The next day, the Summer Assembly on Iriomote Island finally began.
It began with the most important subject matter right from the start, with the first program on the itinerary being the presentation of the latest investigation results from each school and the introduction of new club members.
The auditorium where the presentations were being held was a typical fan-shaped hall with a podium facing rows of audience seats on a sloped floor. Over one hundred Exploration Club members and officials from every school in the country were gathered on the oblong bench seats, clamoring and jostling amongst each other animatedly.
If it weren’t for the sight of the sea and trees basking in the sun on the other side of the windows, one wouldn’t believe that this was a facility located within the jungle of a nature conservation site.
It was almost time for the presentations to begin.
Homura was wearing her school uniform and sitting on a hard and stiff seat while filled with a kind of nervousness she’d never experienced before. She frequently readjusted the cord of the ID card hanging from her neck.
Yesterday at the lodging facilities, a commotion had stirred up every time people went to greet each arriving group of Exploration Club members from all over the country, so things had remained bustling and lively until quite late at night… Though of course, it hadn’t been so bad that Homura hadn’t gotten any sleep at all last night.
However, Homura had found it a shame that she hadn’t managed to find the time to leisurely talk all through the night with the familiar faces she had run into within the lodging facilities, since they had all seemed busy with preparatory meetings for their schools.
Today for sure this time, thought Homura, excited for reasons completely different from the main purpose of the SA.
Also, for the last little while, Homura had found her attention grabbed by the girl sitting next to her, who had her face planted on the desk in front of her. Her long black hair was spread out in waves on the desk and covered her face, making her eerily resemble a sea monster.
Homura was sitting in a row slightly towards the back of the audience. All the Seiran High members were grouped together towards the end of the row with Fujimori-sensei and Misasagi-senpai sitting at the corner seats.
Homura was seated at the other end of their group, and arranged next to her was the familiar group from Hiyoshizaka High.
The girl right next to her was also a Hiyoshizaka High club member.
Her ID card was hidden by her body, but the name plate in front of her seat read “Hiyoshizaka High First Year, Kanae Yuri”.
She looked to have completely fallen sleep, based on her faint breathing. She’d even folded her glasses and placed them next to her name plate beforehand.
Right, her name is Kanae-san… I haven’t properly talked to her once yet…
After the previous rescue mission, Homura had been introduced to all the Hiyoshizaka club members by the club president Kamikoma when they visited the school.
At that time, Kanae had simply stated her name and cut off any further conversation.
Homura had felt like she was being mostly ignored by her, and that impression still persisted even now. Though it was also partially Homura’s own fault for not proactively trying to talk with her…
Homura recalled seeing Kanae uninterestedly respond to Ameno’s unhesitant attempts to talk to her, while Homura herself and Touya had been dealing with the more rowdy club members like Saho.
Kanae was a new club member and female first year student just like Homura. And she even attended Hiyoshizaka High, the nearest school to Seiran High.
Therefore, Homura had reasonable justification to forge interpersonal relations with her in order to smoothly conduct club activities hereafter, but—
More than that or anything else, Homura’s primary motivation was her curiosity over just what kind of girl Kanae was, sparked by the mysterious atmosphere she gave off.
This Summer Assembly would surely serve as a chance to get closer to her.
Even if it only lead to embarrassment and fruitless effort. If she could become close to her like how she did with Kujou Orie, and if she could view her small step forward from the person she was yesterday as a good thing…
As she thought of such things and stared at the girl next to her while imagining her hidden sleeping face, her eyes happened to meet those of a male student two seats away from her.
It was another student from Hiyoshizaka, a second-year senpai named “Hayase”.
Beside him, Saho, who had recovered from his earlier motion sickness, was off in his own world, having been fiddling enthusiastically with his terminal since this morning.
Hayase winked at Homura and made a quiet shushing sound with a finger placed on his lips.
Taking that signal to mean “let Kanae sleep”, Homura nodded back silently, but she soon learned that her conclusions had been too hasty.
…Eh? Wait, what?
Hayase picked up the recyclable drinking cup in front of him, and just when Homura thought he was going to drink the coffee within it, he heartily held it aloft and then threw it straight in her direction.
A crushing hit! The cup bounced off Kanae Yuri’s head, the sound of impact ringing throughout the hall. The low murmurs throughout the hall instantly turned silent at that instant.
Sluggishly lifting up her head, Kanae turned to glare through her bangs at the shocked and frozen Homura, as if she were looking at her parents’ killer.
“Eh? No, you got it wrong…!”
Homura frantically shook her head.
Deep shadows appeared beneath Kanae’s glaring eyes, her anger clearly increasing exponentially.
When Homura turned to look at the culprit Hayase, he was casually facing forward with his chin on his hand as if nothing had happened.
Guh, so cruel… He’s passing the blame to me…!
Homura wasn’t given the time to defend herself.
Cruelly enough, the meeting began at that moment, as the huge screen at the front of the room lit up with the UNPIEP Japanese Branch logo and several students walked up on the stage.
Kanae cut off her glare from Homura and turned towards the stage like everyone else. With nothing else she could do, Homura also turned her attention towards the stage.
All the club members throughout the hall began whispering to each other at the sight of the slender youth at the forefront of the group on stage.
“So that’s the Wizard…”
He was wearing the same school uniform as Tenryuu Kazuma from the plane.
Among the Seiran High seats, Touya leaned forward, his focus completely locked on the young man on stage.
“—Good morning to you all.”
The male student’s greeting resounded from his tiepin mike through the speakers throughout the hall.
Everyone present in the hall responded and greeted him back, their synchronized voices resounding so deafeningly through the hall that it startled Homura. It was completely different from the usual sleepy greetings during morning assembly at school.
Due to her surprise, Homura was several seconds behind everyone else in calling out “Good morning”. She wanted to hide her face in embarrassment at that moment.
“Now then, as scheduled, I’d like to open the **th Summer Assembly for the year 20**.”
There was a short yet strong applause for the opening of the assembly.
Yet Oozore’s low and deep voice managed to make itself heard even above the applause. He gave off a stiff image, but his tone was composed and completely devoid of tension.
Homura’s first impression of him was of a “general”.
Homura recalled seeing him stand beside Tenryuu Kazuma during a news program and acting like a silent shadow to the brighter boy as Kazuma answered questions from the interviewer.
“—I am Oozore Misaki, a third year and the Exploration Club vice-president at Osaka Prefectural School Nagumo High. I’ll be serving as the moderator for this year’s SA.”
Oozore turned his gaze towards the female student standing beside him.
“I’ll be serving as the moderating assistant. I’m N-Nagashino Fuyu, a first year at Nagumo High. I look forward to working with you all.”
Her voice was a bit shrill and nervous, the complete opposite of Oozore’s.
Even when offered applause, she maintained her serious expression from beginning to end, lacking enough composure to smile.
The small-statured Nagashino was tightly gripping a computer tablet in her hands, clearly nervous to everyone who saw her.
But that was only natural in her position. Following her self-introduction, Nagashino turned to bow in greeting in the direction of the VIP seats within the hall, and then began stiffly introducing the various important guests present today, including administrative bureau directors from all sections of government, foreign officials sent from UN headquarters, and the chief of this exhibition facility.
D-Do your best…
Not paying any attention to the names of the various VIPS being introduced, Homura simply felt herself worrying frantically for Nagashino in sympathy as a fellow first year girl.
Once the introductions ended, the main mic was handed back to Oozore.
“We will now give summaries of the investigation results from Nutella this year. To remind everyone, everything announced here is material that has been recorded in pictures and stored in the library here. We will also conduct simultaneous translation for the VIPs here. Therefore, the presenters should try to explain and articulate their results as clearly as possible.”
“It’s fine if they just say the minimum necessary, you know?”
The source of that comment spoken outside the microphone was Tenryuu.
He was sitting on a chair placed in front of the foremost audience seats near the stage with his legs crossed.
“We’re going to hand out documents with the same content written on them anyway, right? Besides, the higher-ups only pay attention to the numbers and graphs. In that case, I’d rather they wrack their brains and come up with something interesting so that we don’t end up dozing off down here.”
“…We welcome questions and comments during the allotted time, but please raise your hands first before speaking. Whispering and interruptions from the audience is frowned upon, understood?”
The last of Oozore’s words were a rebuke aimed at Tenryuu.
Homura couldn’t help giggling along with the rest of the audience.
It was easy to guess why the vice-president Oozore was put in charge of the assembly instead of the Exploration Club representative who was supposed to be the role model for all investigators.
However, when Homura glanced at Kanae, the girl didn’t bother to smile at the funny exchange and was simply leaning languidly against her chair and gazing at the screen up front with a downcast look.
On stage, Nagashino took over from Oozore, obviously still tense but seemingly more relaxed than before. She manipulated the tablet in her hand, causing a bird’s-eye-view map of Japan to appear on the screen above. The map was dotted with the names of the schools of each participating Exploration Club throughout the country.
“There are no schools absent due to being occupied on Nutella for this year’s SA. All thirteen school clubs from across Japan are present and accounted for. The number of currently active Japanese Nutellan investigators by school year is: thirty-five third years, thirty-two second years, and twenty-nine first years, for a total of ninety-six members. Before we begin each school’s presentation, I would first like to introduce the new investigators who are our new comrades.”
Just as recorded in the program schedule, the introduction of new club members began.
They were called in turns, in order of school location from north to south. Homura’s heartbeat sped up as the names were called.
Naturally, the first to be called were the two new members from the Hokkaido school Tomakomai Denpa High, one of which was Himekawa, who Homura had met on the boat deck.
The ceremony consisted of a simple ten-second self-introduction for each new member… or so it should have been, but…
“I’m Himekawa Shizune. I look forward to working with you all. My nickname is the Northernmost Woman of Nutella. I’d like to capture lots of the female club members here at Iriomote and bring them back home with me.”
—Himekawa added that extra line at the end of her introduction. It was unclear whether it was in order to get some laughs like Tenryuu suggested or because it really was her sincere wish, but it did end up raising the bar for the new members who came after her.
That was completely unnecessary~, Homura inwardly complained with a slump of her shoulders. However, while Himekawa spoke in her usual dispassionate tone, Homura was a bit concerned by the faint yet visible blush on her cheeks. Incidentally, the whole “Northernmost Woman” thing was just a joke, since there were other female investigators at higher latitude schools in Europe and North America.
After two more schools finished the introductions of their new members, it was Hiyoshizaka High’s turn next.
For some reason, unusual bouts of jeering came from the crowd during each new member’s introduction. However…
“Kanae Yuri. Nice to meet you.”
The girl next to Homura said only that and then sat back down.
“…Eh, Yuri-chan, that’s it? Really? You’re trying to make yourself a cool character?”
Kanae looked just like a scowling Japanese doll, the way she sat unmoving in her seat. Saho tried to persistently question her. However, he was smacked on the head by Hayase-senpai.
“Hey, it’s your turn next, so hurry up and do it.”
Naturally, Saho stood up happily.
“I’m Saho, Saho Akiho! I’m part of the Nutella Native Animal Conservation subcommittee, so please feel free to come see me! But boys don’t need to come! Also—”
As Saho’s introduction looked like it was going to continue for a while, Hayase intervened once again to shut him up.
—And then finally, it was Seiran High’s turn.
She stiffly exchanged looks with Touya. In the end, Touya was the first to stand up.
“I’m Touya Takumi, the first member this year to require a rescue mission on Nutella. I apologize for the inconvenience I caused back then!”
Touya bowed his head in the direction of Kamikoma and Taga-senpai.
“You got that right! Treating us to a worldwide sweets buffet is only the start of what you owe us!” replied Kamikoma, while the audience laughed amicably.
Touya also smiled wryly at that.
“But one good thing came out of that disaster. I came to think that it’s nice to return to Earth every once in a while too.”
With that, Touya bowed again and sat back down, as raucous laughter and applause came up in response.
Only Fujimori-sensei, who had been stuck dealing with the aftermath of that incident, had her arms folded with a sullen expression.
…It’s finally my turn.
It felt like the hall had grown oddly quiet at that moment. Fujimori later told her that she was simply being excessively self-conscious, but that impression still stuck.
“I’m Hinooka Homura. I-I look forward to working with you all—”
Homura was overwhelmed by the pressure and could only speak the words that immediately came to her mind. Naturally, she lack any composure to make jokes.
“—I’ve only been to Nutella a few times so far. T-The truth is, it still doesn’t feel real, the fact that I’m actually exploring a new planet. I always feel like I’m playing a game, knowing that there should have been a better route to take but having forgotten to save beforehand. If possible, I’d like to redo things from the start. Err, sorry for babbling like this… That’s all I have to say…”
With that weak ending, Homura returned to her seat.
The hall was filled with a delicate atmosphere that made her want each second to pass by faster. But then…
“It’s the same for me.”
Such short and quiet comments resounded through the hall. They were the murmurs of Exploration Club members from unknown schools whose faces she was seeing for the first time.
“I always make sure to properly save, you know? But I can’t go back to my save point.”
That joke spoken by someone provoked mild laughter.
That laughter was something that Homura hadn’t intentionally aimed for at all.
In the midst of that laughter, she felt as if she was being hit by a sharp gaze.
Was it one of the UN officials in the VIP seats? Or from one of the club presidents? She couldn’t say who for sure, but she felt as if she were being evaluated by someone, which made her shiver slightly.
But that feeling faded away soon after, and the audience’s attention turned away from her as the next new club member was introduced. Well, that was only to be expected.
“Hi, I’m Fujimori Ameno!” The petite girl jumped up from her seat. “I’m the newest and youngest club member in the country. The truth is… I’m actually a robot.”
As Ameno puffed up her chest proudly, various affected reactions came from the audience, such as “No way that’s true”, “Wow, she watches way too much anime”, “We can’t tell for sure unless she strips down”, and “That aside, she is cute”.
Ameno listened to them all with a deeply moved expression.
“Right!? I also feel that I’m quite human-like… Huh…?”
Ameno tried to clap her hands happily, but one of her wrists suddenly detached and her hand fell to the desk with a clang.
From her severed wrist, there were clearly mechanical tubes and cables peeking out, and even small gears fell out and rolled over the desk. Ameno’s face turned pale at the sight—
Shocked, Homura reflexively leaned away from her. But, after Ameno had fully basked in the tense atmosphere filling the hall, she poked out her real hand from inside her parka’s sleeve.
“It was a sleight of hand. Literally. Ehehe.”
“A-All right, I believe that’s all from Seiran High! Umm, everyone, please try to keep the jokes to a reasonable level. Next is Hamamatsu Central Engineering—wait, why are you wearing masks!?”
On stage, Nagashino, who had constantly been checking her watch, wore a faint expression as she was left at a complete loss.
And with that harmonious atmosphere filling the hall, the new club member introductions eventually came to an end.
The introduced new members were not just limited to first years, but also included a few second year students who had recently joined.
But what really surprised Homura was the existence of Exploration Club members who had no affiliated school. Amongst the audience seats that were organized according to school, the section where these students were gathered stood out.
Following moderator Oozore’s urging, the nine students there all stood up together. They were high school students like everyone else, but they wore various school uniforms and their school years were also diverse.
They were called reserve members.
After finishing each of their introductions, Oozore offered a supplemental explanation.
“I will explain the reserve member system as simply as possible. Unfortunately, reserve members do not yet have a base to serve their own Exploration Club. Each is enrolled at various different public or private high school institutions.
“There are three main reasons for this: there is no school with an Exploration Club in their commuting vicinity; they are unable to find other members with sufficient IE Responses to make a club; or the environment on Nutella that corresponds to their school’s location on Earth is unsuitable for making a base.
“However, due to the reserve member system, applicants can participate in expeditions by going to other nearby schools. Three reserve members from the Sapporo district participate at Tomakomai Denpa High, two reserve members from the Sendai district participate at Hiyoshizaka High, and four reserve members from the Kyoto district and the Nara-Wakayama district participate at Nagumo High. The reserve members provisionally join the Exploration Clubs at these schools and participate in exploration activities and practical training in joint cooperation with the local club members.
“For all of you who have participated in exploration activities on Nutella, this goes without saying, but this is a very crucial part of the preparations for them to make their own Exploration Clubs in the future. They may be called reserve members, but they are genuine young investigators just like the rest of us. I’d like for everyone to take the opportunity to freely form and deepen relationships amongst each other during this year’s SA.”
After those last words by Oozore, loud applause rang out for the nine reserve members.
Homura, who of course had failed to follow Oozore’s explanations, constantly asked questions to Touya next to her, and inwardly summarized it to herself.
In other words, they were members who had yet to establish a base camp somewhere and were still left wandering aimlessly. Basically, they were freely doing part-time work until they managed to gather comrades.
“—Something like that, right? Right?”
“Ah? …I guess?”
Though, Touya’s expression was dubious as he responded.
However, to Homura, they were definitely dazzling beings overflowing with passion for adventure, just like Misasagi-senpai who had continued to be an investigator even when the Seiran High club’s activities were suspended by going over to Hiyoshizaka High (according to what Homura heard from Touya).
“Well, since we have the chance to meet them in person, let’s go ask them what it’s actually like for them.”
“Yeah, why not?”
At last, they moved on to today’s main program, the presentation of every school’s exploration results.
Homura pondered as she looked over the map of every school in Japan on the screen.
“I see… Paired schools, huh…”
It was a term that had been brought up during the introduction of new members.
Homura had already experienced it for herself, but the meeting made her conscious of the concept of paired schools once more. It was a natural, everyday part of the lives of club members, requiring no special explanation.
Paired schools basically referred to schools that operated in the same area on Nutella and were close to each other in Japan on Earth as well.
Seiran High and Hiyoshizaka High were an example of this. Other examples included: the Ecchuu Takaoka Industrial Arts School in Toyama Prefecture and Kanazawa Asano High in Ishikawa Prefecture; Hamamatsu Central Technical School in Shizuoka Prefecture and Mikawakotobuki High in Aichi Prefecture; Osaka Prefectural School Nagumo High and Nadahama High in Hyougo Prefecture; Miyajima High in Hiroshima Prefecture and Tazatani High in Ehime Prefecture; and Nagato Fisheries School in Tamaguchi Prefecture and Hakozaki High in Fukuoka Prefecture. Each of these paired schools had a cooperative system with each other.
However, based on what Homura saw on the map, the distance between paired schools was quite random and scattered.
Furthermore, Tomakomai Denpa High was the only one without a pair.
Perhaps because of that, the presentations started with Tomakomai Denpa High.
A single male student stood at the podium on stage.
“I’m Inou, the president of the Tomakomai Denpa club. Eh~, I’ll declare this for the sake of our school’s honor, but there’s no sexual harassment or gender discrimination in our club. We’re just not used to dealing with female club members.”
That self-deprecating remark bought some wry laughter from the audience.
The lone girl of the club in question, Himekawa, was sitting next to the screen as his assistant, and she operated her laptop without showing any trace of a smile.
“—We weren’t able to complete our most recent periodical advance report in time, so this will serve as the announcement of our latest results. Our club has pioneered ahead of the rest of the world and managed to explain the perturbation cycle of the Bagel, the ring surrounding Nutella.”
Part of the audience released exclamations of surprise and awe. However, most of the students present didn’t seem to really understand what it meant at first. Naturally, Homura and even Touya were among those who tilted their heads in puzzlement.
Seeming to have half-expected this reaction, Inou continued on.
“I’ll briefly explain the area our club explores for the new members from other schools—”
The screen began to display a slideshow of black-and-white photos.
The current image showed a gabled-roofed log house standing in the middle of a snow-covered landscape that looked the same with or without color.
“Our school’s base camp is located in the far north on Nutella. Snowfall is almost constant in the climate there, and we’re only able to use our base camp for twenty days in Nutella’s spring out of a sixty-day year cycle. The terrain is also precipitous, and it’s difficult to go on expeditions away from our base camp and increase our mapping of the surrounding area while advancing our investigation.”
Suddenly, the image changed to that of a summer meadow.
The Bagel shone in the clear sky above there, but it looked quite different compared from how it appeared from the area belonging to Homura and her club. It was wider and dominated more of the sky. By imagining a model of Nutella and the planetary ring in her head, Homura managed to grasp the scale.
The slideshow continued on to show various photos. Club members desperately swinging axes at trees to secure a large supply of firewood. Past senior club members taking a commemorative photo of themselves in front of a huge elephant-sized deer caught in a trap. Occasionally, there were also photos taken in winter mixed in. Club members performing lively snowboarding tricks in their spare time. And lastly, a picture of a snow field with a huge, eerie crevice bored into it.
“In the past, we also conducted long-distance expeditions in the direction of Sapporo and Hakodate, but we gave up each time. As such, our school mainly conducts astronomical observation for the majority of our investigation activities. It’s not like we decided to shut ourselves in because we like it… Wait, haven’t the slideshow photos turned weird?”
The club president reflexively retorted as he noticed the change among the photos on the screen.
Club members sleeping huddled together on the floor within the base camp all day long. All the members dressed slovenly in their underwear, apparently due to the heat inside. Inou himself was also among them in those photos. And at the edge of the photo, Himekawa’s dejected face could be seen peeking into the camera lens.
Wearing an innocent expression, Himekawa had apparently mixed in these secretly taken photos into the slideshow.
“…Yeah, err, anyway, working in this high-latitude environment has brought on various trials, but the biggest issue is the increased gravity. It depends on individual mass as well, but essentially, think of it like having sixty hundred gram weights on your legs twenty-four hours a day as you go about your business. I believe that this will probably continue to be the northernmost Japanese base for the foreseeable future, but…”
At that point, Inou stopped speaking for some reason.
The screen switched from displaying photos to a video containing CG images.
It was a video simulation of Nutella and the Bagel.
“Now then, to move onto the main topic—our observation basically involves earnestly photographing the Bagel and Nutella’s moons from the large telescope installed at our base camp. We bring these photo negatives, or rather dry plates, back to Earth with us and analyze them by computer. Overlooking the orbits of the moons… of the satellite group from a high-latitude location also helps increases the precision and clarity of the photos, so being located in a remote northern region has both its advantages and disadvantages.
“—Please look at these images. Until now, the Bagel’s overall mass was predicted to be quite heavy and believed to be in an extremely unstable state according to Nutellan astronomical calculations. However, in reality, its orbit is quite stable. This is a simulation of what it would be like in the unstable case.”
As the video simulation proceeded to fast-forward through time, the Bagel’s striped patterns changed like breaking waves. Eventually, the planetary rings transformed into dots of light that scattered away starting from the outer rings inward.
In particular, the centermost ring turned into a tempestuous meteor rain that rained on Nutella. There were also some meteors that didn’t burn up and impacted on the surface. It was a chilling image.
“—However, the behavior of Nutella’s rings is actually quite different. Very few meteors fall from the Bagel. Now then, did you know that the planet Saturn in our own Solar System also has natural satellites and that the presence of these moons plays a role in stabilizing the planet’s rings? Saturn’s satellites are called ‘Shepherd Moons’.”
There, Inou briefly paused.
“Nutella’s satellites also seem to play the same role when it comes to the Bagel, according to our observations. However, even when taking that into consideration, the results of our observations and simulations don’t match—it’s as if the satellites are intentionally changing their orbits.”
Upon hearing that hypothesis, many members of the audience couldn’t help falling into murmurs of shock.
“That’s right. The satellites move spontaneously.” Inou nodded at the audience. “The reflected light from the Bagel supplies magical energy and causes changes to the bodies of us investigators, as you all know. That drew our attention to the Bagel’s reflectance—by working under the assumption that ‘it’s possible to intentionally change the orbits of the satellites in order to maintain the Bagel’s overall mass’, we created a new perturbation model. With this model, we were able to predict the behavior of both the Bagel and the satellites to a high degree of accuracy. In other words, we learned that the Bagel’s reflectance and the orbits of the satellites have a fixed, interconnected relationship.”
More exclamations of surprise came from the audience, but, perhaps because Inou kept using unfamiliar terms, the reaction was more modest compared to before. Even so, everyone in the hall earnestly kept their attention on his speech, something that Homura keenly felt even as someone far removed from astronomical terminology.
“This is as far as our observations have taken us—the following is just conjecture, but I beg your permission to speak it nonetheless. I believe that this is a kind of homeostatic system that strains to maintain the Bagel’s form as a result of the very magical energy emitted by the Bagel affecting and controlling the orbits of the satellites. It’s extremely unusual as an astronomical phenomenon, but if we consider magical energy as another natural part of Nutella, it isn’t theoretically impossible. That’s all for our club’s report.”
A large applause naturally arose from the audience, and many praises were rained upon Tomakomai Denpa High.
The club president bowed his head, and the other club members also stood up together and followed his example.
Homura committed to her memory their proud expressions at that moment.
Himekawa was the only one whose smile seemed a bit like she was treating it like someone else’s achievement, but she still seemed happy from the bottom of her heart.
Even Tenryuu had risen from his seat to clap. His expression was serious and sincere unlike before.
“—We express our sincerest gratitude to our club advisor Goryou-sensei, to Naikon Optical Industries who cooperated with us, and to Professor Morita from the National Astronomical Observatory. We next plan to increase our observation precision while analyzing the roles of the individual satellites, and also to explain the properties of this large-scale astronomical magical energy.”
Inou glanced at Nagashino, indicating it was time to move onto questions from the audience.
Without waiting for Nagashino’s announcement, a hand quickly rose from a Caucasian male in the VIP seats. He was a commissioner directly dispatched from UN headquarters, and also held the position of Exploration Club advisor at a US high school.
After Nagashino gave him permission to speak, the man’s question was translated by an interpreter and repeated in Japanese.
“Congratulations. This truly is a magnificent discovery. Truly, all of you have stepped out into the stars and mapped out space. Concerning this discovery, how do you think it will impact the Geocentric model hypothesis on Nutellan space?”
Homura’s attention was caught by the words “Geocentric model”.
She’d heard the term before in history class. If we remembered right… it had come up while discussing the Heliocentric model of the universe proposed by Galileo Galilei.
Inou looked to his club advisor in search of confirmation.
The slightly uneasy expression he wore at that moment was very much that of a typical high school student, which actually made Homura feel relived in a way.
Inou’s expression had turned clouded the moment the words “Aristarchusic1 system” came up within the man’s question in his native language. His club advisor Goryou smiled and entrusted Inou with answering the question.
“Thank you for your praise. Concerning the Geocentric model hypothesis, we at Tomakomai Denpa High’s Exploration Club neither endorse nor repudiate it, or rather, we can’t. Even with these recent results, we still lack sufficient material to make conjecture, so making any judgement is put on hold for now.”
After hearing just that, the commissioner gave his thanks and ended his question.
After this first school presentation ended, Homura let out a breath as the tension she’d felt until now finally faded.
“…I’m glad I came.”
Next to her, Touya murmured that as his eyes glimmered with interest.
“…Yeah.” Homura nodded in agreement. “So, we can go to see the ocean now, right? We can change out of our uniforms now, right?”
“Be patient. And don’t undress. You’re not Saho, remember?”
“Eh, you called me? You’re going swimming? You’ve also got sunscreen, right?”
“Sit down. The ocean won’t be going anywhere.”
As Saho stood up from his seat, Hayase pushed him back down from next to him.
Naturally, the presentations continued after that.
There would be no end if all of them were introduced, so only the few school presentations that particularly left an impression on Homura will be listed here.
The announcement that moved Homura the most was “Nadahama High’s Announcement of a New Magic System to Replace the Current Polyhedron Loop”… or not. Perhaps it was “Hiyoshizaka High’s Report on the Longest Distance Expedition Ever to be Attempted”…
Not that either. In fact, it was a rather plain presentation by Ecchuu Takaoka High.
The Ecchuu Takaoka club president was a female glasses-wearing student.
“I’m Ecchu Takaoka’s club president, Chigozuka. Our club also travels through unexplored regions on foot, but our club mainly researches how investigators can contribute to society under the theme of the relationship between Nutella and ordinary citizens. We research the level of Nutella investigators’ societal recognition and devise realistic demonstrations to appeal to the public.”
Her glasses glinted between her symmetrical forelocks under the stage lights.
“—To summarize our research results, the appeal of pictures and videos is especially high. There is a visible tendency for a single photo of a landscape to remain more strongly imprinted in people’s memories than scientific discoveries. For example, in Earth’s astronomy field, contributions like the beautiful astronomical photos taken by the Hubble Telescope are the most famous. Tomakomai Denpa High has also released wonderful photos of Nutella’s rings, but ours are a bit different. Please look at this. We use it for landscape photography.”
Chigozuka took out her personal analog camera.
It was the same as the one Homura usually used. It was a big, heavy and cumbersome lump of cut duralumin and glass.
Next, other Ecchuu Takaoka High club members brought out a tripod. Set on top of the tripod’s platform wasn’t the standard purveyor camera used by the Exploration Club, but an ordinary digital camera.
“All right, I’m taking a picture, okay? What’s the first prime number?”
Voices from the audience shouted out either “Two2” or “Three”.
Chigozuka pointed the camera at the audience and clicked the shutter button, and the image data was instantly transmitted and displayed on the screen as a still image. Naturally, it showed the audience looking at the camera. However, it was in black and white. It was a rather trifling picture of the assembly hall.
“I used the digital camera just now for this photo, but please think of it as the same type of analog camera that we use to take records on expeditions and develop film—so, in the early days, the photos taken on Nutella were essentially all black and white, but these days, color photos of Nutella have also been appearing quite often in the news, right? Those are generally made by using old black-and-white picture remake technology and artificially coloring the original photos afterwards. They’re basically fake colors. Take a look.”
The black-and-white picture on the screen was re-projected with color this time.
It was a very realistic-looking photo, so much so that one wouldn’t think that it was originally black-and-white. However, the limits of the coloring technology were still visible; the fine detail colors were decisively different and the skin colors of each individual was deformed, causing the unnaturalness of it to stand out all the more if you knew what the original colors looked like.
Several club members on stage pointed out the flaws within the photo.
“Well, there are those who think that this is good enough, but… In actuality, we can take color photos on Nutella itself too. However, it isn’t cheap or easy.”
Color film compatible with Nutella still had yet to be developed.
On the screen, an unfamiliar odd-formed camera set on firmly on a tripod appeared. An investigator from a foreign country could be seen setting it up.
He should have been a high school student like Homura and the others, but he looked quite adult-like from her perspective.
“This is a Nutella-use color camera developed by a German Exploration Club. Umm, the theory behind it is very simple. There’s a special prism put inside it, which splits the light that enters through the lens and photographs it on three pieces of film at the same time. The split light passes through three separate filters of each primary color and is recorded individually in red, green and blue. Then, they bring those negatives back to Earth and recombine them by computer. It’s called the Triple Pane Method.”
The slideshow switched to photos of Nutella taken by the German Exploration Club.
They were truly beautiful and life-like photos.
There were even familiar pictures that had been used on the front covers of famous magazines.
“However, this special camera is still a prototype, and it also weighs 39 kilos. Additionally, it requires three times the normal amount of film. It’s too heavy to hold with your bare hands and doing so also seems to darken the photos, so a tripod is necessary too. Therefore, it’s inconvenient to carry around and lacks mobility. This makes it unsuitable for taking opportune pictures at a moment’s notice.”
The German team’s failed photos were shown next.
Animals that wouldn’t stop moving and branches swaying in the wind were devastating for this camera.
“They’re also apparently working using a revolving prism inside the camera and miniaturizing it through trial and error, but it doesn’t seem to be going well. Therefore, our club searched for an alternative.”
Chigozuka took out a thin disk-shaped plate from her camera case. There was a wide hold on one side of the disk, which contained a colored lens filter.
“We call this a ‘turret filter’. You screw it onto the front of the camera.”
Chigozuka attached it to her camera and held it up as if to take an actual photo. The filter jutting out from the side of the camera got in the way of her hands a bit, but the weight wasn’t all that different.
“This contains a spring mechanism made to automatically rotate the disk when taking a picture. You all understand now, right? Let’s try taking a photo. It’s usually safe to use a release.”
Chigozuka attached the filter to the digital camera on the tripod. She spun the filter in reverse, making the coils inside roll up noisily. Next, she connected a mechanical release cable to the shutter button, ending her preparations. The cable also connected to the rotational shaft of the turret filter through the camera bridge.
“All right, I’m taking the photo. This is an elbow. Then what’s this?”
A few people shouted “Knee3!” in response. Saho, who knew no fear, shouted “Stripes!”. It was true that, in the instant that Chigozuka lifted her leg up, a glimpse could be caught beneath her skirt.
Slightly red-faced now, Chigozuka pressed the shutter through the connected release cable, and the filter spun as the camera shutter clicked three times. Taking three photos only took one second in all.
Impressed “Oohs” and “Aahs” at that swift function came from the mechanical-loving club members in the audience.
“Just by pressing the button once, the camera takes three successive photos with the shutter through burst photography.”
The photos taken through the three-colored filter was displayed on the screen. The three photos were slid together and overlapped with each other, turning into a single color photo. It was a three-color composite photo.
If you looked at it without knowing any better, it just seemed like an ordinary photo, but when the process behind it was explained, it strangely felt like something rare and precious.
The composite photo was a bit blurred around areas like people’s fingers and the contours of their faces, but it didn’t stand out that much, and the background was almost perfectly reproduced.
“This isn’t anything particularly new or novel. The one who devised this method was a Russian photographer named Gorski during the dawn of color photography—Hey, what are you doing there, Tenryuu-kun?”
Chigozuka, who had been facing the screen and manipulating her tablet to zoom in on the details of the photo, turned back to face the audience with a flabbergasted expression.
In the photo, Tenryuu was sitting there in the front-most row, but he had changed into a strange-colored Asura statue with six arms and three faces.
“Wahahaha, you should be grateful, you know? Hey, Chigozuka, you used a digital camera for that photo, right? But on Nutella, we’d actually have to roll up the film to take a photo.”
“You just have to use the spring winder supplied by the Exploration Club. However, that does slow down the shutter. So we had to improve the winder too… This was what we actually had the most trouble with. It cost quite a bit of money too. After all, this is a piece of old lost technology.”
Chigozuka sighed in a clearly performed manner.
Other Ecchuu Takaoka club members were going around the audience seats and handing something out.
“First, we’ll hand out a prototype set to every school as a souvenir. The set contains a turret shutter, an exclusive release cable, a camera bridge, and a high-speed winder. The film can be easily combined together with an ordinary image processing application, but the automatic film developing device installed at every Exploration Club can have a burst photography mode added to it, so if you install it, you’ll be fine.”
A female club member came over to Homura as well and delicately handed her a cardboard box.
“Ah, thank you very much.”
Homura quickly opened up the box, and found a user’s manual contained inside along with the aforementioned equipment. It was a painstaking piece of work that was meticulously made (in a weird way), with a four-panel comic that contained personified characters of the equipment.
“We intend to offer this prototype to other countries while continuing to focus on improving it. I hope you will all allow me to hear your impressions of using it in the future. Once you get accustomed to it, you don’t even need a tripod or release cable to take pictures.”
Touya poked Homura as she unconsciously got caught up in reading the manual’s comic.
“Then, to summarize, we’ve completed the first stage of our objective to ‘easily and cheaply take color photos’ for the time being. For the coming year, we plan to follow the initiative of our club’s second year students and focus on something else entirely—”
Briefly pausing, Chigozuka looked over the audience.
“After constructing this prototype and conversing with the optics manufacturer that aided us, all of our club members had a certain thought. …Are we young investigators aiming to be excellent cameramen? Will we eventually end up filming a genuine documentary? Certainly, it’s possible. Displaying showy accomplishments that can convince the citizens who pay us with their taxes is our joy. I certainly think that’s part of it. But, though this may seem like I’m refuting our own actions… That’s not all there is to it. We want people to truly realize that Nutella is already closer to us than the moon or the North and South Poles; that Nutella is a world that adjoins our Earth. And I believe we work as investigators in order to show them that humans like us are out there exploring it.
“We aren’t cameras with hands and feet. Nor are we resource-excavating robots. We’re humans. Each and every one of us is a human who is interested by an unknown world, who works hard, and who experiences the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing something—I think that showing people that challenging spirit is important.”
Placing her hands on her knees, Chigozuka bowed deeply and expressed her thanks to the audience for listening.
After Ecchuu Takaoka’s presentation, another presentation that was of great interest to Homura was the one by Hamamatsu Central.
Rather, it would be more accurate to say that it excited her.
First, their entrance onto the stage was flashy. The club president purposefully rode into the auditorium on a bicycle wearing a helmet and protectors, entering with his front wheel raised high in a wheelie, and then finally sprang up onto the stage with an unassisted jump.
The club members in the audience let out a huge applause, but many people in the VIP seats widened their eyes in shock, and the moderating assistant Nagashino flew into a panic with teary eyes.
The rider took off his helmet, revealing the tanned face of a male student.
“I’m Kamio from Hamamatsu Central Engineering. Our base camp is located in a region of soft, even terrain with lots of hills and open fields. Because of that, we adopted mountain bikes like this as a means of transportation for our club activities since three years ago, as a test case for future widespread use.”
Kamio got off from his bicycle and proudly showed off the gallant figure of the firm and thick-frame mountain bike painted in sharply contrasting colors.
“As you all know, Japanese Exploration Clubs mainly move by foot. We too have not yet been given permission to ride our mountain bikes into unexplored regions. Even so, it’s a fact that these have rapidly expanded the range of our exploration activities and allowed us to effectively use the length of each of our stays on Nutellas.
“There are actually various different transportation methods used by other Exploration Clubs overseas. On water, they use canoes and sailing boats. In air, they use paragliders, hang-gliders, and, by a select few clubs, hot-air balloons.”
—Hmm. Homura dreamily imagined herself using those methods. Soaring through the air like a bird, and gliding through the waves. However, the next instant, her imagined self was hit by unexpected troubles in her mind.
It appeared her experiences on Nutella and her trials with the Exploration Club had made her realize how the world didn’t revolve around her. Like that theory by Galileo Galilei.
Homura’s attention returned to Kamio’s presentation.
“Umm, them how about on land? Right now, mountain bikes are the most plausible method. Electric bikes are of course out of the question due to the issue of battery, and we have yet to clear the issue of fuel supply for motorcycles and automobiles.
“Our club, which is the first to use mountain bikes on Nutella in Japan, learned the idea from another school. Our presentation this year contains the results from our collaborative research with an Exploration Club at a Texan school in the US. The theme is ‘a practical engine for use on Nutella’.”
What followed was an engineering explanation by Kamio.
It was difficult to bring gasoline to Nutella or extract it from the land on site. Therefore, until recent years, they had explored solutions by working on making an engine that ran on biomass ethanol fuel, alcohol, in other words.
However, an alcohol-running engine was difficult to service, and continuously securing good quality fuel was also an issue. The situation was the same with an engine that ran on charcoal, which had seemed easy to obtain at first glance.
When asked the barefaced question “What happened to the unused alcohol fuel that was left over?”, Kamio played dumb and said “Huh? What are you talking about?”. Homura could have sworn that Misasagi-senpai had casually leaned forward and paid extra attention to that part.
“Even supposing that we managed to use automobiles and motorbikes on Nutella, what would we do if the engine failed and broke while on a long distance expedition in a land too far away to return by foot?
“We Hamamatsu club members research techniques and technology that would allow us to repair a vehicle on site if there’s trouble with it. However, we don’t seek to impose this on all Exploration Club members, since it would be inefficient.
“That’s not all. Being injured in a way that proves an impediment to operating a vehicle is also chillingly possible. The most common and likely danger is inadvertently ending up in terrain that impedes the functioning of the vehicle and being unable to turn back.
“This is the main reason why travel by foot is still endorsed in Japan. In oversea countries, there are other reasons as well. In places like Europe, where their base camps are comparatively concentrated at high latitudes in the north where the gravity is heavier, it’s necessary to secure mobility even at the cost of safety during movement, so the circumstances are different there.”
The issue of gravity came up again…
Before, Homura had mainly been concerned about her personal body weight, but this topic made her suddenly wonder how things must be for countries even further north than Europe.
Meanwhile, other Hamamatsu Central club members brought a metal engine model onto the stage.
After they ignited the kind of common solid fuel used at camps located within the lower part of the model, the engine started lightly thrumming.
“A Star Ring engine—I think there are people here who have heard the term before. Instead of an internal combustion engine, it’s an external combustion engine. This engine can only generate low torque as yet, but the fact that it doesn’t require a specific kind of fuel makes it very advantageous on Nutella.
“At the Texan school, they have already designed an improved version for use on Nutella and succeeded in operating a small single-seater cycle car with it.”
On the screen, a video of the cycle car moving in action appeared, supplied from the Texan school. It appeared to have been shot with a small movie camera, and the video quality wasn’t that great. It was like a silent film from the last century.
Running across a dry plain was a small car with an exposed frame that was reminiscent of the Apollo Mission’s moon rovers.
Behind the single seat for the driver was a luggage rack containing food and kindling for fuel, and it progressed at the speed of a running human.
“I wish I had one of those!” many envious exclaimed from the audience.
However, they realized that it wasn’t as straightforward as it looked when they saw the following still images and documents.
Apparently, the Exploration Club members had to push it when travelling over a hill. It also stumbled and fell over on uneven terrain.
“It depends on the terrain, but it’s still ideal for making round trips between base camps to transport materials. It’s also convenient for transporting injured members. If we choose the terrain and secure a safe route, it can be put to practical use on Nutella even now.
“The last thing we will introduce is the project that Yuuji from our club and Miyada-kun from Tazatani High have developed using the results of the Texas school as a reference.”
The club members carefully brought a model airplane on stage.
Its propellers were powered by a super miniature Star Ring engine.
“This airplane lacks sufficient thrust to fly on Earth, but on Nutella, it can fly with a small camera attached. It works by sealing high-pressure gas that’s converted into propulsive gas within the engine’s cylinders.”
The next video on the screen show the airplane flying while circling through the air.
It couldn’t be remote-controlled like a toy airplane, but it was still quite a bracing sight to see.
“There are still several issues we need to overcome until we can fly a Nutellan light flyer that humans can ride. With no radio or airfields on Nutella, it’ll take a lot of time and effort before we can safely fly any aircraft there. However, transportation methods to replace travel by foot are an absolute must if we are to conquer Nutella’s overwhelmingly vast land. Our club will continue to search for possibilities in that area—The report on this Star Ring engine unit will be discussed again in several other subcommittee meetings, so I suggest you attend those as well.”
Chapter 4 END
(1) Aristarchus was an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known heliocentric model of the universe.
(2) The exclamation “Nii” (also the word for “two”) is often used like “Cheese!” in front of a camera in Japan.
(3) “Knee” is pronounced in its English form here, coming out as “Nii” like last time.