“Are you nervous?”
“J-Just a little.”
Touya fretted over Homura as they headed for the Exploration Club room.
“Do you want to go to the toilet first?”
“I’ll go later. Or rather, a building that big has to have a toilet of its own inside!”
“Well, it does, but…”
The source of her anxiety didn’t lie in the fortress-like building that didn’t suit the school grounds it was on, and towards which they were heading.
The source of Homura’s nervousness was waiting in front of the building.
Misasagi-senpai waited in the hallway before the club building.
When she saw Homura and Touya, she waved her hand a little.
“Good morning, senpai!”
“Good, morning, Touya-kun. And, Hinooka-san, too. Welcome to the, Exploration Club room1.”
“I look forward to working with you from now on, Misasagi-senpai.”
Homura placed her hands on her knees and bowed deeply.
“Yes, I look forward, to working with, you too.”
Senpai’s beautiful hair drifted forward a little as she nodded in greeting.
With senpai leading them, they went to stand inside the entrance floor that led into the club building.
The cypress signboard above the door seemed mismatched with the words [Exploration Club] written on it in huge letters.
Senpai placed her hand on the stand that protruded out of the floor, in front of the glass door. There was a palm mark on the stand. It was a vein scanner, something that Homura had only ever seen in movies before.
But it didn’t react at all.
Senpai tilted her head in confusion.
“Senpai, your terminal.”
After Touya whispered that to her, senpai took out her terminal with the letters UNPIEP inscribed on it and held it over the stand’s sensor before once more placing her palm on it.
An electronic beep rang out, indicating the completion of authentication.
“Three people, entering.”
After senpai said that into a mike next to the door, a small camera lens embedded in the wall flashed for an instant. The light seemed to have scanned her.
A message indicating permission to enter directly appeared on the reinforced glass door, which then slid open.
While feeling impressed, Homura took a step into the club building.
“It all seems too strict.”
“I know, right? I still can’t enter on my own yet either.”
“It measures, your body weight, too.”
After senpai told her that, Homura jumped in fright on the floor mat.
“The weight of the club members is monitored as well!?”
“We can’t have anyone bringing in anything that could be a nuisance, after all.”
“I-I see… You can’t be too careful, I guess.”
There was an elevator right after the entrance, upon which there was a simple sketch of the building’s layout.
“Training room… Stand-by Night Duty room… Network Terminal Room… Back Storage…”
There was a list of rooms whose names she had never heard of.
The first floor was apparently occupied by a single large room, while facilities related to everyday living were concentrated on the second floor. There was an astronomical observation dome on the roof. The basement seemed to be a storehouse.
“Ah, like I thought, there really is a fully-equipped kitchen here.”
“We’ll show you, around the rooms, later. For now, we’re going to, the second floor.”
Guided by sempai, they got on the elevator and went up to the standby room on the second floor.
This room was the closest to the image of a club room in Homura’s mind, making her feel slightly relieved.
A standard table surrounded by pipe chairs, a small TV and a multimedia player.
There were also a tea pot and personal belongings that had been left lying around.
The part that Homura was the most grateful for was the room’s window, which faced the mountain behind the school. It would have been perfect if it faced the school grounds, but that seemed unlikely in this strangely thick-walled building.
Sitting in a chair with her legs crossed, Fujimori greeted Homura and the others as they entered.
“Well done getting into the Exploration Club, Hinooka Homura, though you went through a bit of a detour to get here…”
Fujimori stood and placed one hand energetically on the table.
“This is your starting point.”
A map was laid out on the table.
Fujimori tapped a pen against it with a thump.
“First, let’s finish up the ceremony. Here, Misasagi.”
Fujimori handed a packaged, brand-new portable terminal, several documents and a card to Misasagi.
Misasagi was taken aback.
“Is it all right, for me to, do it?”
“Of course. You’re the club president here.”
Going over to stand in the middle of the room, Misasagi-senpai and Homura solemnly faced each other.
Even the way senpai cleared her throat was cute and lovely.
“Then, Seiran High Class 1-A, Student ID Number ***, Hinooka Murya… Homura-san.”
Senpai had fumbled on her name.
“—From today onwards, you are appointed the title of Beginner rank investigator, within the Exploration Club under the Japanese branch of the UNPIEP.
Approved by UN Secretary-General *** ***,
Imaginary Earth Investigation Director and Exploration Club Advisor Fujimori Chiayu,
and Senior Investigator and Exploration Club President Misasagi Mayo.”
“Thank you very much.”
Fujimori and Touya clapped as Homura received the investigator license.
It was a small club with three members and a single advisor.
When Homura sat down beside Touya, Misasagi belatedly brought her a plain paper carton that she took out from the refrigerator.
“This is… to celebrate Hinooka-san’s, entry into the club, meager as it may, be.”
“Oh, Misasagi’s apple pie. It’s been a while since you last made it,” said Fujimori.
“Wow, thank you so much. It looks delicious!”
“It’s a recipe I’m proud, of.”
“Yet, I don’t remember you making any when I joined…”
After Touya murmured that in shock, Misasagi became flustered.
“Sorry… Back then, I had just, been made president, and was still getting, used to it…”
“It’s all right, senpai. I’ll eat two meals worth of it today.”
“Yes, please eat, lots.”
Touya gave her a broad smile, causing Misasagi-senpai to pat her chest in relief.
“But, yesterday evening, I turned on my, home’s oven for the, first time in a while…”
Misasagi hung her head midway through her words and fell silent.
Fujimori stood up frantically.
“D-Don’t cry, Misasagi! Today’s supposed to be a happy day!”
Fujimori patted the shoulder of the dejected senpai.
“All right, Touya! Bring out the plates and knives! Hmm, does black tea go well with pie?”
“Roger that, sensei. I’ll bring the plates!”
“I’ll drink tea.”
“Make it yourself, Hinooka.”
The Exploration Club members ate the apple pie with relish at the table.
The room next door was apparently a break room.
“It’s my first time coming here, but this club building really is amazing. How much money does it all cost?”
“You know, you might be the first person to be interested in that kind of detail. If I remember right, the main building costs about five billion yen.”
“What? It’s pretty cheap compared to something like an aircraft carrier or stealth fighter.”
“Isn’t comparing it to an aircraft carrier a bit of an exaggeration?” Touya pointed out.
“No, in a certain sense, this place is our country’s aircraft carrier.”
Misasagi also nodded in agreement.
“Well, it’s my job as the club’s advisor to carefully consider such minor matters so that you guys don’t have to worry about it.”
“Please do. By the way, if the club has such a huge budget, does that mean the club members also get wages?”
“Of course not. The Exploration Club is basically a group of volunteers.”
“Eh~? Well, I already knew that, I guess. Still, if I make some kind of huge discovery as part of the Exploration Club, I won’t get a monetary bonus, then?”
“How greedy,” Touya sighed.
“If you discover something amazing, I’ll take you to a hot spring or anywhere else you want!” declared their advisor while puffing up proudly.
“Fuooo, a hot spring? Actually, isn’t there already a hot spring in the training area…?” Homura asked.
“As a matter of fact—”
“Oh my, can I have another cup of tea, Misasagi?”
The club advisor forcefully interrupted Misasagi-senpai’s words before she could say anything.
By the looks of it, this hot spring idea was something she’d done before in the past.
The two new club members made eye contact and mentally recorded to themselves: ‘Fujimori-sensei requires special attention when she hangs bait in front of our noses.’
“Senpai—no, president, you said that I’m a Beginner rank investigator, but what rank are you?”
“I’m a, 3rd rank, investigator.”
“Hoho, 3rd rank… how unexpectedly… low?”
“Hey,” Touya said with a glare.
“Sorry, that was rude of me. Umm, if I remember right, you said you were a 5th rank investigator, right?”
“That’s right. It’s the next rank up from Beginner rank.”
“Then that means… Beginner rank investigator is equivalent to 6th rank, huh? Hah, I have a long road ahead of me.”
Fujimori cut in after picking up a bisected piece of pie with a fork and swallowing it all in two mouthfuls.
“I’ll tell you guys this now, but rank is meaningless when on an expedition. It’s simply a title decided by the nation.”
Misasagi nodded in agreement with the chiding Fujimori.
“Then it isn’t like how belt ranks are assigned in kendo? If what matters isn’t one’s level as an investigator, then what does? Something like experience, trust, or safety first…?”
“Uwah,” Fujimori exclaimed as she bent back in her chair. “So weak. Why is it that those words sound so weak and shallow when they come out of Hinooka’s mouth?”
“Sorry for being shallow…”
“Ranks only designate the qualifications you possess. Look, it’s like how there are the Hundred Top Mountains of Japan, but there are mountaineers who have climbed all of them once and mountaineers who have only climbed Mt. Fuji a hundred times. Can you say that either one of them is better than the other?”
“When you put it like that, it does seem like a tricky difference…”
Homura crossed her arms with a meek expression.
“But wouldn’t climbing Everest a hundred times surpass everything else…?”
“You really like getting the last word, don’t you?” Touya remarked, so amazed that, at this point, he could only admire her.
Homura drooped her head with reproachful eyes.
But then, Homura was given words of encouragement.
When she lifted her head, Homura found herself meeting the eyes of Misasagi-senpai, who had leaned forward unexpectedly close to her.
“Curiosity is, something everyone, is born with…”
Without minding that her hair was brushing against the pie on her plate, Misasagi spoke enthusiastically.
Fujimori also calmly gazed at her face from the side.
“Exploration, requires… a persistent, fighting spirit… so as to never, forget that…”
“Yes,” Misasagi said with a nod. “A heart that, never falters.”
Misasagi-senpai exuded an aura that was far removed from fighting spirit.
But it was precisely because she was like that that those words remained in Homura’s chest.
Just as he had declared, Touya ate two of the six slices of pie.
Just when Homura reached out to grab the one remaining slice left, Fujimori made a declaration in a formal tone.
As Homura twitched with a start, Fujimori got up from her chair while looking at the clock.
“Let’s end the welcome party around here. Have you finished your preparations, everyone?”
It wasn’t only Homura who stiffened at Fujimori’s words, but Touya as well.
Only Misasagi-senpai remained calm.
“You couldn’t mean… preparations for an expedition? Right now?”
“That’s right. Ah, I’ll take care of cleaning up here, Misasagi.”
Misasagi nodded nonchalantly.
“Even though it’s almost evening? Even though we have lessons tomorrow?”
“Yeah—I guess we should send a message to our homes first. Hey, Hinooka, give up on the last slice.”
After pushing Homura towards the stairs with a forceful “Move, move!”, Touya turned around with a dubious smile.
“You’re joking, right? Right, sensei!?”
“Do these shoe soles look like they’re joking?”
“Hinooka hasn’t made any preparations yet, you know?”
“You built up her stamina with running. You have my thanks for that, Touya.”
“But not even a month has gone by yet since we started. Ow, don’t kick me, Mori-chan.”
The first floor of the club building.
When she entered the female changing room with Misasagi, Homura was filled with surprise.
Inside, female uniforms of every size were prepared in systematic order.
Homura became wide-eyed as she looked at the uniform Misasagi-senpai had picked out for her while estimating her size.
The outfit consisted of a winter blazer over a long-sleeved shirt with other accessories. Somehow, its silhouette seemed to be subtly different from the regular one?
“We’re changing into winter uniforms?”
“Because it’s cold, at night.”
“So it’s already been decided that we’re staying the night there.”
Next, Misasagi pointed out the tray furnished in each locker box.
“If you have, a cellphone, watch, or any kind of, media device, please put them, in here. Every last, electronic device, you have. They’ll break if, you bring them to, the Imaginary Earth.”
“So, all means of communication are confiscated too!”
Though bewildered, Homura accepted the clothes, and Misasagi-senpai also began changing as if to serve as an example for her to follow. What instantaneous decision-making and quickness in changing!
Homura’s confusion that made her instinctively complain about the lack of time to prepare her heart was blown away by the gallantness in Misasagi’s movements and actions.
The out-of-place sensation she felt over the uniform became more certain once she actually put her sleeves through the clothes.
Homura stood in front of the mirror on the wall.
The appearance was similar to their school uniform, but the quality of the cloth and the arrangement of the clothes’ gussets were completely different. Strange-feeling pads were added around the elbows and shoulders to soften impacts.
The torso section was lined with broad and sturdy belts, and attached around them were metal fixtures for hanging tools. Trapezoid metal rings were hanging like highlights from her waist with one on each side. They didn’t budge no matter how hard she pulled. Furthermore, garter belt-like straps were attached to her legs, linking with her torso belts.
Later, she learned that the belts fixed to her body were harnesses and the trapezoid metal rings were pieces of climbing gear known as snap rings.
After Homura somehow managed to finished changing properly, Misasagi carefully inspected her.
While hopping up and down in order to test the condition of her specially-made shoes, Homura spoke up.
“…Senpai, did you know Fujimori-sensei had this surprise in store?”
“I didn’t, plan this, with her.”
Senpai smiled while shrugging her shoulder apologetically.
“But, I had a, feeling about, it.”
“So it’s like that…”
Finally, Homura finished all her preparations.
“It’s made of, knife-proof fiber, so the weight, can’t be helped.”
If so much effort was put into to making it sturdy and practical, why the fixation with making it look like the school uniform? Homura didn’t get it at all.
As Homura remained unconvinced on that part, Misasagi placed a hand on her shoulder and directed her to face the mirror.
“Look carefully, at yourself, and burn it into, your mind. It’s, important.”
Homura’s face in the mirror was uneasy.
“I’ve really come to a remarkable place… Hey, now that I look properly, isn’t your outfit even bolder, senpai…?”
Misasagi-senpai looked over her uniform again. It was even more customized than Homura’s, with an easy-to-move-in design.
There was a knock on the changing room’s door, and Fujimori poked her head in.
“How’s it going, Girls’ Team?”
Fujimori looked over Homura with a grin.
“Hoh, it suits you. You don’t look like a novice investigator at all.”
“Thanks… Are you not coming with us on the expedition, sensei? As our director, I mean.”
“Hahaha, of course not. I’m the club’s advisor. In the first place, the expedition would be boring if you were always under the watch of the director, right?”
Homura gazed at Fujimori reproachfully.
“That’s different from what it says in the contract of employment… It said, ‘We won’t allow anything dangerous to happen and we’ll supervise everything’…”
“Haha. So you eavesdropped on the conversation between adults?”
“Of course I did, it’s a matter concerning myself, after all!”
Fujimori pushed the yelling Homura from behind and led her out of the female changing room. Misasagi-senpai also followed after them.
“That was a complete lie. No, lies are bad. It was a joke.”
“So underhanded! What an underhanded adult!”
“It’s a trivial matter before the issue of gaining more club members.”
“You all were against me joining at first! You especially, sensei!”
“That was just me being tsundere. It’s a personal skill that was popular in my student days.”
Homura felt uneasy about the direction she was forcefully being led towards.
“Are we going outside—to the parking lot?”
“No, we’re not. Though it can’t be helped that you might think that.”
They were headed towards the Sterilization and Decompression Room in the center of the club building.
As they entered through the airlock, they were covered with lighting and mist for dealing with bacteria.
Touya was already waiting for them in the huge room with a high ceiling, where the lights were dimmed.
Once they were all gathered together, Fujimori spoke before the three of them.
“This room is, on paper, the Sterilization and Decompression Room. However, we club members don’t call it that. We refer to it as the [Transport Room].”
“You said I would pile up basic training and ready myself to be in a perfect state before starting…” Homura once again grumbled in the midst of Fujimori’s speech.
“Let me be frank, Hinooka. I really hate that kind of small-mindedness. If you try and fail, think of another method. Experience rather than study. It will be all right in the end. If I angered you, I apologize. Okay? Now let’s go.”
“You say that like it’s someone else’s business.”
“Mori-chan’s bad habit came out again…”
“So you get it? Then I’ll explain the mission this time. There’s no particular changes from the plan I discussed with Misasagi before—”
The details of the mission were then explained along with a three-dimensional map image projected on the wall.
However, Homura was completely left behind as none of the explanation entered her head, so she just absentmindedly looked around the room.
On one section of the wall, the latitude and longitude showing the location of Seiran High was displayed along with the current time.
Right beneath that were the coordinates of the Imaginary Earth along with the current time there, but the numbers were clearly abnormal.
The two indicated times were clearly out of sync.
“This time, Hinooka will carry only the minimum required equipment. Touya will carry the rest.”
“Understood—but I’m still against this.”
Homura came back to her senses at Touya’s words.
The normally serious and honest Touya had a slight amount of anger mixed into his voice.
“This is too sudden. She should at least learn how to do a long walk and how to read a map—”
“And what next? River crossing techniques? How to make a shelter? Securing drinking water? Every one of those skills is essential. Hinooka will have already graduated by the time she masters everything.”
Touya lost ground to his argument as Fujimori-sensei talked on without pause.
“Kuh… But she doesn’t even have any experience with outdoor activities. It might still be acceptable if she was a boy, but she’s a girl.”
“That’s why Misasagi is with you. And besides, Touya, this is your third time visiting the Imaginary Earth too. There should be tons of things you can teach her there.”
“That should only be after Hinooka has hardened her resolve! Can’t we do this mission with just two of us?”
“That’s why I’m having her go with you.”
Misasagi-senpai followed the heated argument between the two of them. However, Homura herself found them to be unusually serious, like it was someone else’s problem to her.
In order to disperse the rising tension, she tried cracking a joke.
“This is just like the Hollywood-remake New Year special of the 47 Ronin2 story with a happy ending, don’t you think?”
As Fujimori was stumped by confusion, Misasagi-senpai interjected.
“All’s well, that ends well, she means.”
Misasagi-senpai smiled. She seemed to be just a bit relieved.
On the other hand, Touya wore a stunned expression.
“—You seem quite composed, somehow.”
“Eh, that’s not true at all, you know? I’m just barely hanging on here, see?”
“Ah, please continue, sensei.”
“Hey, don’t abandon me.”
Grinning, Fujimori placed her hand on the wall. She went through the same authentication procedure as when they entered the building, and then a thin tray slid out from within the wall.
Placed inside it on top of velvet fabric with lining resembling a jewel was a literal treasure.
It was a single ring, which gave off a faint light within the dim room. If Homura’s eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, that is.
Fujimori picked up the ring from the tray.
“This is a [Transport Ring]3.”
“The exaggerated equipment in this room, on this entire floor, is merely an arbor prepared for the sake of this single small ring here. In my days, there was no such thing as a transport room, and this was just an ordinary part of the school campus.”
Fujimori gazed at the faces of the club members one by one through the ring’s finger hole.
“The value of what’s hidden in this ring is literally infinite to humanity.”
She held out the palm which carried the ring, and then turned to Misasagi.
“—Are your preparations complete, club president?”
Nodding with a humble expression, Misasagi-senpai took the proffered ring and put it on her finger.
A soft, rainbow-colored glow appeared around her finger.
Carrying their equipment on his back, Touya gave Homura a push on the back and urged her towards the center of the room.
“All right, let’s head out.”
“By transport, you mean that kind of thing… Are you sure this isn’t a game?”
“Like I said, it’s not. To us, this is a reality whose destination we have no idea of.”
As Homura hesitated, Misasagi-senpai gently gripped her right hand.
She felt the chilling touch of Misasagi’s ring.
Following that, Misasagi-senpai held out her hand to Touya as well, thereby holding hands with both of the other club members on either side.
Touya, with a slightly stiff expression, but smiling regardless, held out his other hand to Homura.
Thus, Homura laced her fingers together with Touya’s, and the three of them faced one another in a small circle.
After exchanging a glance with Fujimori, Misasagi-senpai read out the display on the wall.
“Japanese time, Month ***, Day ***, Hour ***, Minutes ***. Imaginary Earth time, Day ***, Hour ***, Minutes ***. Predicted weather, clear skies, with a reliability of 25%—
Seiran High Exploration Club, departing to the Imaginary Earth.”
Fujimori stood some distance from the three of them.
“Now, go and enjoy yourselves! It’s fine even if you lose an arm or two. Just come back safely.”
“I’m going to die!”
Not permitting Homura’s final wavering, power gathered in Misasagi-senpai’s finger.
Light flashed and flickered behind Homura’s eyelids.
She shuddered at the out-of-place feeling that ran up through her from her feet.
She became so sensitive that every individual hair on her body could feel the weight of her clothes’ fabric.
So much that she could hear the grains of her skin grate against one another.
The smooth creaking of tense muscles against tendons, bone against bone.
The hum that engulfed her entire body was the sound of her blood’s violent torrent.
She could count every last drop of blood that was sucked into the black hole of her heart and then pushed back out with overwhelming power and sent rushing through her body once more.
By the time she realized it, Homura was looking at Homura. It was the reflection of herself displayed in Touya’s eyes which stared right at her. When she turned her eyes to the right, she saw Misasagi-senpai there, sweating and with her eyes closed.
In that instant, she became one with Misasagi-senpai.
Senpai’s hot, hot palm. Touya’s hot, hot breath. My chilled, frozen heart.
In the midst of a dark, dark abyss spanning light-years, flames—
Chapter 9 END
(1) Misasagi has the tendency to speak haltingly and quietly, demonstrated in the text by the over-usage of commas in her sentences.
(2) Refers to the American movie “47 Ronin” which came out in 2013, based on a popular Japanese tale of a real-life group of samurai who sought to avenge their fallen lord.
(3) In the original, the furigana above the kanji for “Transport Ring” only says “Ring”, but for the sake of English readers I will translate it fully as “Transport Ring” here.