Where did Solaris, the living mineral, originally come from?
—Some say it arrived from outer space.
—Has it always existed on Earth, lying dormant deep beneath the surface?
—Could it have come through an inter-dimensional passage?
—Or perhaps it was first brought into this world by the progenitor of water manipulators.
. . . And so on and so on. All kinds of scholarly theories clashed with one another over where this mineral originated. Not to mention, there was no shortage of people who maintained even more absurd possibilities.
It was a mysterious, supernatural material.
Modern-day humanity now relied on Solaris however, and thanks to it, they were able to rebuild society in the wake of the Oceanic Calamity.
Water manipulators were a kind of mutant born from this very mineral. Essentially, they were man-made super-humans. With compatibility ratios of only 1:1,000 for women and 1:10,000 for men, they were a new breed of human that could thrive both on land and in the sea.
They could function at depths that rejected nearly all forms of life, so they were able to collect materials like methane hydrate that quietly slept on the ocean floor as if it were child’s play. In places where monumentally expensive machinery was once necessary and even for things like surveying sunken ruins, they could utilize their abilities for a whole host of purposes.
Above all, in the ocean, a place that never ceased to endanger human life, water manipulators were unrivaled protectors.
The trainee Natsuka Hoshino expanded her own Territory and cut off a section of the coursing energy, letting it float upwards in the ocean. It looked sort of like a Nomura’s jellyfish. It was just as big as one too.
Chloe suddenly shouted, “Stop! Everyone’s dead!”
“Huh?” Natsuka responded.
“Everyone has drowned! What the hell is up with that useless albeit strangely cute Territory? I thought I told you to make a flotation device! If a passenger boat ends up capsizing, hundreds of people are going to be thrown into the water, you know. So what’s with that size? You trying to give them a lifesaver made by Carneades?!”
“Erm. . . Carnies-in-bees?”
“You’re not even remotely close. It’s the plank of Carneades! It’s a thought experiment with two people in a situation where only one can survive. What I’m saying is that thing you made could only save one person.”
“Oh, I see! You’re so smart, Chloe. I wish I could be like you!”
“E-Everyone knows this kind of stuff. . .”
A sincere upperclassman praising her blushing junior. . .
Minato was watching the two talk with their heads above the water as he sat cross-legged on the surface of the ocean. More precisely, he spread out his Territory on the surface and sat on top of that.
It was an example of how one could manipulate the properties of their Territory. The two trainees were currently practicing how to do exactly that.
The exams they were training for were Zone Manipulation Training I – IV. In it, they gave their Territories shape and solidity, converting them into things like tools or footholds. At high enough levels of mastery, one could even turn their Territory into a weapon or defensive barrier, so it was an indispensable skill in many situations, ranging from crime fighting to rescue efforts.
—and it was also an area of personal struggle for Natsuka.
Chloe, who had been tasked with mentoring her on myriad subjects, bared her teeth in frustration. “Listen, Zone Specialists have a much larger Territory compared to other manipulator types, and you’re one of them, so you’re not going to pass if you can’t make something at least the size of a small boat.”
Although she was being talked down to by another trainee younger than her, Natsuka continued to smile cheerfully like always.
“Yeah, it just never works like I want it to. It’s like, when I try to let a lot of Territory out from my body, it kind of just explodes, you know? I can’t stop it from doing that.”
“That explains the jellyfish size. . . It’s a little ridiculous how uncoordinated you are, Hoshino. Are you sure you’re not a Perception Specialist? Was there some kind of mistake?”
“Haha, Minato told me the same thing.”
“Call him ‘sir.’ And I’m sure anyone else would agree. I’m not even a Zone Specialist myself, and I can still produce a platform the size of a lifeboat.”
I’m pretty sure that’s just because you’re you, thought Minato in disbelief as he watched.
There was rarely any overlap among water manipulation abilities. Minato was a Perception Specialist, for example, and creating a platform the size of a boat was a fundamentally impossible task for him. Even Aishwarin wouldn’t be able to pull it off. It was safe to say that Zone Specialists had a monopoly over the ability to manipulate their Territories’ substance on that scale.
Chloe’s ability to utilize powers bordering other specializations was simply a byproduct of her own genius.
“Oh, yeah. What type are you, by the way?” asked Natsuka.
“Me? I’m just an Order Dictator. What of it?”
For someone calling herself normal, she looked positively smug. She was definitely sick in the head.
And then there was Natsuka. Her eyes went blank as she proceeded to annihilate Chloe’s pride. “Yeah? I didn’t even know there was a type like that.”
Chloe’s face fell straight into the water with a splash. Immediately, she brought it back up.
“You don’t know about it?! Even though Order Dictators are so rare?!”
“Sorry. . . I know Minato is a Perception Specialist, but that’s it. . . I’m so stupid.”
“With the ‘Limit Operator’ type, that makes four, and if you include the ‘Emotion Dependent’ type, there are five kinds of water manipulators in total! How could you not know this? Everyone knows this! They were supposed to teach that right after you enter the Academy! What was that instructor doing?”
It looked like she was directing her anger, not at Minato, but towards the stomach ulcer instructor that came before him.
Natsuka placed a finger on her chin as if also thinking about their mutual instructor. “But you know, he taught me lots of interesting things too. Like, ‘if you ever see someone who’s drowning, you’ll always have those two big flotation devices on you, hehehe.’ He was always smiling when he gave me advice.”
“That was definitely a disgusting smile and even worse advice! I made the correct choice, putting that asshole in the hospital. . .” Chloe seemed to come to a conclusion. “I finally understand. The reason you’re lagging this far behind is because of that bastard.”
“Haha. I think I’m just bad at remembering things, though. . .”
“Yes, that’s also undeniable. At any rate, my hands are tied. I’ll just have to work with you from the ground up. Let’s go back to square one and practice hardening your Territory.”
“Next, try to focus on making something bigger than a jellyfish. Even if it starts getting tough to control it, try to power through. We’re going to keep doing this and slowly increase the amount of Territory you can handle.”
The two of them resumed their training.
Their chemistry exceeded even Minato’s expectations.
Chloe initially greeted the introduction of the buddy system with a lot of resistance, but now, possibly thanks to her stubborn personality, she approached the task of mentoring Natsuka with determined dedication. It wasn’t only her. It’s true Natsuka might’ve been slower than others when it came to learning things, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t serious about it in the slightest, and the way she earnestly took the advice of someone younger than her was proof of that.
It was a beautiful day out. The training was going perfectly.
Minato started to whistle a little to distract himself from the fact that he had nothing to do.
It was past noon.
While Minato was hard at work at his desk in the staff room, going over various piles of paperwork, his senior instructor Aishwarin approached him with a glare. In a disgusted tone, she muttered, “It’s going to be you and me. . .”
“Excuse me?” Minato had absolutely no idea what she was trying to say. Finally, a possibility came to mind. “Oh! You must be talking about the Newspaper Club’s annual ‘Secret Couples Edition.’ What will I ever do about them and their antics. To be honest, it does make me a little happy, though. . .”
“Not even close, you asshole!” Her fuse shorter than most, she slammed both of her fists down onto Minato’s desk and angrily said, “We’re in charge of the training expedition— Wait a sec. . . The Newspaper Club really chose us for their thing?! What the hell’s up with that?! I’ve got to stop them from publishing that, or I won’t be able to live with myself.”
“You’re a little late on the uptake. They’ve already sold a lot of copies. I even helped them—”
“Just do me a favor and fall off the face of this Earth.”
“Still, the training expedition, huh? You’re one thing, but why did they choose a new guy like me?”
“That’s the least of my worries. . . Anyways, there’s nothing we can do about it now. This kind of thing always happens. They always pass off the annoying stuff to the people at the bottom.”
Thinking back on it, she might have a point. Back when Minato participated in the expedition as a trainee, the instructors that led it were Aishwarin, the youngest member of staff at the time, and Muhammad, the instructor that started right before her.
Speak of the devil, there he is, praying to Allah. There were tears in his eyes—he must’ve been pretty happy to have not been chosen.
Watching that scene out of the corner of his eye, Minato couldn’t help but ask, “Is it really that bad? I had a lot of fun last year.”
“Hey, um, Minato? Think about it a little. Six days and five nights of marching at the bottom of the Pacific? Sure it’s fresh and interesting when you’re a trainee ‘cause you rarely go out that way. It was like a picnic for you guys, I’m sure. By the way, you know how many times I’ve done it? Five.”
“I’m so sorry.”
That. Sounds. Painful.
It was fun the first time. I’d probably be able to put up with it a second time, too.
But anything over three times would, without a doubt, be boring to the brink of death.
There were essentially only rocks and sand at the the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, with the best possible outcome being strange forms of aquatic life and the occasional remains of a sunken city—that’s it. Going once or twice was more than enough to get your fill of that.
For people to whom the ocean deep didn’t hold any appeal or novelty, spending a week down there was nothing other than self-inflicted torture.
As he imagined how Aishwarin must’ve felt, Minato couldn’t repress his pity.
She let out a loud sigh and then said, “I’m going on my sixth time now, and having you as a partner is still the worst part of all this.”
“You’re so mean. We even bonded over that game of Twister, didn’t we?”
“Don’t bring up the stuff I did when I was drunk!” Her face bright red after remembering what she did in the past, Aishwarin shoved some paperwork at Minato. “Anyways, we need to talk about the trainees who are going to participate in the expedition. You and Chloe were chosen in addition to three others via recommendation, so make sure you tell her.”
“Oh man, I can just tell it’s going to be a pain in the ass to convince her. . .”
Chloe was definitely not suited to situations where she had to relax and interact with others.
“If she says no, we’re going to have to start this whole thing from scratch, so do whatever you can to make sure she accepts. The biggest issue is who’s going to volunteer, though. There are two spots, and we do have one applicant, but. . .”
“We can’t fill the last spot? I feel like it shouldn’t be that hard as long as we get the word out.”
“Even though one of the supervising instructors is Minato Yamajo?”
“Yeah, that could be a problem.”
There were expeditions in both the first and second semesters, and each time, only either the girls or boys went. This was the first semester, so that meant only female trainees could apply.
Of course, a large majority of the girls on campus lived in fear of Minato. It might be a little too difficult. To make matters worse—
“It’s your fault, so you take care of it. It’s up to you to find the last person.”
“So it comes down to this. . . Very well, then. I’ll do it.”
Minato glanced down again at the documents he received from Aishwarin. He only had around a month before the expedition started to find a willing applicant.
It looks like I’m going to have to find time between lessons to make it work somehow.
He noticed the materials also indicated the destination for this semester’s trip.
—the sunken ruins of former Osaka.
First things first, I should probably start by breaking the news to my pupil. When I sent her an email reading ”We need to talk,” however, she sent one back with a ”Not even to my face, I see.” Whatever will I do with this girl?
Minato eventually went to go see her.
The meeting place he designated in his email was next to the cliffs after the Academy had already closed for the day. The distant horizon was dyed a dark red.
For Minato, his usual fishing spot on the breakwater was the obvious choice, though he didn’t bring a fishing pole, unfortunately. I’ll just have to put my hobby off for now and do some teacher-y stuff instead. . .
He soon spotted his pupil.
The fair-skinned, blond-haired girl was standing atop the surface of the ocean. Above the warmly glowing waters, her skirt waved gently around in the breeze.
She was just too beautiful. He swallowed his saliva.
Minato managed to maintain his composure, however, and called out to her from behind.
“What’re you doing?”
“I’m standing. Is that not obvious?”
Phew, it’s good to see that she’s as impertinent a slave as ever.
Her appearance seemed almost divine—it was as if she were a spirit that haunted the twilight.
“I like it. . . the sea at this time, I mean. I also wanted to get a feel for my Territory.”
She turned her feet along the gentle waves on the surface of the water and faced Minato. With the passionately-hued sun to her back, her expression seemed softer than usual.
“Get a feel?”
“That’s right. I always use my Territory without really thinking about it, so it’s a little difficult to describe what I do to other people. I’m also not that good myself at changing its substance.”
Minato’s eyes grew wide. She was apparently using up her time standing on the water like this in order to explain it to Natsuka.
“You really are something else.”
I’m always at a loss around her.
She’s an earnest worker and always honest, and she has a bunch of cute sides to her as well, but her reputation around the Academy is as bad as it gets. If she only worked on improving her superiority complex and that foul mouth of hers, I’m sure she’d gain genuine admirers in no time. What a waste. . .
“So? What did you want to talk about?” she asked, suddenly reminding Minato why he was here in the first place.
“You were asked by name to take part in the training expedition.”
“Training expedition? What’s that?”
“You haven’t heard of it before? There’s a poster on the noticeboard, and I’m pretty sure they send out emails about it too.”
“I may have seen something or other about it, but I don’t know what it entails.”
“To put it simply, it’s a recreational activity separate from training. Maybe it makes more sense to call it a volunteer event. It’s for a production company, and we do it every year.”
“A production company? Like, for TV?”
“Yeah, exactly. They have this long-running documentary series on sunken city ruins around the world—have you seen it? It’s called Deep Cities.”
“Oh, yeah, I have. It’s that one show that’s so unbelievably boring it calls into question the director’s ability to comprehend human emotion.”
“No comment. But anyways, the Academy always helps out with filming the Japanese areas. This island is right where the former Tokyo sank, after all.”
Though traditional filming was difficult in the deep sea, water manipulators were able to use specialized cameras to capture footage without those limitations. That’s why there were many external requests in that vein.
Chloe snorted. “So what you’re basically saying is that since professional water manipulators are expensive, they throw in some trainees to lower the price like the cheapskates they are?”
“No comment on that either.”
While she was being a smart-ass, that was exactly the case. Water manipulators on average didn’t come cheap.
“Well, what I can tell you for certain is this is a valuable experience that won’t come around often.”
Academy trainees rarely left the Tokyo area, but on a training expedition, it was possible to see some submerged cities in really far-reaching places. Osaka was the destination this time around—you’d even be able to see Mt. Fuji’s peak sticking out of the water on the way there. You wouldn’t be able to visit that kind of location just everyday.
That said, Chloe didn’t seem the type to be interested in that kind of old Japanese atmosphere. Sure enough, her expression was positively frigid.
“As much as it pains me to say it, the idea of seeing crumbling cities doesn’t exactly bring the word ‘fulfilling’ to mind.”
“I figured you’d say something like that. You really won’t join us?”
“No, I won’t. I’m not in the habit of doing things I don’t find productive.”
Listen to her say that after spending so much time teaching Natsuka. . .
Oh well. I saw this coming from a mile away, so I’m not too hung up on it.
He also knew that once Chloe decided to do something, there would be nothing he could say to change her mind. Her stubbornness was one of the unchangeable things about her.
All he could do to force her compliance was to abuse his position and order it, but. . .
“Fine, I understand. I’ll tell them you’re not going to do it.”
Minato was quick to give up.
If this had something to do with her training and development, that would have been a different story, but as participation was completely voluntary, Minato felt he had to respect her wishes. He felt a little bad for Aishwarin, but it should be fine as long as he put in some overtime to look over the lists and find a replacement.
On that note, Minato started to walk away from the breakwater.
In that moment, however, Chloe let out a small, “Huh?”
Her voice seemed out of character, and her expression looked somewhat uncertain. It was almost like their conversation went unexpectedly for her.
After a moment, she asked, “Wait, no command?”
“. . . What?”
Confronted by this almost incomprehensible reaction of hers, Minato was rendered nothing short of stunned.
You. . . you can’t be serious.
“Wait— NO! THAT’S NOT WHAT I—!”
Her expression was frozen in fear. It looked like she also realized her slip of the tongue.
Amid the glow of the sunset, her face was red enough to confirm my suspicions. Her voice also did a fantastic job of giving her away.
“T-T-That’s not what I meant! I-I mean, like, y-you know. . .it seemed like you’d like, you’d like say the ‘slaaave’ thing, zir. . . O-Oh, uh, I, uh, keep messing up w-what I want to say. . .”
The girl slapped both her cheeks.
Minato grew even more uneasy.
“Umm. . .” Is it really okay to ask her this? “Were you, by chance, waiting for me to order you?”
“It’s not. . .” She was almost on the verge of tears. “No, it’s not. . . It’s not that. Just now, that was. . . nothing. Nope. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Oh man, she’s really going to start crying.
Minato finally threw in the towel, judging that letting this go on any further would only bring her closer to breaking down. I can’t watch this any longer. It’s my loss. You beat me. I give up.
He crouched down on all fours. Ordering her around at this stage in the game would only make things worse.
“I’m really sorry, Chloe!” All I can do is beg her, now that it’s come to this. I’ve got to find some way to sweep this under the rug, too! “On second thought, I’ll be completely out of options if you refuse me here! I am fully aware that you have no interest in something like a training expedition, but can’t you find a way to make a small exception this time? Please, I’m begging you!”
Minato knew perfectly well just how forceful he was being, but at the moment, Chloe was teetering dangerously close to the edge. The only possibility left to him was to give her something genuine that she could latch onto.
“Um. . . well. . .” she sniffled and rubbed the corners of her eyes. Her expression softened, and she looked a little embarrassed. Eventually, she muttered in docile tone, “Okay. . . I’ll go.”
—And that concludes the story of Chloe’s massive blunder.
It must have taken years off my life.
Natsuka Hoshino loved aquariums, and apparently she even raised jellyfish in a fish tank in her room. Of course, there was no way Minato was allowed to enter the girls’ dormitory, so he had never seen it for himself.
According to her, raising jellyfish wasn’t all that difficult, just like with fish and shellfish. While you only fed them once a day, however, failing to keep the water clean would lead to them dying. While most jellyfish varieties had short lifespans, they could live for up to a year if you really took good care of them. Whenever one did die, Natsuka would always fall into a state of gloominess. That’s apparently why she resolved herself to only raise one jellyfish a year. In that period, she would focus everything she had on keeping it happy.
With that said, it seems it passed away just this morning.
They were on the shore of the artificial island in the middle of April. Wearing a diving suit since early in the morning, Natsuka looked unfocused with a sullen expression.
“I’m so sad. . .”
There were even bags under her eyes—her usual refreshing charm had drastically diminished.
She was like this every time a jellyfish died, however, so Minato talked to her normally, already used to this kind of thing. “Didn’t you start raising it right after New Year’s? What happened?”
That put it at a little over 4 months old. This might’ve been the youngest to-date.
Still in shock, she wearily glanced at Minato with lifeless eyes. “I think it was a natural death. When I first started to raise him, he always looked a little tired. Even the same kinds of jellyfish have strong ones and weak ones. . .”
“I need to light some incense when I get back. . .”
“For a jellyfish?”
Even for my childhood friend, I’d never heard of anyone going that far in paying their respects to a jellyfish. Well, I have heard of people who held funerals after their cat or dog died, so I guess this wasn’t too different.
It was a little strange personally, but I had no intention of telling her what to do.
“Well, keep him in your memory, okay?”
“Mhm. . .”
The air was so heavy. Welcome to the jellyfish shock of 2145.
Seeing her like this, Minato decided to hold off on telling her about the training expedition for now, as she would almost certainly say she didn’t want to go, because she was “in mourning.”
Then again, it’s not like I was going to invite her in the first place.
The second he was initially approached about the expedition, he immediately crossed off Natsuka’s name from the list of people he could potentially recruit. There were two reasons:
The first one was because she raised jellyfish. They were delicate creatures, requiring lots of care in order to stay alive, so Minato imagined Natsuka would decline something that stole away an entire week of her time. Well, the jellyfish did end up passing away just this morning, I guess. . .
The second reason, however, was much more serious.
“What are you doing, you two?”
Chloe appeared on the beach after finishing changing. The second she saw her instructor and upperclassman together, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
It was probably because of how Natsuka looked. There were tears in her eyes.
“Sir, what did you—?”
“It’s not what it looks like. Her pet died this morning.”
“Pet? Oh, you mean the jellyfish.”
Her expression calmed down immediately.
That was a little unexpected. It seems Chloe took careful note of the fact that Natsuka was a jellyfish enthusiast. I wouldn’t have taken her for the kind of person to pay even a little attention to someone else’s hobbies.
That said, it didn’t look like she had much sympathy for her either.
“We can’t be letting personal issues cut into our training time. Please pull yourself together.”
“It’s as you say. . .” mumbled Natsuka.
She definitely carried herself like a king. Usually people would find it difficult to tell her how it was in this kind of situation, but Chloe didn’t have an ounce of hesitation.
What’s more, I can only be in awe at how she’s able to keep a straight face after yesterday’s huge slip-up. Either that, or maybe she was only trying to make it look like nothing happened, when on the inside she was only waiting for more verbal abuse. Or maybe her entire body was waiting for it?
It looked like because of that incident, Minato was no longer able to keep a level head around her. Her strength as a water manipulator was one thing, but he didn’t really want to help her develop her other “talents” as well. Minato was getting closer and closer to being actually murdered by Chloe’s papa. My little angel started wanting to be abused by others— or something like that.
“Besides, if you like jellyfish so much, why don’t you also participate in the training expedition?”
Natsuka looked a little confused. Oh boy. . .
“I checked this morning, and they’re still looking for one more person. You should be able to find all kinds of rare jellyfish on the deep sea tours, right?”
I was hoping I could’ve been the one to tell her when the time was right.
Chloe went ahead and jumped the gun. Well, it’s not like I ever told her to keep it a secret, so I couldn’t really get mad at her, and besides, it only went to show how much Chloe was thinking about her upperclassman. If I think about it like that, it almost makes me smile.
Still, this puts me in a difficult spot.
Likely her first time hearing about this, Natsuka readily took the bait. “There are deep sea jellyfish tours? Can I swim with a Stygiomedusa gigantea?”
“What kind of monster name is that? It’s not really a jellyfish tour, specifically. It’s an extracurricular trip over six days and five nights to film the sunken ruins of Osaka.”
“That sounds wonderful! I’d love to go!”
“Wait a second. . . Why haven’t you told her about the exhibition yet, sir?”
Her blue eyes stared sincerely at me. Natsuka’s cute, wide eyes did the same.
Minato sighed. This wasn’t how he wasn’t how he wanted to do it, but his back was up against a wall. He’d just have to explain. “We’re not bringing her along, or rather, we can’t afford to.”
As soon as he said this, Chloe’s gaze sharpened a little. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“You’re also aware that Natsuka is a 5th year trainee, right? With her graduation in mind, her current pace is cutting it way too close. Two or three days might’ve been okay, but going for a week without any practice is out of the picture. I’ve already put in a request to have another instructor look after her while we’re away on the expedition.”
The same even went for the buddy system. Had Natsuka shown any signs of slowing down her lesson pace, Minato was fully prepared to abandon the system right away for both of their sakes. Luckily, Chloe turned out to be a much better mentor than expected. As Natsuka still hadn’t shown any tangible progress, however, taking her on the expedition would be far too risky.
“You can’t be serious. . .” Chloe was visibly upset. “Didn’t I make myself clear? I told you I wanted to graduate in two years.”
“And yet, here you are telling me that you’re afraid it’s going to take her three more. Can’t you see the contradiction in that?”
“It’s true that I’m really hoping for some dramatic changes with the two of you working together now, but there are no guarantees. If things do turn out poorly, I don’t want her to regret coming on this week-long trip with us.”
If Natsuka was any old pupil, Minato would have probably been content with just letting her do whatever she wanted. The fact was, however, that she was like family to him. It’s true that there had been times when even Minato doubted her potential as a water manipulator, but she had spent the last five years giving it everything she had, no matter how difficult it was. He didn’t want to let that time go to waste.
All of this, only because it was Natsuka. . . Look at me, mixing my personal and professional lives again. . . I’m probably not suited to being an instructor either.
I recognized that she was a trainee and that I was an instructor, and yet deep down, there was no getting around how much I worried about her.
“Please stop fighting. . .” said the girl at the center of the conflict. An uneasy smile formed on her face, and her shoulders drooped. “It’s true my grades are really bad. You don’t have to fight about it. . .”
She never liked conflict, which explained why she tried to interject.
Things would’ve died down had the two of us agreed to drop the conversation, but unfortunately, Chloe was in no mood for that. “Humph. I don’t agree. If Hoshino says she wants to go, then let her.”
For a moment, she started to sound like a friend would—
—and then she pointed a finger in Minato’s face, revealing her true intentions:
“I simply cannot stomach the idea of you doubting my teaching abilities!”
“You’re such a sore loser.”
“And what’s wrong with that? You shouldn’t expect me to always go along with your little plans. Besides, you and I are like cats and dogs.”
“You really hate me that much?”
“No. . . Maybe it’s more like foxes and squirrels.”
“And with that, you’ve lost me.”
“Anyways! For both Hoshino’s sake and my pride, we’re going to give it our all.”
“Our all? What do I have to do?” chimed in Natsuka.
“In the one month left before the trip, we’re basically going to make your eventual graduation a certainty. No problem,” Chloe said, brimming with confidence. Without even waiting for his response, she walked towards the shore with a spring in her step, wiggling her little butt as she did.
Halfway there, she spun around and directed a glare at Minato.
“What are you waiting for? We’re starting the training. If you’re done, time is of the essence now.”
Yep, she was definitely like a king. Once she set her sights on something, there was no turning back.
How can I put this. . . it was like she was in a league of her own. Even as a guy, Minato couldn’t help but admit she looked pretty cool.
Next to him, on the other hand, Natsuka’s opinion of Chloe was much more orthodox. “Oh, Chloe is so cute, it gives me chills! I want her as my litter sister.”
It suddenly dawned on me.
Although she might not talk like one, Chloe was probably the kind of girl that was infatuated with her older sister. Maybe that’s why Minato couldn’t help but imagine her as his little sister, while at the same time, Chloe viewed Natsuka almost as she would her older sibling.
She was famous around the Academy for not having any friends. In that sense, maybe you could also say the reason she wanted Natsuka to come on the training expedition so badly was because spending six days and five nights without her would prove far too lonely. . .
I hope that’s the case, wished Minato.
There were four trainees confirmed to be participating in the training expedition.
Three of those, Chloe included, were directly recommended by the Academy. In order to fulfill the expedition’s ultimate goal—taking deep sea footage—it was necessary to bring along those who had strong water manipulation fundamentals so they could work underwater. The Academy also chose them with the intention of giving their bright hopefuls some real-world experience.
In order to balance it out, they opened up two more positions for volunteers. Because of Minato, however, only one of those slots was currently filled, and there were no other takers in sight.
A spot with no hopes of being filled. . .
After three days of no news on that front, the other instructor in charge of the trip, Aishwarin, trudged her way over to his desk, as if getting impatient. “Come on, already. You still haven’t found the last person?”
Minato didn’t really know how to respond. “Well actually, there is someone that wants to. She’s behind on her training, though, so I put off on letting her participate right away.”
“You’re that worried about her? If she wants to participate while understanding where she stands graduation-wise, then it should be up to her. Just let her join.”
“There are, well, extenuating circumstances. . . Would you mind letting me watch her progress for a little longer?”
Putting his obvious motive aside, this was the first time that Chloe had really tackled the buddy system head-on like this.
How would the carefree Natsuka respond to her burning passion? He truly wanted to put the expedition business on hold and see where this three-legged race of theirs ended up taking them.
Aishwarin nodded without asking any prying questions. “Well, I don’t care what you do as long as we get five trainees by the deadline. I mean, I’m still in shock that you managed to recruit even one girl. I figured it was impossible.”
“The truth is out.”
She had given me what she assumed to be an impossible task. Well, it’s not like I could really blame her for it.
Aishwarin smiled cheekily. Oh my, how cute.
“You’re also an instructor, so you can’t always be distancing yourself from the girls. Well you managed to find someone at least, so I’ll give you that.”
I really hate it break it to you but that “someone” I found was actually a childhood friend of mine that has already long since developed an immunity to me, so in reality, I haven’t put in even an ounce of commendable effort with regards to—ah. . . She has such a happy expression on. . .
I think I’ll just blush and thank her for now. “You have my utmost appreciation.”
“So, going back to what we were talking about, would you mind doing something for me?”
“Of course. Right now, I could commit a sin in your honor without a second thought.”
“What’s up with you? It’s nothing hard. It’s just that one of the recommended trainees for the expedition happens to be my pupil, and she isn’t really great with technology, apparently. She asked me to teach her how to use the underwater camera, and, well. . . yeah. . .”
She looked positively unenthusiastic about it.
“Oh, that’s right. You have a bit of trauma from using those things, don’t you?”
Back when Minato participated in the expedition as a trainee, she managed to absolute demolish one of the cameras and broke down in tears soon after. He had to console her after, reassuring her that everything had been financially insured.
“How was it my fault? It was that time of the month.”
“What a convenient excuse.”
“You’re good with this kind of stuff, right? ‘Cause of that annoying ability of yours. . .”
“See, now that’s when you’d use the word ‘convenient’. . .”
It’s true that mine wasn’t as pretty as Aishwarin’s or Chloe’s, and I had to admit that there was a time when I myself looked up to water manipulators with flashy Territories like that. Still, I couldn’t exactly choose the expansion ability I was born with. Once the power awakened, you were stuck with it for the rest of your life. Besides, it was nice and convenient, like I mentioned before, so I was perfectly satisfied. It was useful in a whole host of situations, after all.
“So make sure you leave your schedule open tonight. I’ll go tell her the plan.”
“You sure she’s not going to be scared, me teaching her and all?”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. She’s a little peculiar.”
At the time, I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to say.
The soft glow of the setting sun seeped through the windows of the staff room.
With the equipment in hand, Minato had intended on arriving before the trainee did, but when he got there, she was already waiting. Their eyes met. In that moment, he found himself understanding why Aishwarin used a word like ‘peculiar’ to describe her.
Her expression almost felt crafted.
There wasn’t any sense of apprehension at meeting someone for the first time, but similarly, it didn’t look like she was trying to make a charming first impression. All she did was intently examine the face of the person entering the room, not a shred of emotion present in her expression. It wasn’t so much that she was like an expressionless android—it felt most like being closely watched by a deer or tiger.
Her presence there was so overwhelming that I found myself at a loss for words.
Her mouth opened. “Hi.”
It was surprisingly casual.
“Hey. I’m the one Aishwarin asked to help you. You’re Lee, I take it?”
“Affirmative. However, Meifa is preferable. Academy contains four with the surname Lee. This becomes a source of confusion.”
She said this in a way that perfectly complimented her expression.
She was of Chinese descent, just as her name implied, but her name was written out in English as opposed to Chinese, likely due to her being raised in a predominately American region. According to the Academy register, she was 16 years old and a zone specialist in her 4th year at the Academy. She possessed strong basics as a water manipulator, and in particular, her underwater maneuvering and control using Territory-crafted weapons against others—her combat know-how, to put it simply—were enough to even impress instructors.
She was an outstanding trainee worthy of the Academy’s recommendation.
Though apparently she wasn’t good with technology.
Minato placed the school-owned underwater camera that he brought with him on the desk, and finally a grimace formed on her face. In part so that it could withstand higher pressures, the thing weighed 20 kilograms in total, despite being one of the more compact models—it truly was a monster.
“Simply obscene up close.”
It was almost endearing the way she cautiously crept up on it like a stray cat seeing the ocean for the first time. Minato couldn’t help but be amused.
“Are you the kind that doesn’t even know how to record TV shows?”
“That task falls to my older brother. My task is mistakenly destroying his plastic models. Was an accident.”
“Those kinds of models are tougher than that, you know. They don’t break that easily, unless you drop them of course.”
“Falling does it?”
“I’d say that’s pretty likely.”
“High value will complicate compensation. My family will be entrenched in debt. Charged with a crime against humanity. . .”
She really went on and on for how expressionless she looked. I’m also not sure where she drew the line with personal space, but her face was getting way too close. Minato moved back without thinking.
“Overthinking it will just make you more likely to drop the camera.”
“Blindfold would be preferable. Don’t think, feel.”
“Wait, wait! Don’t try it, seriously! Let’s just start with how to hold and use it.”
While, to a degree, there may be those who became comfortable enough with the device to operate it solely by sensation, this girl seemed to be more at the stage where finding where to hold the camera was a challenge in and of itself.
He explained the process to her step by step.
Meifa listened intently and nodded at every step of the way. Minato had assumed she would be difficult to get along with after hearing she was a “peculiar” child, but those concerns were quickly alleviated. If you took the unnerving lack of facial expressions out of the picture, she was just another ordinary girl.
Once he finished teaching her almost everything she needed to know, Meifa gave him a thumbs up. With a straight face, she said, “Okay, the information has been digested. My comprehension is complete. All of this amounts to inapplicable theory.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about that last part, but anyways, try to pick it up, at least.”
While for scuba divers and the like, compact, yet high-spec cameras were standard fare, the video cameras used by water manipulators were very similar to those used on the surface in that you normally supported them on your shoulder during use. For how heavy they were, they boasted top-of-the-line specs among other underwater cameras and could even film areas with little light in crystal clarity. I didn’t tell Meifa how much they costed, but one unit went for around 100,000. (In dollars. . .)
Although she didn’t know the exact value, she was clearly able to imagine the ballpark figure as even her expressionless face seemed to clench furiously. Minato supported the camera with his hands and helped place it on her shoulder. Immediately, the device started to tremble uncontrollably.
“I-If it breaks, hello red-light debut. Virginity was nice while it lasted.”
“Can you try relaxing for a change?”
What, is she allergic to technology or something? After seeing her like this, I’m starting to think it might even be a good idea to split up camera duty so she doesn’t have to do it. I almost feel bad for the poor thing.
But you know what they say. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let’s try to get her used to it.
“Is it too heavy?”
“It’s okay, but. . . In terms of money, the weight is crushing.”
“Just try and get used to carrying it for now. How about we have a little chat to take your mind off it? Is there anything we can talk about? Feel free to ask me anything.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Natsu. . . ka. . .” she said out of the blue.
“Natsuka Hoshino. She is my roommate. She talks about you often. Her tone is warm.”
“Yeah, I’ve known her for a long time now. I can promise you she’s a sweet girl.”
“How is your current temperament, sir?”
“Natsuka has seemed different lately. As in from fluffy to fiery? She has a new motto: “I’m making Minato worry!” A blond loli comes to our room every night, and they disappear somewhere. She returns home and is exhausted. Quickly, she sleeps. Must be a threesome.”
“That’s an interesting jump in your logic.”
“The last part was a joke. However, it seems you are pressuring them. This is my question.”
It seems Meifa was getting worried seeing her friend change that drastically over the past couple days.
The blond loli she mentioned was Chloe without a doubt.
Minato was already aware of the fact that the two of them were going out each and every night after official training ended to hold their own practice sessions. He knew this because he stalked them while they did it. (This was because, if there was some kind of accident while an instructor wasn’t present, it’s possible the punishment would result in much more than a simple written apology.)
Seeing Chloe check every now and then to see if anyone was following her while putting all her effort into training Natsuka also made Minato happy beyond comparison. That’s why he didn’t intend on stopping them anytime soon. Probably should answer Meifa’s question though.
“I’m actually doing so little that it’s embarrassing as an instructor. Everyday I do nothing but sit back and relax. Natsuka is trying this hard because she wants to.”
“That’s good, then. Actually, that’s not good. Start working, you NEET.”
“That’s why I’m making up for it by teaching you how to use this camera. It seems like it’s finally stable, so why don’t we switch it on now? You see that big knob by your right hand? Try turning it.”
“No, can’t do that. It’s impossible. Moving anything will ensure falling. Have already achieved equilibrium.”
“Stop panicking already. You can’t use the camera just by holding it.”
“Oh. Going to vomit.”
“Okay, let’s bring it down.”
“The fish be bitin’?” asked Natsuka. Her smile seemed a little more subdued than normal, maybe because of all the hard work.
It was almost 10:00 PM.
Minato was fully aware that today as well, she and Chloe had been secretly training on their own up until only an hour ago. On his way home afterwards, he suddenly decided to do some late fishing on the breakwater in his usual spot. Natsuka showing up was no real surprise either, as she often took an evening stroll on a nearby route before going to sleep.
She must’ve already gone back to the dormitories and taken a shower, as when she sat herself down, the sweet scent of shampoo wafted from her hair. She had on a thin cardigan over her V-neck shirt and wore pajama bottoms that resembled leggings. Everything she wore accentuated her body’s shape.
Doing his best to pry his eyes away from that part of her, he returned his usual follow-up, “Some here n’ there. You won’t last through tomorrow’s training if you stay up this late, you know.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
There was a light breeze today.
As she held her hair down, she gazed at the dark surface of the ocean with a soft smile on her face. Though the conversation seemed to stop abruptly, Minato didn’t worry about starting it back up. The two of them were as close as siblings. There was nothing awkward about letting the silence continue like this.
Natsuka suddenly spoke up with a brightness in her voice. “This is so nice.”
“I know I said it was here n’ there, but the fish haven’t been biting at all, actually.”
“Sorry, not you. I meant me. Ever since you came back to the Academy, my life has been so perfect. Chloe is so cute, and I’m getting along with my roommate. From when I wake up to when I fall asleep, no matter where I go, everything just feels so nice.”
“I’m really glad to hear that.”
As long as Natsuka was embracing the training with a positive outlook—refusing to accept things as they were within the Academy—then that’s all I could ever ask for.
“I’m such a useless water manipulator, but you know, I think I’m enjoying my time here more than anyone else, and I almost feel bad about it. I almost feel like I’m going to be punished for it.”
“There isn’t any one way to be a successful water manipulator. That’s not where your worth comes from.”
I said that as a friend, not as an instructor.
“Sure you’re a little slow, but I know about all of your good points too. You don’t need to compare yourself to others.”
Maybe it came off a little too preachy. . .
As Minato started to regret it a little, Natsuka suddenly showed a faint, bashful smile next to him.
“Mhm.” She turned her head slightly and nostalgically asked, “Can I hug you?”
For as long as he could remember, Natsuka was the kind of girl who wanted to embrace others when she was happy, as if she yearned for human contact. When Minato was in the throes of early adolescence, however, he put a stop to things like that. For him, it felt like that was the first time he had heard those words in a long while. She looked so eager, too. If she were his sister, he would have been able to oblige, however—
“Nope. When you get back to your room, go hug your roommate.”
“Oh. . .”
The mood was ruined immediately.
There was definitely a bit of embarrassment on his part considering his sensitive age, but most important was how obviously bad it would be for an instructor to hug a trainee on the breakwaters at night. Not to mention how much she had grown—hugging her now seemed almost dangerous. She was truly something else.
“Well, in words then. . . Thank you, Minato.”
“Yeah. Don’t mention it.”
“I’m going to try my best. I want to go to Osaka, and I don’t want you to worry.”
With the moonlight casting shadows across her face, something about her seemed more mature than normal.
Then she immediately sneezed.
Chloe’s eyes, normally sharp, had metamorphosed into something almost violent by the time first period rolled around. Rather than simply looking grim, they more closely resembled a serial killer’s. And she was only 15. . .
The main reason for this appearance was the heavy bags beneath her eyes.
It had been three weeks since she and Natsuka had started their nonstop training and practical exams, and the toll it took on her showed clearly in her complexion. She probably wouldn’t listen at all if Minato said anything about her needing to take a break, so as much as it pained him, he needed to pull the slave card for the third time. With a heavy heart, he commanded the both of them to spend the day recovering in their rooms. I hope they’ll be okay, in more ways than one. . .
I guess they were doing that well precisely because of their strong will, however.
Chloe returned the next day with a slightly improved complexion. It was her after all, so she completed her task to perfection, be it only resting for a day.
“If Hoshino passes this exam, then she’ll be able to participate in the expedition, correct?”
The condition that Chloe proposed to Minato three weeks prior was that Natsuka would complete the practical exams for at least six subjects. Minato responded that, honestly, at Natsuka’s current pace, even half of that would suffice, but the strangely motivated girl dismissed that compromise and stuck to her original declaration.
As they entered their final week, they had already managed to complete five subjects. They were working so much that it was almost excessive—especially Chloe. Something about her felt different and more mature compared to three weeks ago, aside from the bags under her eyes, of course.
“Why are you grinning like that?”
The two of them were outside. In front of the training building, where Natsuka’s final exam was taking place, Chloe eyed Minato suspiciously. What accidentally showed up on his face was probably some mixture of admiration, fondness, and complete awe.
In order to brush the question aside, he tried to change the subject. “Where do you want to work after you graduate?”
“After I graduate?”
He’d heard her boasting countless times before about how she was planning on graduating in only two years, but it suddenly dawned on him that he had no idea what she wanted to do after that. Well, the decision was ultimately up to the Federation government and the Solaris Applications Division, so what she wanted wasn’t necessarily going to come true.
Chloe stroked her chin, deep in thought, and casted her eyes downward.
“Well, I haven’t really given it much thought. I’m not opposed to joining the military like my sister, but I suppose there are a lot of branches in it, so I wouldn’t necessarily end up in the same one as her. Our expanded Territories are completely different, so, well, I don’t feel that strongly about it.”
“Oh yeah? It might be a bit early for this, but how about becoming an instructor?”
“It’s just my two cents, but I think you’d be suited to it. You think quick on your feet, and you’re really headstrong. The short fuse could be a problem, though.”
She stepped on his foot.
“That last part wasn’t necessary.”
As if confirming what Minato said about her short tempter, she glared angrily up at him. . .
—however that expression of hers immediately dissolved. It was replaced by a soft smile, the biggest thing to have changed in her recently.
“It doesn’t sound terrible. I’ll give it some thought.”
“Please do. If you ever start feeling like it, we can even get Aish involved in recommending you to the president. What I lack in actual teaching ability I make up for in sowing the seeds of future potential.”
“So what you’re saying, sir, is that. . .”
There was only silence. He couldn’t hear any continuation.
Curious, he looked down at Chloe and saw her zoning out. Her lips were shut firmly together. Was she holding her breath? From what I can see, her ears were starting to turn red.
Finally, she exhaled deeply and continued from where she left off, “Would you be happy if we were coworkers?”
“I’d be overjoyed.”
I mean, if someone as talented as her joined, I’d be able to sit back and take it easy after all. Not only am I the office newbie, but I’m constantly given loads of paperwork because of my Territory’s use in administrative duties. Well, it helps that my pupil is such a prodigy in the first place.
Chloe seemed to shrink in size. She started to hunch over, and her face was already completely hidden.
“I’ll give it some thought. . .”
I wonder why she said it twice. She was definitely getting quieter as of late.
Thirty minutes later, Natsuka Hoshino emerged from the training ward with her usual smile spread across her face. She tightly gripped an exam success certificate in both hands, and with that, her position on the training expedition was secured.
The corpse slowly descended.
Former city of Osaka. Ocean floor. 1,200 meters below the surface.
Amidst the ruins of this once city now a hundred years surrounded by oceanic pressure and darkness, there was a certain facility that continued to operate even now. Various domes were linked together in a circle with a huge one standing in the center. In it were large turbines that produced a low grumbling noise even throughout the water around it. It was an area devoted to power generation. The airtight facility it powered for what seemed like eternity had never once been seen by the public—nor would it likely ever.
The facility existed in utmost secrecy. As a result, it didn’t possess any official name, instead only being known by a nickname.
To those involved, it was called the “Farm.”
The corpse slowly descended there.
In the passageway connecting the research center with the administrative center, a man used his foot to flip over the remains of his former coworker. All it took was a glance to confirm that the corpse belonged to Chief Johansen.
The cause of death wasn’t hard to suss out—half of the face had been chewed clean off.
Seeing that, the head of security, Tachibana, sighed. He was a muscular man of Japanese descent in his thirties, and he was covered from head to toe in a black diving suit.
“And so the foul villains perished, never to see the sunlight again. Suits them right,” he chuckled.
“You trying to be funny? That’s how we’re eventually going to end up, you know?” sighed Stella, the living, breathing woman next to him. She stayed behind him, keeping watch where he couldn’t. “It might even be how the world ends up. . .”
Tachibana’s shoulders started to shake, as if he found that line amusing. “That was pretty damn poetic of you. You think the Unders are going to destroy the world? That’s never going to happen. They can’t even breed. Even the Federation could take on a single generation of ‘em.”
“That’s if the people who stole the research from here don’t have other plans in mind. I’m sure they can add the ability to reproduce later if they want. They’ll go and do that, fuck up once, and then it’s game over for all of us.”
“Well, thinking about it isn’t going to do anything. We’ll just do what soldiers do and run away if shit hits the fan.”
Tachibana activated his Territory, and a small glowing orb appeared in his hand. It would detonate if it came into contact with anything—that was the nature of his ability. He went on to create several dozen of them and then placed the spheres in various areas around the passageway.
“We’ll be able to hear if they come from behind now, and it should give us enough time to make a break for the administrative center. You have any idea how many Unders were in the production center, Stella?”
“Only roughly. From what I saw last night on patrol, there were two B-ranks and one A-rank. Also a ton of C and D-ranks. If you don’t count the ones we’ve killed already, around a hundred?”
“God, my head is killing me. Komaki was the one that released all of them, I’m guessing.”
“Probably. I’m going to cave her head in the next time I see her.”
The perpetrator behind this whole fiasco was a spy that managed to sneak into the research facility.
Komaki was a water manipulator in her twenties, but that name was likely an alias. She apparently stumbled on some research details while taking care of something in the administrative center, and then this morning, killed the two guards on duty at the production center. She then released all of the experimental organisms into the facility, barring those that hadn’t been fully cultivated yet.
Three hours had passed since the start of the incident.
The water manipulators who had the means to protect themselves, like Tachibana and Stella, managed to survive, but more than half of the people at the facilities had already become corpses like Chief Johansen, as they were normal and lacked any kind of special ability. It was only a matter of time before they were wiped out completely. Even if they managed to find weapons, their chances of success were low, even against a D-rank Under.
To Tachibana, however, Stella’s life was a valuable asset.
Not only was she strong in combat, her experience as a security guard in the production center gave her lots of knowledge concerning the numbers and types of their enemies. Tachibana, on the other hand, was in charge of managing the rest of the security personnel, so he spent most of his time in the administrative center. He knew the facilities like the back of his hand, but was clueless when it came to details regarding the Unders.
As they moved along the passageway seeped in silence, he started to ask Stella for information vital to their current situation, “Are there any Unders we have to worry about?”
“The A-rank one is dangerous, of course, but the one you have to be most careful of is one of the B-ranks, the No. 09 erosion-type. The guys from the research center call it Blotch.”
“What does it look like?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. It has a humanoid body with red blotches all over. Don’t even think about fighting if you see it.”
“Is it really that vicious?”
“That’s not really the best word for for it. For water manipulators, it’s—”
Stella cut herself off mid-sentence having heard a noise close by. Tachibana also turned around instantly. From behind them, they could hear the sound of a compact explosion going off—the mines that Tachibana had set up only minutes earlier. The entire passageway shook furiously.
Under or human—something set off the traps.
Stella reacted as soon as she confirmed what the noise was. She expanded the Territory that surrounded her and then gripped onto a pair of blades as if they were there from the start. Crouching down somewhat, she prepared herself for the strike. Keeping her voice to a whisper, she told him, “I’m explain later. Let’s just stick to surviving for now.”
Tachibana nodded with a sigh and then increased his own Territory to maximum output.
Immediately following that, an indescribable, distinctly inhuman voice resounded throughout the passageway.