—I feel a curse hanging over me.
It was April 1st, 2145, in the Orient Federation-controlled waters of the Pacific Ocean.
He had finished unpacking only yesterday, and yet here he was already diving to the sea floor 1,500 meters beneath the surface without any kind of breathing apparatus.
It was only a routine mining exercise, but Minato wasn’t originally going to participate. The instructor who was scheduled to oversee the practice, however, ended up incapacitated by a sudden stomachache. The president, the woman at the helm of the entire Academy, happened to be nearby, and she offered this proposal:
Seems like the perfect chance for your first sortie, don’t you think?
She had a point. Mining exercises themselves were pretty simple, so there wasn’t much involved in the process. All you have to do is take the trainees to a predesignated spot on the ocean floor and mine a certain amount of the living mineral Solaris. For water manipulators, people for whom moving around in the ocean depths was possible, this kind of work was everything they could ask for. It was as basic as it got. Just dive and gather. There wasn’t a single complicated thing to it, and so for Minato Yamajo’s first time supervising the trainees as an instructor, it was the perfect fit.
And yet, what a curse.
There was a shark.
A form of sea life found commonly scattered throughout the many oceans of the world. There were also cases of people being attacked by the larger, more fearsome varieties.
It was akin to encountering a bear on land.
Three large shadows swam around Minato and the trainees as if trying to surround them. Although the ocean depths were dark, water manipulators could perceive their surroundings as if through an infrared lens, so the sharks were as clear as day.
It looks like they managed to slip into the Academy’s mining area last night. What a curse.
“It’s a sh-shark! Are they great whites?!”
Minato tried to hold down one of the female trainees as she flailed her arms and legs around in fear.
Panicking underwater was far more dangerous than the occasional carnivorous fish. Although water manipulators were capable of moving around and functioning in the deep, a single misstep at these depths could spell sudden death—that would never change.
“Calm down. Everything will be fine as long as we follow the proper protocol, so don’t panic. And they aren’t great whites, by the way. They’re called oceanic whitetips. That question will come up a lot on your tests.”
Minato’s first action was to gather all of the trainees into one place and make sure there was no one missing. Four in total. Alright. Everyone’s accounted for.
Now then, all that’s left is to get the sharks to retreat.
If only they were great whites. . .
“Out of everything it could’ve been, it had to be whitetips. . .”
Although they weren’t very well-known, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call them the world’s most ferocious shark.
They were indiscriminate gluttons. Be it people or trash, they consumed anything their eyes fell on. That’s why there were many cases of them attacking people, even without any provocation.
Just as expected. As the three sharks continued to carefully circle around the trainees, one of them suddenly changed its course, almost like it couldn’t take the temptation any longer.
“I told you not to move!”
Minato flicked the forehead of the trainee who was starting to panic and then launched himself up by jumping from the ocean floor.
It was the perfect opportunity to teach them about shark countermeasures, so he explained what he was doing clearly for all the trainees to hear.
“Number one: you punch them hard, right in the nose.”
He demonstrated this right after. The shark approached him from the front, and Minato landed his fist square between the eyes. The shark twisted its body following the impact and changed direction, likely out of surprise. It swam farther and farther away, convulsing as it did.
Ignoring the retreating shark, Minato turned towards the trainees and followed it up with an explanation.
“See? Other vital areas include the eyes and gills, but the nose is most effective. The thing is, though, these sweet spots change with each kind of shark, so when we get back to the surface, make sure you guys carefully memorize what works against what. With that in mind, dealing with sharks up close can get a little dangerous, so I don’t recommend this method.”
“Eek! Behind you! There’s one coming behind you!”
“Number two: you use the anti-shark cloth provided by the Academy. This method is your best bet.”
Without skipping a beat, Minato quickly pulled a small container the size of a pack of cards from his belt and pressed the button on the side. Immediately following the sound of decompression, the contents of the small case were expelled and started to expand rapidly.
It was a sheet of fabric. It was white, thin, and made from organic fibers. The cloth opened up towards the attacking shark and blocked its vision.
That’s all it did. It simply expanded.
And yet, the shark stopped immediately.
“Sharks have a tendency to avoid anything larger than themselves. That’s why if you open this cloth up in front of them, they stop attacking. And just so you’re aware, it’s made from materials that eventually dissolve in water, so it doesn’t harm the environment either.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you while you’re having a moment, sir, but there’s a third one!”
The final shark avoided the cloth and greedily swam towards the trainees.
“This is why I hate whitetips. . .”
Unlike other sharks, they tended to defy theory. Because they often lived out in the ocean where food was scarce, their frequent hunger caused them to occasionally get frighteningly aggressive. In cases where water manipulators wound up hurt after a run in with sharks, the culprit was almost always the oceanic whitetip.
Out of other options, Minato pulled out the knife from his belt. He’ll just have to kill it.
Although he hadn’t explained it yet, there was always a third option when dealing with sharks. Depending on the person, however, it could be difficult to pull off. He would be hard pressed to formally teach a technique not everyone could use successfully.
He would just have to explain it in more depth once they all got back to the Academy. For now, Minato tightly gripped the knife in his hand to take down the oncoming shark, and then—
—he heard a girl’s voice.
“With all due respect, this is ridiculous.”
His surroundings were suddenly illuminated.
“Huh?” Minato reacted.
The light was golden, and it rapidly diffused throughout the ocean depths as if fragments of moonlight.
It was a Territory, the origin of a water manipulator’s power. Normally, the light it emitted was almost imperceptibly faint, but at maximum output, you could clearly make out its unique hue.
In some cases, you could even put enough power into it for it to function as a weapon. This was what was called expanding one’s Territory, and the result differed for each person. That was the water manipulator’s third and final shark countermeasure.
“What do you think, sir?”
The source of this voice turned around with a cheeky expression. She stared at Minato and smirked, as if bragging about her power.
“Don’t you think this method is much faster?”
It was a small girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She manipulated the stream of pale golden light, and within it, the shark dissolved completely and without trace.
It all happened in an instant. The scene unfolded almost like a dream, and for a bit, Minato could only gulp, dumbfounded.
The whole reason water manipulators start off as trainees is so that they can perfect their ability to create and use their Territories. They need the guidance of their predecessors—that’s why institutions like the Academy exist in the first place.
As is the case in any field, however, there are occasionally those who transcend this.
Without ever receiving a hint of help, they intimately understand every aspect of their Territory and manipulating it comes as easy to them as breathing does to a baby—true geniuses.
At that moment, Minato couldn’t help but wonder if she was one of them.
“You. . .”
The golden glow almost seemed like warm sunlight descending on the dim waters of the deep.
She possessed a beautiful Territory, the kind that etched itself into your memory. Her blue eyes were brimming with unshakable confidence. For a brief period, Minato and the girl locked gazes.
Finally, he spoke like an instructor—straight to the point.
“When we get back, I want you to write up an apology.”
It’s possible the girl was expecting some kind of praise. Smile still on her face, her expression froze completely.
It stayed that way much longer than expected.
Really, what a terrible curse on my first day.
It is strictly prohibited for trainees without licenses to expand and manipulate their Territories without prior permission from instructors in all instances barring emergencies. Furthermore, the aforementioned emergencies are limited to recognized cases of self-defense and the protection of human life and also include any situation in which an instructor deems its application appropriate.
That’s it—taken directly from the handbook itself.
What the rule boils down to is: “Don’t go and use your abilities whenever you feel like it.”
“I refuse to accept this.”
Discontent laid bare in her expression, the girl objected strongly.
After the mining exercise had ended, Minato returned back to the Academy’s staff room. In no time flat, the power-walking, blond-haired genius stormed into the room and demanded to see the rules.
Was it that she didn’t want to write the apology, or was it a matter of wounded pride? Whatever it was, you could feel her indomitable spirit as she challenged Minato’s stance.
With her small stature, she puffed out her chest with a humph. “There was a shark. I believe you’ll agree that falls under ‘self-defense’ and ‘the protection of human life.’”
To be honest, this was getting to be a pain in the ass. He had arrived only yesterday, so there was still a lot he had to take care of.
Minato wasn’t making her do this because he wanted to either.
For him, rules were rules.
There were other trainees there when it happened, so there was no way that he could let her off the hook after breaking the rules that brazenly. As an instructor, he had no other choice. The rules would lose their meaning if he did.
“It only works like that if there are no instructors nearby. I hate to say it, but I was there.”
“I judged the situation to be too much for an instructor as inexperienced as yourself to handle.”
There was a lot of fight in her. Nothing she said about him being new was strictly untrue, but were there any other trainees who would talk back to their instructor like that?
He didn’t dislike that, though. If anything, he had a thing for people like her. For better or worse, people like her never spoke with ulterior motives, so that side of them was always fun to watch. It’s probably because they’re constantly serious that their responses are always so downright adorable.
Be they men or women, Minato loved to watch people with strong reactions.
“Your punishment is now a written apology plus solitary confinement, Chloe Knightley.”
“The reason being disobedience towards an instructor.”
“Guh. . .”
“Or rather, solitary confinement is what will happen if you don’t hurry up and write that apology. I’m sure you of all people can handle writing a single page by tomorrow.”
“Me of all people. . . Today is the first time you’ve met me. How could you possibly know—”
“A little bit of research is all it took for me to learn about a bright hopeful like you.”
This blond-haired girl was named Chloe Knightley.
She was 15 years old and entered the Academy as a trainee in the year 2144. She was born to American parents in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the Orient Federation.
It hasn’t even been two years since she entered the Academy and already her grades were nothing other than extraordinary. Her practical and written exam results were virtually perfect, and the control she possessed over her Territory was immaculate enough to already warrant receiving a license.
It was possibly because of this skill, however, that her pride hindered her ability to cooperate with others—you could see bits and pieces of this in the information on her.
“I didn’t mean to imply that I find writing the apology difficult in any way. It’s just that I’d rather not take unfair punishments lying down.”
She never lets up, does she? What a persistent girl. To put it less positively, she has no idea how to talk with others.
This is getting more and more annoying. In reality, this kind of insubordination was already grounds for further punishment, but if I go down that route, she’ll probably use it as “proof” that I’m being tyrannical somehow and double-down on her convictions that she did nothing wrong. There would be no point to even punishing her in the first place if that happened, Minato thought.
He decided to continue pressing his argument for a little longer.
“So what you’re saying is that there was no proof I could’ve handled the sharks on my own?”
“Then let me ask you a question. Why do you think I’m calling you out for using your abilities and breaking the rules?”
“I assume it’s because I stole your thunder.”
“You take me for a child?”
“May I ask your age?”
“Well look at that. A mere three year age difference.”
“But unlike you, I have a license, and I’m also certified in seabed operations. It should go without saying that I’ve studied shark countermeasures as well.”
“Is that an attempt at showing off? I can easily dispatch sharks, even without those fancy certifications.”
“You’re right. You’re definitely better than me when it comes to dealing with sharks. Your Territory was much more efficient than what I was going to do in that situation. I really am impressed by how amazing your abilities are.”
“Uh. . .”
After hearing something so entirely different than what she was expecting, the girl’s expression seemingly started to loosen up. I think it was the word “amazing” that did her in.
“I-I’m already well aware of that. . .”
She looked away, and her lips curved into a smile. She seems pretty happy. I would’ve never imagined that a little flattery here and there was all it took to get her like this. What a simple girl.
Minato didn’t say that to placate her, however. He wanted to make a different point.
“It doesn’t matter how amazing your abilities are, though. If you don’t follow the rules, then there’s no point to having them in the first place.”
“So that’s what this comes down to. . .” Chloe’s gaze turned cold once more, as if resigning herself to disappointment. “You think you’re always right, just because you have the rules on your side? What are you, a god?”
“Of course not. Even I make mistakes. The thing is, though, I’m not the one in charge. I have to listen to the higher-ups, just like you have to listen to me. I don’t plan on letting you off the hook, especially not after you tried to show off without my permission. This is how it works here. You’d better get used to it.”
“That’s not fair. . .”
“You’re free to feel that way as long as you follow the rules. That’s how you get through life.”
“Fine, I understand. . . I’ll submit the written apology tomorrow morning.”
The girl finally gave in. Judging by her expression, however, it was safe to say it was less out of acceptance and more because she realized that arguing wouldn’t get her anywhere.
Chloe turned around and stormed out of the staff room with heavy steps.
Minato remained seated and watched as she left.
“She’s going to take some work,” he muttered to himself. Was it out of exhaustion or admiration—not even he was sure.
All he knew for certain was that she had made one hell of an impression.
A couple minutes passed.
“Chewed her out on your first day, huh?”
Minato turned around and found himself a couple inches away from a huge bear-like person looking down at him. The giant had beefy arms and a suit bursting at the seams. To a stranger, it probably felt like being trapped in the ring with a professional fighter—that was the kind of presence this muscular man possessed.
Whoops, my bad. I meant woman.
It was the head of the Academy, the very President Maria herself.
Possessing years of military service under her belt, she towered over Minato with a massive body that seemed to rival the scale of Yggdrasil. She cracked a wild grin.
“First day on the job and you’re already making the Knightley girl write an apology. Boy, you’re something else.”
Minato sighed at the half-sarcasm and responded while arranging the the things on his desk.
“It looks like she’s his daughter. . . The director of the Solaris Applications Agency, I mean.”
“That’s not the half of it. I hear it’s the stuff of legends, how much he dotes on her. Stuff like: if you make her angry, her dad will make sure you never set foot in another water manipulation job for the rest of your life.”
“You don’t say.”
It made sense. While looking through her records, I saw lots of passages that hinted towards her breaking the rules, but strangely enough, there wasn’t a single official violation to her name. The director of the Solaris Applications Agency could be considered the boss of every professional water manipulator. As a result, it’s possible her other instructors never called her out even if they thought she did something wrong out of fear for their position. How sad. When it comes to disobeying authority, water manipulators and office workers are pretty much one in the same.
“You know, she’s definitely stubborn, but she doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who would flaunt her family’s position around like that.”
People like her just wouldn’t be satisfied if they didn’t win with their own power. She’s just a blunt, awkward girl, imagined Minato.
“Even still, there aren’t many who’d stand their ground against her. When you were a trainee here yourself, you were always a little—how do I put this—bold? I’m glad to see you haven’t changed.”
“Well in my case, even if I do get fired, I’ll always be able to return to a blissful life with my little sister. I’ll forget all about this water manipulation nonsense and the two of us can open up a nice cozy bed and breakfast in the countryside.”
“It looks like your lovey-dovey sister stuff hasn’t changed either.”
“So yeah. What can I say? I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. A Chloe Knightley or two isn’t enough to scare me away.”
He started to feel like he was getting a little too carried away.
There was a glint of excitement in the president’s eyes.
“That’s the spirit!” The beast-woman reared her fangs and laughed. “You’re going to be in charge of Chloe, starting tomorrow.”
I’m a personal instructor right off the bat? I figured someone new like me would start off teaching beginner classes.
“Her previous handler couldn’t take it anymore—ended up in the hospital with a stomach ulcer from the stress. All the other ones steer clear of her, too. You’re perfect for the job, though, don’t you think? You being bold and whatnot. . .”
“I’ll be having a lot of fun with a girl like her if you don’t mind my teaching methods.”
“I do mind.”
Shame. I can definitely tell Chloe will be a fun one to tease.
“Just to be clear, how far am I allowed to go with her?”
“As far as you can take it before hitting potential lawsuits.”
“It depends entirely on her tolerance, then. Sounds like a lot of fun. Count me in.”
My only grievance at the moment is that my little sister isn’t at my side.
The Academy was originally built in the Orient Federation’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (former Mongolia). That meant the Japanese Autonomous Zone would be right next door, and Minato would be able to visit his homeland over the weekends if he wanted. While that sounds nice, it was unfortunately not the case anymore.
It was now on an artificial island in the Pacific Ocean, far from the coast.
It was a lonely island out in the distant sea, crafted by mankind in the spot where Tokyo used to be some time ago.
During the Oceanic Calamity a hundred years ago, the island was hastily built by Japan to house a provisional government as their lands were being swallowed up by the sea, but following the establishment of the Orient Federation, the plans ended up being abandoned midway. The Federation government later repossessed this island made by Japan and resumed construction. The result was a water manipulator training facility difficult to get to from the outside world.
That meant that in all four cardinal directions was nothing but the sea. Even if I were suddenly overcome by the desire to see my sister again, a one way trip by airplane would take around five hours, and the cost of a round-trip would eat up half a month’s wage—just the perfect location really. Going back a couple times a year is probably the most I can manage.
If you ignored all that, however, this wasn’t a bad place by any stretch.
Especially wonderful was the abundance of good fishing spots, it being a rare passion of Minato’s.
“You’re always so easy to find, Minato!”
The sun had just set.
After completing his first day as an instructor, Minato headed over to the breakwater near the lighthouse, unable to resist it any longer. That’s when Natsuka Hoshino, someone who knew his habits ever since he was young, showed up unexpectedly with a big smile.
Something about her seemed even brighter than usual.
“The fish be bitin’?”
“Some here n’ there.”
They did their usual exchange, and she plopped herself down like a jellyfish next to him, smile unyielding. She seemed to have taken a shower before her evening stroll. She smelled faintly of soap.
“Today was your teaching debut. How was it?”
“We got surrounded by man-eating sharks.”
“Isn’t that big news?! Are you okay? Did you get hurt anywhere?”
“It’s me we’re talking about. I could’ve taken care of all of them in three seconds flat, no problem. . . One of the trainees called Chloe stole the thunder from right under my legs, though. I got downright green with envy and made her write me an apology as a punishment.”
I told her this jokingly, and she responded, “Chloe? As in, the Chloe?”
“I guess everyone knows about her. . .”
It only made sense for girl who constantly disobeyed and fought back against the instructors to not get along well with her fellow trainees. It seems that was the case with her.
“I’ve never met her myself, but I hear her name sometimes from the other girls in the locker room, you know? They’re always saying mean things about her.”
“I can’t say I don’t understand where they’re coming from.”
“Oh? You don’t like Chloe either, Minato?”
“I wouldn’t say that. From what I’ve seen, I actually rather like her. She’s strong-willed and, in a way, an honest girl.”
“I see.” Her mouth curved happily into a grin. “If you like her, she must be a sweet girl.”
That smile of hers. . . She looked uncannily like a dog wagging its tail.
“I made some riceballs to snack on. You can have one,” Minato said.
In his days as a trainee, Natsuka was quite possibly the main reason Minato didn’t crack under the pressure of not being around his sister. Her cuteness was a point of pride for him.
She stuffed the riceball into her mouth, and for no reason in particular, he poked her cheek. She smiled.
“Hm? Why’d you do that? It tickles.”
She’s like a baby.
You could probably even fondle her breasts and she wouldn’t complain—if anything, it was almost scary. How long will I be able to keep this up? When she eventually gets married, I feel like I’ll end up being the one who sobs like a father at the wedding. Part of me also feels like I’ll end up kidnapping her and running away before it does come to that.
Trying to take his mind off of any other strange thoughts, he returned his focus to the fishing.
I could also do with a change of topic.
“So, how’s your training coming along?”
“Really bad. . .”
She turned visibly depressed in an instant.
According to her, she started to stagnate ever since entering the intermediate curriculum. Unlike at a normal school, each trainee in the Academy graduated at a different pace. It was an entirely exam-based system.
Beginner Curriculum, Practical Exams: 45 subjects
Intermediate Curriculum, Practical Exams: 52 subjects
Advanced Curriculum, Practical Exams: Approximately 20 subjects (course-dependent)
There were over a hundred different practical exams in total, and, in addition to that, there were also various written exams that tested cultural and technical knowledge. Upon passing all of these, a trainee would finally be allowed to graduate.
Furthermore, it took five years on average for a trainee to graduate, and the maximum allotted time was eight. If you went over that time limit, you would lose your chance to take any more courses and be expelled from the Academy. What that essentially meant was that you would never have another opportunity to become a licensed water manipulator. There were always one or two trainees every year who had their dreams crushed in this fashion.
Natsuka Hoshino, in her fifth year at the Academy, was also starting to come face-to-face with this bitter reality.
“I don’t know why. . . I mean, I can dive and move underwater, but anything more than that, like hardening or changing the shape of my Territory. . . It just never works. I just don’t have any talent, I think.”
“Are you really a Zone Specialist?”
Water manipulators were categorized into four basic types, and the one Natsuka supposedly fell under—Zone Specialization—included those who excelled at directly manipulating the substance of their Territories, altering it, and so on.
Those techniques included the very “hardening” and “changing the shape” that Natsuka found difficult. Controlling her territory was something she was supposed to be good at, but instead she had a hard time doing it. That’s a little much, even for someone as clumsy as her, Minato thought.
“Are you sure you’re not actually a Perception Specialist like me or some other type?”
“Does something like that happen?”
With developments in Solaris-based technology nowadays, it was possible to determine a water manipulator’s type with near-pinpoint precision. It was a matter of black and white. It’s hard to imagine the Academy would make a mistake like that.
It was probably a simple issue of talent.
While there were trainees like Chloe Knightley who were perfect from the start, there were also those like Natsuka Hoshino who found even the basics taxing.
“Not to jinx you or anything, but what will you do if you can’t graduate?”
“Hmm, well. . .”
Natsuka stared up at the night sky as if deep in thought.
Minato had only just realized that you could see the stars with impressive clarity on a fine evening like this one. I remember hearing about it before. While the planet’s total land-area shrank in the aftermath of the Oceanic Calamity, the starry sky apparently only grew more beautiful.
When he returned his gaze to the longtime friend sitting next to him, her face showed a sad smile as it pointed up towards the stars.
“I can’t really think of anything. . . I’m not that smart. Sorry I’m so useless. . .”
“No, it’s my fault for asking something like that. Just forget I said anything.”
It’s not like it was a lost cause just yet.
Besides, she’d probably end up leading a happier life if she didn’t become a water manipulator. You aren’t able to choose where you end up assigned once you get licensed, and because the job revolves so fundamentally around deep-sea operations, the work goes hand-in-hand with danger. Instead of walking the thorny path of the expert, how about finding and chasing a new dream instead?
I couldn’t stop the thought from entering my mind. I guess I really am overprotective.
In the morning, Chloe Knightley submitted her written apology. Normally, one or two pages were sufficient for this kind of thing, but she instead handed over fifteen.
She strutted in confidently with a triumphant expression on her face, looking as if she herself thought she wrote a masterpiece. “I have to say, it was almost like the pen took over at a certain point,” she said.
The words “waste of talent” came to mind as he took the apology and flipped through all the pages in fifteen seconds. His eyes scanned each page in only a second.
He then immediately fed it to the shredder without a moment of hesitation.
“WHAT?! WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!”
“Do it again.”
“I even lost some sleep over that! And all you did was skim it!”
“I did read it. My Territory lets me read things quickly.”
“A speed-reading ability?” Chloe opened her eyes wide in surprise, and then a contemptuous smile grew across her face. “I can’t believe it. What a boring ability! Forget water manipulators—even normal people can do that.”
“Well it’s not so much speed-reading as it is data management, but it definitely is boring, I’ll give you that. Anyways, what you wrote wasn’t an apology, so do another one. I mean, come on. The entire thing was just a bunch of sentences of you defending yourself and getting mad at me. There wasn’t even an ounce of remorse in it.”
“Well, that’s because I don’t feel any remorse. I dislike lying.”
“Lying or not, what I told you to write was an apology. I knew very well you didn’t agree with me, but I still told you to do it. Listen to orders. Once you get into the real world, you’re going to run into a bunch of situations where you have to swallow your pride even though you think you’re right—you’d better get used to that.”
“You really are a textbook dictator, aren’t you, sir. . .”
“You need to get over yourself. Listen, I don’t care if it’s short, but if you continue to refuse, I won’t let you do any training.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Hate to break it to you, but I can. Go on, then. Shoo.”
“I’ll never forget this.”
She glared at Minato with a vengeful expression and then stormed out of the staff room.
Minato smiled bitterly.
If only she realized showing irritation like that was the whole problem in the first place.
At any rate, Chloe returned once again at 1:00 in the afternoon and handed in a page with a couple “I’ll be more careful”s here and there. It was entirely lip service, but he accepted it anyways.
Minato Yamajo then started Chloe Knightley’s training in earnest—well. . . not that there was much to teach her in the first place.
“What ridiculous talent. . .”
They were 5 kilometers off the coast of the artificial island, 1,700 meters below the surface of the sea.
Enveloped in her golden Territory, the girl chased after him. You couldn’t really call it swimming—it was more like she was flying through the water.
Was she a mermaid? Some kind of torpedo?
It’s a little scary to imagine what she’s going to be like in the future. Her reckless attitude only makes it worse.
—Academy Intermediate Curriculum: Underwater Maneuvering Training IV
In layman’s terms, it was a course that tested multiple fundamentals by having the trainee move underwater at high speeds while avoiding obstacles like sunken ruins. As for the results, Chloe finished it with more than half of the allotted time remaining.
To add to that, Minato, who originally should have been guiding her through the course as an instructor, ended up falling behind.
She waited with her usual smugness as if welcoming him to the finish line and then smiled cockily, “You’re slower than a trainee, sir. Wouldn’t you say your skills are lacking?”
“Man, you’re fast; you beat me by a mile. You win.”
Well, the course was only meant to test basic underwater movement competency at any rate. You’d pass as long as your maneuvering abilities were above a certain threshold. Still, her fundamentals are as good as they get.
It’s pretty tough teaching someone with almost nothing left to learn. I have to say I feel for the guy with the ulcer.
And to top it off—
“If you continue to have me participate in these shabby drills, I fear I may lose my motivation altogether.”
—this girl really likes to run her mouth.
“We can’t be having that. Before taking an exam, you have to do at least one training course corresponding to it. Those are the rules.”
“Again with your rules. . . That’s all you’re good at. I honestly don’t mind having to take the courses, but under an instructor with skills inferior to mine? Doesn’t it seem like a waste of time? Though I suppose you’ll brush it off by hiding behind the rules again.”
I bet it was this mouth of hers that did the last guy in, thought Minato as he silently prayed for the other instructor’s recovery.
Minato was different, however. Possibly due to his personality, whether he was slandered or made a fool of, none of it ever affected him. It was almost like he didn’t feel any self-worth. He focused so entirely on what was important to him—like his little sister and childhood friend—that he himself tended to be of minor importance. Of course, if his sister was the one being slandered, there would be no mercy.
Back to the issue at hand. . . His pupil had just called the time spent training with him useless.
What to do, what to do. . .?
“Then how about we have a proper match this time?”
Chloe’s eyes narrowed with suspicion at Minato’s proposal.
“A match, you say.”
“Yup. There’s nothing else we need to do for today’s course, though, so I’m thinking we could make the trip back to the Academy a race. Getting there normally would be pretty boring, don’t you think?”
“Alright, then. I’ll take you up on that!”
With a small body that looked as if it were a fairy’s floating in the water, she confidently puffed out her nonexistent chest.
Wait. . . Could it be?
“Okay then, how about the loser gets a punishment?” I asked.
He threw the suggestion out there, and then as if right on cue, she nodded back in exactly 0.3 seconds.
“Sure, why not? There’s no possible way I’ll lose, after all.”
“Man. . .”
Minato was certain. This girl was the real deal. There wasn’t an ounce of self-doubt in her. Her naivety rivaled even Natsuka Hoshino’s.
Here I am proposing a punishment, and yet there isn’t even a hint of suspicion in her. Shouldn’t she be thinking something like: Maybe Minato was holding back earlier? Well, not that I was. . .
There was, however, a hidden side to Minato’s challenge. He was planning on winning.
It seemed like the girl didn’t notice one bit. To make matters worse, she looked as if she were a baby spotting a new toy when she asked, “So, what should the punishment be?”
“Oh, um. . .” Even Minato started to feel somewhat guilty at how innocent she was. “I’ll leave it up to you, Chloe.”
“Really? You’re going to regret that.”
Her blue eyes shined brightly.
“Then the loser has to become a slave!”
Minato coughed as he choked on his words. It was so childish and yet so extreme at the same time.
What should I do? My pupil is selling herself off for cheap.
“Are you being serious?”
“Yes, after this, I’ll have you obey everything I say. You’ll be adhering to all of my rules. Maybe I should make you write me an apology for punishing me so unfairly once we return to the Academy? A 30 page one. And in addition to that, you’ll have to come running like a dog whenever I call you. I’m no monster, however. I’ll release you out of pity once I graduate.”
She went on and on about about the loser’s conditions like she had already won the race.
It seems she took having to follow Minato’s orders exceptionally hard.
“Haha, I can hardly believe I already have the chance to eliminate one of my life’s most unsightly eyesores.”
“What a short life. . .”
“Quiet, you! I won’t let you back out of this now, puppy-instructor!”
“I don’t remember that being my title.”
Oh well, it’s fine. This was as good a time as ever to really show this sheltered princess how naive she actually was.
With personal freedom on the line, the race started.
—15 minutes later
The blond-haired girl was in near hysterics as she stood on the sandy beaches that constituted the race’s finish line. There was no way Chloe could’ve escaped defeat after jinxing herself that much beforehand. Minato had won the race by a mile.
It was true that Chloe had the advantage in terms of raw speed. The decider in this match, however, boiled down to a so-called gap in their experience.
“The key to moving quickly underwater is to look for the strong currents. You should remember that.”
Immediately after starting the race, Chloe zoned in on the shortest possible route to the finish line. The problem with that, however, was that it took her through currents running in the opposite direction, slowing her down considerably—a classic beginner’s mistake.
When using your Territory to move through water, your muscles don’t experience as much stress as they would if you were swimming normally with your body. That meant that there were many people who ignored currents altogether, even if they were strong.
Minato, on the other hand, was aware of a strong current that headed towards the finish line, so he rode it all the way there without a care in the world.
“So as you can see, raw skill becomes less of a factor—by making use of your environment, you can drastically increase your efficiency. If you understand this now, I’d say today’s training wasn’t a waste after all, right?”
The whole point of the race was to drill that point through her head. Minato thought that for someone like her, there was no way she’d seriously listen to him if he told her that normally.
That said, she didn’t look all too eager to listen to him at this moment either. Her entire body was quivering.
“I regret to inform you that I don’t quite care about your constant preaching.”
“Loser has to obey the winner.”
“Guh. . .”
“Is it really okay for a slave to ignore her master?”
“Ugh, I wanna die. . .”
She started to break down in tears on the beach. She was acting as if the world was going to end. Well, her reaction wasn’t unfathomable. After all, she was bound by her promise to an instructor whom she absolutely despised.
Minato was no monster, however. He’ll release her out of pity once she graduates.
At a periodic inspection when I was 12 years old, I learned that I was compatible with Solaris.
By choosing to become a water manipulator, I could make more money than your average office worker. There would be little to no chance of losing my job. My future would be all but guaranteed.
With that strangely mature reasoning, Minato Yamajo garnered the resolve to part with his parents, isolated himself on the artificial island in the Pacific, and spent three years studying as a trainee to become a water manipulator.
The result was that he didn’t have many he could call friends, and he was well-aware that he had brought it upon himself.
“Eek! Minato Yamajo?!”
“Eek, you say. . .”
He’d heard that the instructor Aishwarin would be returning back to the island after a week-long business trip and went to welcome her back—only to see her face go explosively pale.
When Minato was a student, she was the mentor specifically assigned to him. Born in the Indian Autonomous Zone, she was a beautiful 21 year old female instructor whose healthy light-brown skin matched her good proportions and gave her a mature yet childlike appearance. Add to that her lively personality and sprinkle in a willingness to look after others, and she won the hearts of everyone in the Academy, men and women alike. I would like to remind you that her face is ghostly pale at the moment.
I even went out of my way to wait for her at the airport like this. . .
She dropped the bags she was carrying in both her hands to the ground and started to point at her former pupil with a panicked expression.
“W-W-W-Why are you here, you brat?!”
“Brat, you say. . . Wait, did the president not tell you? I also started working here as an instructor two days ago. That means we’re coworkers now. I look forward to working with you!”
“I didn’t hear anything about this nightmare! I mean, yeah, I saw your name on the instructor candidate list, but I was like, haha, no way are they going to let this punk in or something ridiculous like that! But they actually took you? Are you serious? I never have any idea what the president is thinking, and like, anyways, this is impossible. No, no, no, this is impossible. It’s so impossible. I can’t do this. . . I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. . . I’m going to murder you. I’m so going to murder you for real this time.”
She went on and on like this, cradling her head. She might have even been stomping the ground a little.
“I’m glad to see you haven’t changed one bit.”
Minato thought back warmly to his former trainee days and started to grin excessively. He didn’t intend on doing anything differently.
“Just like always, you’re so cute when you’re riled up, and to top it off, you still don’t have a boyfriend. Well, this island is in the middle of nowhere, so I can’t really fault you for not being able to meet anyone nice, but I mean, look at you. You’re downright adorable, so you should stop trying to wait around for someone to hit on you with your shirt all unbuttoned like that and be proactive for once. Oh, would you like me to carry your bags, by the way?”
“Just shut up! You also haven’t changed at all, you little sexual-harassing shit. I-I only unbuttoned the top ‘cause it’s hot out. Getting b-boyfriends has nothing to do with it!”
“Nothing, you say. . .”
Like always, she flailed around like a child.
This kind of thing isn’t good for me, honestly, Minato thought.
For as long as I can remember, I haven’t been able to resist people with that kind of card up their sleeve—namely, huge, over-exaggerated reactions. Maybe it was something like how little boys always wanted to bully their crushes. . . Maybe it was because she got cuter and cuter the more he messed with her. . . Whatever the reason, he eventually developed this bad habit of his. Whenever he asked her something like, “Don’t those boobs get in the way,” her reaction was priceless, and the payoff felt divine.
Likely due to that teacher-student relationship of theirs, Minato eventually ended up getting branded a perverted cretin all throughout the Academy, and most of the female trainees that saw him would wind up running away as if trying to avoid a spider. Not to mention his ability essentially made him a walking three-sizes detector.
That background of his may have been one of the reasons why Chloe Knightley’s attitude never got the best of Minato. After all, he himself was the kind of trainee that constantly disrespected his instructors.
He realized Aishwarin was staring at him wearily, fists at the ready.
“S-So you’re really an instructor now?”
“I’m just as surprised as you are. Well, apparently it’s because of my ‘bold’ personality, and it’s possible that the president chose me specifically to see where this one trainee named Chloe is at.”
“Oh, her, huh? She does seem like a good match for you. . . Even if you were the cause of my suffering, personally!”
“You’re so mean. We should try mud wrestling again, for old time’s sake.”
“Don’t bring up the stuff I did when I was drunk, you idiot! We are absolutely zero-percent friends, and the only reason I let you get away with everything you did was ‘cause you were a trainee, but now that we’re coworkers, you’d better forget it! Just go die in a pit already.”
“Die in a pit, you say. . .”
“And carry my bags for me!”
“I already told you I would, though.”
She really was a sweeter person than she let on. That’s why Minato truly respected her, more than he let on as well.
A well-known fact among the people on the artificial island, the housing unit put aside for the instructors was entirely mixed. There were a whole host of good reasons for the tight security measures in place.
That’s why helping Aishwarin take her luggage back to her room also doubled as returning home for Minato. For whatever reason, however, she decided to go back to the Academy on foot even though it took a good hour from the island’s airport.
Granted, it made for a good conversation.
“Look at us walking back together like this. It’s almost like we’re lovers.”
As Minato said this with a little smile, she glared at him from the side and said, “Could you not with the sick jokes? It’s so creepy how you can avoid security cameras and infrared sensors with your ability. If you ever come to my room, I swear I’ll rip you apart.”
“You know, even I adhere to a strict code of conduct whenever I harass you. Three things: I don’t touch, I respect privacy, and I never do anything to anyone who isn’t a target. I would never break these rules.”
“If you know it’s harassment, then why do you do it in the first place?! And what the hell do you mean ‘target?’ Am I one of the targets?!”
“Well, it’s more like you’re the only target. There’s no one else like you in this whole world!”
“For such a sweet line, it’s making me strangely unhappy!”
“And besides, ma’am, I can clearly imagine all the underwear and stuff laying around your room already, so there’s no need for me to go through the trouble of breaking in.”
She kicked him in the butt.
“How the hell do you know what my room’s like?”
“Oh god, I was right. . . That won’t do, ma’am. Just because you’re a certified water manipulator doesn’t mean you can slack off on things like cleaning and cooking. Lots of guys these days seem to think that women should take care of the chores. That’s right, didn’t your last boyfriend break up with you over your cooking? I’m pretty sure it was something to do with curry, which is surprising considering you’re Indian—”
“No, it wasn’t! I keep telling you it was ‘cause the long-distance thing didn’t work out! Ah, screw this. I’m so thirsty now. . . I hate how I can never control myself when I talk with you. Ugh, I just want to disappear.”
“When I first met you, I remember how everyone thought you were so cool and collected.”
“Yeah, well thanks a lot asshole. Just get eaten by a shark already.”
“Oh, speaking of sharks, I just remembered. . .”
He hadn’t actually forgotten anything, but it was the perfect chance to chime in anyways. It was about Chloe Knightley.
Minato had wanted to ask one of his senior coworkers for their opinion on Chloe ever since he was assigned to her, and Aishwarin, the one he trusted the most, was the perfect fit. It was even one of the reasons he decided to meet her at the airport in the first place.
Using the nicely timed mention of sharks as a segue, he told Aishwarin about how he made Chloe write him an apology and everything that happened after that (excluding the little bit about slavery). Finally, he gave his own opinion on the matter:
“So I’m thinking it’s more important to focus on fixing her mindset than it is to develop her abilities.”
By the time the story finished, Aishwarin had already completely turned calm and nodded. I can’t believe I lived to see the day when I could get professional help from her of all people, thought Minato with a strange sense of fulfillment.
That’s when this kindhearted Indian sister to us all started to speak at length about the topic.
“It’s definitely true that Chloe’s talent as a water manipulator is an incredible asset. All of her abilities, from the basics functions to the unique characteristics of her expanded Territory, are top notch. Most importantly, the way with which she can instinctively control her abnormally strong powers is astonishing in every sense of the word. I doubt there’s more we can teach her in that regard. . . Unfortunately, she’s realized this as well, and it’s given her a warped understanding of her time here. As a water manipulator, Chloe has started to imagine herself as a ‘completed product.’ Though it’s true in a sense, it’s also incorrect. For a profession that requires both mind and body, she’s missing half of what’s necessary.”
That’s exactly it.
She was able to accurately put Minato’s thoughts into words. It was the exact kind of verbal analysis that you’d expect out of someone with such extensive teaching experience.
“Have you mentioned this to her?” I asked.
“Yeah right. Talk about a pain in the ass.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I’m not in the habit of looking out for pupils that aren’t mine. Besides, even if I did tell her that, there’s no way she’d take it seriously. You’ve seen how see looks down on the instructors. Hate to say it, but I have absolutely zero interest in dealing with her.”
Though I couldn’t help but think there was a special caring tone in her voice. Of course, if I tried to tell her that, she’d deny it vehemently. It might even ruin the serious atmosphere.
The discussion of Chloe continued.
“I think she’s an easy girl to understand, though,” Minato said.
“That’s exactly why it’s such a hassle. She’s convinced she’s the best and won’t listen to anything that says otherwise. Just like you said, I think putting together a curriculum for her that focuses more on developing her mindset will be better for her growth in the long run. For example, giving her a environment where she can interact with classmates like at a normal school.”
Interesting idea. . .
“It’s a shame though. This Academy doesn’t have any system like that in place. Oh well, do your best. Not that I care.”
“No, that was plenty helpful, Aish. You really are a great senior,” said Minato genuinely. He not only received a valuable hint, but he was also able to have a nice time talking with her.
He then noticed Aishwarin had stopped in her tracks.
She stood there motionless, in complete silence. Ten seconds went by. Minato understandably tilted his head in confusion.
“Is something wrong?”
“What did you say just now?”
“Huh? It was helpful?”
“No, not that. The part after it.”
“Um. . . You’re a great senior?”
“You’re a great senior.”
“One more time.”
Once he repeated it for the seventh time, it suddenly dawned on Minato that before he arrived at the Academy as an instructor, Aishwarin was the youngest member of the staff. It was possible she really longed for a younger coworker to fawn over, surprisingly. Proof of that was the fresh spring in her step once she started walking again.
For seemingly no reason, Aishwarin suddenly felt the need to demonstrate her generosity and said, “Come on, let me treat you to some food.”
Really, what a great senior.
“Apparently, you’re famous for harassing girls, sir,” came the snickering comment.
With a triumphant grin, Chloe spoke about Minato’s Academy days. Lots of people knew about it, so it didn’t come as a surprise.
If anything, the strangest part of all of this was how she was actually here in front of him. Ever since becoming a slave, Minato assumed Chloe would’ve wanted to remain out of sight for as long as possible. Instead of playing hooky, however, she was faithfully at their designated meeting place on the shore. It was possibly because she was so straightforward, or maybe she just conveniently forgot about everything that happened. Did she actually like being treated like a slave? Minato started to suspect traces of masochism in Chloe.
He didn’t plan on abusing it, however, so he decided not to press the issue.
“You hear that from your friends?”
“No. My older sister’s on a mission right now, so I can’t get ahold of her.”
It’s a little strange that she started talking about her sister when I asked about her friends. . . On the topic of her sister, she was someone who joined the Academy at the same time as Minato but who graduated much more quickly, one year before him. She was pretty well-known, but the two never had a chance to talk. Both sisters clearly possessed the esteemed Knightley lineage.
That aside, Chloe had apparently learned about it by chance.
“Some of the girls were talking about it in the locker room and I overheard it. I definitely wasn’t trying to listen in on their conversation, so I’d rather you not take that the wrong way.”
It seems the Academy’s female locker room is a hotbed for rumors. . .
Not only that, but Chloe had also apparently taken the time to write down what she had heard. She proceeded to list them out loud one-by-one, as if she were a reporter for some kind of weekly gossip magazine.
“So, I ordered the major points into a list: 1) You always keep an eye out for visible bras. 2) You abuse your ability by taking girls’ bodily measurements. 3) Through your own information route, you expose the secrets of various couples. 4) You can impregnate girls through malicious brainwaves. 5) Your mother tongue consists only of inappropriate slang and indecent euphemisms. 6) You are in the process of domesticating your childhood friend, Natsuka Hoshino. 7) You have a collarbone fetish. . . That’s all. What do you have to say?”
“What the heck? Number 7 is so true it’s scary.”
“And the rest is false?”
“Number 6 is completely false. I can understand why the rest might be there, though.”
That said, all of it was just stuff I did to Aishwarin, blown out of proportion. She’s always been a klutz with her appearance, so I’ve had to warn her countless times about that. When she and her ex-boyfriend were in their honeymoon period, she went on and on about their relationship despite Minato not asking for it, and it’s true he used a lot of what she said to tease her after they eventually broke up. And the whole thing with pregnancy probably came about during a little episode when a female instructor who was close with Aishwarin retired right before her shotgun wedding.
Chloe started to crumple up the paper in her hand.
“I see. Well, I was never going to bother with this gossip in the first place.”
“Oh? You don’t think it’s true?”
“Of course not,” she responded resolutely. “Your actions towards me have never constituted sexual harassment. These rumors contradict the reality of working with you.”
How on earth was she always so sure of herself?
It was like the Code of Chloe. It was like she was thinking, if this man was truly was a habitual offender, then there’s no way he’d not target me. Sure Minato was just like any other guy with a healthy interest in the opposite sex, but the most he wanted to do with Chloe was maybe give her some candy. At the moment, at least. . .
She’s just so amusing. I’ll buy her something to drink after training’s over. Minato couldn’t help but break out into a small smile.
“I am now aware, however, that you’re universally hated by every woman in this world.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather you didn’t make it a global thing.”
It was true at least within the confines of the Academy. Not that he’d be any more popular in the city. . .
For whatever reason, this incomprehensible girl then started to try and console Minato. “Please don’t take it to heart. The fact that even someone as dull and of such disreputable character as you can successfully obtain a water manipulator license is proof of the wonder of this fantastic world we live in. Be assured, for even now, I empathize with your struggle and am blessing you with the chance to guide someone like me. I fear I am the only thing keeping you from being chased away by the Academy, after all.”
Oh my god.
“I’m so moved I can hardly speak.”
It seems that by hearing about Minato’s ill reputation, she managed a complete return to how she used to be. Simple, as always. I wonder if she forgot she’s the slave of that aforementioned dull person of disreputable character, Minato thought.
Though her constant preoccupations were a shame, that conviction of hers was definitely her greatest asset.
“So anyways, this is what we’re going to do in today’s training. . .”
With that, he started the exercises as usual.
We’re still in the preliminary stages.
All we can do now is sow the seed. There’s no way of knowing what kind of flower it will grow into.
”Instructor Minato Yamajo, the president requests your presence. Please report to the president’s office after lunch. Repeat, instructor Minato—”
Soon after lunch recess started, an announcement blared over the intercom.
Today like every other day, Minato was eating his lunch on the roof of the training building—the girls always glared at him when he used the lounge inside—and once he heard the summons, he scarfed down the remaining food and hurried over to the president’s office.
He had an idea as to why he was being called for. It was probably an answer to his earlier request.
“I thought you were a little more rational than this,” the president said as soon as he entered the room.
The chair the large brawny woman sat in was much bigger than the average chair, so the sight of her in it didn’t look that far removed from reality. If anything, seeing her sit down like that gave an even intellectual impression.
It was difficult to make out the president’s expression with the sun shining behind her, but judging by her tone and the choice of words, she was probably in complete disbelief.
Unable to figure out what she was implying, Minato repeated back, “Rational?”
Her shoulders started shaking, as if she were laughing.
“It’s just that I never imagined you’d be looking after that girl like this. You have a thing for little girls?”
“You’re so mean. You’re the one who assigned her to me in the first place. I’m just trying to see what works for my little pupil—is that really so strange?”
“It wouldn’t be if you two were anywhere near normal. If you were, then I would’ve been able to laugh this whole thing off as some kind of dumb sitcom development while I stamped the papers. But it’s you and Chloe Knightley, so I can’t help but be a tad bewildered.”
“It sounds like you aren’t going to give me the approval.”
“Before I do, I want to ask you something.”
The president took a moment to pick up one of the papers on her desk. It was probably the request form that Minato turned in first thing this morning.
She sighed while looking over the sheet.
“I’m pretty sure I already told you this when I first assigned her to you, but the Academy evaluates instructors more highly the faster their pupils graduate. The reason being, the faster we can develop water manipulators, the better we look to the top brass. And then you give me this? If I approve this request of yours, her lesson pace will probably drop drastically. Your evaluation will too.”
“That seems to be the case. You wouldn’t mind taking care of that, would you?!”
“Is it really necessary? Chloe’s skills are perfect, personality aside. Don’t you think it’d be much easier to forget all the extra work and just have her graduate already? She’ll end up passing all the training and exams anyways.”
“I feel like you’re trying to get a certain answer out of me.”
“You’re overthinking it. If you’ve got an ulterior motive for this, you’d better spit it out.”
“Ulterior motive, huh? Promise you won’t get mad?”
“Depends on your answer.”
Why do I want to alter Chloe’s curriculum? Why do I want to make the “perfect girl” take a detour, even though it was clearly more work?
Without hiding anything, Minato answered the president’s question. It was actually quite simple.
“Chloe reminds me a lot of my sister.”
The president showed her confusion in full force. “Are you kidding me? Are you forgetting you’re a professional?”
“I do fancy myself quite the idiot.”
It wasn’t their personalities or their appearances that were similar—it was the atmosphere they exuded.
There was something she was missing even though she was so extraordinary, and thanks to it, her strange stubbornness was uncannily similar. Both of them lacked even the tiniest trace of apprehension. They didn’t fear failure. My sister’s motto was: “If you drop it, pick it up immediately!”
Ever since meeting Chloe, there was a strange sense of calm I’d feel whenever I was around her, and that was why. The president was entirely correct. This was as personal and unprofessional a request as it got.
“I can’t say it impresses me. So much for being fair.”
“Well, I’m pretty frail, so if you threaten to punch me or something, I’ll probably take back the request.”
She only smiled, however.
“Sure, why not? I’ll stamp it for you.”
“I believed in you from the start.”
“Your rationale still isn’t good enough, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect good things out of you. I’d much rather we spend a little more time on her instead of sending her out into the workforce like that. Most of all, it’ll be a good chance for you and her to test new waters. Give it a go.”
“Thank you very much.”
For now, that was one hurdle out of the way. I managed to get the go-ahead from the one representing the Academy. Whether it was ultimately a good thing or not, however, depended on Chloe and one other person.
“Well then, time to pair Chloe up with her new buddy.”
“Who might this new girl be?”
Chloe seemed irritated today. Maybe she had already sussed out that something was going on.
The girl standing behind Minato walked out in front to introduce herself and cheerfully raised her hand to say hi.
“I’m Natsuka Hoshino. Um, just like Minato, I was born in the Japanese Autonomous Zone, and I’m 17 years old. It’s my fifth year here, and my favorite things are fried mince-meat and jellyfish. Oh, but I like raising the jellyfish, not eating them. I like aquariums, and I don’t really have any special talents.”
Minato started to clap before he could stop himself. It was a great introduction. It really painted the perfect picture of Natsuka in so few words.
Chloe became even more irritated and said, “You haven’t told me a single piece of important information.”
“Really? Well, let’s see. I’m 162 centimeters tall, and my weight is a secret. From top to bottom, my three sizes are—”
“Stop talking! Are you trying to be sarcastic? That’s not what I’m talking about. I couldn’t care less about your personal information. I’m currently in a training course, and yet why is there another trainee here as well? That’s what I want to know. We’ve already finished with the group Solaris-mining sessions today.”
Her reaction was justified. Minato answered her question bluntly, without keeping any secrets, “This girl is going to be your partner from now on.”
He timed the explanation poorly like this on purpose. The look of shock on her face was even better than expected.
“U-Um. . . I’m not quite sure I understand. . .”
“The thing is, this girl was also under the care of that instructor you bullied and gave an ulcer a while back, so the poor thing is being shuffled around without anyone to teach her. It’s going to end up affecting her graduation at this rate.”
“So get to the point. . .”
“Doesn’t it eat at you? This girl—the very epitome of innocence and harmlessness—being forced to weather such hardships. . .?”
“Hey. . . Hey, Minato. What does uh-pit-uh-me mean?”
“I definitely feel annoyance, right now. . . I don’t feel a shred of sympathy for her. How does her being in that situation have anything to do with me? Her skill should decide that. And for the instructor in the hospital—for someone who let his health deteriorate like that from a few words here and there—I can only imagine that to be a personal failure for someone like a professional water manipulator.”
With a cold sneer full of contempt, she shook her head from side to side. Minato sighed back.
“Not everyone’s as exceptionally full of themselves as you are, you know.”
“F-Flattery will get you nowhere.”
Her selective hearing was in a league of its own.
“Anyways listen. Because there’s only one of me and two of you, I’m going to slow down your lesson pace to match Natsuka’s. I’d like some of your exceptionalness to rub off on her.”
What a way with words, if I do say so myself. If I’m going to be introducing Chloe to a buddy system, I might as well secretly try to help my failing childhood friend at the same time. It was only the finest display of mixing the personal and professional.
After that, Minato went to explain the system without trying to probe for additional reactions and said, “I also want you to learn a little teamwork.”
Why the heck does she look like she’s never heard the word before?
“It doesn’t matter which division you get assigned to in the future, you’re going to have to work with others. Your job’s not going to work out so well if you give all your coworkers stomach ulcers.”
“I’m not looking to work with people who have weak stomachs.”
“Once you become a water manipulator, you won’t be in a position to make those kinds of decisions. As it so happens, I’m not in that sort of position either. You see where I’m going with this?”
She actually humphed me just now. You’ve got to hand it to her sometimes.
“Well I’ve already come to expect this kind of high-handedness from you by now. So then what’s her name? Natsuka Horsey-Nose?”
“It’s Hoshino! Please don’t make me self-conscious!”
“Sorry, it’s just that you looked as clueless and vacant as a horse, so it accidentally slipped out. So what exactly am I supposed to do with Hoshino, then?”
“Oh yeah. Could you go ahead and train her?”
This was the true face of the “buddy system” that Minato put together.
“I’ve giving you a new rule: you’re only allowed to take a subject’s practical exam once your partner has passed it. The more Natsuka stumbles around, the longer it’s going to take for you to graduate. Seems pretty difficult, but I’ll be rooting for you!”
“W-W-Wait a moment!” Chloe’s expression finally changed for the worse. “You’re expecting me to teach someone this boring and forgettable?!”
“Hey, don’t point at others. It’s rude. I thought you were already used to my decision-making.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I was surprised. I was planning on graduating in only two years, just like my older sister, and now I have to drag around this heavy luggage while I do it. . .? You can’t be serious.”
“Heavy. . .? Please don’t talk about my weight. . .”
Minato ignored Natuska’s random interjection and continued talking with the furious Chloe.
“You’ve been making faster progress than your sister so far, so I’m sure you’ll make it in time if you really give it your all. Besides, it’s up to the instructors to decide if their pupils can graduate. I’ve decided that I’ll let you graduate if you prove to me that you can mentor Natsuka as well.”
“But that’s just—!”
“Guh. . .”
It was the magic word.
An irreplaceable promise. . . A special secret. . . An unforgettable memory. . .
The special way I pronounced it even further kept it between us.
She instant she heard it, her incessant cross-armed resistance disappeared without a trace. Though the muscles in her face twitched, both her arms dropped to her sides as if on command.
Her face was bright red, perhaps from anger.
Then, with the most sullen tone imaginable, she responded, “Sir. . . yes, sir. . .”
It was all too easy.
For how unbelievably full of herself she was, she always did what she thought was fair and kept her promises at the very least. She was an honest person, for better or for worse. I feel like it’s only going to get harder for me to leverage it in the future, considering how effective it turned out to be.
“This is all I’m asking you to do. You don’t need to do anything differently otherwise. Try not to think too much about the whole slaaave thing.”
“Am I allowed to strangle you then?”
“If you can!”
—is what Minato really wanted to say back, but the chances were likely that he’d turn into a bloodied murder victim if she went all out. That’s how truly frightening her Territory was. He instead just stayed silent.
The girl that could only barely expand her power in the first place, however, had her cheeks puffed out grumpily.
“You can’t do anything mean to Minato! Be nice to him!”
“I’m getting irked.”
Watching them both, he couldn’t really blame her for feeling that way. Chloe probably saw her as doing some kind of conniving cutesy-act. Sorry to say it, but that was undeniably the true Natsuka. She’ll figure this out in due time.
Though the air between them seems pretty tense at first glance.
“And what’s up with the ‘Minato this, Minato that’? Call him ‘sir’ like you’re supposed to!”
Chloe was already starting with the lessons. Minato started to feel like this was going to go swimmingly.
The badmouthing she was so proud of against instructor and classmate alike just wouldn’t get through to Natsuka, a girl as carefree as a jellyfish. The two of them would be a great combination.
There was the sense of camaraderie and an introduction to the hardships of not having everything go your way. Minato wanted to have her experience both of these ingredients vital to her growth through training sessions with a buddy.
They might even become lasting friends.
Rather, they almost certainly would have, had not even fate forsaken them so—
The monster scurried away.
The location was 400 kilometers southwest of the artificial island that housed the Academy in the Pacific Ocean, 1,500 meters below the surface, on the ocean floor.
In this world beyond the reach of sunlight—in which the passage of the day seemed to hold no meaning—there were rows upon rows of buildings that had long since descended into ruin.
Until a hundred years ago, it was known as the Japanese city of Osaka.
Even an area as large and bustling as this one fell victim to the Oceanic Calamity and was now an empty shell submerged deep beneath the surface. It was unimaginably desolate—scarce was even aquatic life—and it was enveloped in a hellish silence.
It was midnight. The quiet was suddenly broken.
“This is Stella in alpha squad. I’m in pursuit of a creature believed to be an Under. Requesting confirmation. Over.”
“This is Tachibana in second squad. I’ve confirmed your location. Begin rendezvous. And I keep telling you, you’re first squad, not alpha. We need to match. Get it through your thick skull. Over.”
“But alpha sounds so much cooler. Maybe you should match me, instead? Over.”
Transmissions ended. Alpha—or rather first squad leader Stella turned around to face the rest of her squadron waiting on standby behind her.
“We’re moving now, Komaki. Tachibana’ll chew you out if you lose sight of that thing.”
Squadron wasn’t the best way to put it. There was only one other girl there.
“Osaka is the mecca of husband-wife comedy duos, isn’t it?” said Komaki.
“The hell you on about?”
“You should so, like, pair up with Tachibana. The two of you are so good together, you know?”
“I hope you die to an Under.”
“You’re so meeean. Communication water manipulators are, like, super important, you know?”
The two of them were in special diving suits, yet neither of them were equipped with any kind of breathing apparatus. To reiterate, they were at depths that reached pressures of 150 atm. Even if there were a breathable atmosphere down there, there was no way anything even remotely human-like would be able to function.
Water manipulators were another story, however.
Those who received the benefits of Solaris were able to raise their chemical affinity with water to the fullest possible levels, and in doing so, they could do things like breathe underwater, utilize different methods by which to hold a conversation without air, and even work in areas almost completely robbed of light. Among them were also those like Komaki, who had the ability to create long-distance communication channels in water when normal electronic transmission was impossible.
All of these supernatural activities stemmed from the Territories possessed by water manipulators. People like them were to never be harmed by water.
In addition was their exceptional mobility underwater—though varying from individual to individual, their speeds averaged at around 40 knots.
At this very pace, they continued to pursue their target.
“This is all so stupid.”
“Huh? What is?” asked Komaki, caught off guard by the sudden sound of Stella’s voice in front of her.
Stella’s shoulders drooped. “The guys over at the Farm. I can’t believe they let even one Under escape. They’re such a joke.”
“We should totally laugh, then. If any of this gets out, aaaaall of us are done for. ♪”
“Yeah, can’t really find it in me to laugh. . . Let’s just hurry up and get this over with.”
The two headed towards the transformed ruins of Osaka. As they propelled themselves through the the gaps in the buildings, they almost looked as if they were flying.
“Well, on the bright side, at least the one that escaped was only D-class trash. You could totally take care of it, no problem.”
“Better safe than sorry. We’re just going to tail it until Tachibana’s squad gets here.”
They continued to keep a large figure in their line of sight.
The creature resembled a massive tadpole. The difference, however, was that it possessed forelegs with which it charged as if crawling along the seafloor. Its movements were chaotic and seemed almost irrational. Occasionally it would barrel into one of the dilapidated buildings and destroy the walls. There likely weren’t any goals motivating its actions. It simply lived.
Humans were the ones that gave them a purpose.
“You know, I have an teeny question.”
“Like, why’re they called Unders? We used to just call them experimental subjects.”
“Oh, that? Actually, I was also curious, so I asked Tachibana. They wanted to standardize the names, I guess.”
At that moment, a bright light suddenly illuminated the water around them.
The Under was bombarded by a cascade of explosions. In that world of pitch black, countless flames burst out as if blossoming.
The ability to create these mine-like objects was a specialty of Tachibana’s, the leader of the second squadron. It was well suited to large-radius destruction, but that very inability to aim made it unsuitable for cases of simple subjugation like this one.
It was far more effective as a signal to Stella and her squad.
Time to start the battle.
“He should at least warn me before he goes and does that. . .”
Stella also prepared herself for combat. The brightness of the Territory covering her increased in intensity and then started to mold itself into armaments.
She was a Zone Specialist.
The energy took the shape of two dignified blades, reminiscent of the gladius used by swordsmen of old.
It was the solidification of her Territory. The ability itself was common among water manipulators, but Stella especially turned into a formidable fighter with the swords in hand. Tachibana’s ability also proved to be an asset—in even this kind of battle—as he could be tasked with delivering the finishing blow.
As if trying to avoid the repeated explosions, the Under launched itself above the buildings and ended up in a wide-open area.
There was nowhere left to hide. This was the perfect chance to finish it off.
Almost forgot. Right before launching her attack, Stella answered Komaki’s question.
“About what you asked earlier, it’s short for ‘Under control of the SORALIS.’1 It’s ‘cause they’re controlled by the stuff. Unders are basically like the polar opposite of us water manipulators.”
“You don’t say.”
With the sound of Komaki’s impressed voice in her ears, Stella flew into the darkness of the deep.
“I’m going to go finish this up.”
It was past midnight. Countless shadows mingled amongst themselves in the depths of the submerged Osaka.
There were but a few who knew the truth.