A photograph of Shimada, Shizuoka, a fictionalised version of which is the setting of these stories.
Source: Google Maps
This is the follow-up to What’s Her Name? Lovely Chaser!, the first part of this series of short stories intended to take a more grounded and human view of the primary-coloured super-robot genre. What I think has been the preoccupation in writing these is presenting the children as children – not the sometimes hyper-irritating perky heroes of a super robot series, but – to continue with the mecha-anime analogy – sometimes well-meaning, sometimes spiteful children like Al from War in the Pocket. The personalities – and insecurities – of the three children at the centre of these events are becoming clearer. Keiko is unsure if her putting on a spiteful and harsh facade is really her. Yuuya sees his fantasies of being the anime hero dissolve. Daichi simply doesn’t know what to do – he’s trying to be mature but is still a child. The three children are set against Lovely, who is both naive and empirical. She has a vague concept of wanting to help, but does not – at this stage – really understand what she is fighting for. This seemed to offer a very interesting opportunity; the AI that wants to learn about humanity is learning it from children, whose worldview and life experiences are lacking. She sees petty disagreements writ large socially, sees insecurity about trivial things and – in something that will likely be returned to – sees her points of contact with the world immensely prejudiced about her because of their conflation of reality with fiction. I think Yuuya may in time become a more prominent character; something about the ultimate sci-fi nerd being unable to disconnect an actual living alien from his preconceptions of what an alien is and what a super-robot is is particularly interesting.
As to the fight between Lovely and the disaffected dock-worker, there are a few things that I was thinking of when I wrote it. It was, plainly put, intended to homage the opening scene of the Patlabor movie. That is a great scene in a film about industrial decay. It suited perfectly this story, about a super-robot in a world that does not necessarily need them. Thinking about how it played out – with the teacher being taken hostage and the students simply put in peril of being stepped on by someone who does not know they are there – that was a scene that I wrote to suggest some things about Daichi’s priorities. Saving the adults is something that happens in the process of saving other students. Daichi would have these priorities – saving the person he knows best would most likely be how he would tell Lovely what to do.
Much as the first story built to this, this – setting up Daichi as the temporary hero, the boy who saved his “damsel” – builds to a sequel I intend to write. Meeting Lovely, being given the power of a super robot in their hands, seems to be playing to a boys’ fantasy – they can save even the girl they claim not to like, and the unpopular teacher, and be the big heroes. But Lovely is, ultimately, a woman herself. Keiko also has a Machine Stone. What is implied in this story is that the boys are happy to have Lovely around but don’t really listen to her. That’s a dynamic that could go in interesting directions.
For the first time in a very long while, Keiko Adachi was distracted. Her homework had little lustre for her, and the upcoming tests were something she did not want to think about. Her parents had not noticed yet, which was a good thing, but she was very aware of it herself.
It was all the fault of those two boys, she decided. If they had not encouraged her to go on a stupid after-school expedition she would not have had to very quickly learn to lie, something quite out of character for her. She had lied to her parents, not a simple excuse or anything but an actual full-blown story made up about where she had gone with Yuuya and Daichi, and where they had found those.
The Machine Stone. She had told her parents it was a toy from one of the capsule machines at the old backstreet figure-shop. It was believable enough but it was a lie, and that was not Keiko at all. The Stone itself was on her dresser, although she had put a piece of paper in front of it because it really felt like it was watching her. It had faded to a dull plasticky gold colour, its jewelled inlay looking for all the world like cheap glass at best – but every so often there was a glint of light in it that felt a lot more valuable.
She put her pen down halfway through the science exercise, moved the piece of paper, and looked at the fake red gem.
“So are you really in there?” They had not – to her knowledge – talked about the voices they had heard since that evening. The boys had been playing pretend with their badges and their merchandise, but there had been no more conversations with the air. Perhaps, she felt with some smugness, whatever superior intelligence had visited them had decided those stupid boys were not worth talking to.
“I am sorry if I have been distant, but there are many things I must do. It is like I have been… sleeping.”
Keiko started back in her chair.
“Did I startle you?”
“A little.” She was whispering. “Have… the other children you met spoken to you at all?”
“No. I have not been aware of their presence.” That was unusual. Keiko knew enough about Daichi and Yuuya to know that they were deeply obsessed with robots, and to not- “But as I said I have been very deeply asleep. They may have talked about me, and simply assumed I was not real.”
“What are you doing?”
“My homework.” Pride seemed to return to her voice as she said that. “We have to work hard, you see.”
The gem flashed with light and then displayed in uneven, hovering blue text across the desk, a series of numbers. “These are the solutions to the problems you have been presented with.”
“I can do it myself thank you.”
Daichi was also sat, ostensibly working, staring at the badge he had been given. It was cool, but the initial appeal among his friends of having met an alien had worn off quickly. The badge itself had been declared not interesting pretty fast, and now sat in its rightful place next to his robot toys.
At first, Yuuya had been all for the two of them finding some isolated place, probably the picnic-site in the woods above the town, and trying to summon their robot. Time had not permitted this, for between homework and their promised evenings spent with Keiko they had had very little of it.
“I wonder why she came here.” Talking to himself, he reached for a game-controller and settled down to waste time.
“Have you also got work to do, Daichi?” This was the first time Lovely had spoken to him since that day. “Keiko was telling me about homework. It sounds very much like something important.”
“Wait… you’ve been talking to Keiko?”
“Not for very long. I had to remain dormant a while, complete certain maintenance tasks. I revived only today, and she was wondering where I was.”
“Well, I guess I have got homework to do. But I don’t want to do it. You understand that, don’t you? Not wanting to do something because you have to do it.” Silence from the badge. Daichi carried on talking. “It’s all Mr. Asamiya’s fault. He’s given us loads to do because it’s nearly time for exams.” He paused. “Do you have exams or anything back home?”
“We learn, I suppose.” Silence again. “I have not really considered that one would not want to do something because it has to be done. That seems contradictory.”
“Aren’t there ever times you want to do something that isn’t what you have to? Like, I don’t really like geography but…” There was no reply. He tried to get Lovely’s attention again, but received nothing but silence. The game was far more interesting. The robots were humanity’s friends, there.
Nothing happens here. I was fully expecting this to be a place where there would be little action, but the safety and… simplicity of those I have met is surprising. It is, obviously, my duty to remain here, a protector should I be needed, but I feel I will be primarily observing here.
The natives here seem, strangely, to be aware of the existence of those like me. I can find no record of past contact, but during my time of acclimatisation I sought out information about this world’s interpretation of the Machine Empire. It is… inaccurate. And yet it is not. They understand that I am here to observe and protect, and that to do this I must reach out to them. But they do not understand why we do so.
And the boy Daichi concerns me. He suggests that the people of this place put pride in idleness and lying, and the avoidance of duty. What he says contradicts what the girl Keiko told me about the expectations under which she works.
“Keiko?” She was sitting in her room reading when the voice echoed through her head again. “I am sorry to disturb you.”
“Did I make a mistake in selecting your friends Daichi and Yuuya as my companions?” Keiko laughed. “I am sorry. Did I… what did I do?”
“They’re awful boys.” Keiko smiled.
“But you were together when we met, and have spent time together since.”
“Someone needs to look after them. Think of it as a kind of punishment. But don’t tell them that.”
“So you care for them?”
“No… that’s not what I meant. Do you not understand that sometimes you… you have to do things you don’t like to do even if you’d rather do something else?” Lovely was clearly an adult, someone who didn’t understand the way life looked when you were at school. This whole silly affair with Daichi and Yuuya had stopped being fun pretty quickly, and there was even talk going around that Keiko had a crush on one of them. “Ugh, it’s hopeless.”
“Daichi said something similar to me. He said that you sometimes don’t want to do something because it is your duty.”
The credits rolled on the episode of Royal Knight Raikreiger that Yuuya had recorded that week, and as he turned the television off and headed wearily back to his desk for more spellings to learn his eye was drawn to the badge that had been discarded as soon as it had stopped being interesting to his friends.
“What’s it like being stuck in there, Lovely?” Enough time had passed with the silent plastic discarded beneath papers that the idea that there was, indeed, someone in there had become a vague idea to him.
“It is… I am not stuck in here. I have a physical form. I also have this form and it is not unpleasant.” There was almost a petulance to her tone.
“Tell me about what you can do. I mean we can’t really call you out because the adults would get mad and probably call the army because that’s what they do to aliens, but you’ve got to have some cool stories to tell. Do you have a sword?” Silence. “And can you shoot your arms like the Leo Drill? And do you transform into a car or a train or something?” Recognition from Lovely, the reminder she existed, had made Yuuya bold and suddenly all the questions that had – for a few hours immediately after the first meeting – been excitedly discussed with Daichi fell out in a rush.
“I do not really understand.”
“You’re from the Machine Empire, right? So, like…” Yuuya ran to his display shelf and pulled down a prized toy. “This is Great Flame Leoger, right, do you know him? Look, his crest has the Phoenix Sword and his arm has the Leo Drill on it and sometimes this folds out to be the-”
“I think your species misunderstand the nature of the Machine Empire. Why would we name our weapons? Why do you believe we would disguise ourselves as vehicles when the Machine Stone contains everything needed for us to live?”
Yuuya thought for a few minutes. “Because it’s cool.”
“I still do not think I understand.”
“Of course you don’t.” His voice had the same edge as when he complained about being told to sweep the halls. “You’re just like Keiko. You don’t understand robots.”
For the first time in a while he sat and played with the Great Flame Leoger figure, which had sat for the months since his last birthday in a suitably dramatic pose in the centre of his other toys. Owning it, being the first kid in the class to have it, had been popularity encapsulated; that had faded (and now there were signs that you weren’t anyone unless you had the new Vafthrudnir model with folding axe, and Christmas was a long way off to a child’s eyes).
That wasn’t to say the toy wasn’t still cool. Daichi loved it, it was pleasingly bewildering to Keiko and even the very rich kids with all the latest stuff like Junya wanted to play with it – but it just wasn’t the newest thing. It wasn’t the same. And it wasn’t looking like Lovely – a real Brave Hero from the Machine Empire – would be the same ticket to childhood fame. What kind of a robot didn’t transform?
Yuuya believes the parody of me that he has seen on television is in some way realistic. Since I told him the truth he has not spoken to me.
I only want to help these people, but I do not know how I can do so when none of them seem to…
I do not have the words to explain what this planet lacks but I cannot easily find within it things to learn. I think, perhaps, as its depictions of the Machine Empire were both correct and inaccurate, those humans depicted in that same story were not at all representative.
Of the three humans I entrusted my Machine Stone to, only Keiko seems to embody the bravery I saw in the stories of Earth’s meetings with the Machine Empire. She hates, I think, that she has within her the human desire to shirk duty.
Sometimes you have to do things you don’t like.
Even if you would rather do something else.
Days passed, Keiko’s duty of friendship with Daichi and Yuuya passed into the usual frosty division of the sexes that defined the classroom, and Lovely simply remained there in the background. She found herself talking to Keiko a lot, although some evenings Daichi would evasively – most likely at Yuuya’s bidding – ask questions about the Machine Empire. He had responded a lot more favourably to his illusions being punctured, but Lovely had read plainly in his voice that some great enthusiasm had been lost and after this he had mostly asked her for help with simple arithmetic problems, basic planetary geology and other such topics it was clear he was expected to learn.
Keiko had no questions about weapons or wars, or even the nature of Lovely’s “robot form.” She just talked. About cats, and about homework (although Lovely still could not understand why offers of help were rejected by Keiko and willingly accepted by Daichi), and about all the human things that Lovely’s Third Directive called for.
It was three weeks after the first meeting – three weeks of ever more uncertain, awkward conversations – that something changed.
Shimada sat at the top of a hill, sprawled down it and spilled an ungainly dock over the coast like an oil-spill. It was a town in perpetual grey rebuilding, shops either eternal and thickly walled with posters dating back years of festivals and films or never quite doing well enough to survive. The docks mostly endured, but a combination of unfortunate factors beyond the control of most of the people living there resulted – after a particularly costly lost contract – in an industrial dispute being poorly handled. And so one afternoon, as Ms. Sanegawa dragged her bored charges around the Shimada Fish Cannery, all hell broke loose.
Ms. Sanegawa had been called away from the group to take Keiko and a couple of other girls to the lavatory, leaving the rest of the class under the vaguely watchful eye of Mr. Asamiya the geography teacher and a couple of fishermen who had little interest in telling a crowd of bored students the finer points of trawler-fishing.
Crates at the Shimada docks were loaded and unloaded, as in so many cargo-ports nowadays, by the new Soyokaze Heavy Industries Loaders. The lustre of these ungainly walking forklifts, adapted – rumour had it – from prohibited designs for a bipedal tank had faded after it was quickly realised that while they were mecha in name, they were never going to get a beam cannon or rocket punch.
A loader crashed through the cannery wall as Asamiya began wondering aloud what exactly was taking the girls so long. It staggered, rounded on its heels, and slammed a claw into the foreman’s office window, grabbing the unsuspecting man and dragging him out. It was stood, in fact, exactly between Ms. Sanegawa (as she emerged from the ladies’ lavatory) and a growing number of policemen and coastguard who had been pursuing the stolen equipment. In a fit of dynamism that was tremendously surprising given his stout, balding physique, Asamiya made a break for his stranded students only to be forced back by Chief Inspector Andou.
“Stand back, man. Someone’s gone nuts over there and he’s-” Any further warnings were cut off by a screeching, noise-filled loudhailer rant.
“I want my job back, Tanaka! I want my job back!”
Andou grabbed a loudhailer off Moroka and tested it. Nothing happened, so he began adjusting the batteries as if it were a reluctant television remote. Finally finding life within, he held it up.
“I don’t know who you are but just put the man down and we’ll talk.” Andou was, he would admit himself, more skilled with giving warnings to teenagers for shoplifting and drunk salarymen for driving home than hostage negotiation. “This has escalated quickly.”
“You don’t understand, Inspector! My students… he’s got my students!” Asamiya tried to grab Andou’s loudhailer and a tussle broke out.
“SHUT UP ALL OF YOU!” The loader looked around, and – unfortunately – spotted Sanegawa. She joined Foreman Tanaka. “NOW I’VE GOT YOUR ATTENTION!”
The police had hurried the students back, and Daichi’s mind was racing.
“Yuuya? Yuuya! Come here!” This… something felt right about this.
“What is it?”
“That guy… he’s got Keiko.”
“And?” Yuuya was trying to sound cool.
“Give me that badge. I’ve got an idea!” Daichi grabbed the Machine Stone from his friend’s bag, where it had sat next to its toy replicas. Without even thinking, he held it up, striking a pose just like Hikaru from Flame Leoger. “RISE, LOVELY CHASER!”
Silence. Even the loader pilot was momentarily distracted. Asamiya glared at Daichi. The other students began giggling.
Daichi himself couldn’t quite describe, when Andou asked him what happened, what he saw on the inside of the incident. There was a very bright light from the Machine Stone, an incredibly loud noise, and all of a sudden outside the cannery was standing a mechanical girl two stories tall, wearing – of all things – an accurately depicted pleated skirt, high heels and a large bow on her chest. The coastguard fell back to a safe distance, and in the awkward moments that followed there was a collective drawing-in of breath.
“Lovely! Keiko… that robot has taken Keiko!” Somehow that was the easiest confession any boy of Daichi’s age had ever had to make. The robot – Lovely Chaser, in the flesh – tilted its head towards Daichi.
Something has happened.
A dart, trailing a glowing whip of hot light, wrapped around the wrist of the loader and severed it, letting it fall on a pile of tarpaulins. In an instant, before the pilot could lose his balance and fall back on his hostages, the amputated unit was suddenly in strong metal arms and slammed down into the concrete of the dock.
As Lovely pushed off from a mooring-post and began to spin, Daichi realised what was going to happen.
“No! You’ve got to let him live!”
Lovely had been mentally rehearsing that flying kick motion in the days since her landing. Cutting it short proved more than a little difficult, and ended up with a soaking. As she righted herself and wiped water from her “eyes,” she found herself staring down the mustered small-arms of the Shimada police force, and Daichi struggling against Andou’s grip at his collar.
“Can anyone explain what we all just saw?” A temporary police station had been set up at the docks, and Daichi, Yuuya and Keiko were staring down a panel of pure disapproval – Asamiya, Sanegawa, Andou and worst of all their parents. “I mean, the wrecked Loader out there rather suggests it did happen, but…”
Daichi sullenly put the Machine Stone on the desk in front of him.
“I’m a hero of justice now, I guess.”
“She does’t even name her attacks.” Yuuya seemed oblivious to the fact Keiko had been saved, oblivious to the trouble they were all in. Simply disdainful of Lovely. “And she’s clumsy, and she looks like Keiko.”
Andou ignored him.
“Nobody’s going anywhere until we know what happened.”
Day Twenty-One – Secondary Memo
I feel it is my duty to set the record straight here. This may prove quite challenging.
ケイコ の 悲しみ