1

A gentle breeze blows, and in all of the parks, cherry trees are in bloom. Spring is here.

Now, in most stories, this would mark the start of a new beginning. I remember Mom and Dad saying that spring is a time for new beginnings, which then usually led to them waxing poetic about their childhoods in Japan. That was a total crock, by the way. Dad was born and raised in Seattle, and Mom moved to the States when she was three. Maybe I'd believe that coming out of Grandma's mouth, but whatever.

So, yeah, as you could probably tell, I am ethnic Japanese, but I was born and raised in L.A. The name's Kazuma Nagato. I'm a 22-year-old grad student at San Jose State, majoring in computer engineering. Hurray for fulfilling stereotypes. Today is my day off, so I decided to do what I normally do: pop into a café, order some tea, and do some people-watching. My favorite spot is a place called "Journeys". No, it's not the store chain. It's this place about fifteen minutes from campus, and what I like about it is that it's quiet enough that the hustle and bustle of city life won't bother you, but not so far that you feel like you're in a different world.

Anyway, the streets are kind of quiet today, at least by city standards. It is 11 AM, so either there's still some time before the lunch rush, or people are already eating. Whatever; it's all the same to me. I reach the café at my usual time, and I take my usual seat at the veranda. "Journeys" is built like a traditional Asian teahouse and sits on top of a small hill in the Japanese Garden, which I guess is part of the reason why I find it relaxing—genetic nostalgia or something. I come here so often that my order of green tea was pretty much prepped as soon as I walked in, so the waitress brings it to me right as I sit down. I take a sip of my tea, and as the caffeine fires up my senses, I let out a low sigh and look at the city streets.

I see the usual hustle and bustle of traffic. It's amazing that even in this enlightened age of technology and clean power, traffic here hasn't changed at all. From here, the juxtaposition of the cars and SUVs on the street looks like a mosaic painting. Closer to the base of the hill, I see couples having picnics. Some guys are with regular girls, but other guys are with their Deae.

Deae are miracles of science. They're robots, specifically gynoids, built with both cybernetics and artificial biological components. Aside from not being able to have children, Deae are pretty much identical to their full biological counterparts; their only distinguishing feature is the pad-like headpieces they wear that look like the control units you see in some robot anime. Originally, Deae were just a one-off fad, something that lonely men with a lot of disposable income would buy. Deae weren't cheap; a small one would set you back about five grand. But they got really popular really fast, through a reputation of being infallibly loyal to their "owners" and capable of performing all manner of tasks.

Since I first heard of them, I had always had an interest in Deae…as an engineer. Whoever came up with their design was a true genius. Making robotic life was always a dream of engineers, but no one could ever have imagined something to the precision of your average Dea. Again, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart from a regular girl without looking at their headpieces, since they look and feel like the real thing. And then there are their personalities… It was once theorized that you could create an AI that behaved similarly to a human brain by using quantum computing, but Deae take it to the next level. The quantum computer that would be needed to make such a mind requires materials that have yet to be successfully created, but here are the Deae, completely blowing the theorized mind out of the water with their superior abilities. Who could've made these wondrous things, and how? I would love to understand those things!

…Oh, who am I kidding? There's no way I can afford one, especially since I'm buried up to my neck in student loans. Besides, if I were to tell my thesis committee that I want to study Deae specifically, instead of my cover story of advanced AI, they'd probably laugh me out of the room like the guy who wanted to make real-life Pocket Monsters. Besides, most people who don't have Deae for companionship use them for "Goddesses' Quarter", this sort of competitive battling that's become one of the biggest sports in the world. Who'd want to read a paper about…well, Pocket Monsters Mark Two?

Ring, ring

Is someone calling me? I pull out my phone from my pocket, look at the caller ID, and sigh. It's my friend, Doug Jackson. Doug is also a grad student, in the mechanical engineering department, and he's what most people call an otaku. When he's not spending his time tinkering on his latest gadget, he's ordering more figures of his favorite anime girls online or hanging out at the local maid café. Still, we somehow became friends during our undergrad years because we had similar interests in technology, and the rest is history. He does have the annoying tendency to call at the weirdest times though, usually about something related to his latest "project". After letting the phone ring a few times, I sigh again and answer.

"Hello?"

Kaz, I got a problem.

And so it begins…

"What now?"

Well, you know how I was trying to get my new fusion-cell engine ready? Well, the good news is that the power is flowing normally, but the management system is acting up again and now the car is running like it's being powered by a 9-volt. Did you finish that engine management algorithm I asked you for?

…Ah shit, I had a feeling I was forgetting something. Doug's latest project, and what he's planning on doing for his master's thesis, is an automobile powered by a nuclear…"battery" of sorts. He's been working on it for a few months now, but it's been plagued with problems, mostly software-related. Doug's a good engineer, but a lousy programmer.

"Uh…"

Your next line is "I completely forgot because I was working on my own stuff". To you.

"…Okay, you got me. Sorry."

Damn it, man! My advisor's coming to check it this weekend, and I told him I got it working nice!

"Isn't that mostly your fault for making an unrealistic promise?"

Don't give me that! Sarcasm isn't going to bail me out of this!

I sigh and rub my eyes.

"Okay, look. I'm in town right now, so I'll just go over to your place and fix what you got. This is your thesis anyway, so I don't want to put too much of my handiwork in it."

It sounds like you're trying to avoid taking responsibility, but hey, that works for me. I'll see you in a few.

With that, I hang up, leave the cash for my tea on the table, and head out of the café. Well, it was a nice break while it lasted, but duty calls. To be honest, I kind of want to see how far Doug has gotten on that thing anyway. The last time he showed it to me, all he had were a couple of chairs on a chassis. But now, it seems he finally got the engine going. It should be fun.

Doug's house is in Summerside, about two blocks to the southeast from here. By car, it'd only take about a few minutes, but I have to use the tramline, and the nearest station is about ten minutes in the other direction. Absurd, I know, but L.A. life led me to be very distrustful of owning a car, and the environmental hoops you have to jump through only seem to get crazier every year. Plus, I'm broke, and the tram pass is only 10 bucks a month. And so, to the orchestra of honking car horns and droning engines, I set off on my journey.

Maybe I was so focused on trying to come up with a solution to Doug's car that I almost didn't notice, but I catch a glimpse of something white in one of the side alleys. Now, normally I would just ignore something like this—After all, back alley of a major city? Not safe.—but for some reason my curiosity gets the better of me, and I decide to check it out. Doug won't mind if I take a small side trip.

Fortunately, there are no thugs or drunks in this alley, just trash. And sitting, or laying, on the trash is the thing that caught my eye. It's a girl in a loose white dress—I think it's called a frock. The girl looks like she's maybe eighteen or nineteen. Her long brown hair shines in the morning sun and casts a soft shadow on her gentle, sleeping face. The frock is pretty tattered and dirty, like it's seen a lot of use or if she was on a long journey. She has a katana in her hand for some reason. It's kind of neat how it has the old-fashioned style, but it's built with modern materials; I recognize the scabbard as being made with graphene. Of course, the bigger question is why no one paid any mind to a girl in a baggy dress walking around with a sword, but I guess that's city life for you. As I continue my (scientific) observation of the girl, my eyes eventually come across something very familiar. On the sides of her head are little pink pads, the telltale sign of a Dea.

Now this just doesn't make sense. Why would someone throw away a perfectly good Dea, as expensive as they are? She doesn't look broken, and even if she was, there are plenty of places that service Deae. As a man of science, I hate seeing things go to waste like this. What to do…? I know she's only a machine, but I can't just leave her like this. She could actually get damaged or turned to scrap. She's also really cute; all the more reason I can't just leave her out in the open. Who knows what someone might do to her? But…how do I get her out of here? I got here by walking, and it'd be a long trip to carry her back home…

"Damn it…"

With a sigh, I call Doug.

What's up, man?

"Uh, Doug… I might be a little later than I thought."

Oh, jeez… What happened?

"I, uh, ran into an unexpected problem."

What kind of problem?

"You'll know when I get there."