this in so many words, but the visceral feeling is there.

Shesto stared at the sea, where those hIE, those works of art, had escaped. Then he looked up at the night vista of the Tokyo metropolis, when countless millions of other hIE worked. It occurred to Shesto that this era had forsaken hard scientific reason for idle creature comforts. The change, the evolution, had already happened. Shesto shuddered.

He didn't even know what abilities the escaped hIEs possessed, or what they were capable of doing.

The blame for letting them escape could be placed firmly with the client Memeframe, of course. Memeframe were the ones who had insisted on withholding crucial details until it was too late, thereby hamstringing any serious chances of a recovery effort. But Shesto had a feeling that the time for playing the blame game was already passed, that there were bigger issues at stake. After all, one of the five units had casually used a device that unleashed more firepower than the average tank. What sort of devices could the other units control? Chemical weapons? Biological?Nuclear?

Perhaps Shesto and his colleagues were nothing more than the first witnesses to an impending catastrophic breakdown of human society.