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Chapter 5

Since receiving her last birthday present from her father, Kokone kept the little robot on her person everywhere she went, even to bed, and everyday she would share with it everything that was on her mind. Over time, it became Kokone’s loyal listener and she would tell it everything. Only to this little robot could Kokone unreservedly let loose all her emotions. Whenever she missed Papa, she would take it out and hold it lovingly in her palms, staring into the pitch black of its big round eyes, she felt an indescribable sense of familiarity. Kokone gave it a name, Dango, since dangos were her favourite snack.

“Dangos… Anyone want dangos? If there is no one, Papa’s gonna eat all of them…” The words had just come out of Yota and the two sisters were already shouting back their responses.

“Me! Me!” Kokone and Sakura rushed out of their room in hops and skips, one trying to get ahead of the other, and tackled Yota in a hug, “I want dangos, I want dangos!”

Yota picked up Kokone in one arm, and Sakura in the other, pouting in a farce of playing the victim, “You two just want dangos and not Papa anymore huh?”

Kokone put her arms around Yota’s neck and gave him a big smooch on his cheek, “I love Papa! But… I also love dangos.”

Keiko came out of the kitchen, seeing the dangos on the table she playfully protested, “Oh, please eat that after dinner, or else you all are gonna be too full and no one’s gonna appreciate my cooking!”

Yota immediately put Kokone and Sakura back on the floor and gently embraced Keiko, “Don’t worry, let’s all eat together!”

The two sisters wasted no time and went over to the table to look at the dangos in the bag, “Let’s see which flavours Papa bought… It’s mitarashi dangos! Yay!”

Seeing how excited the two sisters were, Keiko could no longer put up a long face and smiled. Sakura then cleared her throat and spoke solemnly, “First dangos, then dinner! With the whole family.” And Kokone followed up with a strong declaration, “All of us together, day and night, happily ever after!”

“No ‘the End’,” the four of them spoke in unison. Yota and Keiko would read fairy tales to the two sisters ever since they were small, and each and every single one of those tales always ended with “And they lived happily ever after, the end”, to which the sisters would instantly follow with a “No ‘the End’!”

Right after the four of them had finished with their motto, Sakura had already opened the plastic takeaway box without anyone noticing, and was stuffing a warm dango skewer into her mouth, chewing greedily. And so Kokone also quickly picked up one and started eating. The warm, soft and chewy grilled dangos were accompanied by the rich aroma of glutinous rice, wrapped in a thick sweet and salty sauce. It took just one for the taste to fill one’s heart with bliss.

Halfway through, Kokone went up to Yota and Keiko all of a sudden and popped a question, “Papa, Mama, what’s the oldest age that a person could live to?”

“Maybe a hundred?” Keiko gave a number off the top of her head.

“Then by the time Papa and Mama pass away, I would only be seventy years old… You will have to leave me behind to go to Heaven, am I right?”

Yota was briefly taken aback by the question. He looked at the serious expression on Kokone’s face and the dango skewer which he had brought to his lips was set back down. “Relax, Papa and Mama will take good care of ourselves,” he placated with a gentle smile, “and so, when you are a hundred years old, Papa will be a hundred and thirty, waiting for Kokone to go to heaven with us together. And there we will continue to live happily ever after, together as always.”

“Hurray!” Kokone embraced Yota and kept giggling, seemingly very pleased with his answer.

Kokone collapsed on the ground, the pictures in her mind kept flashing before her eyes like a film roll even though her body was exhausted. Those memories were so real, the scene that happened six years ago looked just like yesterday. Kokone did not want to and won’t ever forget these seemingly trivial and ordinary day-to-day scenes.

“Dango… Dango…” Kokone called out with a hoarse voice despite the physical pain.

Dango turned its head around and jumped, landing on the strange guy’s head like an arrow in the blink of an eye. And with a loud “bang”, the strange guy fell, as if he was hit at a weak spot and instantly lost his power to defend himself. Dango then promptly returned to where it was before, making a handsome hero landing with one palm and one knee touching the ground, then stood up and dusted off its hands. It looked back at Kokone, slightly lifting its chin up smugly, as if waiting for her to praise it. Meanwhile Kokone was still very shell-shocked and couldn’t react to what just played out in front of her eyes.

Shortly after, the strange guy stood again, and was much more irritated after being attacked. He let out a scream and punched down at Dango with all his might. Dango quickly rolled forward to dodge then looked back at the cracked asphalt where it was standing. The strange guy was not about to give up and raised his thick left leg to kick Dango like a football, yet it was as if Dango had already predicted his next moves and it jumped effortlessly off the ground only to appear to his right, its speed impossible to follow with human eyes, and punched his right face with its outstretched fist. The fist was small but it managed to stagger the guy backwards for a few steps. Dango then swung both its arms in the air to draw an “X” and two tiny pistols appeared out of nowhere in its arms, and it started shooting straight at the guy’s head, taking advantage of his moment of disorientation. The bullets coming out of the guns were nothing like the usual, they were glowing fluorescent and were fired at such an astonishing speed. For the next few seconds it fired more bullets than a machine gun could, and all aimed for the guy’s head where he was most vulnerable. Just as they thought this would be enough to batter up the guy, he jumped into the air and managed to dodge the round of fire.

He jumped above Dango and clasped his fist together to strike Dango, but Dango did several somersaults in the air, dodged to the side, and quickly put the pistol away in his front arm. After it landed on the ground, it kicked off with both feet, jumped up and punched the guy on his ear with so much force that it distorted his face. The guy spit out some green liquid, and finally fell to the ground. Dango took the opportunity to pick up Kokone’s school bag and returned to her with a bounce.

Dango seemed to understand Kokone’s emotions: fright, confusion, puzzlement. It gave her a little nod then opened the zipper of the school bag and jumped inside, then closed the zipper from inside, in a series of smooth actions. Kokone wasted no time and picked up her school bag then ran.

After reaching home, she went straight to her room and put down her school bag, then she made sure the door was properly closed before going to the dining room and took a seat. Keiko was alerted as soon as she saw the scratches on her arm, “Kokone! Why is your arm scratched?”

Kokone thoughtlessly pulled down her sleeve in an attempt to cover up the marks, and took a moment before speaking up, “I… I stumbled on my way home, that’s all!” She put on a carefree smile on the outside, but she was panicking on the inside – the strange guy who appeared on her way home, and the whole deal with Dango… She had no idea how to bring it up to her mother, so she chose to downplay it. Fortunately, Keiko bought her story.

“Kokone, you are already thirteen, you have to take care of yourself, don’t be so careless,” Keiko sat down next to her and gently tended to her scratches, even her voice was softer, delicately avoiding causing more pain to her wounds. “Every time Papa and Mama see you hurt, our hearts also feel the pain, do you get it?” Keiko paused, not aware of the tears swelling up in her eyes. She held Kokone’s weak, thin wrist in her hands, thinking back to the time when little Kokone fell, and how Yota and she panicked and made a mess. Now she must bear it all alone and she had no idea how she ought to face it if her daughter got injured again.

Kokone mutely watched as Keiko carefully but clumsily tended to the wounds, and she also was reminded of how she fell and cried when she was little. Back then, no matter what happened, all she needed was to call out “Papa” and Yota would immediately appear before her, to protect her, comfort her, and to take care of all her problems.

“Mama, actually, today…” Kokone started but trailed off again. “I mean… I’m okay, let’s eat dinner!” She wrapped her arms around Keiko, “I’m so sorry Mama, I will be more careful from now on and not worry you anymore, I won’t be as willful as a child anymore, I won’t…”

“Mama knows, Kokone is a good kid. We have to stay strong. As long as we are together as a family, we won’t have to be afraid of anything. Papa in Heaven would also want to see us living happily…” Keiko wiped at her eye corners to catch her tears before they overflowed, and she pulled Kokone in even tighter. Sakura, who had been watching on the side in silence, also wormed her way into the embrace.

Although Yota was no longer there, the family’s love for each other was still so strong, so warm.

“Papa had always taught us to be independent and strong. I couldn’t do that in the past, but I will learn from now on!” Kokone vouched with a stern, steady voice.

“Kokone has indeed grown up…” Keiko looked at her daughters with a motherly gaze and she quizzed Sakura, “Sakura, do you know what it means to be independent and strong?”

“Hmm…” Sakura tilted her little head in thoughts, “I don’t get it… That means no more crying, have I got it right?” She answered with a childish seriousness that incited a round of laughter from the mother and daughters again.

Kokone felt a wave of emotions as she laughed and looked at the family picture standing on a cupboard.

“Papa, don’t worry, we will live our lives with a smile, and so you have to be happy in Heaven too. One day, our family will see each other again.”

After finishing dinner, Kokoe suddenly remembered something and shouted a quick “Mama, I’m gonna do my homework!” before hurrying back to her room.

She hesitantly unzipped her school bag and peeked at the little wondrous toy robot. Even though she had had it for a good length of time, seeing it coming alive and moving like a human, demonstrating such extraordinary reflex and combat abilities, and even saving her from the hands of a strange person, was quite hard to stomach. Right now she was both excited and scared as she slowly and carefully opened the zipper fully, trying not to make too much noise in fear of alerting Dango inside.

Inside her school bag, Dango was curling up like a little hamster and sleeping, even letting out soft snores like a kitten’s purr.

“Gosh… So cute!” Kokone exclaimed in a low voice, never had she ever seen Dango like this, and she couldn’t resist gently scooping it up with her palms and taking it out of her school bag.

“It can move, fight, and even sleep… Is it really a robot? Why would Papa give me such a precious toy… He always kept the budget under 5,000 Yen. He must have gone all out with such a high-end toy…” Kokone lovingly adored Dango’s sleeping form, “But… First of all, it is a gift from Papa; Second of all, it saved my life. I have nothing to be afraid of!” Kokone was apparently convinced by her own reasoning and all thoughts about price and budget were now forgotten.

“Besides, how adorable is it… let’s look after it as a pet, and it can even protect me!” Kokone got more excited the more she thought about it, “I once wanted to keep a hamster but Papa and Mama were scared of them; When I wanted a cat, they were not a fan of fur; A dog, and they said they smell… Hmph! They wouldn’t say yes to any pet I wanted. Well, a robot has to be fine, right? It doesn’t lose fur, and it doesn’t smell!”

For some reason, the thought of Dango squatting and pooping like a dog came to her mind and she muttered to herself in silliness, “No way, no way, no way, it’s a robot, why would it do something like that!”

Worrying that she would wake Dango, she gently rolled its body over in her palms, “Let’s see… Do you need to recharge?” She looked left and right, up and down, and still couldn’t find a charging port, and no battery either.

“So it can’t be charged… Toys with AI nowadays shouldn’t be so advanced yet, right? Where did Papa buy it, for real…”

“Ah! Yaaaawn!” Dango woke and found itself laying on a pair of warm palms. Looking up, all it could see was a super duper extreme close-up of Kokone’s face, which was almost plastering to its own.

“Dango, seriously what are you?” Kokone wondered aloud to herself.

“Dan… go…” Dango repeated after her, syllable per syllable, like a baby learning to talk.

“You… you can talk?!” Kokone almost shrieked from the surprise, but quickly lowered her voice so that her mother wouldn’t be alerted. She whispered as if sharing a secret and asked, “Where did Papa buy you? Did Papa design you?”

“Papa? I… don’t… know…” Dango shook its head. Such questions seemed a bit complicated for Dango as it put together an answer word by word with strange noises in the mix.

“You… woke… me,” Dango went on to say choppily.

“Yea! You never moved and I woke you today,” Kokone was over the moon, “This has to be destined! Dango, you are my pet from now on!” She snuggled Dango to her cheek in adoration.

“Deal!” Together they erupted into a bout of silly giggles. It had been a long time since she last laughed so carefreely.

Kokone couldn’t hold back her curiosity and bombarded Dango with a bunch of questions.

“Why was the strange person trying to get you?” “I don’t know.”

“Who made you?” “I don’t know.”

“Do you need charging?” “I don’t know.”

“Then what do you know?”

“I only know what happened after you have awakened me. I don’t know anything else. It is through speaking with you that I learn your words and languages.”

“Wow… You can already formulate such long sentences! AI is indeed so impressive, you learn so quickly!” Kokone was amazed at Dango’s learning ability. For the first time, she experienced the magic of top artificial intelligence.

“What is AI?”

“Artificial intelligence! Hehe, you are so smart, you will understand it in no time!” Kokone’s eyes were glistening in wonder, completely mesmerised by the unknown and fascinating power that was Dango. “So… Are there any more awesome things you can show me?”
“One moment please.” Dango jumped out of Kokone’s hands and onto the floor, and projected beams from its eyes to the whole house like a scene straight out of a Sci-Fi movie. Afterwards, it ran to the computer and inserted its finger into the USB-Port and the computer was turned on. Countless text and images flashed on the monitor too fast for Kokone to see clearly. At the same time, Dango’s eyes were also flashing and its little head was bobbing up and down, as if Dango was browsing through everything at an incomprehensible speed, while letting out a tick-tock noise. After half a minute, the monitor dimmed and the computer was shut down.

“Mama! Mama! Thank you!” Dango ran back to Kokone and hugged her ankle. Kokone was caught off guard by such a sudden action, “What? I am not your mama!”

“I have learned your language from the Internet and understand your civilization to an extent, and I also know the events before I was awakened. For the past two months, you have been taking care of me, loving me, and it was also you who brought me to this world, so you are my mama!” Dango explained.

“Alright, alright, Dango, if you insist,” Kokone couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Do you want to know what the strange person who attacked us was?” Dango asked mysteriously with a smug gleam in its eyes.

Kokone nodded in suspense.

“He is human.”

“Human?” Kokone was sceptical.

“But also something more.”

“I know, a word more, ‘strange.'”

In face of bad puns in the human world, Dango seemed to have yet learned how to react, and only chuckled awkwardly. “No! He has an element that is absent in human kind, thus strictly speaking, it is highly humanlike, but not completely human.”

“Right…” Kokone pretended to understand when in fact it all went over her head like water off a duck’s back. “So… Could you explain again in words that a junior high school student can understand?” Dango’s answer was, basically, too complex for Kokone.
“Do you want to investigate it? I know where it is. If you like, I can take you there,” Dango asked curiously.

“No no no… I am just a student, not the police! I am relieved as long as it doesn’t come looking for me,” Kokone was alarmed at Dango’s sudden offer, “Wait… You said you know where it is, so it’s still alive?”

“Affirmative. I can detect its vital signs in Tokyo,” Dango replied rather calmly.

“What should we do if it shows up again?” Kokone was worried, not looking forward to a repeat of what happened today.

“I am here, don’t worry,” Dango gave her a nod, just as confident as when it was protecting her today.

“Really…?” Kokone thought back to the fight scene that happened just a few hours ago, everything was still as clear as day in her mind. Now that she thought about it, Dango’s incredible combat abilities were indeed competent enough to fight off the strange guy, but from today onward, it’s better not to stay outside after school.

That night, Kokone chatted with Dango under her blanket until midnight, as if finally catching up with an old friend. From machines to artificial intelligence, and even the woes of a junior high student, namely “homework”. Although receiving no concrete answers, Kokone was glad like never before. After all, it’s been a long time since she had last poured her heart out like this. After the disaster, having come face to face with scary things like the gigantic monster and the strange guy, Kokone instinctively chose avoidance. What were they? Did the Japanese government tell the truth, or were they hiding something? None of these mattered to Kokone anymore. With Dango, it was like she had a guardian now, and it let her feel incredibly safe. They talked and talked, until Kokone drifted off to sleep in silence with Dango in her arms.

“So this is the sound of a human snoring…”

Time can heal, but the feeling of guilt is difficult to get over. Is Dango a bandage or a thorn in Kokone’s heart?