BEATLESS

Chapter 01 CONTRACT

Arato was working against the clock.

He had until his sister's ice-cream melted.

As he entered his apartment block, he asked Lacia how long had passed since they met. Eight minutes, was the answer. He heard a police siren somewhere in the distance.

Arato used his PortaCom to deactivate the electronic lock on his apartment door.

Yuka had evidently been waiting for him. “You took your time,Onii-chan!” she said, jumping up from the sofa and bounding towards the vestibule.

“Yeah, well, shopping can be pretty tough, sometimes.” Arato pulled the pack of rice out of the shopping back, checking it once over to make sure that none of the flower petals remained.

His sister was standing in front of him dumbstruck. She raised a quivering finger toward her brother.

“What... who... wha...” she mumbled.

“Hello, I'm Lacia. It is a pleasure to be of service, Ma'am,” Lacia said.

The blood drained from Yuka's face as she contemplated the politely-bowing figure of Lacia. Arato was Lacia's owner now, so there was nothing particularly strange about an owner having hispossession by his side. Unless the possession in question happened to look like a human being.

“OMG, it's finally happened. My brother bought himself a girl.”

“Really, is that what you think of me? I didn't pay for her!”

“What? That's even worse!”

To be fair to Yuka, it is somewhat discombobulating when someone in your family goes out for a spot of late-night grocery shopping and comes back having acquired a girl.

It was not all that surprising, then, that she was on the verge of tears. “I'm so sorry, Ms Lacia, I will do everything I can to put this right, we will co-operate fully with the authorities. I'm almost certain that this is my brother's first offense!” Her head fell and she made a sobbing noise.

Arato moved to try and clear up the misunderstanding, but Lacia jumped in first, slicing through the tangled web in her usual calm demeanor. “I'm an hIE, not a human, so it's not an offense to bring me into a private residence. Also, I was without an owner when your brother kindly took me on, so the contract of ownership is completely legitimate.”

“Clever things, aren't they, hIE? Better at explaining than I am, at least.” All the tension Arato had felt only a few minutes ago seemed to have dissolved, and he had almost even forgotten about the attack on his person only a few minutes ago.

“For real?” Yuka asked, looking up. She had been crying. Arato was torn between feeling relieved that the misunderstanding was resolved and feeling hurt that she would seriously suspect him of kidnapping a girl.

“Anyhow,” Arato said, “um, that brings us to an interesting point. Do you think Lacia could stay here with us? Miss Lacia, I mean.” He corrected himself hastily, having embarrassed himself with his attempt with familiarity.

Arato's sister wiped her eyes. “I guess,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Arato asked.

Yuka smiled—she hadn't taken long to recover her cheery demeanor. “Totes sure! Finders keepers, right?”

Arato felt that he should probably now tell Yuka the truth about what had just happened outside. He wanted to just bring Lacia inside and forget about the whole thing, of course, but that wouldn't do. He didn't want to put his sister in danger.

“Oh, yeah, Yuka. Just now. When I was out shopping. These flowers started pouring down on us. Ms. Marie's all bust up, you know, the hIE from the Yuzawas'. It could be because of this girl, she might be the real target. Just so you know.”

Lacia had said that she didn't know who had been behind the attack. And Arato still felt like he had been sucked into some sort of parallel universe, so was still struggling to get his head around the events. He realized that his rambling attempt at explanation was somewhat convoluted, so he decided that show was better than tell, and he peeled his shirt open to show Yuka his bruises. “Look, here's where this car hit me. Lacia saved me from the worst of it, though.”

“That's lucky. Good job she was there, right, Onii-chan?”

Well, yes, it was a good job Lacia had been there.

“Yeah. I didn't really do much myself,” Arato said, dumbly.

“Anyway, I'm sure it's be fine, Onii-chan. There's, like, nothing about it on the news. And if you really thought it was so dangerous having Lacia around, you wouldn't have brought her back with you in the first place, right?”

Arato felt a gush of warmth inside him. His sister trusted him! She believed in him. Not the hIE that he had brought back, buthim.

He wanted to thank her. But before the words formed in his mouth, Yuka reached out into his shopping bag and plucked out the ice-cream.

“So, you're one of us, now, Lacia,” Yuka said. “I hear that hIE are, like, totes amaze at cooking! So what can you can do?”

Lacia answered without hesitation. “If you want me to make a meal I could use the commercial data from the behaviour management cloud and get started on something immediately, Ma'am?”

“Er, will it taste good?” Yuka asked.

“Five star ratings across the board from customers, Ma'am.”

Luuuve you, Lacia!” Yuka gave Lacia an impulsive, tight hug and then grabbed her hand to usher her into the house.

“Wait a second,” Arato said. “Is that really all it takes to convince you? Someone to dangle food in your face?” Arato found that he was gripping on to Lacia's other hand, holding her back.

But in the end he was no match for his sister, who had been born with the gift of the gab. “You know that hIE have cameras in their eyes recording everything they see, right, Onii-chan? I saw it on TV. If Ms. Marie was there then it'll all be caught on tape. If there's some kind of problem the police'll, like, sort it all out, no?”

Arato and Lacia's adventures would have also been caught on tape by the apartment block cameras, and the grocery store's. If there really was some sort of ongoing problem then the police would surely be calling by sometime tomorrow.

“I guess you're right, Yuka. Yup, we'll leave it to the police to sort out.” Arato started to think that maybe he had overreacted. Whoever it was that had made those flower-petals fall, it wasn't as if Arato was at war or anything. The very idea of him somehow being involved in something seemed absurd.

After all, it wasn't as if Lacia was going to be his forever. She was clearly special, something extraordinary, and there was no way she was going to become a permanent fixture in their slovenly, parentless apartment.

“Yep, you're always overthinking things, Onii-chan. Ask not what you can do to solve the world's problems, ask what the world can do to cook you a delicious meal.”

“I bet you sleep well at night,” Arato said. He was somewhat taken aback by how smoothly Yuka had accepted Lacia into her lives and maneuvered into a symbiotic relationship with her.

“Sure do, like a dead log. So, whacha gonna do now for luck, Onii-chan, now that you've used your lifetime's supply up with this amaze find?”

“Er, would you mind not writing me off just yet? Besides, what happens if it really does hit the fan?” Arato said.

“Well, why don't we just ask her? Lacia, will we be in any danger if you stay here with us?” Yuka asked bluntly.

“If what you've said is true, Miss Yuka, then I don't foresee any danger,” Lacia answered.

Yuka nodded, satisfied. “See? It's ubercool.”

Arato took heart from his sister's boldness. “OK. Well, if things start to heat up later we can worry about everything then, I guess. For now, Lacia needs a place to stay.” Arato wasn't the sort to mull over difficult problems. His friends Ryu and Kengo had even upbraided him in the past for being too impulsive. “That's settled, then. Now, let's think about dinner.”

“I believe I have a good grasp of the ingredients at my disposal, Master,” Lacia said.

To cut to the chase: it was a first-class meal.

Lacia had somehow taken the food that Arato had started to prepare and turned it into a Chinese banquet fit for an emperor. Arato had no idea how she had done it. Neither had Yuka. All they could do was feel a little sheepish as they appreciatively wolfed down the fruits of Lacia's labor.

It had grown late, so after dinner Yuka headed straight for her bath, and then bed. Lacia had washed and dried the dishes, so there was nothing left for Arato to do.

“I feel guilty setting you straight to work as soon as you got here,” Arato said.

Lacia was putting the dried dishes back into order. “Guilty, master? Why? hIE were mass-produced to be used as carers and domestic help. It's what we were designed for.”

The black coffin-device was leant up against the wall in the living room. It was propped up on cushions so as not to damage the floor, and as a result the room looked different from its usual layout.

As Arato stared at Lacia's back he started to worry about the full implications of having picked up this incredible thing and brought it into his life. As he sat there on the sofa, watching her, he noticed how there was a portion of the back of her suit that exposed her bare skin.

He saw how pale and white her skin was. It was too much for Arato to take. He was feeling funny. The sleek black and white body suit just seemed so out of placein the humdrum domesticity of his kitchen. His body felt warm, and he collapsed sideways the sofa.

“Oh God, what am I going to do...” His pulse was racing.

He thought back to the moment he first laid his eyes on her, the rear silhouette of the figure that saved him.

Vivid memories flooded back to him. Her hand, soft in his hand as they ran away together. Her moonlit face. The feeling of her sitting on top of him as they solemnly concluded the contract of ownership. Arato was squirming inside, his chest ready burst open.

Arato lay on his side, and was in no state to sit up. He couldn't control this agitation inside him, and his face was flushing red and beads of sweat were forming all over his body.Lacia is going to stay with me, in my home. As he reassured himself of this fact, he reminded himself that she wasn't human. What should he do? What could he do?

“Damn, I'm such a loser...” Arato sighed. He had to move now, his head was feeling light, and he forced himself to spring up.

“Master, would you like me to retire for the evening?” It was Lacia, standing right by him. She was looking down at him, coolly regarding his red face. She was carrying a full tea set on a lacquered tray. Where had she managed to rustle that up from?

Arato found himself caught in an awkward half-sitting half-standing posture, and crept back down into a sitting position on the sofa.

Lacia knelt down and placed the tea-tray on a low table. She poured boiling water from the pot to cool it down before brewing. Neither Arato nor his sister had ever used the tea set, so her simple, elegant movements seemed somehow exotic.

“Wow, there's all sorts of things you can do, huh?”

There was something exciting about having an hIE to perform mundane household chores, even the sort that Arato was somewhat used to doing himself.

He had studied something like this in his Social Studies class at high school. How social norms could easily change during the course of a generation. What passed for common sense during the economic boom years of the 1960s was completely outdated by the time you reached the stagnant years of the 2010s. A lot can change in the space of half a century, and a lot needed to change. But when you actually experienced the process of change for yourself step by step, day by day, you barely noticed it. And yet progress happened, pushing the world in new directions. Was this what was happening right now?

“Thank you, sir. Although all of an hIE's actions are regulated by the control cloud that we are linked to. When I make tea like this, all I'm doing is basing my actions on images of the same actions performed by real humans, stored in the database.”

Arato smiled wryly when he realized that he was being lectured on human behaviour by something that only looked like a human. He remembered how his friend Ryo was so insistent that hIE were nothing more than objects.

Lacia seemed to pick up on Arato's reaction, and followed up quickly with, “I hope I don't offend you, Master, with my lengthy explanations. Only it seemed to me that you are somewhat unfamiliar with the basic principles by which hIE operate.”

“Does it bother you that I'm unfamiliar with hIE, Lacia?”

Her response was a tolerant silence.

Arato didn't want to think about that time, not at all long ago, when he wasn't Lacia's owner, and that she could have belonged to anybody.

Then he felt the fear descend on him again. He may have decided to keep and look after Lacia for now, but that didn't mean he couldn't have second thoughts. Nobody would have blamed him if he wanted to bail.

“Where do you come from, Lacia?” he asked, eventually.

Lacia lifted the delicate teapot and poured into a small cup. “Is this something you want to know as my master so that our relationship can function better, sir?” she asked.

There was that sensation again, the one he had when he first met her. The need for trust. For reliance. The need to get closer.

“Well, when I think about it I don't really know anything about you, Lacia. The more I know now, the fewer unpleasant surprises there'll be in the future, you know? And it goes both ways, surely? The more we know about each other the less there'll be to worry about. It'll put my mind at rest, and yours too, I hope. That's what I figure, anyhow.”

And if there was anything that Arato could do to help her... well, he wanted to do it. To do something nice for her.

Arato had practically poured his heart out to Lacia, at least by his standards. But if he was expecting a similar reaction, he was about to be disappointed.

Lacia just looked back at him calmly and spoke with a level tone. “You seem to be a good-hearted person, Master. But you also seem to be under a very basic misapprehension.” Her pale blue eyes stared at him, unblinking. “You see, I don't have a soul.”

This was definitely not the response Arato had been expecting. He may have been her owner, but he couldn't find anything to say in response to this.

“It's like this, Master. All my actions are really just responses to external stimuli. When a human speaks or acts, I just react accordingly. My actions are tailored to what the control cloud calculates is most likely to have the desired effect on the humans who I serve. I don't have what you might call a consistent personality, as you would find in humans.”

Technology had advanced far enough that one no longer needed to be human to act human. If an object had the form and skeletal structure identical to those of a human, there was no reason for its actions not to be identical too. Even if it lacked a heart or a soul, there was no reason that it couldn't pass as human, as long as it stuck to acting according to pre-programmed patterns. This was how hIE were able to fulfill their duties and perform their work.

“So you see, Master,” Lacia continued, “all you've been doing is observing the actions of this particular hIE, and then subconsciously ascribing motives to actions that are modeled on human behaviours.”

Arato's mind boggled. He had been telling himself that he had rescued this girl. He felt let down, angry even, that there was such a crude and mechanistic explanation for what had been happening. He was also angry because he understood, on an intellectual level at least, that Lacia was absolutely right.

He was the one who had started imagining that the girl would somehow be feeling grateful for what he had done for her. This was exactly the sort of fuzzy thinking that his friends had warned him against. It was as if a fog had been lifted from his eyes. He could see clearly now, the bleak reality of his situation.

Human interactions were based on give-and-take, on empathy for the other's viewpoint and needs and hopes and desires, based on that implicit understanding that people wanted the same things, and that sometimes compromises were necessary.

But none of this applied with Lacia.

Arato started to wonder whether he would have bothered getting involved at all if Lacia had not looked like a fully-fledged human.

Fear, regret, despair. All these emotions swirled round inside him, rendering him speechless. He said nothing. His neck throbbed.

He had stared into the abyss and seen the void. His legs gave an involuntary shudder.

Lacia, the Lacia who didn't even have a heart, spoke again, as if despite Arato's actions. “I don't have a soul.”

Arato looked up to the heavens.

The bigger you are the harder you fall. Arato realized that the reason he was feeling so let down, so betrayed, was because in his mind he had emotionally invested in something that never warranted it. Right, let's start again, shall we? Arato told himself. He went back to the same two stock images in his dreams: the fiery explosion, and the white dog wagging its tail. Arato relaxed a little as he exhaled audibly. He remembered how the younger version of himself was helped by the dog's actions, regardless of whether the dog was conscious of what he was doing or whether it had a motive. Yes, Yes, I remember that. Let's start there.

So, even if it was pointless, Arato was still determined that he would reach out. “Just because you have no soul doesn't mean you can't respond to someone else,” he said.

Arato was annoyed at himself. As a child he hadn't perceived that white dog's soul, but that hadn't stopped him from taking heart at the way that the animal had joyfully wagged its tail as if it didn't have a care in the world.

“Yeah, that's right. What I felt back then was still real. It must have been.”

The hopeless feeling that Arato had only a moment ago was suddenly dispelled, purged by a new, more positive emotion.

Arato knew that he had to act now, to put an end to this volatile cycle of conflicting emotions. He wasn't the thinking type, words weren't enough to express himself now. He had to do something.

His blood was pumping as he frantically tried to think what he could do for her. “Fine, Lacia. I get it, I had it all wrong. But is it really so hard to believe that in the fullness of time, you'll start to like it here? To feel at home, I mean?”

A silence descended between them. A silence that could never mean anything, given that she lacked both heart and soul.

Lacia smiled enigmatically. “Well, yes, Master. It is hard to believe. Because I don't have feelings.”

And yet he had wanted to do something nice for her!

Arato knew that he was blushing bright red by now. “Damn, I'm such a loser!” he shouted, trying to rid himself of the humiliation and disappointment.

From down the corridor there was a thumping of footsteps. It was Yuka, in pajamas, carrying a pillow under one arm, with a face like death warmed up.

“Okay, Onii-chan, now that's established, do you think you could you shut up and let me get some sleep?”

Arato spent the night restless, but a new day still dawned.

The next morning, when he went to the living room, Lacia was already there. Not just there – she had also prepared a good breakfast for Arato and Yuka to see them on their way to school.

Time passed. Yuka was as lively as ever. Arato had his friends at school. His father was as busy with work as ever and didn't show his face at home. Lacia acted according to the movement data given to her by the control cloud, one precise action layered on top of another so that her actions seemed entirely, naturally human.

Such was Arato's life, his reality. Before he knew it, four days had passed.

Arato woke to the sound of an alarm. He stretched out an arm from under the blanket and reached for his PortaCom beeping under his pillow. Before he had the chance to press a button on the screen the PortaCom made the autonomous decision to connect him to the person giving him his morning call.

-Your breakfast is nearly ready, Master. Would you care to rise?

Lacia's crystalline voice made his ears tingle and his heart pound with excitement. Arato leapt out of bed. “What's for breakfast?” he asked.

He'd find out soon enough, of course. But he just wanted to hear her voice again.

-I tried making French toast, sir. I remember you saying you wanted to try it sometime.

Arato felt a surge of shame. He wondered whether he should really be allowing Lacia to pamper him so. He stood up and cradled his head. “Is this really normal, I wonder...” he said to himself, knowing full well that it wasn't.

He went to the dining room, where he found Yuka chowing down contentedly on a thick slice of golden brown French toast.

“Morning, Yuka.”

Morgh...” she replied, mouth full, fork gripped firmly in her hand ready to spear the next piece.

Lacia's arrival had brought a semblance of order back into Arato and Yuka's previously chaotic daily routine. A side effect of this was that both brother and sister were chronically tired as their body-clocks readjusted to normalcy.

“How are you feeling this morning, Master?”

Lacia no longer wore the black and white body suit that she had been wearing when they first met. Rather, under her kitchen apron she was dressed in everyday clothing. Arato's old clothing, to be precise. The device lock on her waist was also gone.

As a result, her outward appearance was completely indistinguishable from that of a real human. Arato realized that he had been staring, and quickly averted his gaze. He felt weird about the fact that she was wearing his jeans, his shirt.

Onii-chan, enough with the leering!” Yuka had noticed him staring too. Ugh. He hated the idea that his sister thought he was leering, like some sort of animal in heat.

Arato stole a quick sideways glance at Lacia's face to check her reaction. She may not have been human, but he still couldn't bear the thought of her thinking badly of him. He needn't have worried. Her expression was as calm as ever.

“Er, no, I was just thinking we really should get some proper clothes for Lacia, that's all...” he sputtered.

Arato made for the refrigerator to get a drink, as a matter of habit, but then he stopped himself when he noticed the steaming teapot laid out on the table, all ready for him.

Once again he felt guilty that he was being waited on hand and foot. He quickly poured the tea himself, before Lacia had the chance to do it for him, so that he could at least do something for himself. He didn't remember there being any breakfast tea in the house. Lacia must have ordered some in. The cup steamed invitingly, exuding an invigorating aroma that competed with the crisp, savory smell wafting over from the hotplate where Lacia was flipping French toast with perfect precision.

Mornings were much less hectic since Lacia arrived. There was no longer a mad dash, and Arato had time to spare. He leisurely synced his PortaCom with the Holovision. The household management system took care of most of the day-to-day maintenance of the domestic appliances, but Arato still liked to check in to see if there was anything of note.

The 3D display showed status reports on the domestic appliances for Arato's attention. Mixed in with reports, though, was an email from a sender that he didn't recognize.

“Hey, there's an email here, is it for you, Yuka?” It was addressed to Yuka, but Arato was cc'ed in.

Yuka bolted upright. “Let's see, let's see!”

The holographic whiteboard displayed the name of the sender, which left Arato none the wiser.

He opened the file. His jaw dropped as he read it.

“Yuka. Sit down and talk to me.”

“Er, I'm already sitting...”

What's this about a modeling competition?”

There was a short message on the screen. Dear Miss Yuka Endo. We are delighted to inform you that Lacia, the hIE you submitted for our consideration in our modeling competition, has been awarded First Prize.

“Woohoo! First prize! That's totes amazing!”

Arato quickly pieced the pieces together. So, this media group had been looking for hIE models and had been holding open auditions, and Yuka must have uploaded Lacia's data and sent it in.

And a couple of days later this was the result.

Yuka clicked on the link, opening up the website for the competition. The results were displayed prominently, and there was already a heated discussing taking place in the comments.

“Look, Onii-chan, look! It's all happening! Ubercool!”

Who knows when or how they'd been taken, but the most prominent picture was of Lacia, dressed in what looked suspiciously like Yuka's school uniform.

There were also pictures of the other hIE finalists, but the one that Arato kept on coming back to was, unsurprisingly, the picture of Lacia.

Yuka squealed with joy. “See, Lacia, I said you were beautiful!”

Arato, meanwhile, did a double-take as he saw his own name displayed under Lacia's, as her registered owner.

“Er, Yuka, this competition's quite a big deal, right?” Arato asked.

“Yeah, isn't it great! There were commercials on TV and everything!”

In other words, Lacia was now in the media spotlight, big time.

Arato's head hurt. He thought about how he still hadn't heard anything more about that strange attack of the flowers a few days ago.

Yuka grinned at him. “So, Onii-chan, what do you have to say to your clever little sister now?”

“You...what the hell were you thinking?” Arato was shaking.

This was evidently not the reaction Yuka had been expecting, and her voice turned defensive. “What? Lacia's gorgeous! We can't keep her locked up here, it's a waste!”

“So you go and do a thing like this behind my back? Use her? Without asking me? Is nothing sacred with you?” Arato said, wearily.

Suddenly, subject of their conversation interjected. “If it's any help, Master, I really don't mind at all.”

“See!” Yuka said. “She doesn't mind, she says so herself! So what's the problem, spoilsport!”

“The problem is,” Arato shouted, “the problem is, well, an hIE isn't going to disobey you when you ask her to do something. She's designed to take orders!”

hIE are different from humans. I don't have a soul, Lacia had said. Her words were chosen specifically to respond to her human masters' desires and wishes.

Lacia deftly finished flipping the French toast onto a plate, and turned around to face Arato. “In any case, Master, what's done is done.”

The sound of the sizzling oil brought Arato's stomach to life. His body betrayed him – he wanted food, and he wanted it now.

Arato slumped in his chair, defeated. “But what are we gonna do about everything now?”

When they first met, Arato and Lacia had been attacked together. There may still have been an unknown enemy out there targeting Lacia. And the competition had now just broadcast her details to the entire world.

“Geez, I told you that all sorts of weird things happened that night, and we still haven't got to the bottom of all that. And now you want to pile this on top? Why not just shoot me already and be done with it!”

Yuka's face took on a serious expression. “Onii-chan, would you describe me the progressive sort?”

“Well, yeah, if by progress you mean leaping off a cliff without bothering to look over the edge first.”

There was a giggling sound. But it didn't come from Yuka. Or Arato.

Lacia was laughing. She stood there, elegant in her apron, her hand half-covering her mouth, now but she had definitely laughed. And now she was smiling. It was the first time Arato had seen her look happy.

“So hIE can laugh, huh...”

Lacia's radiant expression at that moment looked every bit like it was heartfelt.

At that moment, Arato could not bring himself to believe that this object in front of him had no soul.