BEATLESS

Chapter 02 Analog Hack

Chapter 02 Analog Hack

Arato's morning routine was never the same after Lacia's arrival.

The epic battles with the alarm clock's snooze function were no more. These days, all it took to wake Arato from his sleep was the gentlest of nudges.

Arato threw on an old shirt and sweats, gave his face a quick wash, and made for the kitchen. The adjoining living room was not exactly a palace, but not too cramped for their modest household either. Arato pulled up a chair at the western-style dining table.

“Morning,” he said, sitting down.

“Slept in,Onii-chan?” Yuka asked. She was savoring her cup of Japanese tea with a refined air, as if she was drinking from gold-plated fine china, rather than the Hello-Kitty-esque plastic receptacle that it was.

“You know that if you stick some sugar in that stuff you can fool yourself into thinking it's like English tea,” Arato said.

“Really?” Yuka asked, skeptically.

“I believe that my master is speaking the truth,” Lacia interjected. “And I believe that in places such as Thailand it's not uncommon to add sugar to your tea even when you are drinking it in the East Asian style, as you are now, Ma'am.” Lacia had turned round from her spot in the kitchen, her pale purple hair flowing around as she spun. There was something about this sort of party trivia when it came from the mouth of a human-shaped android such as Lacia. It sounded somehow impressive. Profound, even.

Arato's chest tightened, snapping him out of his early morning reverie. Lacia may have been without a soul, but her expression was just perfect. He realized that he was holding his breath and that his face was flushing.

Yuka's face scrunched up in concentration. “If you both say so. Well, I guess I'll try it out!” She picked up the sugar bowl and somewhat incongruously heaped two generous teaspoons of sugar into her small Japanese-style teacup. Not wanting to use the sugar spoon to stir, and not having any other utensil to hand, she picked up one of her chopsticks and used it to mix in the sugar.

“Here you go, Onii-chan! A present for you!” She offered him the resulting sickly-sweet concoction.

“Er, why's it my job to taste it?” he asked.

Lacia brought over a tray loaded with their breakfast staples—white rice and miso soup. This gave Arato the opportunity to ignore Yuka's proffered beverage. “You've made your tea, now drink it. Your brother has bigger problems to worry about right now.”

Arato clapped his hands together to give thanks for the food, and tried a mouthful of the miso soup. It had pieces of fried tofu in it, and heaps of fresh cabbage, an attempt to make up for the lack of vegetables in their diet before Lacia had joined their household. The soup tasted odd to Arato, not because there was anything wrong with it—it was delicious—but because it was such a homey dish, the sort that they never really had at home any more since their mother left them over 10 years ago.

“What problems? Daddy said we could keep Lacia, so everything's just fine and dandy!” Yuka grabbed the tube of flavored mayonnaise squeezed a generous dollop of it onto her rice. It was an acquired taste, but people who loved it, loved it.

Arato sighed. “Yeah, I know he said we could, but I doubt Pop knows what he's letting us in for.” Yesterday evening, Arato had spoken to his father for the first time in days. Over his PortaCom of course, not in person. His father, who was supposed to be an expert researcher on hIE fundamentals, didn't seem to know anything about Lacia, and had no idea what to make of her strange black device or the rest of her unusual equipment. Neither could he explain the incident of the strange flowers, or what happened to Ms. Marie.

“I was surprised at how quick Daddy was to agree to take Lacia in,” Yuka admitted.

“I wasn't,” Arato said, a little disgruntled. He had recognized the look on his father's face when his father had caught sight of Lacia over the PortaCom. It was uncomfortably close to Arato's own face when he looked at Lacia, he knew. It wasn't a happy thought.

Speaking of unhappy thoughts, Arato said out loud, “Come to think of it, there hasn't been anything about that night in the news yet, has there? And there's nothing from the police, either.” He was surprised—a large car had exploded on a public road, after all—but when Arato had asked around he wasn't able to glean much from his neighbors, other than the fact that when a couple of them had tried to go outside to see what was happening they found that the locks on their doors and windows wouldn't open for a couple of minutes, and they were temporarily locked in their housed. Nor could Arato find any physical traces of the massive flower-storm left anywhere in the neighborhood.

Onii-chan, you haven't introduced Lacia to your friends Kengo or Ryo yet, have you?” Yuka asked.

“Ah. No. That's something.” Arato had been buddies with Ryo since he was a boy, and Kengo had joined their little group at the beginning of high school, but Arato still hadn't mentioned the latest arrival in his life to his two closest friends. The way he saw it, he already had enough to worry about.

Yuka was never one for standing on ceremony when it came to table manners, and she was tapping away at the table as she ate her breakfast nonchalantly. The table top also doubled as a touch-screen computer, and Yuka had brought up some fashion magazine which she was casually browsing, through the gaps between the rice and soup bowls. Had Arato not known Yuka better he would have been surprised at the oddness of the scene.

By the by Yuka seemed to find what she was looking for, and she grinned as she zoomed in on the article she had found:

First Prize in the Fabion Media Group's hIE Modeling Competition goes to Lacia.

Accompanying the headline, of course, was yet another picture of Lacia. It seemed that the competition was an even bigger deal that Arato had first feared. It was all spiraling out of control.

“Lacia, your first job is on Sunday, isn't it?” Yuka asked.

“Seriously, though, what are we gonna do about this,” Arato said.

“Come on,Onii-chan, sometimes you gotta just grab life by the balls, you know? This is our chance to make it big! You only got one shot, do not miss your-”

“What are you, some sort of 20th-Century rapper?” Arato cut in.

Lacia herself was completely unruffled by the commotion surrounding her, of course. She merely looked on, observing the scene, silently deciding on what action to take next. What she should say to assuage her owner's worries. Her own feelings simply weren't a factor.

“Please, Master, there really is no need to worry on my account.”

“Yeah, Onii-chan, take it easy. Here, relax. Have some tea.”

Yuka passed him a cup, and he drank. It was sweet. Oh, yeah. The green tea and the sugar.

“How is it?” Yuka asked, innocently.

“You know what? Not too bad, actually.”

“Really? Gimme, gimme!” She snatched the cup back, and then moved it tentatively towards her lips. She sipped carefully, and then her eyes widened, as if she had just made an incredible discovery. “See? I told you all along, didn't I? Fortune favors the bold!”

Arato couldn't help but be sucked in by her silliness. He sighed.

Yuka was on school duty roster that morning, so she set out for her junior high earlier than Arato. Lacia and Arato were left alone together in the house.

“Are you sure you're okay with this modeling gig?” Arato asked.

Lacia was done tidying up after breakfast, and all household chores were finished for the time being, so she took a seat across the table from Arato. He had given her free reign to choose her own clothing, but she seemed happy enough with his cast-offs. The only problem was that seeing her wearing his old clothes gave him butterflies in his stomach.

“Yes, I've checked over the paperwork and all seems to be in order. It's a fairly standard proxy labor contract.”

An hIE belonged to its owner, so whenever an hIE took on a job for a third party the law mandated that officially it was the owner who was employed, and that the hIE was merely representing its owner. So officially it was Arato's name on Lacia's modeling contract, and as he was still a minor he had needed to get his father to to counter-sign it, hence the PortaCom call last night.

The forms had been far too complex for Arato to understand, so he had just let Lacia handle them. It seemed that hIEs were often used as secretaries and paralegals to handle just that sort of thing.

“That's good. I just don't want you to feel under pressure because Yuka got carried away on one of her notions. I swear, one of these days I'm going to sit her down and have a proper talk with her about acting responsibly.”

“Really, Master? I find it hard to believe you'll ever be too strict with her. She's the apple of your eye.”

Bulls-eye. There was nothing Arato could say in response to that.

“I'm sorry, just explain that to me again, please. How do you just find an hIE?” Kengo asked.

When Arato finally got round to telling his two friends about Lacia, they both looked at Arato like he'd lost his mind. They were in their classroom, the only ones left after the school day had finished.

“What was I supposed to do? She asked me to become her owner, so I did.” Arato said it as if it was nothing, that anyone in his position would have done the same.

Kengo begged to differ. “You know that even your standard base model hIE easily costs as much as a mid-sized car, right? So how much do you think a fancy model such as yours would cost? One capable of winning a major modeling competition right off the bat? Didn't you think to go to the police?”

“Well, if she is so expensive then wouldn't her original owner have come forward once the competition results were announced? Her details aren't exactly being kept secret, you know. Half the country must have seen her face by now.” In truth, Arato was at least partially in agreement with Kengo. He had even considered getting Lacia to turn down the modeling contract, and it was only when Lacia persuaded him that there were potential benefits to being in the public eye that Arato had reluctantly assented.

“Hm,” Kengo said, “I suppose you do make a good point there, Endo.”

“Anyway, I'll show you now. It'd be easier if we just went and saw her in the flesh, of course.” Arato said.

“So your hIE can answer calls on its own, huh, Arato?” Ryo asked, peering over at the PortaCom that Arato was using to dial his home line. He had decided to introduce Lacia to his friends today over the PortaCom system.

The credit-card-sized screen on Arato's PortaCom started flashing—dialing. The call was picked up by his house phone on the third ring. Lacia's face came up on the screen, her eyes elegant and calm.

-Hello, Master. Are these two gentlemen the friends you've told me so much about, perhaps?

Ryo and Kengo gasped. They were momentarily speechless.Yep, that was the effect that Lacia had on people when they first saw her in the flesh, all right. Or not even in the flesh, in this instance.

Ryo, standing there in a half-done-up uniform, was the first to recover. “So that's why we've seen so little of you lately, Arato! What kind of a friend are you, keeping something like this all to yourself?”

When Kengo regained his breath, the first thing he did was pull out his laptop from his book-bag. “Endo, could you ask your hIE to tell me its Serial Number? This is no ordinary model.”

“Uh, Lacia, do you know what he means by that? A Serial Number? Kengo's great with computers and stuff, so he might be able to help me figure out stuff about you.”

Through the screen, Lacia answered immediately, enunciating every letter clearly. -My Serial Number is LSLX-22S99176LF, Master. Shall I also give you my Unique Identifier Code?

Lacia read out some numbers, and these appeared automatically on Kengo's screen. Kengo stared at the numbers in silence, stood up, had Arato place his PortaCom on a desk, and pulled Arato out into the corridor.

Arato was concerned at his usually placid friend's sudden excitement. “Hey, what's happening?”

“Endo, have youlost your mind?” Kengo hissed. “An LSLX? That the flagship Stylus model! Didn't you even do your basic checks? Do you even realize what you have in your hands?”

Stylus was an American ultra-high-end hIE manufacturer. Even Arato had heard of the name, the brand, but as an ordinary high school student he didn't really have much of an idea of the prices involved: he was entirely removed from that world. Better to ask about something closer to home.

“What's a Unique Identifier Code?” he asked.

“A UIC? It's like a signal that all hIEs have to broadcast at regular intervals,” Kengo said. “They're mandated by law, so that you can tell the difference between hIE and humans. You can use it to track a missing hIE, for example. You wouldn't want to lose something as precious as this, after all.”

Ryo, who had remained in the classroom, popped his head out into the corridor and had caught some of the exchange. He too was unfazed at the suggestion that Lacia had some outlandish price tag, though, but for different reasons from Arato, perhaps—as the son of a prominent CEO, they were now talking his language.

“The UIC can't be decoded, but it can be traced to its source,” Ryo added, and then continued when Arato clearly failed to grasp the implications of what he was saying. “A dealer who sells hIEs will have their UICs as an anti-theft precaution. So that the hIE could be tracked down if it were ever stolen. So why haven't they tracked your hIE down, Arato, that's the question? They could, unless the hIE is in some sort of state where it can't broadcast.”

“Yes, they might not be able to decode the UIC as such, but they could extract a signal close enough for them to pin down the hIE's location,” said Kengo. “And yet neither the owner nor the dealer seem to want to come forward. Endo's sister entered the hIE into a big public competition, right? And yet even so, nobody's been in contact. Weird.”

By this stage Arato felt completely excluded from this conversation, which as far as he could tell seemed to be mainly about judging him and his sister for their casual attitude towards recent events. To Arato, though, it was his friends who were taking things too seriously.

“Well, I guess I just lucked out, then,” Arato said. “No dealer, no owner, no worries. Right?”

Kengo looked aghast, and Ryo was the first to speak. “Wrong. Be worried. If it sounds too good to be true, it always is.”
“Endo, just think about it,” Kengo continued, after recovering. “When was the last time you heard of anyone 'just lucking out' and finding, say, a brand new car? A Ferrari just lying around with no owner. What would you do if the Ferrari suddenly turned round to you and asked you to become its owner? You'd run a mile, right?”

“You do like comparing hIE to cars, don't you?” Arato said. It wasn't meant to be a loaded comment---as far as Arato was concened, he was just telling the truth.

Twilight seeped into the school through the large glass windows.

“Geez. Mr. Kaidai, what do you say, shall we knock some sense into him?” Kengo said, exasperated. He sounded only hald-joking.

Ryo, however, did have a responsible side that occasionally manifested itself, and Arato was his friend. “Look. Arato,” he said, “you should really talk to your father about this.”

“I already have! And he said it was fine for Lacia to stay with us!”

Arato's two friends exchanged glances of disbelief. But they both respected Arato's father, who worked on an important public-private sector research project. It would have to do, for now.

Ryo decided to change the subject, and looped his arm around Arato's neck. “Fine, we get it. But in that case, why the hell did you wait a whole week before spilling the beans? I thought we were supposed to be buddies?”

The three boys made their way back into the classroom to look at Arato's PortaCom again. Lacia was still on the other side of the screen, waiting patiently. -Your friends sure do look out for you, don't they, Master?

“Yeah, they've got my back,” he said. Arato didn't think there was anything suspicious about Lacia. But his friends were wary of her, even though Arato had explained to them how she had saved his life.

Ryo spoke, not at Lacia but directly to Arato. “Get her to send her Behavior Management Cloud serial number, too.”

Before Arato had the chance to say anything to Lacia, she was transmitting a 40-something long alphanumeric code string straight into Arato's terminal. Ryo used his own PortaCom to take a copy. “hIEs rely on Behavior Management Services to manage their actions. We should be able to use this serial number to work out which company is managing her right now.”

An hIE's actions weren't determined from within its own hardware. Rather, it exchanged wireless signals with huge external network, a cloud, that processed the stimuli that an hIE was receiving, and calculated an appropriate response and transmitted it back to the hIE.

Ryo's device finished processing the serial data, and Ryo grimaced. Arato put a hand on Ryo's arm. He knew his childhood friend well. He knew how hard Ryo took bad news, and how he could never hide it.

Resigned, Ryo showed Arato his screen.

Memeframe Corporation, registered April 2105.

“It's one of ours,” Ryo said. His father was the president of Memeframe.

Lacia had no soul. Instead, her actions were regulated by Memeframe's cloud management platform.

“So haven't you heard anything about this, then, Ryo?” Arato asked, hopefully. But Ryo just hid his PortaCom away.

“Look, Arato. Maybe it's best we don't delve too deep.” It was as if the curiosity and the interest that Ryo had shown until a moment ago had never existed. Arato felt like he was in some sort of twilight zone. Ryo's face was hard when he continued, “Just don't get involved with this hIE, ok?”

“Don't get involved?” Arato said, incredulously. “I'm her owner!

Ryo, usually so confident, now had a hunted look about him. He averted his eyes. The blood seemed to have drained from his face, and Arato couldn't remember the last time he had seen his friend look this drawn.

Ryo managed a forced smile and said, “Look, Arato. Forget about her. Let her go. You've got a nice life, right? Why risk complicating it with hIEs?”

To Be Continued