Several days after the tumultuous SA on Iriomote Island concluded and halfway through summer vacation, Homura and Touya received a direct invitation from Honba Institute.
Formally known as ‘Honba Engineering Research Institute’, it was a large enterprise famous worldwide for making cars and motorcycles.
It also had a close relationship with the Exploration Club as the developer of the humanoid probe units that were planned for use on Nutella.
Honba Institute’s shares in the field of household caregiving robots that had rapidly boomed in Japan was still low, but their research and development were very advanced, and they were planning to do a comeback by introducing sophisticated and high-performance robots into the market.
One of their robotics division’s R&D facilities was located only a few train stations away from Seiran High.
That facility was Ameno’s place of birth.
When they got off at a quiet station in the suburbs, Touya and Homura realized they had miscalculated their arrival time.
“Ah… the next shuttle bus won’t be here for about forty minutes.”
“No wonder there’s no one else here.”
Homura looked over the peaceful roundabout on the road in front of them where not a single waiting taxi was to be seen.
To get to Honba Institute’s assembly plant, Homura and Touya needed to take the institute’s shuttle bus for visitors from the nearest station they were currently at. They should have also been able to visit the adjoining R&D lab building on the factory grounds by riding the bus, but now…
“All right, let’s try getting there on foot then! It isn’t that far away, right?”
“That’s a rare proposal coming from you. I don’t mind walking, but aren’t you bad with hot weather…? Ah.”
Homura stepped out from beneath the shade of the train station into the midsummer sunlight. Blinking at the bright light as he watched her, Touya noticed something and suddenly clammed up.
“No, I was just thinking that you look well done there.”
“…Ugh… Am I supposed to be grilled fish or something…?”
Homura embarrassingly hunched over as she felt his gaze on the nape of her neck.
“…By the way, you really must have had a tough time with all the back-to-back meetings at the SA, Touya-kun!”
“You’re bringing that up again?”
Homura couldn’t help worrying over the boundary of skin that had immediately peeled off. She was currently covering it up with skin care cream, but she hadn’t made such a careless blunder since elementary school.
And then there was the… how to call it, the lifejacket tan? Having such odd tan marks that were difficult to explain to others was quite disastrous for a girl like her. And her frequency in going outside had dropped sharply in the past few days too. Having to confront this harsh truth every day each time she changed her clothes or went to bathe was pretty depressing for her.
She felt even more vexed when she heard after the SA ended that the other female Exploration Club members had been secretly prescribed sunscreen from the older members.
“You really do tend to hold a grudge over things like this, Hinooka. And you won’t tell me the details of the incident that happened over there at all.”
“But… I was told to keep my mouth shut about it until next year…”
“Why? About what? It’s something involving Nutella, right? How nice. I gotta admit, I’m feeling pretty jealous of you right now.”
“Gurgh… I want to say it… I really want to talk about everything that happened… But the only thing I can tell you is that you’ll have another chance next year.”
Homura placed a hand on Touya’s shoulder with a clearly patronizing attitude.
“I see, I see. Well, I’ll look forward to it. Come on, let’s go.”
Though depressed at how quickly she was brushed off, Homura followed after Touya.
“Anyway, it’s not like a little tan bothers me at my age. Rather, it’s this irregular color pattern that I want to get rid of…”
“Yeah. Right now I can’t even tell whether you’re supposed to be a panda or a Malayan tapir.”
“H-How can you be so cruel, Touya-kun? Even this serves as a nice memory of our trip to the south, you know? I’m like an urban angelfish that dyes the town in tropical colors, so to speak.”
“Speaking of which, Shimadai shitsuke1 is pretty tasty.”
The two of them walked for a while, getting some distance from the residential district around the station, and eventually their surroundings began to shift to arable and cultivated land.
Immediately after they began walking, Homura had felt like roasted chicken squeezed of fat in a microwave oven as she was hit by the moist mirage-inducing heat, but now that they had reached a wide open area like this, the breeze had remarkably picked up and diminished the heat.
Homura was a bit surprised at how there was such a suburban landscape just a few stations away from the town area she usually lived in.
As they followed a road flanked by the embankments of irrigation ditches, Homura casually asked a question.
“Has your mother visited you recently, Touya-kun?”
“No, not at all—wait, why are you suddenly bringing that up now?”
“…Err, because it’s around the season for the O-Bon Festival2.”
“It’s not like my mom has died or anything,” said Touya with a laugh.
Homura had thoughtlessly said that merely because “O-Bon season = event where family and relatives gather together” in her head.
Though she felt embarrassed at her own careless remark, Homura realized that this was a big issue that bother Homura somewhere deep in her heart.
“…Will you be going to your grandparents’ home for O-Bon?”
“Yeah. I couldn’t go visit last year because I was studying for entrance exams, so I’m going to going for sure this year. My dad, well, may or may not come depending on his work, though…”
Seeing Homura frown slightly, Touya pre-empted her before she could say anything. “It’s pretty fun when I go by myself too. I go visit my cousins over there as well.”
“You visit your mother’s hometown too?”
“Yeah, it’s one of the places I visit over O-Bon.”
“Hmm. Sounds about the same as my family.”
In that case… As her mind continued to ponder further, Homura asked another serious question.
“…Is your mother at her family’s home right now?”
“No, she apparently spends most of her time wandering around somewhere with no set destination. She does seem to drop in at her family’s home every once in a while, but she always ends up being scolded by grandma and grandpa and then stealthily leaves again.”
“Huh. She sounds like a shrewd stray cat… She really does seem like quite the free-spirited person. Still, how does she run away from home… err, I mean, travel around?”
“She tours around the country on a bicycle.”
Touya held out his hands and pretend to grip some imaginary handlebars.
“She’s quite queer for her age. She used to be a motorcycle cop. Both my parents were part of the police originally.”
“Heh. You mean those cops who ride on motorcycles instead of patrol cars, like the ones you see at road intersections under maintenance?”
“Hmm? Well, basically. That’s why the one thing I refuse to become is a policeman. I couldn’t stand it if people started stating that the members of the Touya family are only capable of being policemen, you know?”
The mother that Touya described had a much wilder image than the overly sensitive runaway woman that Homura had imagined at first.
Also, although Touya spoke about it nonchalantly, Homura didn’t know just how rare a female motorcycle cop was in Japan.
“My mom was part of something called the Mobile Traffic Squad. Well, I don’t really know much about her work there. It’s all in the past now.”
Touya’s father was an active police detective.
Homura naturally thought of saying things like ‘So your parents were coworkers who married each other’ and ‘Did your mother resign after marrying?’ to follow the flow of the conversation, but in light of the current situation of the Touya family, it didn’t seem like it would turn into a cheerful topic, so Homura swallowed her words and changed the subject.
“B-By the way, did you know that my mom also used to have a motorcycle license?”
“Eh!? Your mother!? Wow, that’s a shock. I can’t imagine her riding a motorcycle at all.”
“Right? Me too. Tsuyu even still thinks it’s a joke.”
“You really surprised me there. That doesn’t fit her image at all.” Touya crossed his arms, impressed. “…No, wait… maybe not… She might actually look good in a jumpsuit…”
Seeing this young boy pondering that with his hand on his chin, Homura shouted “What kind of indecent things are you imagining about my mother!?” and elbowed him in the side.
They started to detect the faint smell of chemicals mixed within the gentle breeze.
Factory plants could be seen dotting the landscape beyond the fresh wheat fields, emitting white smoke from chimneys.
As she watched that sight from the corner of her eye, Homura once more brought up something that just occurred to her.
“I plan to go to the pool with Kujou-san tomorrow. Not the public pool, the indoor domed recreational pool with slides and spas and open terraces.”
“Congratulations on your date.”
“Yeah, I finally managed to reach the first date stage. *grin*”
Making a double peace sign with both hands, Homura reported with a serious expression how she’d achieved her dearest wish.
When she’d succeeded in getting Kujou Orie to reluctantly agree to come over the phone, Homura had tumbled off her bed while pumping her fist.
Still, why had she proposed such an excessive and open-ended plan for their outing—
“…Touya-kun… would you like to come too?”
“Ah? No way. You’re probably planning not to swim much and instead walk around eating sweets and shopping for stuff you’re not even sure you want to buy, right?”
After halting for a brief moment, Homura went on the counteroffensive as she was filled with strong feelings of dissatisfaction.
“Well, well, you’ve got quite the guts to turn down an invitation from two super-class high school girls so easily.”
“What ‘super-class’? In that case, would you come along on the three-stage Enoshima rocket bike tour with Doi from my class and Moriguchi from your class?”
“What, Enoshima? You mean that far-away place past Kamakura? Are you stupid? How many kilometers away do you think that is? Just go by train if you want to go. That kind of thing is incomprehensible to me.”
“I find your plan to go to an indoor pool in the middle of summer even more incomprehensible. And just after we got back from Iriomote island too.”
“Enough already. Just go have fun together with Kujou.”
Homura couldn’t understand Touya at all.
She couldn’t, but he somehow seemed to be having fun as he pulled out some long grass along the side of the road and wielded it like a fencing rapier.
Homura finally figured that her earlier worries were groundless.
“…Hey, how about you bring along Inari-senpai too?” Touya suddenly suggested.
“Kujou-san and… Inari-senpai? Mumumu. Even I can’t imagine what kind of chemical reaction that might produce.”
“True. Sorry, it was just a random thought.”
Speaking of which, Inari was the type to always speak frankly like Kamikoma-senpai. Homura could picture her unexpectedly getting along with Kujou.
“…Will you come if Inari-senpai comes too? By the way, you still haven’t seen senpai in a swimsuit yet, have you?”
“I’m definitely not coming.”
“Despite how she looks, Inari-senpai is still older than us. She looks quite cute in a swimsuit, you know? Then, how about if my mom comes too?”
“Why your mother!?”
“Muuu… Are you saying you won’t come even if Misasagi-senpai participates!?”
“Of COURSE I’d come in that case!”
Touya swung his grass sword up towards the blue sky high above.
Of course, they both knew that Misasagi-senpai was always busy devoting all her time and energy to Exploration Club activities, so there was no way she’d have that kind of casual free time.
Even so, the two of them couldn’t help swelling with excitement at the thought of Misasagi-senpai coming to play at the pool.
“Anyway, in the first place, if it turned into an Exploration Club gathering like that, wouldn’t it make things more uncomfortable for Kujou?”
“…Yeah, you’re right. Let’s scrap that idea, then.”
Several dozen minutes later after trudging stoutheartedly through the heat that bathed the roadway—
Just as Homura was starting to grow annoyed at the sweat sticking to her tank top, the Honba Institute site came into view.
The site was several times bigger than that of the average school, and tall and white walled factory facilities covered most of the grounds.
After checking in and getting permission at the security guard station next to the main gate, the two of them entered the factory grounds.
Homura wanted to jump into the buildings, but a nearby guide sign showed that the specific development lab that was their destination was located farther back within the grounds. Homura walked unsteadily as she desperately sought the cool embrace of air conditioning.
The factory grounds were pretty quiet and there weren’t many employees around to be seen. Even the vast parking lot was mostly deserted.
The development lab they finally arrived at was a four-storied building twice the size of their club building surrounded by a high fence unlike the other buildings on the grounds, which gave it a very strict and heavily guarded air.
“It kinda resembles the club building from the outside.”
“Yeah. But this is the kind of place that has to be vigilant for real industrial spies and the like. When I think of that, it’s kinda exciting.”
They entered a utilitarian reception lobby that was currently unmanned.
After they announced their arrival through the intercom and waited a little while, someone finally appeared.
It was a young woman wearing a bright orange jumpsuit with the logo HONBA on it.
“You two are from the Seiran Exploration Club, right? You’re really early. Did you come here directly?”
“That’s right. Sorry, was that a bother for you?” Touya politely bowed his head. “Hey, Hinooka?”
Homura, who had been enraptured as she clung to the cool leather sofa in the air-conditioned lobby, jumped in surprise.
“Fufu. No, not at all.” The jumpsuit woman shook her head.
“Nice to meet you… Umm, I thought a car factory would be much noisier and busier than this. It seems really quiet around here.” Homura honestly expressed her doubts.
“Ah, that. We do have assembly lines here, but most of them are cleaned or inspected over summer break. This development lab is the same.”
“Eh, then, umm, you’re working during your time off, miss? I’m really sorry for the trouble…” Homura felt truly obliged.
Possibly due to always hearing her father’s complaints, Homura tended to react sensitively to the subject of signing in and off at work.
“It’s fine, really. The dates and schedule just happened to line up like this, so it’s not like I went out of my way to accommodate you two. There are also certain circumstances that required my presence here anyway.”
Would it be better to describe her as honest, or blunt?
Homura was surprised, having imagined a typical researcher in a white lab coat since this was a cutting-edge robotics development lab.
The woman had her back hair done up in a neat braid with a hairpin and wore a bright smile.
Her age seemed to be about the same or a bit older than Fujimori-sensei’s.
She stuck her work gloves, which had black stains from what was probably tool-related work, into her pocket and shook hands with both Homura and Touya.
“Sorry for the late introduction. I’m Akado of the Honba Institute’s Robotics Development Lab. Nice to meet you two. Ah, this is my confidentiality clearance license issued by the UNPIEP. You can check it out just to be on the safe side.”
She handed them a registration card issued by the UNPIEP Japanese Branch, which showed that she was cleared to share the same level of information as regular Exploration Club members.
—Homura hadn’t known about it when she’d joined the club, but she had come to learn through the SA and her regular Exploration Club training that there were many adults besides administrators like Fujimori-sensei who aided the Exploration Club in related positions like this in every field.
Homura and Touya showed their own cards as well.
“Touya Takumi-kun and Hinooka Homura-san… Yeah. Perhaps because of all the talk I’ve heard about you and the photos I’ve seen of you, this doesn’t really feel like my first time meeting you guys.”
“Do you mean you’ve heard about us from Ameno?”
“Yeah, and Mori-chan… ah, I mean, Fujimori-sensei too. Have you heard anything about me from Ameno?”
“Ah, right… Weren’t you the one who chose Ame-chan’s swimsuit?”
“That’s right. How was it? I spent an unexpectedly long time agonizing over the choice.”
“It really suited her well! Right, Touya-kun?”
“She was already wearing it when we boarded the plane.”
Akado smiled happily.
Homura noticed some faint freckles on her nose and cheeks. They were hidden beneath makeup, but possibly because of her white-toned skin, they still stood out and looked a bit unnatural compared to the rest of her face.
In Homura’s opinion, those freckles didn’t detract from her looks, which Homura categorized as an Akita-type beauty3 in her mental files, but rather added a cute charm to her.
But what Homura found even more out of place was her bad fashion sense in wearing a rough-looking jumpsuit over her slender body and sloping shoulders. There should have been other outfits to wear even for hands-on work.
Homura intuitively guessed that, swimsuit choice aside, Ameno’s boyish style was likely the influence of this person.
“—Looks like we still have a bit of time.”
After looking at her watch, Akado gestured them to follow her. She was apparently going to give them a tour of the facility.
“I was transferred here from Honba Institute’s head office. My team wasn’t originally connected to the Nutellan probe unit project, but rather started off as a diverse group that did more standard research and development. I basically serve as the assistant to our section chief Toneri, who’s busy all the time. I was originally just a software specialist who developed in-house modules for design tools though, hahaha.”
“So you’re a programmer, then?” asked Touya.
“Well, yeah… but now I pretty much do any and all odd jobs that are assigned to me.”
Akado pulled up the sleeves of her jumpsuit and made a typical manual labor pose. Her expression was brimming with confidence, but she unfortunately lacked that kind of strong image.
Touya and Homura gazed over the interior of the development lab in a slightly reserved manner like proper visitors.
At the other end of the glass-walled corridor they walked through was a large studio-like room containing displays of what appeared to be prototypes of caregiving robots lined up next to each other like on a film set.
The caregiving robots, which unlike Ameno had deformed and flat bodies, were all set up in a resting position along the walls, really making the room look like a true development lab.
Touya was excitedly looking over the robot development displays, but Homura was preoccupied by a different train of thought.
Homura had another objective in coming to this lab: Ameno’s room.
Ameno should have her own room in this facility which she had used until she started to live at Fujimori’s apartment.
“Living” and “lodging” might not have been the right description for Ameno’s time here, but this was still the home in which she’d been born and raised.
Speaking of which, Ameno still had yet to show herself.
As Homura was thinking about such things, Akado went on to reconfirm things with the two of them.
“—Now then, today, you’ll be meeting with Chief Toneri, the guy who invited you both here, but have you heard anything about him from Mori-chan?”
Touya responded to Akado’s probing question in a meek tone.
“Toneri-san is… a former Exploration Club member who explored Nutella in the same party as Fujimori-sensei, which basically makes him our respected senpai as an investigator. And I heard that his class was ‘mage’, right? Those facts alone make me pretty excited to meet him, but…”
“—But?” Akado urged him to continue.
“For some reason, sensei was in pretty low spirits when she talked about him… She said that he’s a real weirdo, and that we should only take a tenth of what he says seriously.”
“As expected of Mori-chan. Good. In that case, I don’t need to warn you any further,” said Akado with a wry smile.
“Mumumu… Just what kind of person is he?”
Homura kept quiet about how she’d already categorized him as a weirdo from the little she’d heard about him during her chats with Ameno.
“Ah, one more thing. Hinooka-san?” Akado turned to Homura.
“Fujimori-sensei probably already told you, but—Chief Toneri tends to say things that repudiate the people he talks to, but you mustn’t lash back. Even if you feel slighted and get irritated, just ignore him by thinking of him as a child. If you let it get to you, I’m the one who’ll suffer for it.”
“Ignore him? But isn’t that rude to him as our respected senpai?”
Akado was really going out of her way to warn them. And especially Homura in particular.
Homura couldn’t recall Ameno ever censuring the man that harshly, though. Perhaps she just had a different opinion since he was technically her birth parent?
“If you really can’t endure his behavior even so, feel free to report it to me. Dealing with that is within the scope of my job, after all.”
“S-Sure, I’ll do my best.”
As she assured Homura that it was ‘within the scope of her job’, Akado made a gesture that mimicked strangling a living chicken. What was that supposed to mean?
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be fair to fill you with any further preconceptions of him.”
After giving them a brief tour of the building, Akado brought Touya and Homura to the top floor.
There were big and showy warning signs that stated ‘Entry past this point is forbidden to the general public’, which made them keenly realize that the next area was the center of this facility’s classified research.
First, they entered a huge corner room where two walls were completely covered by windows.
Inside the room was a large desk with a large and unfamiliar work machine—though it was actually just a lightweight laptop with a forty-nine-key keyboard—on top. It was a huge difference from Fujimori’s messy desk in the staffroom.
And in the center of the room was a man sleeping reclined in a designer chair facing parallel to the desk.
He wore a casual outfit of worn-out jeans and a color patterned dress shirt.
The white lab coat he wore over it and his loosely-tied necktie seemed to barely support his title and position as the chief in charge.
The stripes of sunlight that leaked through the window blinds made his pale blond hair shine a bit.
It was precisely the kind of unnatural-looking scene that you’d expect in a promotion video for the Global Convention of Narcissists. And yet, irritatingly enough, it actually looked like a pretty striking portrait.
Confused, Homura glanced sideways at Akado, but instead of the exasperated expression she’d expected, Akado was wearing a slight, defiant smile.
“Buon Giorno! Signore!4” Akado called out without bothering to go check on the sleeping man. “I’ve brought the two investigators from Seiran High. You know, the ones who were central to the first contact on Nutella?”
The slightly grotesque-looking stuffed animal placed on top of the man’s head slipped off, revealing vivid green eyes.
He slowly closed his drowsy eyelids once more, and when he next opened them, his expression completely changed to an overly ingratiating smile.
Homura gulped in surprise.
Fujimori, Akado and Ameno hadn’t told Homura that Chief Toneri was so stunningly handsome.
Even the stubble on his chin, which wasn’t really to Homura’s tastes, seemed like an exotic accent to the rest of his face.
Toneri silently reached for the food tray on his desk and suddenly lifted it up to eye level.
“This pastrami sandwich has the wrong proportion of black pepper. The pepper has been grinded too finely and lacks freshness. I guess Honba doesn’t have the money to procure fresh pepper.”
“Please don’t calmly ignore our guests. You’re the host today, remember, Chief Toneri?”
“—Host?” The man tilted his head in puzzlement.
His long blond hair was tied up behind his head. He looked like the typical hacker in Hollywood movies except for that one distinctive trait of his.
“No, I didn’t call them here. I merely said that I needed to collect data because there were one or two points I wanted to understand about the incident in question.”
“And that’s why I invited them here. Well, it’s fine with me as long as you at least stay in the room with them for the allotted time.”
Akado showed no signs of budging on the matter.
Toneri tilted the back of his chair forward and glared at Akado as he bent forward with his elbows resting on top of his knees. It seemed that Homura and Touya were being ignored here, as usual.
“…Just when will you start properly dressing like a researcher’s assistant, Akado?”
“Geez… What’s that even supposed to look like?”
“It means having an intellectual and tidy appearance that reflects your loyalty and commitment. I’d prefer you wear a suit from Prada or Ferretti that would gladden my eyes even with a meager physique like yours.”
“Like a Bond girl5? Or a seductive secretary from an evil organization? You know, Sky-kun, it’s true that I’m an assistant, but it’s not like I’m your direct subordinate. If you weren’t a handsome half-Italian guy, I would have already asked for a transfer long ago.”
Ah, so she does acknowledge his good looks, thought Homura, strangely understanding.
In that case, this must have been the clear compromise that Miss Akado came to, perhaps because the situation between them was different than it used to be, or perhaps because she’d simply gotten tired of forcibly hiding her honest feelings.
“In the end, you’re just another frivolous female babirusas6 who acts pretentious.”
Female babirusa… Both Homura and Touya were taken aback by this sudden shift to a bloody battle of words.
Akado gestured as she vehemently rebutted him.
“And like I’ve already told you countless times, I’m here to prevent you with your tendency to calmly say rude and vulgar words like that from influencing Ameno, our company’s most precious asset.”
“Don’t misunderstand, Akado. It’s true that Ameno is still quite young, but she isn’t our child. Don’t measure her by human standards. That won’t benefit Ameno either.”
At first, Akado swelled with anger, but in the end, her shoulders tiredly slumped and she bowed her head apologetically to Homura and Touya.
“Truly, I’m sorry for this. I feel like I’m going to commit an act of violence at this rate, so I’ll temporarily withdraw from the room. I’ll bring back some cool drinks for you.”
“I’ll have a Caffè Americano,” requested Toneri with no hesitation at all.
In response, Akado merely pointed at the half-broken Expresso machine sitting in a corner of the room.
“Understand, chief? I’m leaving these two to you. If you abandon them to go off and play, I’ll report it.”
“Hey, cut it out. Even I care about my own life.”
After Akado left the room, Toneri let out a huge sigh.
“You’re Chia’s students, right?”
This was the second person that Homura had met who called Fujimori-sensei ‘Chia’.
“Yes. Fujimori-sensei is always taking care of us,” said Touya.
“We look forward to working with you today,” added Homura.
Touya and Homura then introduced themselves to Toneri. Toneri stared at them for a while, and then…
“Polite kids are wonderful.”
That was clearly a sarcastic remark aimed at a certain someone.
His earlier dangerous mood was gone now, and it was as if he had suddenly become much younger and childish.
Homura had heard that he was several years older than Fujimori-sensei, but he didn’t look older at all, possibly due to the complete lack of composure and maturity in his demeanor and his rude manner of speaking.
“Umm, I was told that you’re a veteran mage, so I brought this along.”
Homura timidly handed him a white Rubik’s cube, which she’d gotten at the discussion between mages at the SA.
“Veteran is a bit much… And I’m completely unconnected to Seiran High, too. But anyway, that’s a Rubik’s puzzle, right? The Exploration Club still uses those things?”
“You may call it ‘those things’, but… I can’t even properly use it…” Homura shamefully admitted.
“I also used one for a short time, but its pattern formation is inefficient. Don’t you agree?”
Toneri showed little interest in the cube and casually tossed it back to Homura.
Toneri’s table didn’t have a single drawer, while the metal netted basket next to it that seemed to be a trash can served as the container for all his things. It was stuffed to the brim with all sorts of miscellaneous items of various colors.
“It should be right around here…”
Toneri stuffed his hand into the basket to search through it, and then finally pulled out three Rubik’s cubes of varying sizes.
“Are those the ones you use for researching Nutellan magic, Toneri-san?”
“No way. I just play with these to kill time—There we go.”
Toneri tossed the cubes into the air one after another and began to juggle them.
While continuing his juggling, he began to speak in a dispassionate tone.
“I’ll start from the main point. I read the report by Kamikoma from that Hi-whatever school. I’d like you to reproduce the pattern you used in the battle against the Nutellan once more. I also have a spirit stone prepared, though it’s of lower quality than the one you used before.”
While inwardly admiring Toneri’s skill which matched that of a full-blown street performer, Homura repeated the word in confusion.
“I heard that the Nutellan used a gigantic fireball spell, but that’s irrelevant. Even I can do something of that level. More importantly, I want to know the spell pattern of the multi-composite fireball that apparently stopped and pushed back the enemy’s fireball.”
“Multi-composite fireball?” Homura was taken aback by this term she was hearing for the first time.
“How about it? —Lad.”
Eh, lad? Homura tilted her head in puzzlement.
She shared a glance with Touya, who then timidly corrected Toneri.
“Hinooka’s the one who did that, not me.”
His expression turning extremely disappointed, Toneri suddenly dropped his hands, and he then caught the falling cubes between his arms and carelessly threw them on the desk.
“…What, so it’s the girl? Then that means you’re Hinooka?”
She would have liked it if he’d noticed when she’d introduced herself, but he didn’t seem to care about it at all.
This guy really is rude… Wait… Eh?
Homura’s eyes widened in shock.
The colors patterns on the cube had scattered and disconnected when she’d first seen them, but now all eighteen faces on the three cubes were perfectly aligned according to color. And it had happened in the span of less than a minute as Toneri rhythmically juggled them in the air while conversing with Homura and Touya at the same time—
“Then, you didn’t contribute anything to that mission, Touya?”
“That’s right. I… was unconscious at the time.”
“I see. Well, whatever.”
Touya didn’t seem to have noticed the change in the cubes as he talked with Toneri.
Toneri once more casually plunged his hand into the basket to take out a container of darts this time, and he began throwing them at the dartboard hanging on the wall.
However, he didn’t display much skill in this activity unlike the juggling.
There seemed to be various other strange goods for killing time in the basket.
It kinda reminded Homura of Ameno’s hobby of taking out strange items as if out of thin air and performing sleights of hand with them.
At around that time, Miss Akado returned with beverage pots and glasses in one hand, while holding a heavy-looking toolbox in the other for some reason. Though she was clearly exasperated upon seeing Toneri playing with darts as he talked, she seemed to be busy with work and left the room again. Perhaps she was in the middle of developing something?
After Toneri finished throwing all his darts and handily missing the target each time, the former mage at last got up from his chair.
“Hmph. So, Hinooka. I’d like you to come to the lab with me so that I can collect data on you with the brainwave scanner—but there’s something I need to do before that.”
“And that is?”
This time, Toneri took out a wine bottle and corkscrew from the ever-handy basket.
“Supper. It’s revenge to make up for that pastrami sandwich. Eat with me.”
“No, isn’t supper supposed to be some time after lunch—?”
“What, you guys won’t even drink wine with me?”
“High-schoolers who drink wine during the daytime are rare here in Japan,” Touya deadpanned.
“I don’t remember the Exploration Club being so strict and stuffy.”
“Could you not talk about the Exploration Club like some den of outlaws…?”
After saying that, Toneri moved to leave the room at a quick pace, but then he suddenly stopped and turned back.
“…I changed my mind.”
Toneri’s green eyes peered hard over Homura.
“Now that I think about it, I heard that you have a good memory.”
Well, that was true, technically. When it came to things like the days of the week when each shop sold a different specialty cake or the days when net drama shows were updated, her memory tended to be quite accurate.
“In that case, I guess I’ll just ask the person in question directly.”
That was my intention from the start… What was he planning to do, then? Homura was filled with extremely natural doubts at this odd declaration, but it appeared that he really wasn’t fooling around here.
Sitting back down, Toneri snatched a cube from on top of the desk while spinning his chair, and he thrust it at Homura’s chest.
“Explain the principle. What was the pattern you used to make that multi-composite fireball?”
“Was it a composite of a regular polyhedron loop? Or did you skip the multi-dimensional rotational manipulation? What was the boost target of the Transport Ring and spirit stone? Well, how about it?”
Toneri pressed her with question after question.
Feeling perplexed and cornered, Homura reflexively looked at Touya to beg for help, but Touya merely stepped back and moved away from her.
However, Touya walked back from the corner of the room soon after and interrupted Toneri who was still asking question.
“What is it?”
“Hinooka’s memory is actually quite half-baked and careless, so you won’t get the answers you’re looking for unless you question her more carefully and slowly.”
Touya had dragged out one of the chairs lying around that Toneri hadn’t even bothered to offer them and pulled it over next to the confused Homura. The way he briskly carried it in one hand was just like a veteran waiter.
However, Toneri remained brusque in the face of Touya’s display of consideration.
“She just needs to answer the questions. Or is my Japanese pronunciation off? Even if I look like this, I was still born in Japan, you know.”
Indeed, his Japanese was excellent.
By contrast, Japanese wasn’t the forte of Homura, a pure-blooded Japanese native. She couldn’t understand the intent or meaning behind Toneri’s questions as he kept rattling on and on—
However, truthfully, his rude manner of speech resembled words straight out of a movie or drama, so it didn’t actually irritate her that much. She might have lost her temper if the same words came from her younger sister Tsuyu, though.
Touya exasperatedly put his hands on his hips and glanced at Homura.
The weary smile Touya now wore made his babyish face look even more childlike, but when he then turned to face Toneri, that smile looked even scarier somehow, causing Homura to stiffen in fear that he was quietly angry, but her guess turned out to be wrong.
“Toneri-san, no, Toneri-senpai?”
“I’m not your senpai. Like I said, I’m unrelated to Seiran High.”
“Even so, you’re our respected senpai in the Exploration Club, and you’re unequaled in your knowledge of Nutella. Most of all, you’re Ameno’s creator. You’ve indirectly helped us through various other pieces of equipment you’ve made as well, so I’m not angry.”
Toneri wore a look of blank confusion.
“I don’t remember doing anything to displease you guys… What would you be angry about?”
His expression showed that he wasn’t speaking sarcastically, but genuinely didn’t understand. So this was what Fujimori-sensei meant when she said to take a tenth of what he said seriously. Touya’s expression returned to being half-surprised and half-exasperated.
Heedless of the look he was getting, Toneri resumed speaking.
“There’s no point in wasting time asking useless things. That’s practically a crime. —Hinooka Homura, you’re a prodigy at magic, right?”
Toneri said it as naturally as if he were asking ‘You like ice cream, right, Homura?’
“Prodigy? No way, that’s absurd—” Homura shook her head with wide eyes.
Toneri’s expression turned weary and dejected.
“That. It’s that kind of talk that I’m saying is pointless. It’s not like prodigies are rare or anything. You can find them anywhere. There’s some here, and there’s some there. There’s even some in the lab next to us.”
To Homura, being called a prodigy was an evaluation that was far beyond her means and position. However, it appeared that Toneri wasn’t just openly complimenting her…
“Prodigies are unusual creatures born according to a fixed probability. They’re pretty much everywhere. They can’t even compare to people who wear the shoes of destiny itself. Yeah, like your teacher Chia. Compared to her, all prodigies are like mere individual torches that can barely illuminate the way along the road.”
This time, Toneri praised Fujimori quite highly.
Neither Homura nor Touya could understand his twisted way of viewing others at all, but they could at least tell that he wasn’t saying it as flattery.
“Umm… I’m not really a prodigy, but can I… sit down?”
Truthfully, Homura still hadn’t found the right timing to sit down and was currently stuck standing upright.
“Go ahead. If you feel pride in being able to walk upright, you can keep standing there as well if you wish,” said Toneri, as blunt as always.
Homura awkwardly sat down on the chair that Touya had thoughtfully brought her.
“Err… The thing is, Toneri-san…”
Homura and Touya did their best to try explaining what had happened to this troublesome man who always went along at his own pace. Their explanation basically boiled down to how Hinooka Homura was little more than a novice as a mage and had barely any understanding about Nutellan magic theory. And how, though she had gotten an excellent score in her IE Aptitude in the past, her score had now gone down to an average value…
However, even after they exhausted all their efforts to explain, Toneri still seemed to be dubious.
“I find that hard to believe. Touya, have you dabbled in it a bit yourself?”
“You mean magic theory? My understanding of it is still at beginner’s level. I’ve only glanced through the investigator manual on it, and I’m still a long ways from properly casting any spells.”
Homura agreed with Touya on that…
Even Misasagi-senpai, a magic warrior whose main specialty wasn’t magic, could cast some amazingly skilled spells, and there were other full-fledged mages who had demonstrated their mastery of high level magic—Oozore-senpai from Nagumo High, who had the nickname Wizard; Hana Yashiki-senpai from Nadahama High; and “Songbird” Furumachi-senpai from Tazatani High. And those were just the few that Homura had encountered at the SA. After meeting such people, Homura and Touya were all the more painfully aware of their own inexperience.
“Umm… Back then, my head was pretty much filled with mostly fear, so I don’t remember much of what I did.”
Toneri was clearly taken aback by Homura’s words, and he made an odd expression that seemed to say ‘My, my, this creature suddenly started talking even though I didn’t give permission’, but Homura somehow managed to finish her sentence regardless.
“……Then you mean to say that you unconsciously established the spell pattern? That’s not unheard of. There are even some researchers who have discovered chemical structural formula in their dreams.”
“No, no, it wasn’t like that kind of thing where inner inspiration runs on overdrive—”
How to explain that experience, which Homura still felt shivers at whenever she recalled it—that memory, which she felt detached from like it happened to someone else, even after she reread Kamikoma’s report on the event?
“—At the time… I just desperately imagined the fireball pattern that I’d learned from Misasagi-senpai. The limited hexa-model pattern.”
“1-8-15-12—Hi (Hydrogen), Ox (Oxygen), Ph (Phosphorous), Mg (Magnesium)—the tinderbox incantation? But that alone isn’t enough to explain that phenomenon—”
Toneri recited from memory the incantation that Homura had mentally pictured back then.
“You apparently created and controlled multiple fireballs—an entire cluster of more than five hundred of them, though? You do remember that much, right?”
It was just as Kamikoma-senpai had written in her report, based on what she’d seen as the only observer there during the battle between Homura and Subaru-hime.
Homura hesitantly nodded.
“But, I didn’t consciously think of making lots of fireballs like that… And I don’t know how to do so either…”
“I figured. It’s impossible to actually do, after all.”
Homura was having trouble putting her thoughts into words, but Toneri didn’t pay much attention to it and leaned back in his chair.
He looked up at the ceiling in the same slovenly napping pose as when they’d first entered the room.
“Roughly categorized, there are two known kinds of spells that create fireballs on Nutella.
“The first method manipulates the Nutellan air into a highly compressed flow and makes it react with organic matter. This works the same as normal combustion on Earth. It’s no different than blowing air into charcoal using a pair of bellows. The spell utilizes a limited icosa-model and a limited hexa-model together in combination.
“The other method is to create heat. It’s possible to cast it with a limited hexa-model, but a Rubik’s model is more suitable if you’re trying to make the fireball do complex movements. Both methods are commonly used in the Exploration Club these days.”
It feels like the conversation has gotten really derailed—! Now Homura was truly thankful for the chair Touya had provided her.
“Umm, Misasagi-senpai taught me to cast the spell by directly turning magic energy into heat.”
“That’s right. In other words, it’s the creation of heat. That rough and overly wasteful method has become the current mainstream. In the first place, there’s no real opportunity to use fireball spells in the Exploration Club. At most, it’s used for violence.”
“Violence…?” asked Homura, feeling something heavy in her heart at the word.
“Yes, violence. The Nutellan civilization went through huge wars in the past. That much is unmistakable. The ruins we’ve discovered until now prove it. The fireball spell patterns became entrenched as a means of attack in such an environment. Investigators from Earth merely rediscovered it.”
“Rediscovered…? And what do you mean by ‘entrenched’?” Touya voiced the question that naturally came to his mind. “Also, even if it’s destructive, dynamite is used in building and tunnel construction, right? Is conflict really the natural way of things in a world where there’s fireball magic that even we can cast? Isn’t that like a world where all children carry guns?”
“I don’t think all Nutellans could use magic, though. Even we have different IE Aptitudes according to each individual. Even then, almost all the spells we’ve come up with are part of just one branch of the spell techniques that the Nutellans cultivated—and by ‘entrenched’, I’m referring to the transmission and propagation of the magic language.”
“Magic… language? Like English or French?” Homura’s question didn’t seem to be that far off the mark. Toneri turned to look at her.
“Of course. What else could you call it besides a language?”
“I heard that you were the one who created the system of spells currently used by the Japanese Exploration Club though, Toneri-san.”
“As I keep saying, that’s wrong. I merely rediscovered the spells and restructured them into a spell system suited for exploration. The scale is completely different, but what I did is basically the same as Dr. Chandra and his discovery of Nutella. I merely discovered a huge library and translated one or two books that were lying around at the entrance. I didn’t enter any further than that.”
Toneri’s brows knitted into a slight scowl. It was an unusual display of modesty that contrasted with his usual haughty behavior and of vexation that was hidden beneath it.
“Regarding spell patterns—the Exploration Club calls them incantations—I think that Nutellan magic is artificial in origin. The established patterns are like refined formulas and, to use chemistry as an example, act as catalysts to reactions derived from various spells. A diverse variety of spells were used on Nutella in the past. All I did was pursue traces of spells left by those predecessors and affixed new labels to them.”
Touya seemed unable to grasp the meaning of Toneri’s words.
“I don’t really get it, but… Did the first investigators to use magic on Nutella learn it from someone else? Or was it inherited from the Nutellans?”
“Did they find it in a spell book or something? Ahaha,” laughed Homura.
Homura thought she would be ridiculed in response, but Toneri remained silent.
Toneri appeared to be taking Homura’s joking words seriously.
“In a certain sense… that’s correct. Nutella itself is a giant magic system. If you’re asking who the first Earthling to use magic was, it definitely wasn’t me. Naturally, it was old man Chandra. Chandra never went to Nutella himself, but he launched the Hollow Axis telescope satellite and succeeded in making an imperfect index of Nutella.”
As Homura widened her eyes in surprise, Toneri continued explaining.
“Magic is something that’s passed down and transmitted. I’m an advocate of the Element Record Theory, that magic is recorded in the molecular elements on Nutella. Though, there are other researches who advocate the theory that magic is the result of unknown waves or cosmic radiation that we can’t yet observe—”
“You mean like the air and water?”
“Si,” said Toneri with a nod.
“Is it like that theory that if you give thanks to water, it will become tastier?”
“That’s just occult pseudoscience,” Touya retorted.
“That kind of reaction is quite common.” Toneri gave a wry smile. “Contagious magic is the most basic occult stuff out there. Until it becomes possible to investigate things on the atomic level on Nutella, this field of theory can’t avoid being slandered as occult.”
Touya rephrased and simplified Toneri’s explanation for himself.
“Magic… is spread and diffused throughout the air on Nutella?”
“That’s my pet theory. Magic is transmitted by breathing, by Nutellan-scale weather phenomenon, and even physical touch.”
Toneri picked up a nearby (paper) notepad and (old-fashioned) pen and drew a big circle. It was a perfect circle that was terrifyingly exact.
And then he drew various dots within it.
“To use Earth as an example, right now you’re definitely breathing the air someone on Earth exhaled a year ago. Air exhaled by the US president, the Pope and even Indian beggars is all, according to statistics, being breathed by you right now. And the reverse is also true.”
Homura reflexively covered her mouth.
“Right now? Right this instant?”
“Yes, right this instant, not just sometime in the past.”
Toneri wrote down on the notepad the amount and capacity of gas molecules within one breath, the average amount of times people breathed in one year, and the total volume of all the air on Earth, as well as the relationship between each of these factors.
All the mathematical formulas were gibberish to Homura, but the notes showed in concrete numbers that even a single breath contained an enormous number of molecules, and that the year-long accumulation of those breaths, which continued ceaselessly as part of living, added up to a value that more than supported the likelihood of Toneri’s claim.
“Nutella is overwhelmingly bigger than Earth, but even so, it takes less than three years for gas molecules touched by a single person from Earth to spread and diffuse throughout all of Nutella.”
Toneri dropped the notepad on the desk with a thud and continued his explanation.
“—Now then, Hinooka, there’s a possibility that the spell you casted deviates from that framework. This is dangerous. That’s why I called you here.”
“What I did… was dangerous?”
“Very much so.”
Toneri was completely serious.
“One possibility I can think of is that you discovered a continuous spell pattern”
“A continuous… pattern?” Touya titled his head in puzzlement.
“You can also call it a catalyst pattern. It forms a cycle and stimulates some kind of reaction. Or perhaps slows it down. That’s what kind of magic it is. Those Nadahama guys are engrossed in discovering such catalyst patterns and obsessively devoted to it even now. Hah.”
Bothered by Toneri’s seemingly ridiculing tone, Homura spoke up.
“The people from Nadahama High are really earnest and diligent, you know? They weren’t treating it like some kind of hobby… I couldn’t keep up with their explanation at all during the SA.”
“I wonder about that. Like I said, prodigies can be found everywhere. Though, stupid and foolish women are even more commonplace—Hey, well, don’t be so hard on yourself.”
As Homura turned dispirited, Toneri drew several circles in the air with the pen in his hand.
“Using the repellant force of fireballs to capture a single huge fireball is a wonderful idea. However, it’s impossible to achieve the parallel distributed thought-processing necessary to implement such a ridiculous feat as individually controlling over five hundred fireballs. This is an absolute fact. Because otherwise, it’d require that a human become inhuman.”
“Haah—but isn’t it possible to ‘think while doing it’?”
This time Toneri was the one to slump his head at Homura’s words.
“Hey now… I myself am only able to work on three Rubik’s cubes at the same time, but that’s because I switch between working on each one in turns inside my head. I don’t actually solve them all at the same time.
“—If it were possible to think two things at the same time, then it would be equally possible to think five hundred or even fifty billion things at the same time, since you wouldn’t need to waste time or space to form patterns.”
Touya also wore a worried expression as he asked a new question.
“So you’re saying it’s fortunate that Hinooka only went as far as five hundred? That’s the reason you said that Hinooka is dangerous?”
“Yes. Or rather, perhaps it would be better to call it inevitable—a mistaken formula will kill all proof of its existence. Contradictory magic will produce dangerous side effects. In other words, magic that goes against nature on Nutella will kill the user. Yet despite that, you’re not dead, Hinooka. Why? That’s what I want to know.”
After suddenly saying all that, Toneri shut his eyes and turned silent, initiating his ‘Narcissist mode’.
…Even if you tell me that…
Homura felt discouraged at the thought that this person would probably just nod in understanding if she had burned up and died back then.
Eventually, Toneri spoke up again.
“—Continuous magic is one of my dreams.”
Was he deviating off topic again?
“Exactly what would continuous magic be able to do?”
“All kinds of things. It’d make flight through the sky possible for temporary period of times. It’s quite an attractive idea, right?”
Fly—through the sky! Homura nodded enthusiastically.
“But, like I said, it’s very dangerous—for example, say you discovered a pattern for a fireball that would eternally continue to burn and combust. But what if you couldn’t stop that fire? The whole matter would eventually become quite troublesome. Having to fear a meltdown on Nutella isn’t very appealing. And as another example—though the idea comes from nonsensical science fiction—say you create a crystallization pattern for ice that continues to freeze even at high temperatures. It could freeze all of Nutella in a single night and drastically change the environment there. All Nutellan lifeforms would probably go extinct…”
Toneri explained these examples in a believable manner.
“You have approached one step closer to such dangers… maybe. My fears might be groundless, though.”
“I really hope that’s the case…”
“Well, I’ve already achieved an example of it myself, though. I don’t know about the Nutellans, but I believe this achievement rivals even the work of old man Chandra.”
“……You mean you’ve created a continuous spell!?”
“It’s my greatest work at present. Hard to say whether it’s my magnum opus or not, though.”
Huh, it isn’t?
Touya crossed his arms and tried to think of what it might be.
However, Homura was the one to realize the answer first.
“Are you talking about… Ame-chan…?”
Upon hearing that name, Toneri looked puzzled, so Homura clarified.
“Is it Ameno-chan—in other words, Fujimori Ameno?” asked Homura eagerly.
Toneri nodded with a smile.
The greatest piece of magic that the former mage had created—that was the thinking robot Ameno.
“—There’s something I want to show you before I sample your brain scans in the lab.”
After saying that, Toneri lead Homura and Touya out of his office.
As they walked through the hallway, Touya asked Toneri a question.
“Toneri-san, you were the one who made the Nutella-use communicator, right?”
“That thing Seiran requested to be made? That Misasagi princess was the one who actually made it. I leave the provision of all tools and components to Akado. I don’t have much involvement in that kind of thing.”
“Still, the work you do here is amazing.”
“Touya-kun, more importantly!”
Homura pushed aside Touya and looked at Toneri with an expectant expression.
“Umm, Toneri-san? The room where Ameno-chan was raised is in this building, right?”
“Si. That’s where I’m taking you now.”
“However, it’s no longer Ameno’s room,” said Toneri nonchalantly.
“Hmm? What do you mean? Is it because she moved to Fujimori-sensei’s apartment?”
“You’ll understand once we get there,” was the only thing Toneri said.
Behind another layer of security, they entered a room about the size of a 2LDK apartment7.
The interior design of the place resembled the model display room they’d seen on the lower floor. One side had a glass wall beyond which could be seen the living room. There seemed to be another room further with proper walls to ensure privacy.
However, the place only had minimal furniture and furnishings.
The illumination was low and dim, making the whole place seem deserted as if the occupants had just moved out.
Within the silence, only the smooth and unceasing tapping of keyboard typing could be heard.
Toneri called out to the shadowed figure that was sitting at a writing desk by the window.
“I thought you’d be here again today as well.”
Within Toneri’s rude speech tone, there was a trace of affection.
“You already noticed, right? At least properly face us. You should already be acquainted with these guys from Seiran, right?”
There was a girl sitting lightly on the chair in front of the desk.
The girl was Kanae Yuri, a first year Exploration Club member at Hiyoshizaka High.
Kanae slowly looked up from the laptop on the small writing desk.
“Why is Kanae-san here?”
Kanae’s eyes stared at Touya and Homura in turn from behind the glasses she wore.
“…Is there a reason I shouldn’t be here…?”
Expressing little interest in them, Kanae went back to typing on the laptop.
Homura’s eyes widened as she stared at her.
“Kanae-san’s a robot…!?”
The sound of typing suddenly stopped.
Kanae knit her brows slightly as she remained silently facing the laptop…
After a brief period of silence, Toneri suddenly burst out laughing.
Toneri bent over holding his stomach and put his hand against a wall to support him. Seeing him roaring in laughter made Homura realize that she’d made an embarrassing misunderstanding, and she quickly turned red in the face.
“…S-Sorry… I just thought…”
Homura hung her head, wanting a hole to hide herself in. Meanwhile, Touya nonchalantly spoke up.
“Robot thing aside, it’s bad for your eyes to work on a computer in such a dimly lit place.”
“…The factors that determine strength of eyesight are almost all genetic. And I don’t strain my eyes on the computer that much.”
Basically, Kanae was saying, “So mind your own business.”
Incidentally, Kanae didn’t wear glasses in public, but apparently did wear work-use ones when staring at a screen. Well, even without thinking hard about it, a robot that wore glasses was an unlikely scenario.
She hadn’t worn glasses on Nutella either. Her eyesight probably increased on Nutella like Touya. However, her mood didn’t seem to invite any detailed questions about it.
“I’m also often struck by the thought that Yuri is a being far removed from God’s creations.”
“Be quiet, Maestro.”
As Toneri held back further laughter with his shoulders shaking minutely, Kanae rebuked him in a bitter tone.
“Maestro? What’s that about?” asked Touya. He knew the rough meaning of the word
Maestro was the Italian word for “great master” or “expert” and was also used to denominate the “bosses” of European craftsmen guilds in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps having judged that she wouldn’t be able to continue working at this point, Kanae closed the laptop and put her hands on her lap with a sigh. She took off her glasses and placed them next to the laptop.
“This guy makes me call him that. That was the condition for letting me use this room.”
“Heh, then that makes you Toneri’s pupil—his mage apprentice, right? Like that Disney movie.” Touya was honestly impressed.
“It’s not as nice as you think. And the original story was by Goethe8, not Disney.”
Unexpectedly, Kanae wore a much more displeased expression at this than Homura’s earlier robot claim.
Touya tilted his head in confusion at this, while Homura peered at each of their expressions and measured the power dynamics between them. The boss who started it all merely grinned.
“Can I ask what you’re doing?” asked Homura.
“……I’m composing incantations,” murmured Kanae. “This facility has surplus computing and calculation resources during summer break…”
“I’m here working over the break, though. Try to show a bit more restraint. It’s irritating when the low-priority queue lists pile up in the mainframe. Geez, you said you wanted to just borrow some corner of the facility to work, but you ended up commandeering this entire bedroom.”
“You’re the one who said you didn’t mind as long as it was within the range of the Exploration Club’s activities, Maestro.”
Kanae smoothly rebutted the grumbling Toneri.
“Composing incantations? You mean you’re designing original incantations? That’s amazing.”
Touya was much more interested by the topic than Homura, who felt like she was being left behind.
Homura desperately tried to join the conversation.
“So you really can create spells with a computer… Ah… it’s like, you know, err…”
In a blind attempt to grab the others’ attention, Homura said something strange again.
“Like how you can’t tell the difference between well-boiled pounded fishcakes and kamaboko9—right?”
“Are you trying to pick a fight with people from Shizuoka Prefecture10?”
Touya sighed in exasperation, but then suddenly raised his head as he seemed to remember something.
“Could it be…Hey, Kanae? I heard this from some senior Nadahama members during the SA, but the currently used digital collaboration tool that was made by Exploration Club underwent a massive update this year, right? I heard that it works far better compared to last year. It’s gotten a lot of positive reviews.”
Kanae listened to Touya without showing much reaction.
“They say that a huge portion of it was due to an anonymous helper. Is that you?”
Kanae readily confirmed Touya’s guess.
“Touya-kun, you always talk too bluntly to everyone.”
“You’re always tactless like that, Touya-kun. Even though you’re always so polite with senpai.”
“Hey, you also call me ‘that guy’ or ‘glasses’ behind my back, don’t you?”
“That right there is the kind of rude tone I’m talking about. Geez~”
After looking at the miffed Homura from the corner of her eye, Kanae looked back down at her laptop and began to murmur.
“The collaboration tool has a semi-open development environment, so I modified the parts that caught my attention a bit. The goal was to make it an intuitive and user-friendly GUI11 that even someone like Hinooka-san could easily use, but it was ultimately a failure.”
“Aha. Sorry about that.”
Homura jokingly hung her head in apology.
Touya crossed his arms and spoke up.
“When I heard that Akado-san was a programmer, I first wondered whether it might be her, but I was wrong… I see, so it was done by Kanae, not Akado-san—but you hardly use that collaboration tool yourself, Kanae.”
“Isn’t that a bit odd?”
Kanae remained silent.
“Odd? How so? Isn’t being an anonymous programmer cool?” asked Homura
“All you have to say is ‘cool’…? The number of people who can access the Exploration Club’s internal community is extremely limited, and most current Exploration Club members who act as volunteer programmers would normally actively participate in order to make the programs easier to use themselves, right?”
Touya and Homura had only learned just earlier that Miss Akado was in a position where she was privy to classified information within the Exploration Club, though.
“Well, don’t chastise her so much, Touya,” interrupted Toneri. “That’s just a simple excuse. Most volunteer programmers just can’t stand tedious and redundant source code.”
“I know about how you’ve tinkered with a lot of programs with Akado, though,” Kanae pointed out. “Like that tool that processes record photos and creates topographic maps from them, Made-In-Akado.”
“I-I also use that program,” said Homura in surprise.
“In my opinion, that tool still has a lot of room for improvement, but that’s irrelevant. You were the one who helped Akado the most with that one back then, Yuri,” countered Toneri.
“Eh… Then, she’s been working as a programmer since middle school?”
“It’s not like I actually work here or anything… I started coming here back in my second year in middle school.”
“That kinda sounds like Misasagi-senpai. Though, it was Ranger training for her.”
Homura noticed how, upon hearing Misasagi-senpai’s name, Kanae’s expression suddenly turned gloomy, like any timid girl her age. However, that was immediately replaced by Kanae’s usual faintly irritated expression, and Homura’s attention soon turned elsewhere.
It was unclear whether or not Touya realized how provocative his questions were as he continued asking without abating. He definitely didn’t seem to realize it, though.
“You’re so talented at spell composition, yet you aren’t a mage, Kanae?”
“There’s no point in a registry-restricted class like that.”
“That’s quite a rebellious point of view.” Touya somehow seemed a bit happy as he spoke. “Well, it can’t be helped when you don’t have a place to put it into practice, I guess. So, about designing incantations—”
Before Touya could finish, though, Homura stepped forward and interrupted him. What Homura’s interest lay in wasn’t all this technical talk, but rather…
“S-So, you’ve known Ameno-chan here for a while? Since your second year in middle school?”
“…I suppose,” affirmed Kanae.
“Why are you acting so vexed?” asked Touya skeptically.
“Don’t worry, Hinooka,” assured Toneri. “Yuri’s object of attachment and devotion isn’t Ameno. Let’s end the small talk here and unveil the main attraction—right, Samari?”
“She’s been listening the whole time,” said Kanae.
Touya and Homura were plainly confused by the knowing words of the two Honba people.
They followed Toneri and Kanae’s gazes further into the room at the back of the living complex.
In the very center of the room, on a single isolated chair—someone—was sitting there.
Realizing that this person had been there during the entire course of their conversation, Homura suddenly felt the cold air from the air conditioner even more keenly.
“She’s Roto Samari,” explained Toneri. “She’s the second unit to be installed with spirit stone circuits from Nutella after Ameno—in other words, she’s Ameno’s little sister. I personally don’t like using that kind of familial relationship terminology to describe them, but that’s the simplest way of introducing her.”
“Samari… We have guests.”
While calling out to her quietly, Kanae walked into the dimly-lit room.
Meanwhile, Toneri manipulated a nearby electronic screen to increase the transparency rate of the windows and let in sunlight from outside.
The light revealed a young girl sitting on a chair composed of wisteria.
She looked much younger than Ameno, about seven or eight years old.
The white fingers of each of her hands were crossed together lightly on top of her lap. She wore a Gothic-style dress with practically no sign of being worn out.
She showed no reaction to either the increase in brightness in the room or the people gathered around her.
She truly looked like an exquisite and delicate doll.
Underneath her slightly closed eyelids, her red eyes, which shined like garnet, dimly looked at the floor of the room.
“……Is she sleeping…?”
“No. She can properly see and hear us.”
Kanae shook her head at Homura’s hushed question.
“Is she in a state like Ameno’s suspended mode…?”
“No. She’s alive and thinking.”
Kanae shook her head again at Touya’s question.
The robot Samari was a true marvel, tinged with faint warmth from her battery and constructed so accurately and elaborately that she could be mistaken for a human being.
Yet this lifelike being wasn’t moving or breathing, just sitting there completely still—
These conflicting impressions of life and death made it unsettling for Homura to watch her.
With a gulp, Homura walked closer to better look at the girl.
After Homura’s shadow came to block the light from the window hitting Samari’s cheek, Samari’s eyelids moved a little and her eyelashes twitched ever so slightly.
Just that slight stir that couldn’t even be called a gesture was enough to deeply impact Homura.
“Like I thought… Samari doesn’t really like it when it’s bright,” said Kanae.
“I don’t think that’s it, though. That’s just a normal reflex in response to change in light intensity.”
Toneri then went on to proudly introduce his creation, but while keeping a certain distance.
“Thought is definitely occurring within the deep parts of Samari’s consciousness. However, she hasn’t shown any outward reaction in words or gestures until now.
“This current body is Amari’s second stage body.
“We moved her spirit stone into it after we confirmed traces of thought process within her, but she hasn’t taken any spontaneous actions. Her development is quite slow compared to Ameno’s.”
Toneri stooped next to the chair and placed Samari’s hand on top of his palm, touching and lightly bending each of her fingers one by one.
Samari tilted her face slightly and looked at her palm.
That was all.
She just sat there, accepting everything that happened in the world around her.
If the wind around her changed, she simply let it brush against it. If snow fell, she simply let it fall on her.
Toneri’s face, which expressed straightforward emotions until now, became tinged with a complicated expression of sorrow.
“Ameno was luckily able to establish self-consciousness, but it’s not like the other researchers and I were certain that she would succeed. It was a huge gamble as a project. There was also ethical opposition to her growth process which mimicked that of humans. Even so, she was the first success in robot development using spirit stones, even on the international level.
“Ameno didn’t merely pave the way for the prospect of Nutellan probe units. She also greatly contributed as a test unit for home-use caregiving robots, one of Honba’s main businesses. She’s able to immediately understand oral orders and even proactively provides feedback about herself, after all. Thanks to the various pieces of software and hardware spin-offs gained through those tests with her, even this hobby-like research of mine receives a full budget.”
“Ameno-chan really is amazing…!”
“I’m sorry that we still can’t allow Ameno to accompany you all to Nutella.”
Homura and Touya were both shocked to hear such laudable words from Toneri.
Toneri turned back to face Samari.
“Samari’s current body is the second stage model. Naturally, this body is for Earth-use. The monetary development cost of a body that can adapt to doing activities on Nutella is at least one digit higher than for this one. But even leaving the expenses aside, with Samari still stuck in this state… In that sense, we can’t even make use of her as a test unit. She’s still an incomplete robot.”
Kanae seemed like she wanted to interrupt Toneri’s words, but she ultimately remained silent.
“Will Samari remain like this as long as there’s no change in her?” asked Touya.
“That’s how it is.”
Toneri and Kanae silently gazed at Samari. Homura felt sympathy for their worry in her own way.
“Then… as an example…” Homura searched through her memory for a good comparison. “If you rated the degree of perfection of Sapporo’s best salt ramen by one hundred… what would it currently be at…?”
Toneri spun around to face Homura with widened eyes.
“Ah, please don’t pay any mind to Hinooka’s space alien talk,” said Touya.
“But I’m asking seriously.”
“That might be true for you, but…”
Toneri was completely flabbergasted.
“You’re probably the first and last person to ever compare the fruits of my research to junk food. At least use pasta as a comparison instead.”
With slightly delayed timing, Kanae burst out laughing. Perhaps she was actually holding her laughter back quite a bit, since she turned her face away as it turned a bit red.
That was the first time Homura saw her smile.
Homura and the others left Samari’s room, while Kanae stayed behind.
The three of them went to drink their own beverages in the eating lounge, which was naturally empty during summer break.
“So… does Samari not respond even if you call her name?”
“That’s an excellent question.”
Touya asked Toneri that question, bringing back the earlier serious mood a bit.
“Ameno was a rare success, and we gained a lot from studying her achievement as well, so we tried a different approach with Samari. Her current unbalanced state is part of that process… or least, that’s my analysis of it.”
Toneri scowled as he took a sip from his machine dispenser coffee.
“Why won’t she respond to others—?
“It’s because Samari believes that she’s the only being with intelligence in this universe. That’s why she doesn’t respond to her name; in the first place, her name has no meaning to her.”
“And yet she watches and listens to the things that happen around her…?”
Homura tilted her head in confusion.
“That’s right. She believes that the world of information she’s collected and constructed in her mind is a dream she’s seeing. Perhaps a ‘lucid dream’ would be the best description. It’s a dream where anything and everything happens as you wish.”
“We’re a dream that Samari-chan is seeing!?”
Toneri leaned forward a little and responded to Homura with a serious expression.
“Hey, Hinooka’s going to take you seriously, you know?” said Touya with a wry smile.
“Hah. Yuri always gets angry when she hears me say such theories. She always rebukes, ‘Samari understands. She responds when we call out to her. We just don’t notice.’”
Homura understood how Kanae felt.
Until now, she hadn’t managed to get a good grasp on Kanae Yuri’s personality, but today she felt like she had managed to get a glimpse of the kind of person she was.
“We know that her logic circuits are working within her from scans of her spirit stone. However, it’s impossible to know or demonstrate whether or not she understands the outside world. There are still only a few robots using spirit stones in existence. It’s possible that Ameno’s case is actually unique.
“It’s also possible… though this is just a wish born of my own ego… that, like Yuri said, Samari is the manifestation of a new form of intelligence that we don’t know about.”
After Toneri quietly stopped talking there, Touya changed the topic slightly and asked a question.
“What’s the meaning behind the name ‘Samari’? Her full name is… Roto Samari, right?”
“I’m not the one who named her. I let Yuri do that. And the one who named Ameno was Chia. Apparently I’m bad at choosing names.”
“Really? Then what does Samari’s name mean?”
“At first I thought it might be from the word ‘summary’ in computer terminology, but the spelling doesn’t match—the pronunciation comes out as ‘Lot Samari’. It’s probably an anagram of some famous name. Yuri does have her childish side at times. Well, it’s fine to leave that kind of thing as a mystery.”
“…By the sound of it, you don’t know the origin of the name ‘Ameno’ that Fujimori-sensei chose either?”
“I don’t bother listening to trivial things,” said Toneri with a nonchalant nod.
Homura really couldn’t understand this person’s fussy standards.
“I let Yuri spend time around Samari in the hope that it might serve as stimulus to get her to take action. Chia-chan did the same thing in the past.”
“Mori-chan…? What are you referring to?” asked Homura with sudden interest.
“Want to see? It’s fun to watch.”
Hey! It’s not fun to watch!12
“I’d love to see it!”
“All right, leave it to me,” said Toneri. He manipulated the tablet in his hand and called up the video library list on the screen within the lounge.
Touya nervously backed away a bit.
“Isn’t that… an invasion of privacy…?”
Exactly… But you’re going to watch it anyway, aren’t you?
“It’s this file. It’s from about two years ago.”
Toneri searched through the library files and came to a particular recorded video.
Naturally paying no attention to Touya’s timid attempt to restrain them, Toneri and Homura took up position in front of the screen.
“She wasn’t as completely doll-like as Samari, but Ameno also went through a similar phase—”
Toneri began to explain the video like some documentary narrator.
Speaking of the documentary’s leading role Ameno, Homura had just gotten a message from her saying that her morning tasks with Fujimori had been prolonged and that it didn’t look like she’d be able to come to the Honba Lab today. But that might have been convenient for both parties in this case.
A fixed camera view showed the room that Homura and the others had visited just earlier.
Naturally, the occupant of the room wasn’t Samari.
An unfamiliar young girl was sitting with her legs folded and spread out to either side on the carpet in the center of the room.
“Oooh… A little Ame-chan…”
Homura brought her chair even closer to the screen.
In the video, Ameno had a young appearance like Samari.
Except for the spirit stone housed inside, she had a completely different body than the current Ameno. However, the design of this younger body shared facial traits with her current completed form, as a model of standard human-like growth.
“This is Ameno in her second-stage body.”
“She looks so cute,” Homura squeed.
Ameno wore a simple A-line, one-piece dress. She had her hands placed on the ground in front of her and seemed to be intently staring at something on the carpet. Her expression was stiff without any trace of a smile.
“Cute… huh…” said Toneri.
Homura became unsettled by the vague feeling that some hole had opened up in her heart as she watched the young Ameno. However, she couldn’t remember… just what was supposed to fill that empty space.
“Toneri-san, you’re the one who arranged it so that Ameno-chan would gradually grow up like a human, right? I’ve revised my opinion of you a little.”
“…I don’t know what you’re misunderstanding, but due to that, I ended up being criticized by everyone as being repulsive and perverted and having a doll fetishist personality disorder. But the growth process is the most important part for a Nutellan probe unit. And you should wait a little longer before making any final judgements about me,” said Toneri as he turned back to face the screen.
“Those objects in front of her… are games?” asked Touya.
Just as Touya guessed, Ameno was staring at handheld game consoles on the floor in front of her.
Various game consoles were scattered on the floor around her.
But Homura soon noticed that this scene, which looked like the stereotypical room of a child surrounded by various toys, was slightly different from her initial impression.
Because all the game consoles were displaying different games on their screens.
Toneri raised the video’s volume, and a chaotic orchestra of typical electronic sounds, lively BGM and even blows and shouts from fighting games filled the room from the speakers.
It was obvious that all the games, even the consoles that were placed upside down, were being operated at the same time.
But the young Ameno wasn’t touching any one of them.
“I’ve seen Ame-chan remote control various devices like game consoles and cameras occasionally, but… is this… the same thing…?”
Toneri silently nodded at Homura’s timid question.
That’s right—in other words, the young Ameno was playing over fifteen handheld games all at the same time in the video.
“Did she get cross-wired with the standard wireless connection of the game consoles…?” asked Touya.
Touya intuitively sensed that his question was off the mark, but his mind still couldn’t grasp what was happening in the video.
“Ameno can fiddle with electronics around her according to the number of channels her body possesses at the time. She can also receive various videos through wireless signals. If I remember right, she managed to view and manipulate twenty-four circuits at the same time in this video. It is only game consoles which haven’t been remodelled to have a wireless connection that she has to directly view with her own eyes.”
“They say a master shogi player can face multiple opponents at the same time… So this was that kind of test?”
“Exactly. The results were truly spectacular.”
Despite those words of self-praise for his work, Toneri wore a long expression.
“I wanted to test Ameno’s abilities to the limit. Not with ordinary methods under physical restrictions, but with other methods—Ameno’s existence was a classified secret, of course, but I made arrangements to have Ameno anonymously participate on net game forums. Theoretically, the light absorption module of her spirit stone can easily handle a thousand circuits at once with room to spare. That’s true even now, but—”
—What are you doing!?
A loud and angry voice suddenly interrupted the silence of the room within the video.
Homura and Touya jumped from their chairs in surprise.
Toneri frowned and lowered the sound volume.
The person who now entered the video from outside of camera view was Fujimori.
Fujimori practically dived down to sit on her knees right in front of Ameno and grabbed the young robot’s face with her hands, forcing Ameno to face her.
Ameno showed little reaction as she looked at Fujimori with her vacant green eyes.
Even so, Fujimori called out to her several times.
Toneri absentmindedly watched the two of them interact in the video.
“…Chia was seriously angry back then. She was pretty terrifying.”
“She’s usually scary even now, though…”
After saying that, Homura suddenly made a gesture and began to mimic her.
“‘E-Enough with the blip-bloping video games! What about your homework?’ Something like that?”
“Is she a mother in your mind or something…?”
Touya’s shoulders slumped at Homura’s arbitrary impression of Fujimori, but then he asked a question.
“Was Ameno already able to talk at this point?”
“Just the minimum necessary to communicate. There were practically no cases of her starting a conversation on her own back then. Perhaps it would have been better to show you the emotional scene where she became truly able to communicate… but for some reason, I prefer this one.”
Back in the video, Fujimori seemed to have finally lost her temper at Ameno’s continued lack of response.
Fujimori stood up and starting picking up game consoles, taking out the batteries one by one. She seemed ready to smash them at any moment.
It was then that Ameno lifted her head for the first time and stared at Fujimori in shock.
Upon understanding what was happening, Ameno quickly snatched away the game console in Fujimori’s hands.
But Fujimori stole it back with even greater force.
Ameno, now displaying intense anger like a menacing cat, bit Fujimori’s leg.
Fujimori turned expressionless and looked down at Ameno for an instant, and then she casually grabbed Ameno by the scruff of her neck and pulled her off while cautiously observing her.
Fujimori then returned to taking out the batteries, now with an amused expression. In response, Ameno bit her arm this time.
Homura trembled at the sight of this fighting scene, but she couldn’t look away from it.
Leaving Fujimori aside, for that kind and friendly Ameno to act like this…
Touya also frowned while watching Ameno’s behavior.
“Uwah… Umm, I have a question for the robot developer here… What about the Three Laws of Robotics…?”
“I didn’t install those unnatural rules in her from the start,” said Toneri.
In the video, Fujimori and Ameno grabbed the last remaining game console at the same time and began to pull at it from each side in a game of tug of war.
As each of them pushed at each other’s faces with their free hands, Ameno clung to the console using her whole weight, but Fujimori forcibly tore her off by swinging around, causing Ameno to be thrown back and fall on her backside, and then Fujimori even delivered a finished blow by kicking her and making her roll backwards over the floor.
Ameno quickly vanished from the screen as she rolled backwards all the way to the edge of the room.
“What should we do…? S-Shouldn’t we stop them…?”
“Yeah, that’s impossible.”
It happened two years ago, after all.
“Mori-chan is completely merciless… Ah, that looks like it really hurts…”
“Got that right. I still can’t believe she kicked around a robot that cost more than a Mark-10 tank with no reservation like that.”
“Haah. A tank?”
At that point, part of Toneri’s body entered the video from the edge of the screen.
He was sitting stopped forward on a chair with scraggly stubble on his chin and was dispassionately watching the events within the room.
He even took out a light from his lab coat pocket and began to smoke a cigarette. It was as if he was watching soccer on TV from his living room sofa.
After a while, Fujimori walked over to Toneri and gave him hell as she took away his cigarette. Naturally, smoking was forbidden within the laboratory.
Meanwhile, Ameno seemed to have realized that she couldn’t match Fujimori in brute strength and was cowering with her face covered in a corner of the room.
Homura’s heart felt pained as she watched that pitiful figure.
“Yeah, Ameno’s reaction was truly realistic,” said Toneri, impressed. “When all trial and error is rendered useless, people retreat back to their animalistic self-defence instincts.”
Eventually, perhaps having heard the commotion finally, other researchers entered the room one after another.
Toneri had apparently purposefully not called anyone back during the incident back then.
“Akado wasn’t yet here at the time.”
The video recording seemed to continue further, but Toneri stopped there.
“—Well, there you have it. Awesome, right?”
The two high schoolers had received quite a shock, feeling as if they had someone else’s internal family affairs exposed to them.
“I had an idea with this incident. After it happened, I checked Ameno’s telemetry results, and it turned out that all voluntary wireless functions stopped from Ameno after that. She didn’t touch any games for a while afterwards either…”
“…What about Fujimori-sensei? Why did she take away Ameno’s games like that?” asked Homura.
“You don’t understand why?”
“These days, Ame-chan plays with games all the time. She really seems to like them.”
“Right. I didn’t understand at the time either—” said Toneri with a nod. “Back then, Ameno didn’t have any games she liked. She was fine with whatever was given to her. Chia was the one who obtained Ameno’s spirit stone, but she was forbidden from entering the lab for a while.”
It shouldn’t have happened all that long ago, but due to how quickly Ameno had grown and matured, Toneri’s reminiscent talk sounded as if he were talking about something from years ago.
“In human terms, Ameno was stuck in an apathetic state, similar to how Samari is now. After that incident, I decided to give her back a single game console, one without a wireless connection function and that required her to use direct sight and hearing to play. I limited her to using physical buttons and gestures and voice commands.”
In other words, he had given her a range of freedom limited to what a normal human could do.
“So that kind of thing happened… It sounds just like regular parenting.”
“I’ve often thought to myself that it shouldn’t have been like this. Ah, just to warn you, if you leak out details about this video, Honba will be crushed and go bankrupt. Keep this to yourselves.”
“…Y-Yes. We’ll be careful.”
“Anyway, a few months after that, Ameno’s comprehensive faculties and empathy dramatically advanced and matured. She might have merely been mimicking self-awareness before then. The prospect of having her undergo a major body change finally looked promising at that point.”
“Did this huge scuffle serve as a trigger for her mental growth?” asked Touya.
“Who knows? It pains me to admit it, but I don’t know either. However, when Ameno had mentally stabilized, I had her moved outside of her room. Secretly, that is.”
“Ah… Are you referring to Fujimori-sensei’s…?”
“Get it? That was when I decided to have Ameno do a ‘home stay’ at Chia’s home. It was probably a bother for Chia since it was a busy time for her, but there were no other candidates.”
“So that’s the reason for the name Fujimori Ameno.”
Homura decided to take a walk outside the development lab in the evening—
The hot weather had already passed, and the chirping of bugs could be heard everywhere.
The sky was dyed a beautiful collage of red and orange in the sunset. The weather had really been nice today, so much that Homura regretted having spent most of it indoors.
Homura’s attention was caught by a single scooter that was parked in the otherwise empty parking lot and the person who was sitting on the embankment next to it.
The atmosphere that person gave off was different from that of a company employee, so when Homura looked closer to see who it was, she realized it was a familiar face.
The person seemed to be reading from a palm-sized tablet in his hand, but he occasionally looked up and blankly gazed at the sky. He somehow seemed like an entirely different person from usual, so Homura hesitated to casually call out to him.
She unconsciously came to a stop in the orange-dyed parking lot, gazing at him.
Eventually, he noticed her presence.
“If it isn’t Hinooka-san.”
Hayashi, a second year at Hiyoshizaka High, waved his hand and called out her name.
Homura walked around the scooter and approached him.
“—Are you playing a game, Hayashi-senpai?”
“Something like that.”
“What kind of game?” Homura reflexively asked a question she normally wouldn’t, and she quickly realized how rude it was. “…Sorry, it’s just that I’ve talked a lot about games today.”
Before an awkward pause could be born between them, Hayashi chuckled and answered the question.
“I’ve been trying my hand at sketching13.”
Those words cause Homura to stiffen.
Staying silent here was the correct move, but Homura accidentally revealed her true thoughts through her expression, thereby falling for Hayashi’s trap.
“Would you understand better if I called it drawing?”
“Basically, I make strong strokes and splatter the youthful color of ivory white, and then—”
“Yes, yes, you’re sketching. Sketching!”
Realizing she’d been had, Homura purposefully repeated herself to end that line of conversation.
Forestalled from saying any further, Hayashi-senpai merely grinned.
Homura had unintentionally let her guard down. She’d forgotten that this boy rivaled young Akiho in never overlooking these kinds of opportunity. Homura keenly felt Koma-senpai’s hardships.
Still, this was her first time facing Hayashi alone like this—
However, she strangely didn’t feel uneasy talking with him, perhaps because his behavior seemed so relaxed and natural. He was quite different from Touya, who was usually concerned with the time and place for everything.
However, where had that different Hayashi she’d glimpsed just now gone to?
“Heh… Sorry if this sounds rude, but I’m a bit surprised to hear that you draw pictures.”
“My, I’m quite mortified to hear you have such an impression of me.”
Hayashi turned around the tablet to show it to her, and the screen displayed a watercolor painting app. The summer sky was drawn in pale tones on the small canvas.
Hayashi immediately tried to take the tablet away and hide it behind his back, but Homura grabbed the edge of the tablet as payback for making her technically say a vulgar word and took her time looking at the screen.
Still, this sketch really did seem to make her mood lighten slightly as she looked at it—
…Hmph… So he draws pictures like this…
It was very, very gentle-looking picture.
Hayashi asked Homura a question.
“You came here today with Touya on Exploration Club business, right?”
“Ah, yes. So you knew about it.” Homura nodded. “What about you, Hayashi-senpai?”
“I’m here to pick up Yuri.”
“…Then, is that your scooter over there?”
The electric scooter casting a thin shadow on the parking lot was a slightly large two-seater model.
Homura could understand if it belonged to Hayashi, who she’d often seen accompanying Kanae like her boyfriend. However, Homura’s guess was off.
“No, that’s Yuri’s scooter. She just got her license for it. She seems to be having a lot of fun driving it around everywhere.”
“It’s Kanae-san’s?” Homura was surprised and even felt a little thrilled by that unexpected answer. “…Yeah, I have heard that there are people who had their motorcycle license in the same grade as me. Kanae-san is an amazingly active person.”
“‘Despite how she looks’, you mean to say, right?” joked Hayashi.
Homura glared at Hayashi with a pout.
“And despite how you look, senpai, you draw pictures… Hey, could I look at the sketch one more time?”
“Sorry. I deleted it.”
“Eh…?” Homura couldn’t believe he had so easily deleted that sketch which had moved her. “What a waste. Do you not keep any of your other sketches either?”
“I just do it to pass the time. Don’t you think it’s odd to keep something made so casually?”
“Hmm… Is that so? I still think it’s a waste, though. It was such a great sketch. Do you like landscape drawing?”
“Well, a bit, I suppose.”
Hayashi nodded in a slightly bashful manner.
“Then you must be able to draw as much as you like on Nutella with all the places with superb views there.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Still, Kanae-san is so slow. I’ll go call her.”
“Ah, please don’t, please. Also, it can’t be helped since you happened to see me here, but please don’t tell anyone else from the Exploration Club about my sketches.”
Homura found it curious that Hayashi was keeping his hobby a secret. He had smoothly begged her not to spread it around, but she could tell that those were his true feelings, so she obediently agreed to his request.
Homura slowly nodded and then turned to look up at the sunset sky.
“I see… so sketching is also another means. Real photos aren’t the only method to convey Nutella to others.”
“You might be right.”
Homura felt like her impression of Hayashi being transparent and hard to grasp had changed a little.
In the end, her true objective in coming here today, providing a scanned sample of her brain wave, had been completed pretty quickly. Based on Chief Toneri’s bored face, it appeared he hadn’t gotten the results he’d wanted from it, though.
During the scanning, Touya hadn’t had anything to do, so he’d apparently gone to talk with Akado about Nutellan magic in the cafeteria lounge. However, Toneri, who should have been analyzing the data from the scans, had gone to join them and then even Kanae Yuri was pulled in to join them as she was passing them, resulting in a long and technical conversation between the four of them.
Homura had been pretty much an outsider there, so she’d left.
The reason Hayashi was killing time outside in a place like this instead of waiting inside the air-conditioned lab was likely because that technical conversation was an everyday occurrence he was painfully experienced with.
While faintly hoping that Hayashi would start another sketch, Homura inadvertently looked up at the sunset sky again.
“It’s faded to the point where it’s nearly gone now, huh?”
Homura and Hayashi both looked up at the west corner of the sky, where the clouds had broken away and bright stars had begun to appear. The sky there was a deep blue that was on the verge of entering the domain of night.
“You know, that red and wavering—” Homura kept looking across the sky for it.
“Ah, that? It’s already set out of sight in this season,” said Hayashi, pointed below the horizon.
“Eh, really? Huh?”
“The only times you can see it… is basically in spring. Though I don’t know whether that will still hold true next year.”
Hayashi-senpai really does observe the sky a lot, thought Homura, impressed, but she was also struck by a depressing thought. I might just be spacing out when I look up at the sky…
Homura had brought up the subject because she’d gotten the impression that she’d seen it in the western sky after the end of spring.
It was a small, faint red blotch that you’d easily miss if you didn’t look for it carefully. It looked like a flower adorning the sky as a meager offering, or perhaps a drop of spilled blood.
Homura had been looking for it in the sky just now because she knew that unique accent in the night sky would disappear in the near future.
“It used to be part of a constellation, you know?” Homura told Hayashi in a slightly proud tone.
“I know,” muttered Hayashi. “It’s written in our textbooks, remember?”
“Hinooka-san, what were you doing at the time of its death14?”
“The truth is… I don’t really remember.”
“I was right here at the time.”
“Heh. Then you got to see it clearly?”
“Hmm… No, I had just gone to the toilet when it happened. I noticed it was suddenly really bright outside the window, and there was a big commotion around the lab. I couldn’t even manage to go outside to see it. I was really confused and flustered at the time.”
Homura giggled as Hayashi exposed yet another very embarrassing memory of his. The way he re-enacted his confusion was so real and funny that tears came out as she laughed.
“Haha… So you’ve been with Kanae-san since that long ago.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Actually, we’re more like childhood friends with a rotten yet inseparable relationship, I guess? Something along those lines.”
Hayashi frankly described his relationship with Kanae. But deep down, he probably treasured his long relationship with Kanae a lot. Perhaps it was because he was so close to her that it clouded his view of her. People only truly noticed the things important to them after they disappeared.
“That girl is smart and has amazing concentration, but she’s completely no good when it comes to her everyday life. If left alone, she’d wear the same clothes and eat the same things all the time. Someone’s got to look after her.” After babbling all that, Hayashi suddenly realized what he’d been doing and looked up at the sky. “Sorry, I was being gross just now.”
Homura earnestly shook her head.
“No, not at all. I’m honestly jealous of Kanae-san, for having such a funny and reliable guy as a big brother figure.”
“Hah? I’m not like that all…” Hayashi scowled, but then turned to look at her with a serious expression. “…I see, is that how it is, Hinooka-san? You don’t need to hold back because of Yuri, you can just go ahead and go on the offensive with me, you know?”
“There’s no way I could do something so scary.”
“What do you mean, scary? Then how about you and Touya-kun, Hinooka-san?”
That was a disadvantageous return pass for Homura. But Homura had foreseen that as well.
“You’re really easygoing, Hayashi-senpai.”
…No. It was more like he always acted disconnected from everything, as if he had entrusted all his feelings to someone else.
It was a very carefree, slightly sad and harmless way of living that Homura also knew very well.
It was a memory she had intended to leave hidden at the bottom of her heart, but then she suddenly wanted to see what face he would make if she mentioned it, so despite thinking herself an idiot for doing so, she brought it up.
“Umm… I’m sorry. I heard you guys at night during the SA. Err, I didn’t do it out of malice, it was just a coincidence… No, I guess I was a bit curious…”
“During the SA?”
Hayashi wore an unreadable smile.
“What did you mean by… ‘instructions’…?” Homura timidly asked.
“Ah. You heard that?”
Hayashi shrugged without looking fazed at all. And then—
He pointed behind her, and Homura noticed that there were figures approaching them from that direction.
It was pretty dark and hard to see at this point, but Hayashi had apparently recognized them right away.
Akado walked over to them along with Touya and Kanae.
Just when she was thinking they should temporarily halt the topic they were talking about… Hayashi actually blithely explained their entire conversation to Kanae.
As Homura fearfully listened from the side, Kanae turned to stare hard at her, and then dispassionately spoke with no signs of condemning her or feeling shy about the topic.
“…It’s nothing that I’m going out of my way to hide or anything. Did you hear about it from the club president?”
“Club president…? You mean Hiyoshizaka’s Koma-senpai… or Misasagi-senpai from our club?”
“From club president Misasagi. President Kamikoma also knows about it, though. But it’s nothing like actual orders or anything… Ah, what a pain…”
Kanae sighed and then, without further ado, revealed the heart of the matter.
“Tenryuu is my older brother. So that’s how it is.”
Homura and Touya were taken aback by this sudden confession.
What do you mean, ‘so that’s how it is’? That’s a huge leap there. Hayashi merely shrugged slightly.
And as Homura and Touya continued to stare at her, Kanae expressionlessly stared, as if to say, ‘Still not enough for you?’, and continued speaking.
“Misasagi Mayo is Tenryuu Kazuma’s betrothed.”
“Be…tro…thed?” asked Touya, dumbfounded
It felt as if they had been told one very important revelation after another.
However, Homura still had yet to understand—
“B-Betrothed… What’s that? Is it some kind of food… or not, I guess…?”
Touya was unable to react to Homura’s lame joke, completely flabbergasted and open-mouthed as he was.
“Hinooka-san… you’ve never heard of the word ‘betrothed’? I guess that’s not unusual, though,” remarked Akado.
It appeared that Akado was also aware of the circumstances in question, and she explained the meaning of the word without missing a beat.
“A betrothed is someone a person’s parents have promised to marry them to in the future. Basically, it means being engaged. A fiancée.”
Homura finally managed to grasp the conversation.
“So,” Homura slowly said as Kanae’s words dawned on her. “…Tenryuu-senpai and Misasagi-senpai are fiancées?”
“Yes. Misasagi Mayo will eventually become my sister-in-law.”
After saying just that, Kanae took out a pair of helmets from her scooter and tossed one to Hayashi. As Hayashi looked at the rest of them with a slightly apologetic expression, Kanae made him straddle the back seat behind her and then took off from the parking lot without glancing back at Homura and the others.
“……She left, huh.”
Only the satisfied-looking Akado and Homura and Touya were left behind in the darkening parking lot as the scooter disappeared into the distance.
“Hey… Touya-kun? Are you alive? Are you breathing?”
Homura shook the young man’s shoulders.
Touya’s face had turned pale.
Homura had something she wanted to consult him about, but it appeared she would have to postpone that for a while.
Back in the lab, after the analysis of the brain scans were finished.
Seeming to have obtained no promising results, Toneri indifferently responded with no sign of surprise or disappointment in his tone when they came back inside.
However, he called Homura to a stop before leaving and asked her a question out of the blue.
“Do you have any recollection of the name Sanduleak15?”
Sanduleak. What language was it from?
Toneri had said it was a ‘name’. So then, a person’s name?
Either way, it was definitely the first time Homura had ever heard it.
Toneri didn’t give any further hints, so Homura just shook her head to indicate she had no clue what it was.
“I see. Then forget about it.” Toneri simply dropped the subject there and said no further.
To be continued.
Chapter 11 END
(1) Shitsuke: a Japanese dish consisting mainly of fish boiled in soy sauce.
(2) O-Bon: a traditional summer festival in Japan based in Buddhist tradition that honors the spirits of one’s ancestors, though it’s much more casual and festive in modern times.
(3) Akita-type beauty: a phrase that refers to the common view about how Japanese women from Akita Prefecture and coast regions in general look beautiful due to their distinctive white skin.
(4) Buon Giorno! Signore! (Italian) = Good morning, mister!
(5) Obviously, refers to the many attractive women that appear in James Bond movies.
(6) Babirusa: a genus of pig. Also known as “deer-pig”.
(7) 2LDK apartment: refers to apartment with 2 bedrooms and an additional area with a Living room, Dining room and Kitchen.
(8) Reference to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, a ballad written by Goethe, but which is more famous these days for its movie adaptation by Disney.
(9) Kamaboko: steamed seasoned fish paste.
(10) Shizuoka Prefecture is famous for its seafood.
(11) GUI: Graphical user interface, a type of user interface that allows users to interact with electronic devices through graphical icons and visual indicators such as secondary notation.
(12) To be clear, this line isn’t Homura’s thoughts, but rather directly from the narrator of the story.
(13) The word for “sketching” in Japanese can also mean “ejaculation”, which Hayashi does on purpose to get a reaction out of Homura. ;P
(14) For those who haven’t guessed based on all the hints, Hayashi and Homura are talking about a supernova where a star ‘dies’ in a huge explosion, which, when bright enough, can be seen with the naked in the sky from Earth, sometimes even during the day, for a time until it gradually fades away.
(15) Not 100% sure whether it is referring to this or not, but Sanduleak -69° 202 is a star that went supernova. The light of that supernova first became visible in Earth’s sky in 1987.