The day for departure arrived just like that.
Though the boat was set to depart from the artificial island’s port at 8:00 in the morning, Minato had to wake up at 5:00 in order to take care of last-minute preparations. With a splitting headache, he managed to drag himself to the expedition’s meeting place, and there he found the television studio production staff already waiting on standby with a medium-sized cruiser yacht anchored next to the dock. The staff was comprised of three cameramen, none of whom were water manipulators. Because they couldn’t dive, they would only take care of the filming on the way to Osaka.
The instructors were in charge of both inspecting and operating the vessel, which was why he had to wake up so early. Though he genuinely wanted to go back to sleep, Minato forced a smile as he greeted the people there.
“Likewise. We’ll be counting on your help with the filming.”
The middle-aged men looked to be in high spirits.
Minato then started to give the cruiser a once-over to check for any faults or problems. Once they were out in the open sea, returning to the island could prove difficult if there were any undetected malfunctions. It was crucial that he do this beforehand.
Everything is screwed in tight. The engine’s going strong. The dashboard controls are all working as intended.
There seems to be nothing out of place.
Eventually, he concluded his inspection and exited out onto the boat’s deck. As he did, he noticed a couple figures approaching on the dock. It was Natsuka Hoshino and her roommate, Meifa Lee.
They were impressively early. There was still an hour before the designated meeting time.
Natsuka was struggling to carry her bulging sports bag as she walked unsteadily towards the boat. When she stepped onto the wooden planks of the dock, she suddenly noticed her childhood friend and broke out into an innocent smile. For an moment, it looked like she was trying to find a way to wave her hand, but it was clear the bag was too heavy, and she instead continued to focus on just making it to the boat in the first place. Meifa on the other hand waved liberally, albeit without a single change in her expression. Minato returned the wave.
The sky was a faultless blue. The surface of the ocean shimmered gently with the reflection of the rising sun.
Seeing this, Minato had a passing thought: a day at sea doesn’t get any better than this.
By the time the hour for departure had finally arrived, all of the participants were assembled, and the Academy president had concluded a simple speech with instructions for the trip.
There were two instructors, five trainees, and three cameramen in total. The ten of them filed into the cruiser and set off in the west-southwest direction.
It was 9:05, on May 20, 2145. Thus began the expedition.
—the cruel expedition.
The deep-sea filming trip spanned six days and five nights.
This boat, property of the Academy, could travel at speeds up to 20 knots, but cruising at 5 knots was most efficient with fuel consumption in mind—in other units, 30 km/h. The distance from the Tokyo area—in which the artificial island was located—to the heart of the Osaka area was around 400 kilometers, so a one-way trip would still end up taking at least 14 hours, even without any stops.
Furthermore, the production company that requested this whole thing mentioned wanting to “film things like Tokyo Skytree and Nagoya Castle on the way there, if possible.” Taking the time necessary to film those places into account, a liberal guess would still place us arriving at our destination tomorrow.
It wasn’t a huge deal.
For the trainees, this was their first time filming underwater ruins. Though they were given a short lecture before setting off, Minato figured it was important for them to get in some practice before eventually arriving in Osaka.
“Prepare to dive!” Aishwarin shouted. In other words, it was time to change.
As they performed many functions underwater, for water manipulators, the ability to change quickly into their diving suits was a crucial one.
Each person aimed to accomplish it within three minutes at most. The changing room in the cruiser had only enough space for two people at a time, however, so the girls took turns using it. The five trainees would have to be divided into three pairs, so it would probably end up taking around 10 minutes or so. Themselves not needing any additional speed-changing practice, Minato and Aishwarin were already in their diving suits. Since they would be diving in order to take the deep-sea footage, the middle-aged men that made up the program production staff would be the only ones on board. While he waited for the girls to finish changing, Minato took steps to anchor the boat in that location.
He soon heard a high-pitched scream, the voice coming from Chloe.
He heard things like, “C-Calm down, Hoshino!”
. . . things like, “Stop there!”
. . . things like, “Don’t go out like that!!!”
It seemed like Natsuka, who was slower than most when it came to changing, was having a difficult time in the narrow changing room and was starting to panic. She was the kind of person who would bolt out of the bathroom mid-bath in the nude if she felt a small earthquake or saw a single cockroach. Minato was especially worried, not wanting his childhood friend to dash out onto the deck with a less-than-appropriate appearance. You can do it, Chloe!
Ten minutes passed.
Having finished anchoring the boat, Minato stepped out onto the deck and spotted Natsuka. Her diving suit seemed to be in order, but the admirable worker next to her looked worn out and utterly defeated.
The skies had become even more beautiful since this morning. With the brilliant sun as the centerpiece, there wasn’t a single cloud in the blue expanse. The surface of the Pacific Ocean reflected the clear skies back and sparkled like a kaleidoscope of gemstones.
Once you jumped into the ocean, however, that refreshing scene would eventually cease to exist.
1,500 meters beneath the surface, the largest of the underwater ruins in the Japan Sea—Tokyo.
It was a world enshrouded in darkness, far isolated from the blazing sun. Once the thriving center of Japan, the city no longer retained any of that former glory. It seemed almost like hell, like a demonic realm. With exception of a small portion of deep-sea life, this was an area that forbade the presence of the living before the birth of water manipulation—a long primitive domain.
In the darkness of those deep waters, a gleeful voice rang out. “What’s that? What’s what? Look at that fish!”
A single gulper eel moved slowly through a valley of dilapidated buildings. It was an otherworldly creature—a well-known example of fish from the deep—and it possessed an appearance that could only be described as alien. A goblin shark appeared soon after. It also looked unsettling.
“Wow! It’s so disgusting! I’m actually impressed by how ugly it is. Look at it, Saorin! It’s right there!”
She was like a tourist, Minato thought.
Cheerful girls are cheerful no matter where they go. It was the same for Natsuka, but it became especially clear to Minato as he had to stay behind everyone to carry out his role as supervisor. After they arrived in the sunken city, there were reactions of amazement all around. Crumbling buildings, creatures with demonic faces. . . It was almost like they had entered some grand haunted house. The remnants of the great city now at the bottom of the sea were brimming with a fierce eeriness like nothing on land, and the ability to freely study it was a privilege that fell to the water manipulators who could exist in its depths.
There was a single unimpressed voice, however. “Can you believe they’re going so crazy over something like this?”
It goes without saying that it was Chloe who voiced this thought.
Immediately after everyone dived, she put distance between her and the rest of the group led by Aishwarin and swam next to Minato at the very back as he carried the filming equipment.
“You can get pretty jaded, can’t you,” I said to her with a small sigh.
She glared back and responded, “Oh, really? Are you saying you’d be happy if I went around saying things like ‘wow’ or ‘amazing’ at every little stupid thing I saw? Are you saying that’s your type? That you’d enjoy going on dates with girls like that?”
I wasn’t trying to start anything by saying that, but things were starting to take a strange turn.
“No, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what I like in a girl. It’s just that this kind of thing doesn’t happen everyday, so I was personally hoping you’d be able to have some fun, is all. Getting away from the training is a nice change of pace, too.”
“That could be difficult. I’ve never had much interest in old ruins.”
Figures she’s not the type of girl that cares about the past.
“So, in reality, do you like those kinds of girls?” she continued.
“Is it really that important?”
“You just said we’re getting away from the training, didn’t you? That means having these kinds of conversations is permitted too, surely.”
“Oh fine. I too love making ridiculous excuses.”
Who would’ve thought Chloe liked to gossip as well? All things considered, she was a 15 year old girl in the end, and for all he knew, she could be asking in order to get some dirt on her nuisance of an instructor, so she could use against him at a later date.
“By ‘those kinds of girls,’ you mean like Michel, right?”
“That’s red-perm’s name?”
“Red-perm. . .?”
Michel was your “essential girl,” to put it into words. She was full of expression, always thinking about fashion, and the kind of girl to be always surrounded by her friends. If the Academy were structured like a normal school, then she seemed like the type of girl who would be at the center of the class.
All of that was nothing more than my first impression seeing her, though.
“Forget preferences, I barely even know her. I’ll tell you what I think of her later.”
“Then who on earth do you like?”
“Ugh. . .”
She looked at me with disgust from the heart. It was (partly) just a joke. . .
Well, it looked like it lowered her curiosity at the very least, so I guess it’s fine. I don’t have much experience around the opposite sex, after all, so that kind of topic had me in a bind.
I suddenly noticed Tokyo Skytree in front of us. Time to prepare the camera. . .
None of it would be possible without a strong source of light.
Although water manipulators could use their Territory to correct for the darkness and allow themselves to see, video cameras were different and required a clear source of light in order to capture proper footage. At 1,500 meters below the surface, it was like filming a blackout curtain. Returning back to the boat with footage like that would probably get the production staff irritated at him, so operating the light source was a vital task.
Doing so was simple, however. All it took was placing it somewhere random, adjusting the angle, and moving the switch to the “on” position.
“You can do it, Meifa!” Natsuka called out warmly to the girl chosen to be the light-bearer.
“It won’t shoot out radiation. . . right?” she murmured.
“I don’t know about stuff like that, but I’ll go apologize with you if it doesn’t work out.”
“Goodbye, cruel world.”
With that inauspicious line, she clicked the switch. The high-intensity underwater light turned on without a problem.
“It’s on! It turned on! You did it, Meifa!”
“Incredible. Me, successfully using precision technology like this. . .”
“Don’t look directly into the light, you two. It’s not good for your eyes,” Minato sighed.
It was only around the size of a basketball, but the light it produced was blinding, showing objects even 90 meters away in perfect detail. To put it another way, however, 90 meters was as far as it could go before starting to dim.
On the other hand, today’s filming subject was the Tokyo Skytree, a tower of steel stretching at over 600 meters tall. Though around half of it broke apart from the resulting tsunamis as the island of Japan began to sink, it was still massive. It would be impossible to capture the entire thing in a single take. There was no other choice but to move the camera and light source bit-by-bit.
Once the preparations were finished, Aishwarin asked the trainees, “Who here wants to work the video camera the most?”
“I’d love to see you show us how it’s done, Aish.”
She wordlessly buried her fist into Minato’s stomach, and he clutched it in agony. It was way too painful, and no one around them even enjoyed the slapstick. Not even a comedy show would get any use out of the footage.
As he was trying to catch his breath with tears in his eyes, Michel called out enthusiastically, “Me! Me! I want to try!”
For her to continue talking like that while surrounded by 150 atm worth of water pressure, she must have the mental fortitude of a TV host. It looked like she, out of everyone, was making the most of this excursion.
“Be careful, it’s heavy.”
The camera weighed 20 kg. Not only that, because it was so densely constructed in order to make it usable in the ocean depths, it had virtually zero buoyancy. While she was a trainee, she wasn’t built like your average soldier, and it was clear that she would have some difficulties trying to support its weight.
As if on cue, her face distorted when she tried to lift it up. “Wha— It’s so heavy!”
“Help her out, Minato.”
You sure it’s okay to ask that of me, so-called Pervert the Great? Well, I couldn’t very well ignore my coworker’s command. I’ll give it a try. I’m used to the pain.
It turns out there was no reason for me to worry. Michel, who might as well be the female representative of the entire Academy, looked back with a beaming smile and said, “Oh? Mr. Yamajo’s going to help me? Thank you! I’m so glad!”
“Huh?” I replied, dumbfounded. “You’re not scared of me?”
“Nooope!” she shook her head vigorously. “She was bragging about it earlier.”
“Ms. Aish was saying you only play around with her. That means you’re as harmless as me! ☆”
Aishwarin stared to shriek nearby. “THAT’S NOT HOW I SAID IT? I was just trying to reassure everyone that Minato wasn’t— Wipe that grin off your face, Minato!”
“Sorry, sorry. . . I was just thinking about how our interests are finally aligned—”
“LIKE HELL THEY ARE! I swear to god, if you say even one indecent thing to me on this trip, I will make sure this ocean is your grave!”
Where’s your sense of humor? We’ve even played the Pocky Game1 before. . . At least, that’s what I wanted to say, but since there were trainees present, I’ll just keep that to myself for now, Minato thought.
Silently wrapped up in his thoughts, he started to lag behind the group.
“Hurry up and do your job, Saint Pervert,” Aishwarin said.
“Okay, I’ll hold the camera from above, so you use it to film, Michel.”
In the end, they were able to tape Tokyo Skytree without a hitch.
The rest of the ride to Osaka was spent mostly on the boat.
There was no time to rest. Since it was nearly noon, he had to start preparing lunch.
“So I’ll be in the kitchen then.”
Minato left Aishwarin in charge of steering at the helm and headed over towards the boat’s kitchen to start making lunch.
Though she had been left traumatized by the incident with the camera, she was clearly a professional when it came to things like piloting the cruiser. It’s nice to have a senior coworker who was so dependable. Thanks to that, Minato was able to devote his entire attention to preparing lunch. Well, he wouldn’t have had to take care of the food in the first place had her own cooking skills not been. . . what they were.
Let’s focus on the present! Minato didn’t mind cooking. (He didn’t especially like it either.)
You do what you got to do. And you got to do it seriously. If I cause a food poisoning incident on duty, then I’ll be in for a world of societal punishment.
Minato started working in the kitchen, wearing disposable cooking garments, when Meifa shortly dropped by. Because of how the boat was built, the kitchen was in complete view of even the saloon.
“An unexpected development.” She rested her chin on the counter and sleepily tilted her head. “Homemade cooking from you, sir?”
Minato lined up the ingredients and cooking utensils in the sink to start and nodded.
“I volunteered myself to do it. I’m hoping it’ll get me on Aish’s good side.”
“Low impact. . . Won’t get far with her.”
“I don’t think so either.”
“But Minato’s really good at cooking, you know?”
A new face appeared on the counter—this one smiling, unlike Meifa’s. It was Natsuka.
Meifa fired back a question in response to the intruder’s report. “You’ve tasted his cooking before?”
“Yep. When was the last time. . . Sometimes he made food when Matsuri—I mean Minato’s little sister—didn’t have any time. He’s always been very good with his hands.”
“Oh? A man who can cook,” Meifa responded, tone full of admiration.
Minato stayed humble. “I wouldn’t say that. I’m practically cheating with my Territory.”
“The rumored Cooking Specialist water manipulator?!”
“Why do you sound so excited? No, it’s because I can record and output recipe information.”
“It’s kind of like an ability that lets me move my body based on calculated simulations. . . I’m going to be using it now, but it might be a little hard to see what’s happening. It’s pretty boring, after all.”
Immediately, Minato started to expand his gray Territory. In that very instant, all of the utensils and ingredients lined up before him had their positions logged as data.
“As long as I can remember the positions of the tools and ingredients as well as the structure of the kitchen itself, and no irregularities present themselves, I can probably just use my default process.”
Minato took each of the vegetables one by one and peeled them before placing them into a bowl. Once that was done, he placed them on a cutting board and sliced them into large chunks, except for the onion which he diced. He then oiled a frying pan and started to fry the onion alongside some pork.
“Making curry with Territory. It’s a little. . .” Meifa started to say.
“Boring, right? Though you might not notice it, I’m still using my ability right now.”
Though they were all called water manipulators, they possessed an endless variety of expanded Territories.
Just like Chloe, who could tear anything and everything asunder, there were water manipulators capable of performing incredible feats in as many ways as there were atoms under the sun. Though it depended on the individual, some were even seen by many as being living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken them to wizards or superhumans. They were born in the 22nd century as mankind’s hope for the future. The entire world revolved around the existence of water manipulators, and yet here Minato was, focusing all of his effort on making a batch of curry.
He followed the recipe to the letter, and as a result, everyone seemed pretty satisfied by it, the general consensus being “curry doesn’t get any more normal than this.”
Although some of the people on board booed when Minato brought out more curry for dinner later that day, he didn’t waver in his decision.
It was 8:00 in the evening. The boat was now in the waters above Nagoya in the Aichi area.
He called out to the trainees to “prepare to dive,” and once everyone was finished changing, they began their descent into the deep waters of the night. Their filming subject this time around was Nagoya Castle—a traditional structure rich with history.
There was no time for it, however. An incredible creature made an appearance.
“What. . . is that?”
“Is it some kind of monster?”
It was a pale blue light floating admist the darkness 1,500 meters below the ocean surface.
The blue whale was said to be the largest living organism on earth at up to 30 meters in length, but the thing floating around the top of Nagoya Castle was twice that.
At a glance, it was like a monstrous earthworm.
It was incredibly long and thin, and dozens of wiggling feelers were attached to its head (was it a head?) like some kind of sea anemone. Watching it, you couldn’t help but imagine it was some kind of alien invader trying to take over the castle. It was a simply nauseating sight.
One of the trainees, however, couldn’t help but burst out in glee, “It’s a siphonophore!”
The self-professed jellyfish-maniac Natsuka was right on the money.
It was similar to a jellyfish, neither ghost nor cryptid. It was a colonial organism composed of many smaller animals, and though there were rumors that some larger than blue whales existed, something on this scale might’ve even been enough to challenge the world record.
While this was happening, Minato could feel his arms starting to go numb. Upon seeing all of this, Natsuka was engrossed in a fit of excitement and seemed to be desperately trying to cut off the circulation in one of his arms from the rest of his body.
“Amazing, it’s so big! I think I’m going to faint! I knew they could keep growing, but I can’t believe how huge it is, right, you see it too, right, I mean to top it off, they usually only live 800 meters down in the Mesopelagic Zone but the fact that we can prove it also lives deeper will shock the world of jellyfish research and oh my god Minato is hugging me too and my heart won’t stop racing!”
“I’m happy you know so much about it, but, um, why don’t we calm down a little?”
On his right side, Chloe was also desperately clinging to his arm—in this case out of pure fear.
“N-Not a ghost, huh? That’s good news. Physical attacks don’t work on ghosts, you know?”
Looks like the girl wonder wasn’t very good around things that defied logic. I couldn’t blame her for that.
As he relished the gradual loss of feeling in both of his arms, Minato asked Aishwarin, “What should we do about the filming? I mean, we have a monster on top of the castle.”
With a frustrated expression, she muttered back, “Yeah. . . When you think siphonophores, you think those venomous Portuguese Man O’ Wars, right? I’m not sure if it’ll sting us if we try to move it out of the way. . .”
“I’d hate to kill something that magnificent. How about we just include it in the shot?”
With that decided, Natsuka readily volunteered to be the cameraman. If anything, having this kind of light source hanging over the castle was something that only a jellyfish would be able to manage.
By this point, Natsuka was practically drooling as she giddily held up the heavy video camera. “Oh wow! I’m so happy I came! I’ll remember this for the rest of my life!”
“Good for you. Good for you.”
They returned to the boat with the footage in hand, thus concluding everything they had to do on May 20th.
It was pitch black out, the date just switching from the 20th to the 21st. The boat finally arrived in the Osaka area.
Minato checked the clock and saw that it was around 2:00 AM. Aside from him, everyone on board was already long since deep in slumber. The trainees were scheduled to wake up today at 6:30. Once they ate breakfast, they would start diving into the waters above Osaka at 8:00. Unlike yesterday, which was mainly spent traveling by boat, the majority of today was going to be for capturing footage of the sunken remains.
In other words, Minato had nothing left to do while waiting for the sun to rise. He’d already finished preparing breakfast the previous night, and there was still an hour left before he switched shifts with Aishwarin and was able to get some sleep.
In reality, this was everything he could ask for. He was finally able to take a break.
“Nothing wrong with taking a little breather, right?”
Chuckling to himself, Minato went out onto the deck and immediately started to fish.
I’ve been working nonstop steering the ship, making food, and looking after the trainees, all of this on barely a wink of sleep. Surely I deserve a moment of downtime. I don’t often get the chance to fish out in the ocean like this, either. Like Natuka with her jellyfish, fishing was Minato’s only true passion.
Unlike cooking, fishing didn’t depend on one’s calculations.
Plain as his expanded Territory was, it was applicable in a whole host of activities ranging from cooking curry to shooting free throws in basketball. He was adept at calculating physical space, and because of that, he rarely enjoyed games and sports. It might not be too far off to call him a jack of all trades and a master of none.
With fishing, however, the result always changed depending on how the fish were acting at the moment. He enjoyed the sensation of things not going his way. That’s why in the future, when he eventually opened up an inn next to the seaside with his little sister, he’d fish to his heart’s content and treat all of his customers to fresh aquatic cuisine. You should stop by, too!
He dropped his line down into the jet-black surface of the water.
Tonight, Natsuka’s “the fish be bitin’?” was nowhere to be heard.
“I see you’re fishing over there.”
It was Chloe who called out to him this time, instead.
Would you look at that. He glanced up and found a girl on the top deck staring back down at him, leaning forward with her elbows on the handrail.
“You’re still awake?”
“The boat stopped, and I was wondering what happened. I’ve always been a light sleeper.”
After that brief exchange, she suddenly jumped over the railing without hesitation and landed next to him. From where she was to the bottom deck was a fall of 4 meters.
Though it was definitely reckless, he thought, she used her Territory as a cushion to soften her landing and made the whole thing seem effortless. The brown cardigan she wore over her pajamas fluttered around, and the scene almost resembled a painting under the bright moonlight. Impressive as always.
Minatos’ expression grew strict, however. “What are you, a kid? Doing dangerous stuff like that. . .” He said it without mincing his words, and then his face and shoulders relaxed.
“I mean, it would be a downright hassle to go back through the ship,” she responded.
“I didn’t take you for the lazy type. Don’t do it again. . . Wait, don’t sit down yet.”
Minato held out his jacket, and Chloe stared back at him in confusion as she was about to sit.
“What’s that for?”
“Those are your own pajamas, right? My work clothes are meant to get dirty, so you can turn it inside-out and sit on it to keep your clothes clean if you want.”
“Oh. . . thanks.”
Chloe accepted the jacket as a makeshift seat and finally sat down completely. She brought her knees close to her body and looked deep in thought. She probably wasn’t going to start talking any time soon.
Minato was the one who had something to say. “This is a good chance for me to thank you.”
She raised her eyebrows and looked at Minato with a clueless expression. “For what?”
“For everything with Natsuka. She was so happy back there in Nagoya. Seeing her like that, I was glad she was able to come along. You were the one that made it possible. Thank you.”
“I didn’t really. . .” She hid her mouth behind her raised knees. “It’s not like I did it for you or anything, and Hoshino was the one who put in the effort. There’s no reason for you to thank me.”
“I figured you’d say something like that.”
“You’re starting to tick me off,” she said, glaring back. She closed the gap between them and continued, “If you’re really thankful, then what are you going to do for me in return?”
“In return, huh?”
I never imagined that she’d request collateral. This was more than likely her just trying to rile him up, but Minato was serious about wanting to acknowledge her efforts. He wanted to show her how much it meant to him.
In that case, there’s only one thing left to do. He was going to put his all into resolving this matter for good.
Minato explained how he would repay the favor:
“It’s a little early, but how about I release you from your slave contract then?”
Yep. This girl is the real deal.
She wasn’t even trying to hide how heartbroken she looked right now. She was never upfront about it in the past, but now there was no denying it. She was, without a doubt, a masochist. How did it come to this? I’ve done something I’ll never be able to make up for. I’ve gone and awakened the true form of this cute girl. A certain director of a certain agency is going to have my head, and I can’t blame him in the slightest. Now that it’s come to this, have I no choice but to take responsibility for her happiness and eventually find her the prince of sadism that she so desires? Must I become one myself? I’m sure Chloe hates herself for her masochistic tendencies, Minato thought. If that’s so, then things have become dire. I’ve never once experienced such uncertainty. Please, I’ll never ask for it again, just let me go back in time this once!
And so, Minato took back what he said a mere second after it left his mouth.
“Haha, just kidding!”
This is the same exact thing I did last time!
“Life’s not that easy, you know!” he continued. “You better prepare yourself, ‘cause I’m going to have you stay a slave all the way until graduation!”
“You don’t say! Well, you know, it’s a promise, so I guess there’s nothing I can do! I’ll definitely destroy you once I graduate, hahaha!”
She also had the same easy-to-read, relieved expression, so it helped put me at ease.
—That very easy-to-read aspect of it was also part of the problem, though.
As if scowling, Chloe slowly and awkwardly started to smile. “You’re such a cruel person, sir. I despise that kind of stuff.”
Her smile was almost too sweet, as if trying to brush the whole matter aside.
Suddenly, Chloe averted her eyes, and it soon dawned on Minato how much he had been staring at her. After realizing it, he felt strangely embarrassed. How could he have been acting like that around a pupil three years younger than him?
When he first met her, Minato thought of Chloe as nothing more than an upstart shorty that would be fun to mess with.
In reality, she was but a charming girl.
Gotta love adolescence, Minato chidingly thought to himself. This only reaffirms how unfit I am to be an instructor.
It was 8:00 in the morning.
Starting today, they would film the Osaka area in full swing.
Deep-sea footage of Japan under the moniker of “Japan’s bygone cityscapes” mostly dealt with popular spots in eastern Japan, like Tokyo, and also included areas rich with history in the west, like Kyoto and Nara. Up until now, Osaka had never been the centerpiece. Though documentaries lacked the spectacle of other entertainment programs, ratings were still vital, and they couldn’t get away with showing the same exact sunken metropolises every year. That’s apparently why the program this time was titled “The Beloved Old Town” and focused on Osaka.
That concluded Aishwarin’s insider information.
“For people who aren’t interested in it, though, it might as well be New York or London. Sunken cities all look pretty much the same, and they don’t care enough about what’s different between them,” she continued.
“That’s pretty harsh.”
Minato spotted a suitable building in the underwater ruins of former Osaka and descended down onto its roof. They were lower than 1,500 meters below the surface, and in reality, it was the same as any other submerged ruin—filled completely with silence and darkness. Compared to Tokyo, the whole area seemed to have far fewer towering buildings. There wasn’t even the slightest trace of the hustle and bustle that made this once-city a hub of comedy and performance.
Minato placed the heavy filming equipment down at his feet.
They were on a tight schedule, so they needed to do things efficiently. He turned around to face the trainees waiting on standby behind him and issued a command:
“Starting today, we’re going to be staying down here at all times, aside from when we have lunch. Make sure you tell us if you start to feel sick.”
Long working hours aside, the filming won’t be any different from what they had done in Tokyo and Nagoya. The plan was to spend the entire day in the area around Tsutenkaku Tower, in particular, in areas like the once-thriving shopping street called New World. It was their job to capture the appeal of places like these that once formed the core of Osaka’s identity.
It was certainly a difficult task, especially compared to the previous day, full of lounging.
Not to mention, compared to being on the surface, “fatigue” in the far depths of the ocean was infinitely more troublesome.
Still, their first day on the job ended without any problems. The point at which things started to go south was on their second day in Osaka, on May 22th in the afternoon.
“Are you okay, Saori?”
Hearing Meifa ask this all of a sudden, Minato turned around and noticed one of the trainees hunched over while standing on the ground.
They were currently somewhere in the downtown Dotonbori area. Though both the river and the Nipponbashi shopping district were both lost as the city became submerged, some of the symbols of Osaka at the time—things like the Glico Man and Kani Doraku crab restaurant signs—managed to retain their original appearance and were included in the shot.
Standing on the main street at the time, too, was one of the participants in this excursion, Saori Mizushima, complaining that she didn’t feel well. Like Natsuka, she chose to participate on this trip by herself without receiving a recommendation.
It was possible she became lightheaded from moving around too much. Her voice lacked strength as well. “Ugh, excuse me. I’m a little dizzy.”
Aishwarin immediately frowned and said, “Take her back to the ship, Minato.”
Poor bodily condition equals immediate withdrawal to the surface—a near-ironclad rule.
Listening to her instructors exchange words, Saori Mizushima waved her hands in a fluster. “No, no. You don’t have to worry about me. It’s barely anything.”
“We already told you this before setting off, but symptoms like dizziness, headaches, nausea, palpitations, and vision impairment are possible signs of ‘deep-seasickness.’ I’m going to need you to return to the boat so that you can recover. This is a matter of life and death.”
“I really am fine though. . .”
Managing one’s health is treated with utmost importance and severity among water manipulators.
Especially when working at low depths for a long period of time, one becomes susceptible to deep-seasickness. Though water manipulators are protected by their Territories, there is considerable psychological pressure from being surrounded by levels of water pressure that would immediately kill you otherwise. That’s why stress subconsciously builds up in the mind, making way for a whole host of physical and mental abnormalities. As these abnormalities develop and worsen, they can eventually take the form of a panic attack—rendering water manipulators unable to maintain their Territory in worst-case scenarios.
In other words, resulting in death.
That’s why instructors were required to take action if one of these symptoms were ever observed or felt. Take action if there’s any doubt. Safety first.
“Do you need any help swimming back to the boat?”
“No, I’m okay. . .”
With an almost inconsolably disappointed look, Saori Mizushima pushed off from the sea floor and began to ascend. Trainees weren’t allowed to break off from the group by themselves, so Minato fulfilled his duties as an instructor and led the way.
They swam at a speed of 20 knots. It took something to the tune of five minutes to reach the surface.
The swim back was brimming with disappointment.
“This means I can’t do anymore filming, I guess. . .”
Minato nodded. “Yeah, you should take it easy in bed for the rest of the day. Do you like video photography?”
“Not really that, but I wanted to learn more about working in the ocean.”
“My expansion abilities aren’t really that great. Once you become a water manipulator, though, you get to work in the ocean all you want. That’s really all I want. But with a body like this. . . It sucks.”
“Everyone has their off days, and most trainees will eventually get over their deep-seasickness by the time they take their advanced courses.”
It’s good to be optimistic, so he told her what he really thought about her situation.
For some reason, it was almost like he was looking at his childhood friend.
Natsuka was the same, and so was Chloe. I want the two of them to find their own paths in life, and to take pride in that future—naive thoughts like these occupied Minato as he gazed at the sun finally breaking through the surface of the water.
However, a terribly long day was soon to arrive.
It was May 23rd at 8:00 AM—the very next day.
The sky looked threatening, and it had been raining gently all morning.
Saori Mizushima’s dizziness turned out be from a cold in an unfortunate turn of events, and she had become bedridden with a fever ever since the previous night. It goes without saying that she wouldn’t be able to help with the filming for the remaining two days. When she heard this, tears started to stream from her heartbroken eyes. I felt sorry for her, but there was nothing we could do.
The filming of Osaka was all but complete, so today, they decided to reposition the boat a little to the Sakai city area for more taping. They mainly wanted a birds-eye shot by positioning the camera in a high location, so there was less work than yesterday.
Still, the bad weather continued to loom over the ocean.
Aishwarin pulled one of the members of the production staff still on the boat aside and said, “We’re going to be taking a wired transceiver connected to the ship, so make sure you contact us if the weather makes a turn for the worse.”
“No problem. A storm could get pretty scary.”
On the small off chance that the seas became too rough, it was possible the boat might end up capsizing. Though the water manipulators among them had little to fear in terms of drowning, the production crew wouldn’t be so lucky. Everyone needed to be prepared in the event of an emergency.
To add to that, since a wireless receiver wouldn’t work underwater, they needed to run a cable between them and the ship. It was possible for the communication cable to extend around 3 km, but it could prove a large hassle to bring it down into the depths. Since the cable had a tendency to get snagged on various things when moving throughout the sunken ruins, the person carrying it had to always be careful. It was a real pain in the ass. . . so Minato was put in charge.
Once again, they began their dive towards the Osaka sea floor.
On their way down, Natsuka seemed somewhat depressed. “I feel bad about Saori. . .”
“Especially since she seemed so excited. . . Well there’s always next year,” Minato responded.
“Huh? She can volunteer next year for a second time?”
“If no one else wants to go, at least. I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’ll probably have to supervise again next year, and I doubt the other girls will want to spend time with Pervert the Great.”
“I don’t mind, though~” Michel cut in.
While Minato was desperately trying to put up a cool front, she had spun around to face him while swimming in front. Moving skillfully even while facing backwards, she continued, “I have an itty-bitty question.”
“What is it?”
“It’s about how you only harass Ms. Aish. Is it ‘cause you like her?”
Oh. Up at the front, Aishwarin’s shoulders lurched a little. (For some reason, Chloe had the same reaction.)
Natsuka’s expression also brightened up. “That’s true! You were always really friendly with Ms. Aish when you were a trainee too, Minato.”
I was nearly certain Aishwarin was going to start yelling at us any second now, saying something like, “Enough with the stupid questions!” but to my surprise, nothing happened. She simply continued to swim forward in silence. It seemed there was no getting around answering it.
What should I say?
Of course I like her, but there weren’t really any romantic feelings involved, and since I did like her, I couldn’t bring myself to deny it completely.
—There was no need for Minato to worry, however. The chance to answer Michel’s question had already passed.
There was a sound—
—a sharp ping.
peep. . .
“Standby,” ordered Aishwarin, and everyone stopped. Immediately after, the sound repeated itself.
It was an ultrasonic sonar.
Though the sound was in a range that humans couldn’t normally pick up on, their Territories allowed water manipulators to perceive ultrasonic frequencies. Rather than “hearing” it, then, it might be more accurate to say they could feel the vibrations.
That’s not to say their senses were nearly as precise as the passive devices issued by the military, but they could at least gauge roughly in which direction the source of the ultrasonic signal was.
—and that source was the ocean floor.
pip-pip-pip peep. . .
The wavelength changed in fixed intervals, continuing intermittently.
Putting Michel’s question on hold, Minato descended next to his coworker. “You think it’s a submarine?”
“I think so, but. . . I made sure to confirm beforehand that the Federation navy would be operating outside of this location so we wouldn’t run into them. It could be a private research vessel from somewhere. At any rate, all of you are to continue waiting on standby.”
Submarines were a source of trouble for water manipulators. They were hulking masses of steel that could travel at speeds of up to 70 km/h, especially in the military’s case, and so accidentally colliding into one would almost certainly result in massive injuries. As a general rule, if you end up intercepting nearby sonar signals, you should tread carefully while waiting for the signals to disappear.
The sound continued.
peep-peep-peep. . .
“Wait a sec.” Chloe realized it before anyone else. “Is it. . . Is it morse code?”
“Now that you mention it. . .”
Sure enough, the signal had been faithfully alternating between long and short sounds.
If you were to write it out into text, the signal would look like this: · · · — — — · · ·
—an all-too-infamous message.
“SOS. . . It’s a distress signal.”
The second he said it, Minato could feel the tension in the water around him rising.
It was getting more and more likely that something bad had happened.
At the moment, however, Minato and the others were 800 meters below the surface. The source of the sonar signal came from a place much deeper. If the source of the transmission really was on the ocean floor, then they’d be asking for help from a depth of 1,500 meters.
If it really was a submersible that ended up shipwrecked at the bottom of the sea, however, we’d have little to no hope of rescuing them with our current members. None of our abilities were suited towards rescue, after all. None of us possessed the expanded abilities to either haul a several ton submersible or make it so that normal people could withstand the deep-sea pressures as well. It should go without saying that their boat wasn’t equipped in any way to handle salvaging either.
If it was a nuclear submarine, then its crew might have access to a lot of breathable air, so it was possible that they could be saved if we relayed the SOS fast enough, but. . .
More likely than not, it was already too late.
As a result, a grim expression appeared over Minato’s face. Aishwarin reacted the same way. “Well, I guess we can’t pretend we didn’t hear anything. . .”
“Right. . . At any rate, let’s focus on pinpointing where the SOS came from,” Minato responded.
We shouldn’t give up hope.
After sending a report back up to the surface, Minato and the others continued their descent in order to ascertain the source of the distress signal.
The surprises continued one after the other.
The source of the sonar-based SOS turned out to be nothing like a submarine.
—it was an underwater facility.
At 1,500 meters beneath the surface of the ocean, it resembled the petrochemical complexes of old.
No, it was more like a single section of one of those complexes. Sitting amid the scattered ruins of many industrial facilities destroyed by flooding, it was a remarkably archetypal structure in the shape of a large dome. The sonar’s sound waves continued to pound against them like a heartbeat from the building’s direction. Then finally, as if ultimately seeking their arrival, the distress signal ceased to beat.
For a moment, none of them could remember how to speak.
Once they set foot atop the dome, they could feel the faint humming of slow-moving turbines. It likely had something to do with power generation.
“A base this deep. . .?”
As Aishwarin mumbled this under her breath, Minato set down the recording equipment and crossed his arms. “The only two underwater facilities I know of are the ones in the EU and where the former Hawaii used to be. . .”
“You say that, but we’re looking at one right now.”
“Yeah, this is extremely suspicious.”
Underwater facilities like this were extremely difficult to construct and maintain, and there were usually no benefits large enough to merit the sheer amount of effort necessary to build one.
The only conceivable reasons for having one were for research or mining. At any rate, an enormous sum of money would be required. That meant sponsors were naturally sought after, which would usually result in news of the project going worldwide. No financial backing meant that everything was taken care of out of pocket, meaning that their source of revenue was comparable to that of an international foundation or country.
Perhaps it was that very foundation or country that was concealing the facility’s presence from the public, engaging in a conspiracy behind the scenes. . .
A secret underwater facility. . . One glimpse was enough to see just how mysterious it all was.
“I’m guessing this place isn’t up to much good.”
Aishwarin nodded gloomily. “I don’t think so either. . . Like they’re developing a new narcotic or weapon, or maybe it’s for some kind of doomsday cult. Even if they are criminals, though, I don’t think we should ignore their SOS and let them die. . .”
It looks like her mind was already made up. She was planning on responding to their distress signal.
Though, if they were to learn the secrets of this facility, there was no guarantee that they would be able to turn back. . .
—Completely in the dark, Minato and the others started to search for a entrance into the facility, regardless.
After around 30 minutes, the group managed to locate an arrival gate which looked to be meant for submersibles, but they weren’t able to figure out how to contact the people inside, and the gate seemed to be impossible to open from the outside. They gave up shortly after.
Another 10 minutes later, they discovered a hollow cavern that seemed to be something like a drainage shaft.
“Looks like we can go through it.”
Theory could even be applied to underwater facilities, even when there was little precedent. If you went through a water duct meant for drainage, there was a high chance of being able to break through the other side.
Standing on the ocean floor, Aishwarin turned towards Minato and the trainees. “I’m going to go up ahead to scout things first. Everyone else is to wait here on standby. Watch after the trainees, Minato.”
“Shouldn’t we reverse the roles?” asked Minato, unable to completely erase his uneasiness. “I mean, you don’t exactly come off as the most diplomatic of people, and there’s always the concern that you’ll be attacked by sex-starved villains and end up in some kind of—”
“Would it kill you to worry about me more normally, you asshole?!” Aishwarin yelled, and immediately after, said persuasively, “And even if there are ‘villians,’ that’s all the more reason for me to be the one who goes. I’m much more suited to dealing with criminals.”’
“That’s true, but. . .”
Dubbed “The Academy’s Fastest,” when she expanded her Territory as a Limit Operator, she was able to leap around at unparalleled speeds. If she were to use that inhuman speed in combat, villain or not, the average person would be in over their head.
But she was a clumsy one. . . That’s my only worry.
“Don’t look so gloomy. All you have to do is listen to your trustworthy senior.”
“I understand. Just. . . Just please don’t do anything reckless.”
“I won’t, I won’t. If it gets even a little dicey, I’ll abandon the rescue mission and come back right away.
With a reassuring smile, she tied a wire rope around her waist to prevent her from needing to be rescued as well, handed the other end to her junior, and then disappeared off into the waterway.
The infiltration was underway.
Aishwarin slowly made her way through the complete darkness, searching for the end of the waterway at a little under 10 knots.
“. . .”
Honestly speaking, she wasn’t the biggest fan of dark and narrow places.
It’d be better to say she really didn’t like them. She hated them. They’re so scary. They suck so much!
Maybe I really should’ve switched with Minato Yamajo. I do regret it a little, but going back at this point would only endanger my position as his senior. I can’t exactly ignore how little respect he’s already given me at this point, but I should probably go about addressing that in a less stress-inducing way than this. . .
Fortunately, the tunnel was wide enough for a single person to walk comfortably through it, so there wouldn’t be any problems in going forward.
I can’t help but worry about the length of the connecting rope I entrusted to Minato Yamajo, though. . . It was an impressive 500 meters long, but depending on how complicated the interior of this place was, there was a real possibility that it wouldn’t be enough.
See? As if on cue, there’s a fork in the path.
Should I go right or left? Well, if I’m wrong, I can just follow the rope back, Aishwarin thought before going down the path on the right.
Five minutes in, and she was already starting to get irritated.
“Why is this place so stupidly long. . .?”
She still couldn’t see any semblance of an exit. Already, there had been three separate points where the path split into two.
This underwater facility smelled like bad news. The farther Aishwarin proceeded through the waterway, the more she was gripped by a vague feeling of unease. The longer the facility stretched out before her, the more afraid she felt, as if sensing the absurdity of the beings behind it. Although the structure was unbelievably massive, it was built as to be completely secret from the rest of the world.
Maybe I never should’ve come here. . .
Delusions like ghost stories swam around in her head, and that’s when it happened.
Upon arriving at a four-way split in the path, she turned right—
—and saw half a person drifting down before her.
“This can’t be. . . real. . .”
Aishwarin was barely able to suppress a scream. Only her face was frozen in terror.
It was only half—the upper half of a body. It seemed to be a woman’s.
Aishwarin immediately turned around without thinking, but the path behind her hadn’t changed at all. Aside from the corpse, there wasn’t anything else at all in the area. . . Not even the body’s lower half.
Even as goosebumps broke out all over her, Aishwarin cautiously began to approach the corpse.
Upon closer inspection, it was definitely a woman’s, and the thing that stuck out most was her clothes. She was wearing a diving suit, but there was no breathing apparatus. This meant that there were two possibilities: the body was dumped here after dying. . . or this person was a water manipulator.
Normally when a corpse is left underwater, it absorbs that water and ends up severely bloated, but that wasn’t the case here. The body remained pristine. That meant this didn’t happen very long ago.
She finally noticed a dog tag attached to the corpse, and whispered the name engraved on its surface:
“Stella. . .”
Tearing off the tag from around the corpse’s neck, Aishwarin decided to return.
A single glance at the condition of the body was enough for her to tell that something had murdered this woman. Not only that, it was something so dangerous that it had managed to kill a water manipulator. To make matters worse, if this woman was killed underwater as well, then there was a good chance that perpetrator was also a water manipulator.
Whether the culprit was someone from inside the facility or an intruder who came from the outside, there was a chance that they were still hiding nearby. She started to worry about Minato and the trainees still waiting on standby outside the drainage shaft.
—I need to get back.
Using the red rope connected to her as a guide, she began to head back in the opposite direction, and then—
She was dragged into the darkness.
Outside, Minato and the others suddenly saw the rope lurch violently.
“What the. . .?”
The roll of rope started to unwind rapidly, extending farther into the dark tunnel. Something had clearly happened to Aishwarin, who had been moving at a snail’s pace up until this moment. It seemed that she had stopped moving a minute ago for some reason, but immediately after, started to dash like crazy. . . at an unbelievable speed.
“What’s going on?”
There was no question that she ran into trouble.
She herself promised that she’d return at once upon encountering any problems, and yet, the rope only continued to be swallowed up into the tunnel.
It’s possible that Aishwarin found something in the facility and was currently trying to chase it down. It was definitely more than possible for someone like her to reach these kinds of speeds. The faster she moved, however, the more rope would be used up.
Almost instantly after, the once-taut rope suddenly became slack and drifted to the ocean floor.
This doesn’t look good. A chill crept down Minato’s spine.
“Don’t tell me. . .”
He started to pull in the rope, to see what was going on. It returned frighteningly easily, as if there wasn’t an ounce of resistance.
Without thinking, Minato held his head in his hands.
“The rope was cut. . .”
This was incredibly bad.
They were at the bottom of the ocean with no surefire way of communicating with each other. If only she realized that the rope was severed and returned. . . Of course, he had to also consider the possibility that she might not be coming back.
“What happened? Hey. . .” asked Meifa, Aishwarin’s pupil, with furrowed eyebrows. However, Minato had no way of knowing what kind of situation Aishwarin was in right now, either.
Although he wanted to put them at ease, there was no way he could beat around the bush, so he told the trainees exactly what was going on. “The safety rope got severed somehow. There’s a possibility that she’s in trouble as well.”
“Not good. Going after her.”
“I’ll go,” interrupted Minato. “Everyone, return to the boat.”
“No. I’m against this. You’ll disappear too, sir. . .”
“Stop scaring me. You watch too many movies.”
Besides, even if this situation was like Meifa suggested, like a horror movie in which “once you enter, you’ll never return,” then that made me want to take the trainees with me even less.
There was an instructor with whom they lost contact and a distress signal from a mysterious underwater facility. Even Minato couldn’t suppress his anxiety about breaking in alone to a shady place like this one, but his fear for Aishwarin’s safety was even greater.
That’s why going in alone was his best bet, he thought.
—as an instructor and as a person.
Chloe voiced her disapproval, however. “I’m also not okay with this. Let’s say Ms. Aishwarin did end up in a bad situation, and you weren’t able to handle the problem on your own. What would you do then, sir? It would be more rational for all of us to move as a unit.”
It’s true that having more people would help out. Forming a group, however, was an entirely different situation altogether.
“In the end, Aish and I are professionals, so facing danger like this is part and parcel of the job. All of you are trainees, so it’s different. Please understand where I’m coming from.”
“Is that a command?”
“It is. Return to the boat.”
That was pretty much treason. Even if I were to use the slave card on her, I doubt she’d listen. He could feel an unyielding strength from her blue eyes.
“Feel free to make me write an apology or throw me in solitary confinement after this is over. I will go with you.”
“You’re putting me in a difficult spot.”
Trying to convince her would only waste time, and time was of the essence if I wanted to convene with Aishwarin.
Even worse, since Natsuka was here as well, things were getting difficult. “If Minato went alone and something happened to him, I would also regret it for the rest of my life,” she said. “I don’t want you to do everything by yourself. I don’t care if I’m expelled. Let me help you search for Ms. Aish too.”
“Huh? You mean everyone’s going? I’m going to get lonely by myself, so let me come too!” added Michel.
Did they really have such little faith in me. . .?
I know I’m a new instructor with a lousy personality, and I figured no one respected me because of that, but who would’ve thought that everyone was also thinking “you’re utterly useless by yourself!” It came as a small shock, to be honest.
At this rate, even if I forced all of them back to the boat, there was a real chance that they would continue to follow after me regardless. If that was the case, then maybe it was better to have them in a spot where I could watch over them.
It didn’t sit right with me, but I guess I’ll have to take them along.
As he finally came to this conclusion, there was a sudden sound.
A man’s voice came out of the wired transceiver. It belonged to one of the production crew members on board.
Minato reflexively picked up the transceiver and switched on the mic. “This is Minato. What happened?”
“. . . What?”
“There’s a huge hole in the boat! We’re going to sink!”
“What the hell. . .? No, I understand. We’ll head back right away. There’s a lifeboat on the stern deck, so please try to group everyone up over there. Please try to calm down.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to calm down?! Just hurry up! There’s this weird thing that—IT’S HERE! IT’S HERE!”
With that last bit of unintelligible shouting, the transmission stopped abruptly.
There was complete silence. The mic must’ve been switched off on the other end. Right before it did, he could’ve sworn that he heard something like the scream of a madman in the background.
“What on earth. . .”
Minato ripped the transceiver off the buckle. It’s too heavy. It’s getting in the way and pissing me off! I need to be searching for Aishwarin right now. . . How could a boat possibly be sinking in an area without even reefs.
Without bothering to conceal his anger, Minato outlined the plan moving forward. “All of us need to get back to the boat as fast as possible. Apparently it’s sinking.”
Since he wouldn’t be able to tell Aishwarin what was going on if she really did end up returning, he wrote a small message on a board for use underwater and then started heading back to the boat with the trainees.
I feel like I’m going insane.
—What the hell is going on in these waters?
Roughly four minutes later, Minato and the others finished their 1,500 meter ascent to the ocean’s surface.
Once his head broke through the surface, he was able to spot the boat around 200 meters away. Already it was starting to tilt forward. Strangely enough, he wasn’t able to see any of the production staff waiting out on the deck.
Once she saw the sinking boat, Natsuka’s face grew pale, and she screamed, “Saori! She’s probably still sleeping!”
First she ended up catching a cold and needing to rest, and now the boat she was on was sinking. Poor girl. . . She can’t catch a break.
Still, what on earth are the production guys doing? Why aren’t they out on the deck like I told them? If the boat sinks fully with them still inside, even a water manipulator will have a hard time getting them out safely. Minato clicked his tongue in frustration and then redirected all of the power in his Territory to help him move faster and close the distance between him and the boat.
Once he reached it, he grabbed the ladder railing and hoisted himself up onto the deck. At the same moment, he heard a girl’s voice.
It was Michel. She had made it onto the deck one step ahead of Minato. Just like Aishwarin, she was a water manipulator who specialized in movement, in particular, in “ignoring terrain differences.” She was being far too enthusiastic for the situation.
Having her here was perfect, however. She’d be able to make it up to the trainee sleeping quarters on the second level in no time flat.
“I’m going to make my way through the boat, so I want you to go straight to Saori Mizushima’s room, Michel.”
After that exchange, Minato pushed the self-inflating lifeboats on the lower deck over the edge into the water and then in no time burst through the door to the saloon, itself constructed to be partially below sea-level.
As he expected, the interior of the boat was filled with seawater.
It was almost like a swimming pool. The kitchen near the rear deck was already completely submerged. The hole must’ve been huge. That’s the only way it could’ve flooded this quickly.
He noticed Chloe standing behind him.
“I don’t see anyone here,” she said.
“They’re probably on the upper level. I’m going to make my way to the wheelhouse and send out an SOS.”
“Then I’ll search for everyone up top.”
Minato made his way through the flooded saloon and then rushed up the stairs in order to get to the helm.
He entered the corridor. There, he found Michel standing some ways away. She was halfway down the hall from the helm, in front of the sleeping quarters for the trainees where Saori had been resting. She was completely upright and motionless.
Somewhat confused, Minato approached her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
She turned her head to face him. Her lips seemed to be drawn in an anxious smile.
“Saorin’s here, but. . .”
Minato wasn’t sure what to say to her vague explanation, so he decided to look in the room for himself to see what was going on.
Michel continued to speak as he did so.
“—but something’s kinda eating her.”
That’s right. Her body was being gnawed through, accompanied by the crunching sounds of her bones being snapped apart. Her head had already been fully consumed, and her right arm was in the process of being finely chewed up. . . by razor-sharp fangs.
There was a monster.
Dexterously using its front limbs, it continued to eat the young girl. The glass window in the room was visibly shattered apart. That’s likely how it managed to get inside, attacking her while she was still asleep. How unfortunate this poor girl was. . . Unable to process even sadness or fear, Minato continued to stare vacantly at the scene before him.
“What is it. . .?” Michel asked.
Minato couldn’t respond.
Much larger than any human, it was almost like a pale, spongy giant salamander or a massive axolotl. Its front limbs seemed fully developed, while its hind ones looked stunted and atrophied. Most striking was its mouth, in which jagged teeth were strewn chaotically about like a shark’s. Greedily, it pulled more and more at Saori Mizushima’s corpse. It suddenly spit the girl aside, however, as if finding Minatos’ voice unbearable.
With sloppy, bloodied fangs, it looked in their direction.
Finally, Minato pulled the knife from his belt.
“I-I can’t. I’m scared.”
The unknown monster’s front limbs were bowed outwards, like a frog or grasshopper’s. Those kinds of legs were designed for pouncing quickly in order to catch their prey.
At last, it launched itself from the bed it was on—a jump with the ferocity of a bullet.
In a fraction of a second, Minato expanded his Territory.
He didn’t feel the need to hold back, facing an unknown enemy. He set battle readiness to full output.
Minato’s power was the type of ability that could create multiple personalities. In a way, what he did was essentially produce an exceptional artificial intelligence in his mind. The ability to convert input from the five senses into data was originally nothing more than an accessory to this main ability.
(Just between you and me, the process that went into naming this ability as a child, dictionary in hand, embarrasses me to this day. . .)
《MAI (Minato Auto-Intelligence) / booting. . .》
To Minato, the process of making curry was no different to that of combat. As long as you follow the correct procedure, you’ll end up with the correct result.
The blinding speed with which he was able to process information was reflected in his ability to chose the most precise course of action. What made that possible was a single pseudo-program, built up from his Territory.
MAI’s judgment surpassed even Minato’s own kinetic perception.
《MAI》※counterattack possible ※initiate lethal counterattack—Y/N
Immediately after, Minato thrust his knife into the head of the incoming monster. He then twisted his wrist and shifted his weight, using the monster’s momentum to throw it over his shoulder. It crashed into the wall, leaving a large crack on its surface. Even though it had been stabbed in the head, however, it didn’t look anywhere near the verge of death. After collapsing on the floor, it instantly pulled itself back up, letting loose an excited, grotesque scream.
Minato wasn’t so kind as to give it another chance to attack.
He landed a roundhouse kick at full force across the monster’s face and then stuck the knife this time into the back of its head. Even then, it refused to die. It never gives up. This could get bad.
《MAI》※detecting target attack
Minato jumped backwards as soon as the assessment came. The monster reached out with its front limbs, almost grabbing and trapping him there.
I doubt I’ll be able to do anything with only this knife. One hit from the thing, and it’s probably all over for me, too. The only way to win would be to kill it with overwhelming force.
On top of that, Michel was in the way.
Though it might’ve hurt her in the process, he grabbed her hand and pulled her violently into the corner.
I’ll apologize to her after. For now, I need to focus on the fight.
The monster readied itself to pounce once more. Noticing this, Minato slammed his heels into the monster’s elbows. As it started to crumble to the floor from the impact, he stabbed his knife into it for the third time—this time into the side of its head. Finally, its movement started to show signs of damage.
—and yet, it refused to stay down.
Suddenly came the color violet. . .
Someone’s Territory started to illuminate his vision.
The monster’s body was cleaved in half. With a single swing, the top half was separated from the bottom—and it happened in an instant. Then there was yet another flash. With a streak of blue light, the monster’s head fell mercilessly from its neck. With that, it was over.
It was too much for even the monster, and it slouched lifelessly to the floor.
Minato wasn’t the one who finished the monster off. Since its body was severed, he assumed at first that it was Chloe who landed the blow, but instead—
“Are you okay, Minato?” Natsuka yelled, having just ascended the stairs. It wasn’t her that did it either.
The violet-colored Territory belonged to someone right in front of him.
“What is this? Was killing it correct?” wondered Meifa Lee, standing in the corridor.
With an expression as blank as always, she took a fighting stance that seemed to give her a larger presence. At the end of the long pole she carried in her hands was a large blade, similar to that of a hatchet.
The Green Dragon Crescent Blade. . .
It was probably her Territory, first given substance to solidify it and then molded into a weapon. Zone Specialists like her had a patent on such abilities.
Still, what power. . . A single strike was all it took to instantly dispatch the creature. Minato’s knife didn’t even hold a candle to it.
For the time being, Minato heaved a large sigh in relief. “You really saved me there. . .”
“Don’t mention it.”
At around that moment, Natsuka finally made it up to them and asked, “What abut Saori?! Was she in her room?”
“. . .”
She wasn’t able to see inside from where she was standing.
Now that the immediate danger had been taken care of, Minato gradually started to feel worse.
One of the trainees. . . died.
“I don’t think you should look inside.”
Was it that she didn’t catch on to my roundabout way of saying it, or was it that she simply couldn’t believe what I was trying to tell her?
Her eyes were wide open, and she started to ask, “What do you mea—”
Then with a large crash, the door to the wheelhouse flew off its hinges.
Minato moved himself in front of Natsuka in an instant to protect her and then started to survey the situation. Two monsters, just like the one he fought with prior, scrambled out of the wheelhouse. Inside the room, there were human limbs separated from their bodies, scattered all over the place. It was probably the production crew. . .
It seemed like the mysterious creatures’ front limbs were not only useful for pouncing, but for crawling as well. The two of them made their way closer and closer, looking as if they were desperately pushing each other out of the way in the process. They were only 5 meters away.
《MAI》※combat unfavorable ※recommend avoiding combat
Meifa returned to her fighting stance, Green Dragon Crescent Blade in hand.
Unlike previously, when she was able to land a surprise attack on the monster, however, now there were two of them, and the surrounding area was cramped. She wouldn’t be able to use a large weapon like that to its fullest potential in a narrow space like this one. There was also no time for her to create another one out of her Territory. These concerns visibly showed in her expression. Minato wasn’t sure he could protect Natsuka, who was as powerless as his single ineffective knife.
They were at a clear disadvantage. Running away wasn’t much easier, however.
There wasn’t any way he could put up a proper fight. . .
But there was one single thing he could do.
The words hardly had the chance to come out before Minato grabbed the collars of the two girls next to him and pulled them to the floor.
The other option was not fighting at all.
The reason he did this was because of what happened three seconds earlier. He found himself unmistakably looking into the eyes of someone else.
So he decided to place all of his trust into her golden Territory.
At separate ends of the corridor, blond hair shimmered opposite the monsters. Chloe Knightley had ascended the stairs and arrived in the hallway. The second she saw Minato’s face, she gestured almost imperceptibly with her chin.
Arrogantly. . .
Briefly. . .
Get out of the way.
A set of ear-rending shrieks filled the space around them. It happened at virtually the moment Minato and the two trainees collided with the floor.
A flash of gold had been fired across the hall—a rending Territory.
In a mere 0.2 seconds, the monsters that had been right before Minato had their bodies shaved away without even the slightest hint of resistance.
Her Territory started to sparkle even brighter, gouging out their bodies even more. Ignoring the 20 meter distance between them, she slaughtered the creatures through a void. In the span of a single second, she tore the monsters apart seven different times. Instead of reaching Minato, the monsters’ torsos were now mere shreds, dancing about in the air.
Her’s was the ability to draw planes of weaponized pressure theoretically reaching up to 200 gigapascals (equal to half the planet’s weight), producing a razor sharp Territory. That was the power wielded by Chloe Knightley, famed Order Dictator—the ultimate weapon that solidified her genius.
A total of three monsters were eliminated. Finally, the interior of the boat descended into silence.
Fifteen minutes passed, and the boat disappeared completely into the water.
The three members of the production staff and Saori Mizushima—as painful as it was, everyone that had been left on the boat was confirmed to have passed away.
It was 9:30 in the morning.
The surviving members had already left the boat and were floating at an unmarked location in the ocean. Every now and then, you could hear the tearful sniffing of one of the girls—Natsuka.
“Poor Saori. . .”
She and Natsuka were both Japanese and around the same age, and they probably knew each other fairly well too. Having someone die like that. . . There was no blaming her for being unable to hide her shock. Her roommate, Meifa, had her arm wrapped around Natsuka’s shoulder to comfort her.
On the inside, Minato was incredibly shaken up.
What the hell were those things, their corpses on their way to the bottom of the ocean? I’ve never seen nor heard about anything like them.
With a drawn-out voice, Michel mirrored his thoughts. “So we still don’t know what those nasty things were. . .?”
Chloe shrugged, “Who knows? Something that absurd could only be a cryptid, right?”
“You know,” Minato interrupted, “it did remind me of those antarctic humanoids.”
“Antarctic humanoids?” Michel asked inquisitively.
Chloe nodded in agreement. “They’re also called Antarctic Ningen. I think the word originated on online message boards in former Japan? It’s a type of cryptid that supposedly lives in the sea. Now that I think about it, they also don’t have anything other than front legs. . . But this isn’t the North OR South Pole. We’re above Osaka.”
“Well, it’s not surprising that the legends aren’t completely true. We don’t even know for sure if that myth was based on these things in the first place. What is certain, though, is that they’re something you won’t find in books. I find it hard to believe that humankind overlooked their existence, so I think it’s safe to say that they came about recently. . . and suddenly.”
“If that’s the case—and this might be crazy, but do you think it’s some kind of mutation caused by Solaris crystals?”
More than that. I felt that was exactly the case.
Ever since the Oceanic Calamity, the “living mineral” Solaris had been discovered in seabeds all over the world. The reason for that nickname was because of how, even in its crystallized state, it dissolved in the bloodstream. In other words, it was in its nature to fuse with the bodies of living beings. The point at which Solaris was mixed into the blood of a suitable candidate. . . that’s when the unique Territory that defines water manipulators is first brought into existence.
It wasn’t limited to humans. There were lots of cases in which areas abundant with Solaris deposits could be observed to have strange varieties of sea life. It was still a mysterious phenomenon. That wasn’t exactly to say that the sudden appearance of these twisted monsters was anything other than a shock for Minato and the others, but it was the only possible explanation.
We saw these unidentified creatures with our own eyes, after all. . .
I grew only more and more worried at Aishwarin’s disappearance.
Meifa suddenly broke the silence. With what had to be excellent perception, she expressionlessly pointed to the far reaches of the sky.
“Helicopter is approaching.”
At first, it was only the size of a small speck in the sky. They were clearly heading towards where Minato and the others were floating.
In no time, it was close enough to even hear the faint chopping of the propeller.
The same day, ten minutes prior—above the ocean in the Osaka area, not 10 kilometers away from where the boat sank.
There, a light mist fell over the surface of the water on which rough whitecaps formed to the sounds of a rotating propeller. At the point where a silver, unmarked helicopter was slowly descending, there was a single woman clad in a diving suit. Water droplets suspended from her flaxen hair, she smiled with her gentle, childlike face up at her comrade. In no time, she was picked up and on the aircraft.
In her hand was a large waterproof case, seemingly made from aluminum.
It was the woman named Komaki.
“You sure took your time down there.”
“I know, right?”
Listening to the fully-armed soldier next to her, she dried her hair off with a towel soon after embarking and then slouched into her seat, recounting her experiences in an undaunted tone.
“Just listen to this! I was, like, in so much trouble! Who would’ve thought they expanded Blotch’s capabilities so much? Leave it to their ace in the hole—there was nothing even little ol’ me could do against it! Was this close to getting caught up in all of it myself! Right as I was about make an escape, I accidentally bumped into my ex-coworker, this water manipulator mercenary girl. . . Her name was Stella or something, and she was such a nice person! So it really sucked that I ended up killing her like that. So, you know, this and that happened, which was why I was late. Tee hee.”
After going on and on, she ended her speech by sticking out her tongue.
The soldier on the other hand nodded without a single change in his expression. “Did you recover the toy?”
“Feast your eyes!”
With a smile stretching across her entire face, she took the large waterproof suitcase she retrieved from the ocean depths and handed it over.
The soldier took it and opened it up immediately to check the contents. Inside were five small canisters containing cultures and three disks. Everything seemingly in order, the soldier closed the case back up without disturbing a single thing inside.
He then turned his gaze back to Komaki, who had started to change her clothes in the back of the helicopter.
“Were you able to take care of everything down there?”
With her diving suit already partially rolled down, she absentmindedly nodded while fishing for her panties out of a bag, half-nude.
“I took care of everything I was told to do. Oh, I did set the Unders in the facility loose.”
“That’s fine. Even if relief gets involved, we can slow down their operation.”
“Anything else. . . Oh, right. It looks like there are civilians in the waters near the facility.”
The soldier narrowed his eyes. “Civilians?”
“Mhm. While I was waiting for the rendezvous, I happened to intercept a conversation being transmitted via Territory. They seem to be promising youngsters with bright futures, enrolled in the Federation’s Academy. I hate to say it, but they accidentally got caught up in the whole thing. Shall I go rescue them?” Komaki offered with an inquisitive expression, to which the soldier expressionlessly shook his head.
“Don’t do anything you don’t need to. We’ve already kept the boss waiting long enough. If you’re finished here, let’s get back to Mother Goose already.”
“Oh my, what a shame.”
With a small smile that betrayed her words, she returned to her seat having finished changing into a gray suit and skirt.
After a moment, she spotted several people floating in the ocean. Among them was a young man that seemed to be around her age.
They were unfortunate victims who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Would they be able to escape the cruel experimental organisms of this watery den and make their way back to the continent? Komaki didn’t have the ability to see into the future; she had no way of knowing. Had it aligned with the directive handed to her, there might’ve been a future in which she safely brought all of them to land. . . but that was just a simple fantasy of hers.
She smiled at this fantasy until the very end.
“People grow through their experiences.”
May they be fortunate experiences.
In this prayer that would never reach their ears, she poured her earnest desire.
After all, Komaki was the kind of person who couldn’t help but get attached to the characters in horror movies who never gave up until the end. She absolutely loved watching those who always tried their hardest. To her, there was value in humankind’s struggle to the very end.
It was because she had nothing to do with them, that her support was so nonchalant.
Who knows how it’ll turn out? She didn’t care enough about it in the first place.
The unmarked helicopter set course for the Orient Federation on the Asian continent and left the seas above the Osaka area far behind.