Arato's sleep was always disturbed by one of two dreams.
The first was of an inferno sweeping through a corridor. A nightmare where the whole world was ablaze in a charred red tsunami of whirling flame, rising up to swallow him whole.
The second was the memory of a dog looking up at him and wagging its tail.
Once upon a time, Arato had been hospitalized for third-degree burns after being caught in a blast of scorching air. While he was recovering there he used to sit in the eerily quiet front yard of the hospital and gaze at the people passing by. Arato had just started elementary school. His father had been busy with his work at the time, and his sister was still little more than an infant. So his family only dropped by occasionally, and Arato had come to believe that he was hardly worth the bother of a visit.
In this hazy state, memory was but a daydream. He would take his daily dose of painkillers, and the world would go silent, as if he had been erased from its memory.
Then a white puppy entered this lonely world. The puppy was inquisitively sniffing around Arato's feet before he had even noticed it.
“Looks like he wants to be your friend,” said a young nurse. He could never remember her face. But he could remember the way the puppy sidled up to him when he stroked its head. The dog had wanted and expected more, pawing at Arato as if to demand that he scratch under its chin.
The short-haired white puppy would bound towards him, wagging its tail vigorously, getting caught up with Arato's heels, so Arato had no choice but to play with it, despite the effort this caused him in his injured state.
A few days later the nurse appeared again, this time with a boy of about Arato's age in tow. “This boy wants to join your little gang,” she said.
Arato looked at the boy's scrawny limbs and thought that he really looked sick. He later learned that the boy was unable to eat the hospital food and was on a drip. At the time, though, Arato didn't really know what to do, and couldn't meet the boy's eyes. Only the dog reacted to the new arrival, with bright eyes and panting excitement. It couldn't make up its mind as to which one of the two to play with next, so it just went round in circles with its tongue lolling out.
People's hearts are influenced by actions. They are influenced by things other than people.
Arato looked at the face of the boy standing there. The boy wore a dark, gloomy expression, as if he was lost in the the night. As if he wanted to cry out for help but wasn't quite sure how. He was painfully tense and keeping it all in.
Then Arato heard a little gurgling sound down by his feet. The puppy's tail was wagging so much that its hind legs seemed about to give way. Just as the world was about to overwhelming Arato with its loneliness, this bundle of overflowing joy exploded into it.
“He looks like he's having fun, doesn't he?” Arato said, his words breaking the silence.
For some reason the warmth that he felt from the dog almost made him want to cry.
The puppy was sniffing the ground and looking up at him. It was almost as if it was trying to cheer him up by being so happy that Arato couldn't help but join in with its mood.
The boy in front of Arato didn't seem to to be as badly hurt as Arato was, but his lips remained tightly sealed.
It wasn't going to be easy to extend an arm in his current state, but even so Arato made up his mind to make the first move.
“I'm Arato Endo.” Summoning up all his courage, Arato took the first, tentative step. “Will you be my friend?”
Sunlight poured in through the classroom windows.
Arato Endo was sprawled out across a chair, groaning. “How can it be so hot when it's still only April...”
The sky outside was clear and parched. Inside, Arato stared at the classroom ceiling.
“I'm always amazed at how you can sleep though class so brazenly.” This came from the boy standing next to Arato. The top two buttons on his regulation shirt were open. The speaker was Ryo Kaidai, who had come over to Arato's side during the class recess.
“You're one to talk. You were no better than he was.” The third voice came from the occupant of the seat directly behind Arato: one Kengo Suguri.
Ryo was supremely unfazed by the dig. “Yeah, well, I read ahead yesterday. Got it covered.”
Arato never really understood why Ryo was attending an ordinary high school. “Jeez, I wish I had your brains to spare.”
“No need to go overboard with the praise, buddy.” Ryo tried to act cool, although it was clear that some part of him at least was pleased by the reference to his superior intellect. “After all, what's the point of school these days, really? Socialization, that's about it. We're here to learn about interpersonal relationships, end of story. Brains and academic ability---these ideas are already on their way out, and they'll be completely obsolete by the next generation.”
Meanwhile, Kengo was wirelessly transferring the class notes he took on his ClassCom to his PortaCom. “I do so admire the dynamism of the wealthy. Even your excuses for slacking have a certain panache to them.”
The built-in screen on Arato's school desk was flashing up an alert, much to Arato's irritation. He pulled out his card-sized PortaCom from his pocket to check. Yep. Extra homework, just for him, the deadline glaring at him in red characters. “Man! Why am I the only one to be assigned extra?”
Ryo continued to expound his theories loudly oblivious to Arato's plight. “Yeah, the way I see it, ten years for now a man's job in society is going to be not much more than finding a nice little girl to become friends with.” He concluded with a flourish, and it seemed like by the end of his declaration he had managed to draw the cold stares of approximately half of the class of 11C, namely twenty female students.
“I'm surprised that you're able to talk in such an easygoing way about these things, Ryo,” said Kengo.
“Well, haven't you tried your luck with just about every single girl in this class?” Kengo asked.
“Sure. It was my new year's resolution. Try for a new girl every week. You can't fault me for effort.”
There was something not quite right about the way the three boys interacted with the rest of the classroom. It was as if they didn't quite fit in, and indeed they didn't, for Ryo's unsubtle efforts at conquering the girls in the class had backfired quite spectacularly. Ryo was both handsome and effortlessly good at his studies. His habit of flitting from girl to girl had initially caused some rivalries to flare up amongst his female classmates, but before long the girls simply came to the conclusion that Ryo was basically just a bit of a dick.
The result was that Ryo was now shunned by the class---by the boys, too. So he fell back into his original clique of three.
Arato's brow was soaked with sweat. “Ryo. You say school's mainly to learn about socialization and interpersonal relationships, right? Well why don't you knuckle down and give those subjects a study sometime?”
“This Sunday any good for you, buddy? I'm meeting up with some girls from the next district over. Coming with?” Ryo grabbed hold of Arato from behind.
“Not me. I've already promised to take my sister out...”
“I'm calling you out on that one, buddy. You've already spent your allowance this month. Why would your sister want to hang out with you if not to mooch your cash?”
“Cut it out. You don't know Yuka,” said Arato.
“Say, Ryo, you do like to get Arato involved in things, don't you?” Kengo interjected.
Ryo grinned like a village idiot.. “Yeah, well. Arato's good value.”
Arato could never understand this side to Ryo's personality. Was he so brilliant that his intelligence ended up coming round full circle back to stupid? And were he and Kengo equally stupid for allowing themselves to get dragged along?
The cityscape beyond the classroom window was glittering brightly. Solar panels from the residential district across the river were reflecting the sunlight.
It was April, and the third semester of the school year had just begun.
Japan had long since adjusted its school calendar to fall into line with the American system of starting the school year in September. Strange to think now that there was once a time, a hundred years ago, when the April cherry blossoms went hand in hand with the commencement ceremonies for the new academic year.
The route home that Arato and his two friends took saw them pass along cherry-blossom-lined banks of the Sumida River. They took a sidelong glance at the famous Kototoi Bridge that had collapsed that one time last century, and passed through the gaps in the crumbling stone monuments of Ushijima Shrine before diving into the cherry-tree tunnel planted on the Bokutei Path on the bank of the Sumida River.
“What will we do for our Cherry Blossom Festival this year?” A rato wondered aloud. He stood facing the Sumida River embankment, next to a relatively new stone monument. It was a memorial to the catastrophe that had turned the whole Azuma Bridge area into a mountain of rubble. As such, it wasn't uncommon to see the elderly place bouquets of flowers there in memoriam.
Ryo had peeled the outer layer of his uniform off in response to the April sunshine. “Why don't we make this Sunday our very own Cherry Blossom Festival?”
“Jeez, you never give up, do you,” said Arato. “How many girls did you invite, anyway?” He fiddled with a small dial on his uniform to activate the coolant system built into the seams. The current activated, and Arato felt a little cooler.
Ryo looked straight at him and held up four fingers. “Four girls.”
“Well you'd better say something to them quick. Even if you did manage to rope Kengo and me into it that's still only three guys.”
“Arato, Arato, Arato,” Ryo chided him, “why, it's almost as if you're insinuating that I only have two friends.”
“You do only have two friends,” said Arato.
“You're busting my balls, buddy...”
The whole area around the old Sumida Ward Office had been extensively rezoned over the last fifty years. There was now a new road grid system in place leading off from Azuma Bridge and Komagata Bridge respectively.
Cars passed by, smooth as flowing water, down the wide avenues and towards their destinations. Traffic jams were a thing of the past now that all cars had Autocruise fitted as standard.
The boys approached a crosswalk where an old woman was slowly traversing a four-lane highway. A girl in a yellow jersey was by her side, holding her hand..
Without hesitating, Arato dashed towards them. “I'll go and help too.”
Kengo, who had been absorbed in his own world, snapped out of it. “You know the girl isn't human?” he called out after Arato.
The girl in question had shoulder-length hair, and everything about the way she looked and acted screamedhuman .
Kengo knew his computers and machines, though. “Best not interfere when an Interfacer is at work. You'll only get in the way.” By Interfacer he meant hIE of course, a Humanoid Interface Element, an android in human form. An hIE could do almost anything a real human could do. Manpower shortages were now a thing of the past, and the world was a much more convenient place, at least for the humans in it.
“But I want to help.” Arato ran towards the crosswalk. The girl-shaped android noticed him approaching and smiled at him.
“Could I lend you an arm, ma'am?” he said to the old lady. “The light's about to change.”
“Why, thank you, young man,” the hunchbacked old lady replied, with a wrinkled smile of gratitude.
Humans aren't able to transmit emotions directly, so they express themselves through their actions. However, these days non-human objects were able to perform the same type of actions.
Such was modern life for Arato and his friends. In the year AD 2105, the wheels of Japanese society spun smoothly only because androids were there to act as grease on the cogs.
“I bet you're the sort w ho's easily fooled,” said Ryo, as they approached the shopping precinct around the Azuma Bridge Subway Station.
“What are you talking about?” said Arato. “It's just better to be nice to girls, that's all. You two could stand to learn a thing or two on that subject, by the way!”
A closer look at the boys surroundings revealed that there were plenty of hIE hiding in open view. The hospitality industry in particular could never get enough of them, and most food and drink joints had at least one on their books.
This was Kengo's home turf now, so he was in his element. “Would you be able to tell that the girl there flipping those taiyaki cakes is an hIE, for example?” He pointed to the curly blonde at the taiyaki hotcake stand just past the intersection with Asakusa Street. “Or that waitress in the soba restaurant. And manning the checkouts at the supermarket on the way to the Skytree. Every one of these hIE is programmed to help an old person in need.”
“They do like to serve, don't they” said Arato.
As they were looking at her, the hIE girl at the taiyaki stall called out to the boys as they passed. “Would you care for some taiyaki hot off the griddle, sir?” she smiled. There wasn't a drop of sweat on her face.
Ryo looked at her. It was a very different sort of look to the one he gave the girls in his class. Now his gaze was steely and cold. “Arato, hIE don't like to serve. They don't like to do anything. Or are you the sort of person that sees a motor spinning and says 'gosh, doesn't it like to move fast'?”
“So what if I am? I'm entitled to my opinion?” said Arato.
“Yep, and you're entitled to live in cloud cuckoo land, too,” said Ryo.
“And we all know that the good burghers of cloud cuckoo land are powerless in the face of scientific progress,” Kengo interjected.
“Yeah, well, you know me. Embrace scientific progress or be drowned by it. It's my duty to lend my unenlightened friends a helping hand,” said Ryo.
And so it went, as usual, the three friends bickering about everything and nothing.
Just then, though, Arato saw something in the corner of his eye. Something out of place.
A black alley cat in the back lane, just beyond the soba restaurant delivery bikes, appeared to be dragging something with its mouth.
The cat was struggling with a white object almost as big as itself. A strange object, shimmering in the afternoon sunlight.
A human arm.
“Ugh... what the...” The blood rushed from Arato's head.
It was a right forearm, to be precise, covered in smooth white skin. The cat fled the scene, leaving behind only the severed human limb.
“Again, huh?” Kengo exclaimed, lifting the arm and shaking it from side to side. White tubes started protruding from the cross-section where the arm had been severed at the elbow, and a liquid began dripping out. “There have been a few cases like this recently. Guys going round deliberately destroying hIE. Their remains have been found as scrap. What a waste.”
“What a waste? Don't you feel sorry for them at all?” Arato asked.
The arm was pulsating now. The smooth white hand looked exactly like that of a little girl. It may not have come from a real human, but it sure looked human enough.
“For their owners, maybe,” Kengo continued. “They'll sure see it as a waste---your average hIE costs as much as a car, you know.”
Arato reached forward to touch the severed hand, but Ryo placed his hand on Arato's shoulder to hold him back. “Don't touch it, you don't know where it's been!”
“We can't just leave it in a dumpster, though,” Arato said. He thought of the girl in the yellow jersey who helped the old lady across the road. It was heartbreaking to consider that some gentle little creature like her could have been smashed up so senselessly.
“Arato, I think you're forgetting something, buddy,” Ryo replied. “When these hIE help people they're just acting according to their pre-programmed settings. They see something that looks vaguely human, they act nice towards it. Helps get people to buy more of them, you know?” He looked down at the body part. “This is just a commercial object.”
And indeed, even though the boys were standing in the middle of a bustling shopping area, none of the passers-by seemed unduly troubled by the hand that Kengo was holding aloft.
Arato could tell that his friends didn't particularly like hIE. And some of the passers-by didn't give the thing that Kengo was holding a second glance, either. Others seemed a little more sympathetic. But none had the sort of reaction you would have expected had the owner of the severed arm been human.
The same went for Arato too, of course. He no longer felt the same sense of danger and agitation that he had experienced for a second when he thought the arm was real.
Even so, it looked human enough. It had to be entitled to something like human dignity, no?
“Let's take it to the police,” Arato said. “I can't bear to just dump it.”