BEATLESS

Chapter 01 CONTRACT

22:30.

Arato was giving his younger sister Yuka a lecture.

The subject of this lecture was her eating habits. Specifically, her habit of stealing and eating the food that he was trying to use to prepare a meal.

“What do you mean, 'just picking at it'? How can you call that 'just picking'? There's nothing left to pickat!”

For all practical purposes the Endo household consisted of Arato and Yuka. Their father was so busy with work that he only returned home once in a blue moon, and their mother had left them when Arato was young.

That was why Arato had always looked out for Yuka. And that was why, in doing so, he had created something of a monster.

“Just tell me one thing, Yuka. Just tell me this. What was going through your head while you were watching me prepare dinner?”

“Mmm, meat, nom nom nom nom!” said Yuka.

“What are you, some kind of wild animal?”

At 14 years of age Yuka was actually only three years younger than Arato, not that you would know it from her carefree demeanor. “Yeah, well, like, maybe dinner shouldn't have been so late,” she said, nonchalantly. She pressed a button on the remote and the Holovision TV cut away from the game that she had been playing to a news report. “Whoa, look at that, there's been some kind of explosion!”

A 3D image of a building erupted out of the dining room floor, ablaze in a virtual inferno.

The images came from just 30 minutes ago, the report said.

“Second Tokyo Bay Reclaimed Archipelago... well, at least that's not around here,” Yuka said.

“What are you talking about? TBRA-2? It's not that far at all!” Arato said.

Yuka used the remote to switch over to voice command, and asked the question. The answer came back immediately: the explosion was only 15 kilometers away from their apartment block, as the crow flies.

“Wow, it really isn't too far. Totes massive news!” Yuka said. The holographic projection gave a rumbling boom. “Hey! That's an idea! Maybe we'll get a day off school tomorrow! That'd be ubercool!”

“Don't count on it, kid,” said Arato.

“Yeah, I guess not. Well, whatever. I hope no one was hurt, anyway.”

That was something, at least, thought Arato. Yuka may not have been the sharpest tool in the box when it came to her academics, but she was a good kid at heart, and that wasn't just his brotherly bias speaking.

Yuka had zoned out completely and was slouched out on the sofa, so he decided to leave her to it and try and salvage what he could of the dinner.

Not that it was exactly much of a dinner to begin with. All he was doing was throwing together a few frozen ingredients into a pan and adding seasoning. Sweet-and-sour pork, that's what he had been planning on making, but as Yuka had basically just eaten all the meat the moment he turned his back, it was now just sweet-and-sour. Ah, well. He'd just stick on some rice and then they could pour the sauce and vegetables on top, it'd be something, at least.

“Hey,Onii-chan, they said it was some robot company,” Yuka said. “Maybe we could get ourselves, like, Saturday jobs and buy one of their robots or something. You know, to cook for us and stuff.”

“Shoot, we're out of rice. Fried noodles it is, then.”

“No way, that's so lame! Not two days running! Come on,Onii-chan, let's at least have some proper rice for once...”

“I told you, we're out. What do you want me to do, go out and get some at this hour?”

It had been a rhetorical question, but Yuka perked up and swung round towards her brother with an impish grin.

If food and play was what it took to make you strong, then truly the force was strong in this one.

“Oh, and Onii-chan, while you're out, could you get some ice-cream? Pretty please? A widdle ice-cream for widdle me?”

Ah, the youngest-born child. Truly a force to be reckoned with. Yuka wasn't so much spoiled as unashamedly and unabashedly entitled.

“Wait a second, how did we suddenly get to 'while you're out'?” Arato asked. But he soon wilted under the full might of his sister's innocent smile.

Onii-chan, have I told you lately how much I luuuuve you?” she asked, going in for the kill.

“Huh, you think I can be bought that cheaply? That's all it takes to make me go scurrying out on some late-night errand for you?” His tone was gruff, but he was already moving towards the vestibule and putting on a jacket in anticipation of the late-night chill.

“But you are scurrying out, right?” She grinned.

He was, of course, but he was proud enough to want to make it seem as if he had his own perfectly good set of reasons for going. “Well, what with all these explosions going on it might not be safe for a girl to be out on her own, so I suppose I'd better go for you...”

Yuka clapped her hands together and giggled in glee. “Totes score! Here's hoping that every day is explosion day!”

“Yeah, and never mind the poor innocent bystander, I suppose,” Arato grumbled, but she was his little sister, and as her brother he couldn't help but love her. He said goodbye—as Yuka barely made the effort to rise from the couch to see him off—and he set out into the night.

It was always a nice feeling to ask something of someone and have your request granted. So Arato wanted his sister to have that feeling.

You could even say he lived to serve her.

The district where they lived, Shin-Koiwa, was part of the Tokyo Bay Regeneration Project, and because it was the place where the coastal train lines and the inland lines intersected, it was an important regional hub.

The Endo apartment was located in a well-connected residential district just south of the station following the Urayasu Subway Line. Most people preferred to live a little way away from the actual coast, though, so by the time it got this late the streets were usually deserted.

“Talking of explosions, I hope everything's OK,” Arato said to himself. Having brought up the subject again with his sister, he now found himself dwelling on it. Also, TBRA-2. His father used to work for a company there...

It was a ten-minute walk to the food store. Arato wanted to keep these creeping anxieties at bay, so he took his PortaCom out from his pocket to listen to some music in an effort to distract himself.

“Out for some late-night shopping, young man?” A middle-aged woman who had been walking ahead of Arato called out to him as he passed her.

It was Ms. Marie, who looked like a plump woman maybe in her late forties, but was in fact an hIE owned by the Yuzawas, a local landowning family. Arato had seen her around since he had been a kid, so she had been operating for well over a decade, and was practically an antique.

“You too, Ms. Marie?”

“Yep, we're all out of supplies.”

It felt good to walk in the night. Arato exchanged pleasantries with Ms. Marie, and before long they had arrived at their destination, a small grocery store. Arato bought the usual frozen rice and an ice-cream pot.

When he left the store it was raining flowers.

“What on earth...”

Five different colors of flower petals were falling from the sky, like rain, or perhaps snow. As it was April, and the season, Arato's first thought was cherry blossoms, but then he took one of the petals in his hands and noticed that it was long and thin, closer to chrysanthemum than cherry. The petal also felt strangely dry to the touch, as if it had sucked all the humidity out of the surrounding air.

Arato had no idea what was going on, and although the scene was undeniably beautiful, he was also a little freaked out by it.

Still, he had to get home, or the ice-cream would melt.

“Oh, goodness, what's happening here?” Ms. Marie had just emerged from the shop calmly and quietly, shopping bag in tow. Then, presumably deciding that this strange turn of events posed no actual threat, she plunged into the fray, flowers splashing around her.

The hIE disappeared into the night, not even bothering to brush away the petals that were settling on her hair. Her steady footsteps started to fade away.

Arato followed after her, using his spare hand to swat away the flowers as best he could.

He soon caught up to Ms. Marie, or rather her ample rear, which was frozen in place in an unnatural position.

Arato was about to call out to her when he noticed that her knees were wobbling and jerking. It was almost as if she had forgotten how to walk.

Then her entire body started shaking, as if she was about to explode from within. Her neck juddered and her head creaked round a full 180 degrees, revealing an expressionless face under her medium-length loose hair.

The hIE dropped her shopping bag. Then, with her joints still poised at bizarre unnatural angles, she collapsed with a keening noise.

The technicolor flower petals kept on pouring down.

Arato felt something touch his neck, and his hand darted up reflexively to grab the thing that had made contact. He held up his catch under the streetlight to get a better look.

It was one of the colored petals, sprouting multiple, tiny little legs, like a centipede, and was it was scuttering around on Arato's palm.

Arato shrieked. The creature seemed about to burrow up inside his sleeve, and he shook it of with a wild, half-crazed gesture. His cry rent the night, but this was no time for worrying about disturbing the neighborhood.

“What the hell! What the hell!”

The five colors of flower petals by now carpeted the surrounding road and were milling around like insects. There was no way that this could be happening, Arato knew. And yet it was. He felt his grip on reality fade.

Arato realized that he was concerned about Ms. Marie. Then he remembered that she was an hIE, not a person. But even though she wasn't a real person, he couldn't just turn his back on her and leave her to her fate. She looked too much like a person for that.

Without any warning a sedan car that had been parked nearby charged towards Arato, tires screeching, lights suddenly on full beam. Arato had to jump out of its path, and he landed clumsily on his arm. A jolt of pain thudded out from his shoulder.

He tried to gather himself up, and realized that the ice-cream he had just bought for his sister had rolled out of the bag and on to the ground. He grabbed it reflexively and shoved it back into the bag.

Arato propped himself up against the wall at the side of the road. Then the car, the one that seemed to have sped off past him, was suddenly reversing at full speed, on a beeline right back towards him.

Arato dodged, or tried his best, but it wasn't quite enough, and he felt a sharp blow on his hip.

As the car swung by Arato caught a glimpse inside the car. In the driver's seat, where there should have been a person, there was a swirling mass of flower petals.

“Give me a break...” Arato moaned.

The torrent of flowers rained down, unabated.

The whole scene was completely... illogical. Arato's first thoughts were that he was going crazy, but a quick check of all his other senses suggested that no, this was reality, it was really happening. So if this was reality, what had he been experiencing before this? Were all his memories just some sort of illusion? All he knew for certain was that now he was in pain, scared, and that his heart was trembling as he was fighting for his life.

Frozen foods spilled out of the shopping bag that Ms. Marie had dropped. A mass of petals crystallized into a flower on top of one of the packets of food, and Arato could hear the scurrying of tiny legs underneath it.

Then Arato became aware of a black shadow behind him cast by a streetlight. He heard a dull creaking and the sound of footsteps. Arato was still crouched down, looking at the ground, trying to recover his breath, but he could tell from the shadow that the figure behind him was wearing the same sort of clothing as Ms. Marie.

When the flowers swarmed round something, did they transform into a monster that was out to destroy all humans or something?

White smoke was now billowing forth from the underside of the car that had crashed into the wall, and clumps of flowers seemed to be sprouting from its chassis.

If this had been no more than a bad dream, Arato could have just woken up. But this was reality. There was no prospect of a gentle awakening at the nightmare, only more pain.

After what seemed like an age, the immediate danger seemed to have receded, and Arato wiped his brow.

Perhaps too soon, though, for the car erupted into flames. The inferno transfixed Arato, who could only stare at the hellish fire in front of him, a fire like the one in his dreams, except this time he knew that it was coming to get him for real, and he knew it was the end, and he screamed, help me, help me, just like the little boy in his dreams had done and did and always would.

When he opened his eyes he thought he caught a glimpse of a silhouette of a person.

Then, emerging from the haze between the blazing car and Arato, a female figure, rear-view. It came out of nowhere. Her slender arms appeared to be carrying some sort of casket, which she proceeded to take apart and put back together again with unbelievable speed, turning it into a kind of hemispherical umbrella, which she raised up as a shield before planting herself firmly between Arato and the billowing heatwaves.

Then the explosion came. But she was between him and the nightmarish fire. Her slender, vulnerable figure.

After the blast and the terror was over, Arato found himself faced with a young woman whose hair was blowing in the traces of hot air still swirling around the scene.

The girl had pale purple hair. She turned around.

Arato was dumbstruck by her natural beauty. She was completely unadorned with makeup, and yet her pellucid skin and angelic features rendered him speechless.

“You requested help,” the young woman said in a calm voice.

She was slightly shorter than Arato, but as she was casually holding up the large black device with one arm as if it were nothing, she somehow seemed to tower over him.

“Oh, yeah... thanks.”

The umbrella-shaped device in the girl's hand transformed back into its original casket-like form.

The young woman, who seemed to Arato to be a bit older than him, opened her pale lips and spoke. “I am, Lacia, sir.”

She was looking at him with her ice-blue eyes, and he knew what she wanted of him.

“I'm Arato. Arato Endo.” His voice wavered, only to be expected as his body was still trembling with fear.

The girl's serene expression seemed to calm him a little, though. And he realized, again, properly, just how jaw-droppingly beautiful she was.

The girl who had just introduced herself as Lacia was wearing a figure-hugging black and white bodysuit. The heavy-looking black box that she carried so effortlessly was a clear testament to the fact that she was no human.

Arato took her empty hand in his right hand. “We need to run away now. These flowers really mess you up.”

The petals were dancing around, stirred up by the hot air. Arato spotted the crumpled figure of Ms. Marie on the other side of the road, in a heap where the explosion had deposited her.

The flower-petals that had landed on the street and the walls seemed to be clustering together into flowers, much like polyps clumped together to form coral. The whole of the surrounding cityscape was becoming buried in an eerily deathly flower-garden.

Arato's every instinct screamed out at him to run away. That fearful sensation of contact with these alien creatures came flooding back to him, and his whole body was drenched in clammy perspiration at the memory.

Lacia, though, stood her ground amidst the lush blossoms of death that had so easily manipulated the likes of Ms. Marie and the sedan car.

“Why do we need to run away, sir?” she asked.

Arato was pulling at her arm effortfully, but her slender frame didn't budge. Only Arato's face showed any signs of exertion. His heart was still palpitating, as it had been since the explosion.

Lacia, who had no human heart, asked him another question. “Are you afraid, sir?”

“Of course I'm afraid! We could be killed any moment!” Before he knew it, he was shouting. “Who in their right mind wouldn't be afraid!”

“Well, why not just overcome your fear?”

Lacia's words hit a nerve. Arato wasn't expecting a lecture from something that wasn't even human. What the hell are you talking about, he wanted to shout, but there was something about her feminine appearance that held him back.

“What would that achieve?” he eventually managed.

Flowers were all around them, now. Or perhaps better to say that he and the girl were surrounded by the enemy, now.

“If you don't stand and fight now, then when, sir?” she asked.

What sort of talk was this? It was all too much for Arato.

Even so, she was beautiful, so beautiful.

Then Arato had another thought. What if the explosion that had just occurred drew people out of their houses to investigate? What would happen to the people? He felt sick at the thought, and shuddered.

The demon-flowers had started sprouting on Lacia's pale purple hair. Her black casket also looked like it was adorned by a giant bouquet.

What could Arato do? Nothing. He was powerless, helpless. Tiny, legged petal-monsters were scurrying up her white skin...

Fear was driving Arato crazy. Still, he had to do something.

“Just... hold still for a second, will you...”

He gritted his teeth and stretched out his hand.

She lowered her head slightly. He quickly brushed at her light purple hair, using his bare hand to knock off as much of the garland of flowers that had accumulated. The petals scattered downwards.

He had done something to stave off the impending danger. He had helped her. His spirits rose.

“I guess I could do something to help, after all, when I put my mind to it.”

She had rescued him, and now he had made a gesture in return.

She was an hIE of course, so would probably not perceive it in the same way. Even so, he felt content.

“Let's get out of here!” He pulled at Lacia's hand again, and this time she didn't resist. He perceived, with a jolt, the warmth coming from her hand. “You're an Interfacer, right, Ms. Lacia? Can't you contact the police or something?”

Now that Arato's head was a little clearer he noticed that the bizarre flower-storm was raining only on them. The rest of the night vista was seemingly untouched. As they ran, Arato looked back at the shop that he had recently emerged from, and he noticed that it too was unaffected. Even the flower petals that had already fallen seemed to be surging after them.

“Even if I were to contact the police, they don't have the capabilities to immobilize our enemy,” Lacia said. She had no lungs, of course, so even though she was shouldering the massive black box, her breathing was unaffected by the fact that they were running, and she spoke calmly.

Even though Arato was running for his life, he couldn't help but feel elated. Probably because he was holding hands with Lacia as he ran.

They ran through the streets of the town, into the night. A familiar world, one so different from the nightmarish scene they had been part of up until a moment ago.

They ran this way and that, and Arato no longer even had a destination in mind. He just knew that he was running with this person—not even a person—and that all he knew about her was her name, and that he was running as fast as he could. And then, when he turned back to look at her, she flicked her hair back, and said:

“Mr. Arato. Do you trust me?”

Lacia was clearly no ordinary hIE. Perhaps she was somehow linked to this flower-storm incident.

“I trust you!” Arato proclaimed this loudly into the night, in spite of whatever misgivings he may have had. It just wouldn't have been right—wouldn't have been cool—to doubt her in any way.

He held her hand tightly as he ran back up the road that only a few minutes ago he had been walking down and talking with Ms. Marie. He realized that if he carried on at this rate it would be barely five minutes before he was back at his apartment where his sister was waiting.

Arato wavered for a moment, and as he did he felt a sharp blow that threw him sideways to the ground.

He yelled out in pain, and at the same moment a second car roared past his head.

Lacia had saved him from being run over. In doing so, she was now astride him as he lay sprawled out, face up, on the ground.

“Mr. Arato Endo. I have a request of you, sir.”

Up above, the white moon lit up the night sky.

Down below, Lacia looked straight into Arato's eyes with a serious expression on her face.

“Won't you please become my master?”

Arato realized that a warm dampness was seeping into his jacket from where Lacia's buttocks came in contact with Arato's belly as she straddled him. He realized that her entire body was wet, as if she had recently been soaked through. Droplets of water were falling from her hair too, dripping on to his jacket and pooling on top of him. Like tears.

“Master? You mean, like, owning you?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. In my judgement, you are an appropriate person to become my first master,” she said.

Arato had no idea how she came to that conclusion. Surely that was too big a decision to make while they were in the process of fleeing from mortal danger?

“Isn't that a bit hasty? I mean, what do you even know about me?”

For some reason, Arato thought of his sister and his friends, and suddenly he felt overwhelmed by the burden of this massive decision that suddenly now presented itself to him.

“Not much, except that you said you trusted me,” she said.

Her damp body pressed on top of him, as if she was urging to make the right decision.

Lacia had saved him from the blast of the exploding car earlier. And he had chosen to stay with her, to suppress his first instinct to flee, so that he could stay with her to brush those weird flowers away from her.

“Okay, then,” he said.

Even though she wasn't a human, and even though she was clearly stronger that he was, Arato wanted to protect her.

“Your assent is duly noted, sir. Accordingly, a binding contract of ownership will now come into effect.” The beautiful girl placed a hand on Arato's shoulder. “There are no further actions that you need to take for me to exercise my powers. There is only one thing that I need to request of you.”

He didn't really understand what she was saying. His gaze was fixed too intently on her lips.

“I am just a tool, Master. A tool can not be responsible for what it does. As my master, you will have to accept responsibility on my behalf.”

There was a bang, loud as thunder. The black casket that Lacia had planted into the ground was holding back the car that had somehow swung round and charged back towards them. The car's rear wheels were spinning and smoking. The black casket, though, was firmly anchored into the earth, and even though a luxury sedan had plowed into it a full force it held its place in the ground.

“I shall now proceed to verify your vital statists, Master. Once verification is complete, please confirm your assent, twice.”

Lacia took hold of Arato's right hand and guided it towards her. She brought his index finger up to her neck, to where a metal fitting broke up the skintight body suit. Like a lock in a door.

She inserted his finger into the hole on her neck.

“Mr. Arato Endo, you are being registered as the owner of the Lacia-class humanoid Interface Elements Type-005. The hIE and its Black Monolith device are both autonomous units, and as their new master you will be solely and fully responsibly for the consequences of their actions. Do you assent to this?”

“Sure,” Arato answered.

The girl's hair bobble began emitting a turquoise light. “I shall now commence acquisition of my new master's life log. This log will be registered as a matter of public record and will be submitted to the courts automatically should a lawsuit be filed as a result of my actions. You will need to assent to this registration in order to fully unlock my capabilities.”

“Sure,” Arato answered again.

There was a whirr and a click, coming from the hip area of Lacia's suit, and some sort of metallic shackle had been loosened. A red light started flashing. A pale blue light poured forth from the black box.

Arato could hear the scurrying, pattering sound of the petals moving all around them. The blue light that illuminated the area showed that he and Lacia were now well and truly surrounded by the flowers. If they were indeed under attack, then by the act of stopping they had allowed their enemy to encircle them in preparation for a sustained bombardment.

The deadly flowers were raining down, now, but Lacia still seemed as unconcerned as ever as she spoke to Arato. “In order to neutralize the units that are attacking us, I would recommend that we shut down electromagnetic transmissions in the area, Master. In my judgement, this is likely to cause the minimum of collateral damage and cause the least inconvenience to wider society.”

This was getting way too weird for Arato now. And from his prone position laying on the ground, out of the corner of his eye, he could see some sort of monster crawling his way, a grotesque agglomeration of a lamppost and various bits of debris, using Marie's body its the base, dragging it along by the skirt.

The thing was closing in on him, scraping along the ground, half-disintegrating and it moved, but held together by the flowers that surrounded it. This bizarre, almost beautiful object was nearing by the second.

“Do it! Just stop that thing!” Arato shouted.

“That's fine, Master, but please understand that using the metamaterials necessary for an omnidirectional barrage will block all electronic communications within the area. There is a real risk to any people in the area on life support.” Lacia looked down at Arato, who was trying to cling on to her. Her eyes were deadly earnest. “You are the one who has to accept full responsibility for my actions, Master.”

Arato was in no state to ponder the nuances and full implications of this statement. All he knew was that a grave responsibility was being placed on his shoulders.

“Master, I need a decision, please. Do you authorize an attack, accepting the responsibility of small but real chance that you will be putting people's lives at risk?”

She asked the question. He couldn't really comprehend the full phrase, but the enormity of the individual words—responsibility, lives, risk—jumped out at him. He was fit to burst.

And yet. He had said he trusted her.

“Do it!” He gave the order. She nodded.

The heavy black box anchored to the ground split open. Or rather, peeled open, in thin black layers, spinning and whirring, like some sort of metallic tree spreading its branches.

And then in the blink of an eye the whole world changed. The flower petals were gone, the nightmare was ended, and the city was as it always was.

“It's... all gone.” Ararat said. He sat up in disbelief, looking around and surveying his surroundings. Even the sounds that had been closing in up until a moment ago had completely disappeared.

“Where did it all go?” Arato asked.

“It's quite simple, master. We coated the attacking units with a film of negative index metamaterials, and in doing so made them invisible to all frequencies within a specified bandwidth. This puts the units in a state of de factoquarantine from command signals and other radio waves, effectively neutralizing them.”

“Erm, that's not all that simple to me...” Arato said. He placed his hand on the ground to prop himself up, and felt something dry under his palm. He gulped, pulling his hand away reflexively. Fighting back a rising wave of nausea, Arato forced himself to feel the spot again. Prodding tentatively, he discovered that there was a large quantity of invisible, soft things scattered around the surrounding ground.

The flower petals were all still there. The only difference was that Lacia had somehow made them invisible. Light passed through them, the signals that had been remotely controlling them no longer reached them, and they were completely immobile.

There must have been tens of thousands of them, at least, and yet they had all been taken out in an instant, just like that. Arato couldn't even begin to imagine how Lacia had pulled that stunt whilst remaining calmly seated on top of him.

Wind blew. A blizzard of invisible flowers pattered and scattered into the night.

Arato's body was trembling so much he thought his heart might give way at any moment. Arato was no genius, but he knew enough to realize that there was nothing ordinary about this girl. His animal instincts were telling him to flee, to get away from this overwhelmingly powerful creature.

“What is this thing? It's incredible...” His instincts were speaking to him. Doubting. Fearing. She is danger.

Lacia stood up, as if nothing had happened.

Arato looked up at her, and for a second he imagined that he was staring up at a giant wild beast that was towering over him.

The illusion subsided, and she was no longer terrifying, but rather she was beautiful again.