On a certain weekday night.
Homura, lying sprawled out on her bed in the Hinooka family house, furrowed her eyebrows every time she turned the page of the technical book on Nutella.
Tomorrow, she would finally be going out on her second mission. The necessary magical energy to send investigators to Nutella and back had apparently finished being charged by the Transport Ring.
This time, Homura had been informed of the departure time and objectives beforehand, giving her the time to prepare her heart.
“The passage of time on Nutella is six times faster than Earth’s… That means, since the planned duration for this mission is sixteen hours… we’ll be spending ninety-six hours, that is, roughly four days on Nutella. That’s more than double that of the last mission. Uwah, that’s so brutal.”
Homura was wracking her brains over the various pieces of equipment she’d been taught about during club time, but her head was mainly occupied with the thought of clothes.
“We’ll have to wear the same clothes the entire time… wait, the same clothes? No way, I’ll stink. I’ll definitely end up getting sweaty. It’d be good if we could take a bath like last time, but there’s no way to know what will happen, especially since we’re going into unexplored territory…”
Misasagi-senpai and Professor Fujimori were taking preparatory measures for the sake of the scarcely experienced investigator in their group.
—However, that was primarily regarding matters of safety. Even if stinking of sweat and having unwashed hair were matters of life and death for Homura that occupied the majority of her worries, Misasagi and the others saw them as trivial problems that were easily ignored if the weather was a little stormy on site.
“In the end, I have to take care of myself, huh. Self-responsibility, and all that. Just as I thought, if I want to go through it comfortably… no one will scold me for it there, but I should still take responsibility for what I do…”
She barely managed to brush away the sleepiness overcoming her then.
While lying on her bed, she wrote down notes of what she currently understood about the Exploration Club and Nutella.
Nutella was discovered twenty years ago.
It was discovered by a man-made satellite constructed by the government of the Republic of India, in accordance with the conjecture of its existence first proposed by Dr. Chandra, the genius mathematician who won both the Fields Prize and Nobel Prize. Until then, only a small number of mathematicians and physicists supported the hypothesis regarding the existence of Nutella.
Using a satellite equipped with a non-optical lens known as a Hollow Axis telescope, scientists captured images of a giant planet that existed as a pair to Earth. It is a green planet with an orbital ring and countless natural satellites like Saturn, but with oceans and land like Earth.
The discovered planet was given the title ‘Imaginary Earth’. The name for it used in recent years, ‘Null Terra’, was shortened to the popular name ‘Nutella’1.
One Nutellan day is equivalent to four hours on Earth. One year there equals sixty days here.
Its surface area is a hundred and twenty times larger than that of Earth. This is an astounding size that is nearly equivalent to that of Jupiter. The surface gravity changes according to latitude; in equatorial regions, it is about 0.8 Gs, and at the poles it exceeds 1.5 Gs. Fortunately, the gravity in the continental region around the high school base camps is nearly equivalent to 1 G, serving as no hindrance to the actions of the club members. Either way, this gravity is far too light in any region considering the sheer enormity of the planet and is one of Nutella’s many mysteries.
“True, if our body weight was two or three times heavier, we wouldn’t be able to do anything, let alone exploring!”
She fretted with anxiety just over the difference of a hundred grams on her bathroom scale, so suddenly having to carry luggage weighing between fifty and a hundred kilograms would be impossible for her.
The world boiled with excitement at the appearance of this amazingly vast frontier.
People cheered, were numbed at the abundance of treasures hidden there, and finally burned with desire, creating a new military tension. The antagonism between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India was especially fierce, and it even grew into an armed conflict that engulfed the whole world.
However, even amidst all that, observation and research of Nutella continued, and scientists discovered that the path to reach the Imaginary Earth was extremely narrow.
They discovered the need for Transport Rings. And also the age limit.
The Transport Rings needed to visit Nutella were explained to be a kind of celestial body constructed mathematically.
The transport process is similar to cryptanalysis work. A unique cypher key containing hundreds of digits is converted into a crystallized arrangement and embedded in the Transport Rings. In order to make a single Transport Ring, you have to calculate orbital factors over many weeks using a super-computer.
The only person who can create Transport Rings is the original discoverer, Dr. Chandra, who possesses the Master Key with the orbital revolution of Nutella.
However, the doctor did not take action to favor solely his homeland of India with this knowledge and technology.
In a famous speech made at the UN headquarters in New York, Dr. Chandra declared that Nutella was the future of all humankind.
Eventually, under the leadership of the UN and the doctor, the Sriharikota Treaty was established, named for the satellite launch base in India. Its contents were nearly the same as the Antarctic Treaty, forbidding military applications of Nutella and its associate technologies, and highlighting the freedom of scientific investigation and international cooperation.
Thus, the United Nations Pioneering Imaginary Earth Program (UNPIEP) was founded and, under the condition of allowing UN inspections, Transport Rings were distributed to all countries throughout the world.
“…And all this happened about ten years ago.”
At the time, Homura was six years old. It was a huge event to adults, but it was something completely irrelevant to the world of children. Though, of course, that wasn’t necessarily true in countries where armed conflicts occurred as a result.
“But, the whole thing wasn’t actually irrelevant to children…”
An IE Response is needed to activate the Transport Rings. An IE Response is described as whether or not a person can physically accept a mathematical system different from the mathematics expressed in our world’s physical space.
It is public knowledge that currently all investigators who have succeeded in activating the Transport Rings and visited Nutella have been between the ages of seven and nineteen, which is considered underage in many countries.
In other words, adults cannot use the Transport Rings to go to Nutella. How disappointed and jealous the adults must be!
Due to the danger of activities on Nutella, the UN decided to restrict the ages for investigators to be between twelve and eighteen. In Japan, this age requirement was further narrowed amid the chaos of the initial era of exploration, and became limited to ages between fifteen and eighteen (in accordance with school years).
Furthermore, IE Responses differ not only according to age, but by individual differences as well. Only one person out of fifty can endure the transport process. In Japanese high schools, there are only two or three people every year who meet the qualifications. Investigators are rare and precious.
“Investigators were born throughout the world, and those who took part in the first expeditions to Nutella are part of the so-called First Generation—the era of Fujimori-sensei and her contemporaries, in other words. I can’t even imagine the hardships of those real-life pioneers…”
That’s right. Fujimori-sensei, despite how she looks, was once an investigator. She was part of the initial generation who went from former investigators to directors who supervise the present generation’s investigators.
That framed picture that Homura had seen on sensei’s desk.
The people featured in it were Fujimori-sensei’s party of comrades who explored the untrodden Nutella, the Japanese version of the Right Stuff.
“Speaking of which, what did Mori-chan do when she was an investigator? I think she said she was bad at magic? Doesn’t seem like she’d be a good teacher in that regard… I’ll try asking Ame-chan about it…”
While mumbling that to herself, Homura turned face-up on her bed and noticed a faint vibrating sound. It wasn’t from the cell phone beside her pillow.
She lifted herself up with a rustle and took out the UNPIEP-marked terminal from her bag.
“—It’s from senpai.”
On the terminal’s screen was a text from club president Misasagi.
The message title was “Can you sleep?”. The text expressed how she worried for Homura. However, one of Homura’s prided points was that she had never once failed to sleep due to anxiety.
“‘I’m fine. I’ve also finished reviewing all the related material. I’m going to try cooking something up later tonight, so please look forward to it’… and there.”
She sent her reply.
Sending texts with the terminal was exactly the same as a cell phone. But the accompanying strap was boring-looking, so she was considering what to replace it with.
She suddenly noticed the Rubik’s Cube that Ameno had pushed onto her lying on her desk, but after arranging one face of it, she gave up on it. As expected, it was far too big to attach to her terminal.
Even when she tried to distract herself like that, her anxiety over the mission continued to grow stronger.
As a countermeasure towards wolves, Homura had received one of the Exploration Club’s standard pieces of equipment, a batch of anti-bear tear gas spray. It was strong enough to reach even the nose of a bear fifteen meters away. Senpai and Touya had received anti-savage-dog training from a police dog school. As expected, that kind of training was still too hard for Homura, and her participation in that training had been postponed, but even when a German Shepherd had been brought out to lightly lean over her as a test, her body hadn’t been able to move at all.
Though its precise effectiveness was unknown, she and the others had also been injected with an anti-rabies vaccine. If I actually end up in a situation where I’m bitten, I think things will be plenty chaotic even without worrying about rabies, she had vaguely thought to herself when she’d received it.
However, what plagued Homura’s heart most of all was the human figure she’d seen that night.
The young ones set out to Nutella.
The heavy equipment used by those first investigators was just like those used by astronauts.
However, Nutella’s environment turned out to be shockingly similar to that of Earth’s.
Scientists had learned that plants existed on Nutella through their satellite observations, but the plants that the investigators collected actually had a common genetic structure with Earth vegetation, clearly proving that there had been a genetic exchange between Nutella and Earth in the past.
A method to travel to Nutella had existed long before the planet’s discovery by Dr. Chandra. It was hypothesized to have been a result of natural phenomena.
The animals were also the same. Many animals resembling Earth species were discovered, and species already extinct on Earth along with those who had undergone unique development and adaptation on Nutella were found as well.
If Earth and Nutella came into existence at around the same time, it wouldn’t be strange for the descendants of dinosaurs who have already gone extinct on Earth to still be striding through the land on Nutella even now. However, dinosaurs have never been found there. Though giant reptiles bigger than crocodiles and sharks as huge as whales do appear to exist there…
The principal complaint of those who strongly oppose these investigative activities is over the danger of bringing back unknown viruses and species that would serve as a threat to Earth’s flora and fauna, as well as the similar fear that items brought from Earth and the excrements of investigators would pollute Nutella’s precious nature.
It is also true that countries who were late to the competition to training investigators and don’t think well of the UN’s authority in the matter purposefully fanned such public complaints.
However, the trigger that caused such negative arguments to be turned on their head was the visible traces of human habitation found one by one on Nutella.
“Our brethren, perhaps our ancestors, once lived on that magnificent planet—we have found our second homeland,” it was said.
This created an even bigger impact that drove people to Nutella once more. Though we have yet to understand their civilization and way of life, the debate over whether or not to pioneer Nutella had since then shifted greatly over to the pro-side of the argument.
The ancient castle that Homura and the others use as their base camp is also made from refurbished ruins left behind by these Nutellans. Thinking back on it, how reassuring must it have been for investigators to have that stone castle to weather the wind and rain, preserve their food and await their return from their expeditions?
“…Well, even if I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff, it won’t really cause a problem.”
Throwing her pen down on her itemized list of notes, Homura fell back face-up on her bed.
Until now, Homura hadn’t paid any heed to the successive discoveries regarding Nutella, only absentmindedly acknowledging it as international news. She hadn’t had any trouble living without inconvenience that way. At most, she made some mistakes and lost points on her Social Studies tests.
“Frankly, the whole thing is unrelated to any of us even now… After all, in the end, we still don’t understand anything.”
The current Hollow Axis telescope satellites were unreliable for observing the ground surface in fine detail, unable to distinguish whether the lines carved across the surface were natural valleys or man-made canals.
Even if you added up all of the land that investigators throughout the world have explored over the past ten years, it wouldn’t even amount to a thousandth of Nutella’s entire surface. Just how much would Homura and the others be able to expand that explored area in only three years?
“It’s way too vast… if only we at least had horses…”
She had no experience riding horses, but Homura still found the image of dashing across the land on horseback gallant in her imagination.
She had heard that there were also groups who rode mountain bikes, but unfortunately the area that Homura’s club was in charge of was apparently too dangerous for that.
She got another message on her terminal.
This time, it was from Kamikoma-senpai.
The message title was “Pure Fail”.
The attached image showed Kamikoma-senpai’s tragic face covered in toothpaste, after having let her electric toothbrush slip out of her hand. Behind her was a pet dog, yawning as if in exasperation at her.
“…‘A Scottish Terrier, how cute’—and there.”
After she sent her reply immediately, Homura suddenly thought of something and picked back up the terminal.
She called one of the registered numbers within it.
[Hey there. Shalom2.]
Kamikoma-senpai’s high key voice came through the speaker.
“Good evening, Koma-senpai. Did you finish brushing your teeth?”
[Yeah. Right now I’m wrestling with Eddie-kun, who loves toothpaste. And he’s a Welsh Terrier, not Scottish, by the way—hey, don’t bite my fingers!]
Homura could hear a dissatisfied growl and scratches against a wooden floor from behind Kamikoma’s scolding voice.
“Ah, sorry. I’ve never heard of Welsh Terriers before. How nice, I wish we had a dog or cat at my place too.”
[You should raise a dog for sure. Homura, are you in the dog faction? Or the cat faction?]
“I’d… like to raise a koala, personally. They don’t seem like they need much taking care of either.”
[They also get lonely when you don’t take care of them, you know? Though it seems koalas can become amazingly keen and nimble when you give them regular animal feed instead of eucalyptus leaves. And their claws are super nasty.]
“That’s scary. Then, what about a sloth—”
[When you go that far, it seems like you’re the one who wants to be raised as a pet here. Shall I take custody of you at my place?]
“Please do. I’d like a proactive owner, with the three meals a day with naps included package.”
A laugh mixed with disbelief and self-mockery leaked through the terminal.
[You’re going to Nutella tomorrow, right? Be careful. I pray that it’s sunny there for you. It’s worst when it rains, making it hard to move at all.]
“Yes, thank you very much. Is your group’s next mission at a different time, Koma-senpai?”
[Ours is next week. It’s normal for neighboring schools to have different transport days. We also have more members than you guys, so it takes more time for our Transport Ring to charge. Well, truthfully, I want to go so much that I would even do it alone if I could.]
“…I can kinda get that. When you have too much free time, it gets scary, somehow.”
[Yeah. It feels like you’re doing a bungee jump every time.]
Hiyoshizaka High’s Exploration Club had a deep cooperative arrangement with Homura’s. The areas they were each in charge of were adjoining, and there was lots of information they could share between each other, such as regarding the weather over there. By contrast, Professor Fujimori didn’t talk about Hiyoshizaka High that much. Though, both club presidents were friendly with each other, so it wasn’t really a problem.
“Have you also received Ranger training like Misasagi-senpai?”
[I played wind instrument music in middle school. Ah, but I did participate in the Boy Scouts when I was a kid, you know?]
“Boy Scouts? Even though you’re a girl?”
[There just weren’t any Girl Scouts nearby. I was jealous of my older brothers, who participated in the Boy Scouts every week, so I pretended to be a boy myself.]
“That’s so crazy.”
[That’s why it can’t be helped that I’m called mannish, I suppose. Well, that experience also turned out to be useful in the Exploration Club, so it’s kind of complicated for me. Rather…]
[It might have been effective for working the guys in my club hard. Before I knew it, I ended up becoming the club president.]
“Isn’t that because of your innate personality?”
[At least call it character.]
Homura would have really liked to see the small-statured Kamikoma-senpai dominating the male club members. She would probably get the chance at some point, when Seiran and Hiyoshizaka’s respective Exploration Clubs went on an expedition together.
[Hmm? Ah, sorry. You’re going to bed now?]
“No, not that…”
The memory of that human figure in the forest flashed through Homura’s mind. But asking about it would be… Would asking for sympathy and consolation about something only she’d seen solve anything? And Kamikoma-senpai had also told her not to lightly talk about it either.
Thus, what reflexively came out of Homura’s mouth was the name of her classmate.
“…Umm, it’s about Kujou-san.”
[Yeah, what about Orie? Is she doing well?]
“Kujou-san is doing things at her own pace as always. The truth is, it’s more about me, err… I’d like to get along with her more, you know?”
“I get to go through a various experiences and have fun every day in the Exploration Club, but as I thought, I want to prioritize my life as a female high school student, like a normal girl…”
[You just said something I can’t overlook there, but… so what, you want a chance to get closer to Orie?]
“Yes. So, if possible, could you maybe tell me more about your past with Kujou-san—”
[What do you like about Orie?]
Kamikoma suddenly asked her that.
[There are lots of cute girls out there. And Orie is, as you can see, unsociable, so that cancels it out, doesn’t it?]
“…She’s good with the violin…”
[That isn’t limited to her alone either. Do you like violinists, Homura? Or do you want to learn the violin?]
“That’s… not it. Like I thought, do Kujou-san and I not fit each other…?”
After taking a little while to think, Kamikoma said this.
[I think it’s pointless getting some kind of advice from me to get along better with Orie. Orie’s intuition is quite sharp, so she’ll immediately notice something like that. If she knew that I thought something like ‘She seems so pitiful without friends’, she’d break off her relationship with me this time.]
“I see… Yeah, you’re right. Sorry for asking.”
Leaning back against the bed, Homura hung her head shamefully.
But suddenly, a kind-sounding sigh came through the terminal’s speaker.
[But, you know, I’d be really happy if you and Orie became friends.]
Kamikoma-senpai at the music club.
The golden saxophone.
The flame-like red violin.
Kujou Orie’s black, jewel-like dress.
The link of the four-beat rhythm that wrapped the stage in a deep timbre.
[Sorry, I spoke too harshly before. I also like Orie as she plays the violin. Homura, if you ever realize what about that girl you truly like, please tell it to her straight up.]
When Homura went downstairs, she found her mother preparing boxed lunches in the kitchen.
This was an unexpected sight, considering how her mother was usually early to bed.
Counting the prepared boxed lunches on the kitchen countertop while taking out some milk from the fridge, Homura tilted her head in puzzlement.
“Huh? Mom, tomorrow’s boxed lunch…”
Homura shouldn’t actually need one for tomorrow, but there were three portions for her father, Tsuyu and herself there.
There were only morning lessons tomorrow.
The plan was to transport as soon as lessons ended. She was told that it was much preferable to have a light meal before transporting. Well, as long as she didn’t turn queasy with transport sickness like Touya, she would probably be fine.
“This is a good luck charm from Narita-san temple.”
After having gotten her glass of milk, Homura went over to the dining table and found a good luck charm for safe travels abroad there.
“I heard that you’re going on your first expedition tomorrow, Homura-chan. So I went to visit the temple and prayed a hundred times.”
“A hundred times!? Really?”
Homura’s mother made a slightly proud-looking pose in her apron.
“That’s right. I prayed a hundred times. It’s surprisingly simple.”
Homura’s mother reproduced the original prayer of clapping her hands together and entreating the gods repeatedly right where she stood. That might have been slightly different from how the proper way of praying a hundred times was supposed to be done traditionally…
And sorry, Mom. This isn’t actually my first expedition.
“Yes, you’re welcome. Tsuyu-chan went along with me. She was in charge of offering the hundred yen coins.”
Homura could just imagine the two of them standing side by side in front of the offertory box, her mother praying zealously while Tsuyu kept throwing in hundred yen coins with a bored expression.
“Ahaha, thanks for your hard efforts. I’ll have to thank Tsuyu later as well.”
“I really thought about giving you a ceremonial arrow or bamboo rake, but Tsuyu said you can’t bring those kinds of things with you. So please make do with just a boxed lunch and good luck charm.”
“No, no, it’s quite reassuring.”
The good luck charm she placed on her palm was the standard synthetic charm that you could find anywhere, but Homura could feel some faint warmth from it.
“Dad… still gets displeased when we bring up the Exploration Club, doesn’t he?”
“That’s true. I also worry about you returning late, though.”
Taking a rest from the food preparation, her mother also came over to the dining table.
“But your father did praise Touya-kun. He said that you found a reliable boy this time. Out of the boys you’ve brought home before, he might be the first one your father’s ever praised.”
Homura couldn’t help smiling wryly.
“Well, it’s true that he seems to be popular with adults… His behavior is just like a Bubble-era salaryman that Dad talks about a lot. By contrast, Tsuyu seems to hate him, though…”
“It’d be nice if Touya-kun came every morning. I’d even make him breakfast, you know?”
“No way, no way, Tsuyu would never allow it.”
Their early morning running sessions were continuing even now as part of Homura’s daily routine. Miraculously so!
Had Homura ever continued a single thing for more than three days? And voluntarily at that. No, she hadn’t. It was only natural that her father would look at her so differently as a result.
In any case, after Homura got properly used to it, Touya stopped visiting the Hinooka household every morning.
Frankly, she wanted to laze off on days when there were no supervising eyes to watch her, to the point where Homura had thought, Yeah, let’s just skip today, I’m going to skip, wahaha, and let her guard down by actually doing it, but Touya made sure to come check up on her once every week.
Even though she’d only skipped one day, she’d been seen through after running for only a minute the next day Touya came to check, and her training menu had been increased further as a result. She really had no way of escape anymore.
“Your father also said he might consider running with you as well.”
“I don’t think I’d like that…”
If that happened on top of everything else, then she really would be no match for Touya, who regularly came to look over her studies in the library after school. She’d kept getting indebted to him ever since joining the club.
When she asked, out of unjustified anger, “You probably play around all the time, right?”, he made a curious expression and answered, “Is there anything more fun than the Exploration Club’s activities?”
So she thought about at least treating him to breakfast.
If she were a normal girl in this situation, she would probably do a special service like giving him a handmade boxed lunch, but she had learned the error of that the hard way during the Shinryoku Festival. And she was already giving everything she had in her club activities, studies and early morning running. It was a full course of non-stop work.
She was going to turn to ashes at this rate. That was something that Homura herself understood.
Just how long would this intense lifestyle continue? She felt like that kind of formless worry was gradually raising the water level of her heart drop by drop.
What would happen when it overflowed? That was something that even Homura couldn’t imagine.
“—You can stop if you want, you know.”
Homura’s mother murmured that, as if she had seen through Homura’s thoughts.
Homura, who had begun unconsciously hanging her head, raised it quietly to look at her mother.
In front of her was her mother’s usual gentle smile.
“Sorry. That wasn’t really much of an encouragement. But even I’ve had times where everything was suffocating to me and I ran away, you know?”
Looking at Homura, her mother continued speaking.
“However, make sure you at least treasure your friends. The number of people you meet in your life is already settled, after all.”
Anxiously, Homura stared at her mother’s fingertips.
“I think family is more important, personally. I don’t want to worry you all.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Don’t fret over us.”
Despite those refreshing words, Homura became slightly dejected.
“Mom, you don’t think this family is important?”
Nonchalantly tilting her head, her mother smiled.
“What I treasure most are, of course, you, Tsuyu-chan and Masafumi-san… but I wouldn’t choose family over everything else.”
“Friends can be replaced, you know?”
“Eeeeh? Didn’t you just tell me to treasure them?”
“That’s exactly why.”
Holding up each of her hand’s index fingers in turn, her mother continued.
“Good friends and bad friends—beneficial friends and harmful friends. When you start differentiating and grading them like that, you’ll end up having no one close to you eventually. That’s a very sad thing.”
Seeming to be reminded of something, Homura listlessly lowered her head.
“But… treating everyone equally and the same way… that’s absolutely impossible.”
“Yeah. I won’t tell you to do that. There probably isn’t anyone who can perfectly interact and socialize with others. You just have to do what you can. But—”
If you opened the door with your own strength.
If you walked somewhere you’ve never known before.
“Homura-chan, if you find someone you want to be friends with and be together with from the bottom of your heart… Would you give that person special treatment and treasure them? Going to many places and meeting various people is a very wonderful thing.”
That wish was hidden at the core of her mother’s feelings as she supported Homura’s attempts.
Though, Homura believed that, if the time ever came when she clearly felt that way, it would probably be something like destiny, and with someone she could call her lover.
“It’s all right. You can stop if you want.”
Her mother, as always, spoke frankly and nonchalantly.
“There’s no such thing as something you can’t do over again, after all.”
Chapter 15 END
(1) To elaborate, “r” and “l” are pronounced the same way in Japanese, so “Terra” and “Tella” are effectively the same here. I’ll still keep writing it as “Nutella”, however, since it sounds catchier and seems like a better planet name than “Nuterra” in English.
(2) Shalom: Hebrew word meaning “peace”, generally used as a greeting and farewell salutation.