Episode.5 – Human License

After it happened, Minato had no recollection of how he had managed to group up with Natsuka and the rest.

Meifa, however, had recovered the use of her ability. It seemed they had finally left the effective range of the blotched monster’s Territory. She twirled round the Green Dragon Crescent Blade and used it to cleave the monster still pursuing them into halves, finally allowing herself to catch her breath. “This might be it. . .”

They were inside a room. It was a calm, dark place with heavy metal doors. Those doors were unlocked. Meifa poked her head out into the hall, likely making sure there were no other creatures on their trail.

With this, they secured a fortress to hole themselves up in.

“. . . Help me, Michel. Closing this door.”

“Yeah.”

“Pull on three. One, two, three.”

The door was incredibly solid and heavy. By their joint effort, they finally managed to get it to move.

Minato simply watched their physical labor, his legs devoid of any power left in them. The visual information didn’t even make it as far as his consciousness. Not a single thing ran through his mind.

His thoughts started to move only after he heard Natsuka’s voice.

“—Minato.” Her nose was running terribly, and her eyes were swollen and red. “When you start to feel better, okay? Let’s all get out of here.”

“Get. . . out?”

That’s right. They absolutely had to get out of here.

Minato tried to nod back, but he couldn’t summon the energy to do so. His entire body was shaking. Even the smallest thought only came after much hardship. He wanted to abandon his mind.

However, against it all, he managed to respond, “You’re. . . right. Let’s do that.”

It didn’t have to be anything productive—it was just important that he say something. If he didn’t, he would descend to an only deeper and deeper place and never be able to escape. He had a feeling it would happen like that.

“. . . What kind of room is this?”

Now that he thought about it, the answer was clear. He simply needed to form the words.

It was what they called a manual space, or in simpler terms, it was basically a storage room. They had something similar in the EU’s underwater facility. The room was equipped with hand-operated technology that allowed for the storage and retrieval of essential tools and food supplies in the off-chance that the facility’s power went down. These kinds of areas were commonplace in buildings that relied on a source of electricity for the majority of their security.

There should be a lot of useful stuff. That’s why he decided to search, with everything he had, for anything that might be of use—

—so that he didn’t have to think.

 

It didn’t take much to search the perimeter of the room.

There weren’t any monsters hiding in the nooks and crannies of the room fortunately, but instead of that were several corpses strewn about. Not a single corpse was in one piece—it’s clear none of this was perpetrated by human hands. It’s likely what happened was something along the lines of people running here for safety like Minato and the others did, only to let in the monsters by accident or otherwise.

Although he looked straight at the mangled corpses, Minato found himself not feeling anything in the slightest at the sight. Perhaps his feelings were finally starting to numb.

Natsuka’s reaction at having seen the corpses, however, came as a surprise.

“Do you think they have a card key?” As she said this, she started rummaging through the bodies. She stuck her hands into what could only be described as piles of flesh without a single change in her expression. Her hands were quickly painted the color of their blood.

“Hey, don’t force yourself. I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s fine. At least let me do this. . .”

Her face as she scavenged intently for items on the dead bodies seemed to have lost all traces of emotion.

A cold sweat quickly started to form on her forehead however, and in the next moment she vomited. Minato placed a hand on her back to ease the pain, and she started to break down into tears, repeating the same words over and over under her breath.

“I’m. . . sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. . . I’m. . . sorry, I’m sorry.”

Countless apologies. She continued to apologize over and over at the nothingness.

She then wiped her mouth shortly after and tried to resume her search, so Minato stopped her before she could. As the tears were streaming down her cheeks, she was desperately grasping for any way to protect her friends.

She was trying beyond all her capabilities to become stronger—and it was incredibly sad.

—Chloe’s name never once escaped Natsuka’s lips.

The fact that he couldn’t deliver this kindhearted girl from her sadness was far too painful for Minato to bear.

 

This time, Minato searched the bodies himself. In doing so, he discovered a card key on one of the presumably male corpses.

“Success, Natsuka.”

Rooms that required a pin code were probably out of the question, but they’d likely be able to access the shared rooms with this card. It would allow them to explore a larger area, so there was no harm in having it.

He continued his search.

In total, they managed to find things like long-lasting preserved food, various tools including a hydraulic jack, flashlights and batteries, etc—in other words, your standard fare emergency equipment.

In addition, they found a heavy-duty safe with a dial combination lock. The lock itself had apparently already been opened by the people in this facility, and the thick door was currently half-open. The safe was the same size as large home refrigerators.

He found it hard to believe they would hide their money here after coming all the way down to this underwater facility. He already had an idea as to what it was inside.

He pulled back the open door.

“Ah—” Natsuka let out a small gasp of surprise once they confirmed what was inside.

—Guns.

That’s what I thought. A large assortment of firearms were stored inside the safe.

“Wow, they’re amazing.”

Minato nodded at Natsuka’s frank observation.

It was like they could understand the gravity of the equipment even before taking them into their hands. They were clearly in another league compared to guns used solely for personal protection.

There were five of them, and all of them were the same type of assault rifle. That in itself wasn’t cause for surprise.

Rather, it was that the 12.7 millimeter rounds used in them were massive compared to the standard variety—in other words, .50 caliber. It was enough to make one wonder if the weapons were truly even considered assault rifles at that point. They probably possessed enough firepower to rip even through the monsters without much problem, but unfortunately, there was no guessing how much recoil it would present the one who pulled the trigger. They were short-range weapons that utilized anti-materiel rounds. Had it not been for the existence of the monsters, it would’ve been impossible to imagine what they might have been used for.

There were a lot of uncertainties surrounding the use of these incredible pieces of equipment, but, well, it was probably better than relying on that knife. If only I had this from the start. . . things may have turned out differently.

Minato pulled out one of the weapons along with extra magazines, which he stored away in his bag.

He inexplicably turned his head and found himself crossing glances with Natsuka. As he did, she smiled, as if trying to keep up appearances. She was clearly pushing herself to do so.

That’s why Minato did the same and showed her a smile as well. He rested the gun flashily on his shoulder and asked, “What do you think?”

“Yeah, you look cool. Coolest in the world.”

“Don’t exaggerate.”

It was such a painful exchange.

He never thought he would have to have such a careful conversation with his childhood friend.

He wanted to cry but refused to allow it. I can’t cry just yet. At the very least, Minato couldn’t allow himself to show the others any more weakness than this.

After all, the girl he should have been comforting the most was keeping her silence.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

There were still no signs of any nearby monsters.

The group decided to keep an eye on the situation for a little while in the storeroom.

“Sir. . . Sir.”

The way Meifa approached him silently like that every now and then did a number on his heart. She was already next to him by the time he noticed her approach, and her tranquil eyes gazed up steadily at him.

“What’s wrong?” Minato asked, but Meifa remained silent for a moment.

She continued to stay silent—and then continued some more. Finally, she muttered out of the blue, “Bathroom.”

“. . . Oh?”

“Bathroom, I said. Restroom. Toilet. WC. Urine. Pee.”

“Okay, okay, stop. Cease and desist. I hear you.”

There was nothing surprising about it.

They were human, after all. The call of nature didn’t care about their situation.

He wanted to ask why she didn’t take care of her business sneakily when they were still in the ocean but decided to keep quiet about it. The fact remained that it wasn’t her fault it happened now. Since they would need to separate for a moment to take care of it, it was important that she tell her allies.

That’s why Minato had absolutely no reason to waver.

“Come with me.”

Surely this was reason to waver.

“Me?”

Meifa nodded firmly. “Bathroom equals me defenseless. Scary. Also embarrassing. But necessary.”

Then wouldn’t it make you feel better if Natsuka went, someone of the same gender?

Even though Minato harbored these doubts, the fact that Meifa had asked him like this was a clear indication that she had put a lot of thought into it. Yeah, but still. . .

The top and bottom halves of her diving suit were connected, so in order to take it off, she’d need to start with the top. In essence, she would be basically naked. Of course, he didn’t have even the smallest inclination to watch it, but it would still take a good bit of mental preparation before he would be able to bring himself to do it.

“Hurry. Can’t hold it in.”

In the end, she basically dragged him off.

 

It should go without saying there were no bathrooms installed in the storeroom. That said, going out into the hallway was out of the question. It was far too dangerous to split off from the rest of the group.

“Here.”

With that in mind, she eventually decided on a spot behind one of the cabinets that had been stocked with emergency rations. Here they would be able to react immediately if something happened over where Natsuka and Michel were.

So. . . I’m just going to go ahead and face the other direction then.

Before he could open his mouth, however, Meifa started to speak. “Why. . . You said nothing. . .”

It was a soft voice—a voice that housed an unusual amount of emotion for Meifa.

“I said nothing? About what?”

Minato scrunched his eyebrows, and Meifa turned around to look directly at him. Her expression was incredibly tense, and she was trembling.

Her eyes were, her lips were—all of it was shaking as if on the verge of tears.

It all came out at once—

—“I let Chloe die. It was me.”

“. . .”

It was true. When Chloe met her end, it was this girl who had been closest to her right before.

“It was my fault—why haven’t you told them that? Had I been thinking straight. . . Had I only grabbed her hand, she would probably still be alive now. We could’ve gone home together. She might’ve had a smile on her face when we all escaped—and yet, only I. . . I was—”

“That’s not true.”

“—I was the one who lived.”

Large beady tears streamed down her cheeks. They ran down her face and fell in droplets on the floor.

“She was such a sweet girl. When we returned to the Academy, we would’ve definitely become friends. But. . . But I was too scared and ran off. . . I let her die. . . I’ll never be able to fix my mistake—”

“Meifa.”

I can’t watch this.

As the girl emptied her heart for the first time, Minato suddenly grabbed her shoulders—strongly enough to inflict pain.

Meifa’s face contorted slightly. “—That hurts.”

“Can you hear me. Will you listen to me now?”

He gazed intently at her tear-stained face, and with a hoarse voice, she nodded and said, “Yeah. . .”

“Listen, you—” Minato said to her.

He said it as if saying it to himself.

“It’s alright for you to grieve. It’s alright for you to blame yourself. But you cannot allow yourself to give into the despair. You still have things you must protect. You have to get a hold of yourself.”

Both Minato and Meifa did.

They would probably suffer for the rest of their lifetimes under Chloe’s looming shadow.

He had heard the anguished cries of her demise. He had seen her face as it was swallowed up by its bottomless despair. These would never escape his memory.

And yet, if he were to shut his eyes and cover his ears, forgetting to fight altogether, that moment would spell their ends. He would no longer be human—just a simple ball of flesh.

It was an ugly sight.

Even after leaving Chloe to that fate of hers, Minato couldn’t help but want to keep on living. In order to stay alive, he needed Meifa’s power. That’s why he couldn’t let her lose heart like this.

The both of them were at a loss for words. While enveloped by the oppressive silence, Minato could’ve sworn he heard the rhythmic beating of Meifa’s heart.

When he came to, it suddenly dawned on him how closely their bodies were pressed together. It seemed it was Meifa who had brought their bodies close, and after a moment, he could feel the weight and warmth of her body on his.

For a moment, Minato’s mind was thrown into disarray. He could feel her breasts through her suit.

“Um. . . Meifa?”

“Want to feel your warmth.” Her request was simple and brief—a short sentence that seemed like the Meifa he once knew. “Just a little. One minute. Mostly a minute. Then we go back. . . Even if it’s a lie, we go back.”

“Yeah.”

“Thank you. . . sir. Cooled off.”

I should be the one thanking you.

It was because Meifa’s grief mirrored Minato’s own feelings so closely that he was able to finally calm himself down. His sadness hadn’t been healed, but he had things more important to do than crying.

He had to stay strong until they were all able to return home safely.

“We’re going to set off once we rest up a little. And one more thing, Meifa—”

There was a certain something that Minato had wanted to ask Meifa—something that had been nagging at his mind.

“You don’t need to do your business?”

“Sexual harassment.”

“I’m well aware.”

He knew it was just an excuse of hers, but it was important, so he had to make sure. Once they left the storeroom, of course, there was no telling when they would be able to stop next.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

She was carefree.

“Hey, hey. Sir?” Michel seemed so carefree when she mentioned her discovery. “Isn’t this, like, some kind of sketching?”

She had found something with value that dwarfed even that of the greatest discoveries of the century. Although he assumed she had been simply resting silently by herself, here she was with a thick binder open on her lap. She removed one of the papers from it and held it above her head.

Minato was shocked at how sudden it was. “Where’d that come from?”

“Kinda just picked it up?”

She says like it doesn’t concern her. . .

“It was on the ground back in the room with all the computers in it. It’s just like me isn’t it? I was all thinking how it might come in handy.”

“You really don’t disappoint, do you?”

Even Minato was so entirely focused on the fight with the monsters that it never occurred to him to search for information on the facility that might become useful. From the bottom of his heart, he was truly grateful for this foresight on her part. They’d be able to toss aside any information that didn’t serve any purpose, so gathering anything they could find for the time being could only prove advantageous.

And, to top it off, Michel had seemingly picked up something huge.

“Show me those files for a sec.”

“No problem.”

Minato’s abilities allowed him to read things at lightning fast speeds, and part of that was the fact that he would never forget any of the visual input he picked up on. The folder, thick as a dictionary, didn’t take much time at all for him to finish reading.

It appeared to be something like a manual that explained the various installations in the facility. According to it, there were two routes that they could use to make their escape. The first route was the drainage shaft that they had initially used to make their way into the facility.

And the second was a contact gate made for submersibles.

Pinpointing the storage room they were currently holed up in, Minato determined that these routes were in the exact opposite directions. Either one of the routes would take around 200 meters to traverse.

“I’m worried.”

As for the former option, it was a path that they had taken before, so they knew what to expect and could plan accordingly. At the same time, they were fully aware how dangerous that route was. There was a high chance that blotched monster was still lingering in the area. He wanted to avoid running into it as much as humanly possible.

On the other hand, if they chose the latter submersible gate option, they would be venturing into completely unknown territory. It might be far safer than the drainage passage, and it might be far more dangerous. It would be an entirely unknown road ahead of them.

Minato eventually came to a decision, but first he wanted to hear what the rest of the group thought.

“I’m thinking. . . maybe we should keep going forward,” said Michel.

Me too,” said Meifa.

Hearing the trainees almost unanimously choose the submersible gate, Minato secretly found himself comforted by their decision, as he had come to the same one himself.

—returning via the path they came. Essentially, it would mean coming face-to-face with their friend and her wholly changed appearance.

Of course there was a part of Minato that wished he could bring back the remains of his departed ally, but that would above all cause emotional turmoil in the girls, like Natsuka and Meifa. That was why Minato felt incredible relief at hearing them choose the submersible gate.

—a relief that took form by avoiding the ugly truth.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

At that moment, Meifa witnessed an incredibly awful sight.

Minato Yamajo, an instructor, had his hand pressed tightly on the bountiful breasts of Natsuka Hoshino, a trainee.

She had known the two were friends as children and were close even now, but watching the male desire take form like this came as a strange shock. And yet, having heard before that life-threatening situations could actually heighten one’s lust, could she really say it came as a surprise? Meifa was all too aware that Natsuka possessed breasts as superb as they were large, being her roommate after all. Even those of the same sex were attracted to them; men wouldn’t stand a chance. Situation understood. But still, what a shock!

—thought Meifa for the briefest moment until Mr. Yamajo sent Natsuka Hoshino flying backwards immediately in the next. Was it not sexual harassment, but rather simple violence?

No, he had saved her.

Immediately after he did so, something twisted around Mr. Yamajo’s arm. Slithering, it was long and thick—to Meifa, it looked like some kind of large snake. Upon closer inspection, however, there were countless suction cups along its surface.

A squid or octopus tentacle—that’s probably what it was. It was obviously a new kind of monster, and the appendage itself displayed monstrous force.

“Shi—”

Panicked, Meifa expanded her Territory and constructed the Green Dragon Crescent Blade, but by that time it was already too late.

Although it wasn’t incredibly large, it was able to pick up a man like Mr. Yamajo with carefree ease.

—quickly, violently.

“Minato—!”

As Natsuka Hoshino desperately screamed his name, he was dragged away to the ceiling at speeds faster than the eye could follow. It was horrifying—enough to think that he had already long-since died in the ascent.

—Then came the immediate sound of a gunshot.

He held in his hands the rifle that they had found only moments before in the storeroom.

The sounds that left the barrel were far more thunderous than anything Meifa could have imagined. The sharp bang was enough to force her hands to her ears. She heard three shots total in short succession.

It appeared that was enough to sever the tentacle.

Meifa quickly spotted Mr. Yamajo as he was launched into the air and ran as fast as she could to where he was about to fall, managing to help him land safely.

“OK, sir?”

“You really saved me there!”

As soon as his feet touched the floor, he immediately fired another shot. Two tentacles were in close pursuit behind him.

After coming this far along in the fight, Meifa finally started to realize what was going on.

The monster, some strange squid tentacle-possessing abomination, managed to sneak into the room via the air ducts high up. They were there as to circulate air throughout the entire structure. There were four of them in the storeroom, and from two of those were protruding a single white tendril each.

Against them, Mr. Yamajo’s shots were extremely precise. At the very least, every single bullet that he fired after landing on the ground successfully reached their intended target. Meifa herself had learned about it only yesterday—his observational abilities and calculations were as accurate as a machine’s. He was likely using those abilities now as well.

The rifle possessed tremendous firepower, and the tentacle was nearly ripped apart after only one or two shots. It withdrew as soon as it was injured however, and in its place appeared a fresh one to replace it.

“We’re leaving! Open the door!”

The one who moved first upon hearing their instructor’s orders was the somewhat dainty Michel.

“This might be impossible for only me!”

It was clearly impossible. Her grip was powerless up against the iron door. Natsuka, and then Meifa, ran over to lend her a hand. The heavy door started to slowly slide, inch by inch, and finally it was opened wide enough to somehow allow a single person through at a time. When that happened, Minato, still embroiled in his fight against the tentacles, also started to retreat towards the door.

“You listening? When you get out into the hall, turn left—”

“Ahh?!”

The girl next to Meifa suddenly disappeared from her vision.

“Natsuka!”

She had been pulled to the floor. Around her ankle was coiled another one of the same tentacles. Compared to the others, it was much more stealthy, seemingly thin enough to even fit through a small drainage pipe. It extended along the floor from some area further into the storeroom.

Minato also seemed to notice something was happened behind him, but the constant assault by the tendrils from the ceiling prevented him from taking action.

Meifa started to move, weapon in hand, but she was too slow, and Natsuka’s body began to lift from the ground, pulled almost instantaneously in the air to a spot in the storeroom that no one would be able to reach.

As she dangled like that, however, she managed to shout:

“—Run away, everyone!”

Forget about me, she was essentially telling them. Like hell they could. Meifa was unable to bear the weight of yet another victim, let alone a victim like Natsuka, her roommate and precious friend. She would save her, even if it cost her life, Meifa thought.

In a fit of panic, Minato held up the gun and fired a shot, but the bullet alone wasn’t enough to completely sever the tentacle, and Natsuka remained in its grasp. Even worse, he apparently ran out of bullets as the magazine fell to the floor with a thud, and Minato began to scream obscenities.

“YOU FUCKER!”

It would last a mere moment. They absolutely needed to save their friend as she was pulled to the ceiling.

“Michel, can you—”

“Okay! Leave it to me!”

The thought had barely started to leave Meifa’s mouth before the response came, which was why even she was surprised.

This is a girl who knows her way around people, was the thought on her mind.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

It happened at around the same time as the magazine fell from Minato’s rifle.

A Territory of light purple, the color of an iris flower, immediately began to expand through the room. It signaled the activated powers of a certain trainee, one by the name of Michel Oliver. Possessing a Territory in the Limit Operator class, her expanded ability was known as “surface gliding,” and it allowed her to move three dimensionally along any surface with enough room for her feet to take hold, be they walls or even the ceiling.

In a couple of words, you could call it wall climbing.

Thus, it was in this room enclosed on all sides by six surfaces that her abilities could truly shine.

As for why she activated her powers, there wasn’t any real question. At the present moment, the only one who would be able to reach Natsuka as she was quickly being stolen away was this girl.

“Time to go flying.” As soon as the statement left her mouth, she sped forward.

She did so as if with the vigor of a flying bird. She started to slide as if there was a skating rink beneath her feet, and when she came up against the edge of the storeroom, she quickly began to ascend up its walls. Though she looked like a doll, her powers were that of a ninja’s—and she was also one of the ones chosen specifically by the Academy to participate in the expedition alongside Meifa and Chloe. Out of all of those who possessed movement Territories in the Academy, she was one of the most eminent.

That was right when Minato finished attaching a fresh magazine to the gun.

After a brief moment, she had finally reached the same level as Natsuka Hoshino. “Now, Meimei! Like, go!”

“Who exactly?”

She did all of this in order to bring Meifa Lee to this point, who happened to be attached to her hip.

—in order to not simply watch as her ally died in front of her.

After reloading the gun, Minato aimed the rifle, and it was at that moment that he finally laid eyes on the results of the girls’ teamwork.

Meifa, carried up by Michel, launched herself off the wall and took flight. This Chinese girl, her body itself honed to physical excellence, flew into the air, and her violet Territory emanated a fierce light immediately after, the Green Dragon Crescent Blade constructing itself in her palm.

And then this cool girl let forth a fiery, high-pitched scream throughout the storeroom.

“GYAAAAAAAH!”

It was severed apart.

The tentacle was sliced cleanly in half, and the constricting force binding Natsuka’s body disappeared, allowing her body to fall freely to the ground. Minato lowered the rifle and caught the girl in his arms.

It was a flawless display of coordination—they had managed to save Natsuka. From the depths of his heart, Minato was in utter awe of these girls.

And as a result, Minato and the others were able to escape the storeroom without leaving a single person behind.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

According to the files documenting the facility, the section Minato and the others were currently walking through was called the administration center, and at the heart of it was a giant area called the Central Management Room, likely the place where they managed all the systems in the facility. There was a small documentation storage facility squeezed in the middle, but the contact gate used to allow entry and exit to the submersibles was placed right before the Central Management Room.

Firstly, they headed to the Gate Control Room used to open and close the gate. At most, it was 5 meters across in all directions. On one of the walls was a large glass window that allowed for vision into the pool that housed the submersible. Directly below the observation window was a digital operation panel that ran on some kind of operating system.

At the mere sight of it, Meifa pressed a hand to her forehead as if suffering from some kind of severe dizziness. “What kind. . . of contraption. . . Sickening.”

It seemed “sickening” meant something along of lines of “has so many buttons” in Meifanese.

It wasn’t nearly as hard to use as she made it sound. Most of the controls were binary, so compared to operating a helicopter, for example, the system was far easier to manage. It seemed to be capable of program manipulation as well, so he would probably be able to program it as to activate the gate at a predesignated time.

Minato exhaled a sigh of relief. In reality, the thought occurred to him that if one of them hadn’t made it as far as this point (namely Minato), all hope would’ve been lost. Thankfully, it seemed all of them would be able to escape.

“Now for when we get out. . .”

With a short pause in his typing, Minato decided to explain the escape process to the trainees.

“It’s essentially the same as when we used the waterways to penetrate the facility. The two gates will open one after the other with a time lag between them, starting from the one on our side. I set it to activate 10 minutes af—”

The lighting suddenly disappeared, and Minato went silent as a result. It wasn’t just the lights. At that very moment, the operating terminal’s screen also went black.

They were enveloped wholly in the darkness.

The power returned to the instruments shortly after, however. It seemed the facilities had switched to the backup power reserve, and the computer was in the process of rebooting.

“I-I was so surprised!”

“That couldn’t have happened at a worse time. . .”

It’s possible some of the power generators had failed because there was no one left here to maintain them. Thanks to that, he had lost all of the gate-operation settings that he was in the process of programming into the console. He’d have to start over from square one. If only that was all he needed to do, too. . .

“—This is seriously the worst,” he ended up muttering as he read the message that popped up on screen, his voice laced with irritation.

—Please enter your password—

All it took was a single shut-down to sign him out of the computer, apparently. There was no way Minato knew the password, of course.

As he spoke, Michel, who had been silent up until this point, then walked up next to him and gazed at the monitor. It seemed she knew quite a bit about computers. “What if we try overwriting it in Safe Mode?”

“I just tried it, but it’s not working. The OS is completely different than what’s on the market.”

“But, like, there’s no way it was all made from scratch. I mean, it should be possible to remotely operate it, whether it’s Macintosh or Linux. I’m sure I can make do in my own special way as long as the host computer still works.”

“You’re pretty amazing. I guess that means we’ll have to go next door at some point. . .”

The Central Management Room. It there was any hope left to them, it was waiting there.

It was nothing more than a guess of Minato’s, but if this place was truly a research facility, then that room was probably where the data pertaining to the research was shared. If that was true, then it likely meant that the area continued to receive power from a dedicated source, even during the blackout, in order to prevent the data from being lost.

Things were getting worse and worse, but there was no point in lamenting about it.

Minato and the others made their way to the heart of the facility.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

The Administrative Center, the Central Management Room.

The entire area was constructed with progressively ascending layers, like some kind of hina doll display, and the sight brought to mind a giant concert hall. The group stood at the highest level. Looking down at the room from where he was, Minato saw a dizzying number of computers that even he didn’t feel like counting despite his calculation-focused abilities.

Yet what stood out the most—

“How terrible. . .”

—was the human carnage present here as well. The bodies were scattered about the room in bloodied piles.

Scraps of flesh and bloodstains—they were enough to show just how many had met their demise here.

He looked towards the bottommost level of the room. Tiny monitors were assembled together like a honeycomb. On their screens were images of emptied culture tubes. Images of blood-soaked operation tables. Images of rooms and monsters confined within them. . . The monitors were apparently used to observe these.

And right next to it was a huge computer as tall as a person. I’m guessing that’s the main server. I’m glad it was easy to find. Finding what they had come to this room for, Minato walked down the gradual steps with the trainees in tow.

Michel came up next to him and placed her hands on the keyboard. “See, what did I tell you? It’s, like, based on an old version of Linux. It’ll be a piece of cake for someone like Michel!”

“Can you take care of it then?”

“No problem. It’ll go at the speed of sound.”

Her recovering the gate system would be a huge help. Minato would be able to conduct some business of his own thanks to it.

As he started to move, Natsuka muttered hesitantly, “Minato? Where are you going?”

“To see if I can find out what’s really going on here.”

Spotting a laptop already open nearby, he began to collect information. In no time, he chanced upon something intriguing.

“This is weird. . .” he muttered without realizing it, to which Natsuka responded from behind him.

“What is?”

“It looks like the security on the server has already been bypassed.”

“Huh. . . ? That’s a little hard to understand.”

“I mean that, even though the information is so confidential, anyone can see it at any time.”

“Uh, like it’s out in the open?”

Exactly.

When he tried to open a shared folder, he was prompted at first for a password, yet without doing anything, the message was automatically erased. It was like the system had been infected with a virus. If that was the case, then it meant this was perpetrated by someone who was working against the facility. It would make sense if the server was destroyed in order to make off with the research.

Thanks to this, even Minato was immediately able to examine the essential truth. With a single glance at a photo that popped up on-screen, he heard Natsuka gulp behind him.

“This is. . .”

—an Under.

It seemed this was the true name of those creatures.

Under Control of the Solaris—creatures dominated by the living mineral.

There were unwieldy volumes of text that could rival the content found in academic publications in its sheer density, but for Minato and his ability that allowed him to breeze through entire newspapers in mere seconds, he was able to digest everything written on the monsters in an instant.

“It makes me sick. . .”

Simply reading the content alone caused him to spit out the words.

Passages documenting human experimentation and weaponization appeared all throughout the files as if they were commonplace. The entire facility was something straight out of some kind of low-budget disaster film. He couldn’t comprehend what would drive someone to try and bring that kind of thing into reality.

“. . .”

What he wanted most was information on what the monsters were weak to, but unfortunately there was nothing written about what kind of offensive measures were effective. At most, there was a single vague passage that had in it written: They will cease to function if their bodies sustain considerable damage.

It seems all they could do to defeat the monsters was to thoroughly destroy them.

“Mi-ster Ya-ma-jo.”

Hearing Michel’s voice, he looked up. As her eyes met his, she gave a single nod.

“It’s done?”

“All done. I’ve overwritten the account perfectly. Once we get back the control room, a ‘0000’ is all it’ll take. And, like, we’ll be back in business.”

“You’re a lifesaver. Thank you.”

“No problem!”

She raised her fist with a smile. Just how cheerful was this girl?

“I can’t kill the uglies with my power. I’m happy to do something like this, you know?”

The ‘uglies’ she was referring to were probably the monsters. Perhaps it was better to call them Unders now. . .

At any rate, they managed to overcome the problem thanks to this girl. All we have to do is get back to the control room as quick as possible to open the gates, he thought.

A section of the ceiling then exploded apart in grand fashion.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

It happened right in the center of the room. Massive amounts of rubble began to break and fall from the ceiling. A cloud of dust particles erupted from the ground and enveloped the entire area in a thick smock screen. Within it was a shadowy figure squirming about.

“It’s here. . .”

—he said, fed up with it all. Immediately after, he could feel Meifa expanding her Territory in the next moment.

Minato wrapped the rifle on his back to his hands and took aim at the spot in the ceiling where the destruction took place.

—even as his vision was completely obfuscated. The shadow in the smokescreen didn’t show any signs of moving.

“Tch.”

Suddenly, Minato turned 180 degrees around in a hurry and then pulled the trigger, firing two shots in quick succession. The monsters lunging at them from behind had their heads blown cleanly apart. Minato’s expression only grew tenser, however.

“—Surrounded.”

Were they here from the start? Or did they sneak into the room silently?

As if telling him the creature coming in from the ceiling was but merely bait, Minato saw behind him the monsters lunging towards them one after the other. It wasn’t only from in front of and behind them. It was also from the right and the left. There was no end to them.

They seemed to be the type that only had their forelegs.

Powerless D-rank Unders. To the laboratory that produced them, their inability to expand their Territories made them worthless pieces of junk, but in numbers like these, they posed a tremendous threat.

At the very least, the blotched one was nowhere to be seen.

As soon as he dispatched one of the monsters with a bullet to the head, the rest sprang into motion. Letting loose an otherworldly scream, they threw themselves in droves towards Minato and the trainees, trampling over all the machines and equipment in their paths. There were only two rounds left in the gun’s magazine. Minato deeply regretted not reloading when he had the chance.

A violet Territory started to shine off in the corner of his vision.

Then came a single sigh, one as if to strengthen her will—

“Meifa is full of courage.”1

As soon as she whispered it, her delicate little body thrust itself into the fray. With the Green Dragon Crescent Blade spinning around the length of her body, she cleaved through the monsters as they closed in on her. She immediately corrected her stance in the following moment, and using the creature as a shield, she drove her blade into the fangs of one of the oncoming monsters, then slicing through the throat of yet another one, following all the way through until its head fell from its neck.

And then—

“Hurry!” Meifa shouted. “While you still have the chance!”

There was no room for hesitation. Training his gun sights towards the door, he shouted a command towards Natsuka and Meifa:

“We’re leaving!”

“But Meifa—!”

“You think I’m going to just abandon her?! But we can’t let this opportunity she gave us go to waste!”

Grabbing Natsuka’s hand, he started to run, forcing her along when necessary. Michel followed closely behind them.

They made a mad dash for the room’s exit.

The majority of the monsters mobbed around Meifa as she expanded her Territory, but there were still two of them that blocked Minato’s escape route. After gaining the attention of one of them, Minato fired a bullet from his gun that passed through its skull. Yet, even as the top half of its cranium was blown away, it still continued to move. A second shot completely demolished the rest of it, and cursing the fact that he didn’t have enough time to eject the empty magazine, he pulled the knife from his belt to meet the incoming Under.

It was at that moment when Natsuka activated her Territory. Although it was clumsily done, the pink particles formed a protective wall and slowed down the Under’s movements. This gave Minato enough time to load another magazine, and he fired hot lead into the attacker.

Without even enough time to feel relieved, a new threat started to approach them from behind.

“T-The card key!”

“Here!”

Minato pulled the card key from his pouch and handed it to Natsuka, then returning to his trustworthy rifle. Without a moment’s delay, he sent a bullet through the pursuer.

Behind him, he heard the door open, and then—

“Natsukaaa!”

A scream.

In front of him as he spun around was a monster in front of Natsuka, standing just beyond the door she opened.

Just how stupid—Minato thought.

Just how stupid am I?

How could I have had Natsuka be the one to open the door?

In my panic, I’d completely neglected to make sure the path forward was safe from danger.

I would be slow to save her, no matter how much I regretted it. I wouldn’t make it in time.

The Under, with its vicious maw sloppily agape, lunged at Natsuka’s body.

At that very moment, however, Michel came in from the side and shoved her out of the way.

“Michel!!”

The fangs were buried deeply in her arms. The part of her from her elbow all the way up to the nape of her neck was gored by the razor-sharp blades.

Fresh blood spewed out. The girl’s mangled wrist rolled along the floor.

By the time Minato had killed the monster with a shot from his rifle, Michel had already crumbled powerlessly to the floor, the flesh in her body all the way through to her lungs stolen from her, only stopped mid-fall by Natsuka who cradled her in her arms.

Her voice was a trembling, hysteric scream.

“Michel, why. . . ! Why. . . this. . . !”

“Ah—” The girl smiled through to the very end. “I-I goofed. . . L-Looks like. . . I messed u-up. . .”

Minato lowered his rifle after using it to blow away the Under and took Michel into his arms.

“Don’t talk!”

“Don’t give up, I promise we’ll save you!”

Inside his head, however, his thoughts emotionlessly understood the truth. There would be no saving her from these wounds.

And yet, even then, Minato couldn’t leave the girl behind so long as she still had breath on her lips, and he carried her with him down the hallway. Blood warmed by her body continued to pour ceaselessly from her. His entire face writhed with the pain of his own self-loathing. His eyes and his mouth and his nose and his ears were all consumed by the pain, and his breaths grew haggard. Why didn’t he only make sure the path was safe beforehand? It would’ve been so simple! If only he had thought even a little more calmly about it, he would’ve been able to save her. He wanted to take it all back, no matter how many apologies it would take, no matter how much money it would cost, no matter how much punishment he would need to take upon himself. As the girl lay in his arms, the life gradually left her body.

He continued to press forward, forcing his legs along even as they desperately wanted to crumble under the weight of his own tears, and as he carried the girl who had lost her right shoulder, he and Natsuka made their way to the control room.

 

They entered the control room, and after making sure every nook and cranny of the room was free of danger, Minato lowered Michel.

As much as it pained him, he didn’t have any time to watch over the girl. “Natsuka. . . Stay by Michel’s side.”

Without waiting for an answer, he rushed back to the Central Management Room where they had left Meifa.

Was she still alive, even after taking on so many Unders by herself? Hope and anxiety, both emotions took root in his mind.

There was one thing, however, that he could say with certainty.

—Back then, when he peered into Meifa’s eyes, there wasn’t even the smallest trace that she had given up.

He arrived at the Central Management Room, and then he opened the fated door. It was at that moment—

“—YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Minato let loose a yell that seemed to tear his lungs asunder, and with his rifle he sent one of the Unders 30 meters in front of him flying.

In these last 30 seconds, Meifa had stayed alive.

She was still full of energy, though in saying that, she was far from safe. The second she seemed to be dangerously surrounded, she leapt back into the air using the desk as a foothold. She had managed to escape the danger, but even then, every aspect of her body continued to work with perfect form.

Minato, as he abruptly recovered his vitality, examined the state of the room in an instant.

There were seven Unders. Visibility was favorable. His surroundings were clear. His current position suitable to aim from. The maximum distance between the him and the targets was slightly under 40 meters. There was no need for a scope.

In no time, he fired bullets through the skulls of two of them.

Up until now, he had no time to think of anything remotely positive, but this rifle really did the trick. Even though it possessed enough firepower to down a helicopter, the recoil was shockingly suppressed. Why couldn’t they have abandoned their stupid “living weapon” idea and instead focused on something like this? —devoted themselves to this?

After that, he demolished the third and then the fourth Under one after the other, and unsurprisingly, it was at that point that the gun’s magazine was completely spent. Once their numbers diminished, however, was when Meifa could exhibit her true potential. By the time Minato was able to finish reloading, two of the monsters had already been cut down.

Finally, with his sights on the final target in front of him, he let loose a final bullet that tore the monster to oblivion.

“—All taken care of.”

Although the words came to his lips, he couldn’t bring himself to lower the gun as he descended the hina doll platform steps to reconvene with Meifa. Meifa, too, ascended the steps, still wary of her flanks.

Once they reached each other, they both turned their backs up against one another as to protect themselves and exchanged words.

“Back in one piece. Very surprising. Feel kind of untouchable.”

“Sorry for forcing so much on you. Thanks to you. . .”

—Natsuka was able to get away without injury.

But in her place. Michel had fallen.

It all happened as a result of Minato’s negligence. He was eternally grateful to Meifa’s courage.

“What happened to Michel. . . Unfortunate. . .”

It seemed she had also seen what happened.

I curse this fate. Ever since this morning, only nightmares. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s sad. That’s why I know. You being here saved me. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Meifa. . .”

“You may blame yourself every time something happens. But, because you were here, I lived. So don’t look so sad. . .”

“. . . Thanks.”

There was no time to be looking down. That was what Minato himself had told Meifa.

The sun would never rise at the bottom of this deep ocean. The nightmare would never end.

That’s why they absolutely needed to escape.

—in order to reclaim the sun as humans.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

Michel Oliver passed away as if in deep slumber.

“It’s so frustrating. . .”

Natsuka held the lifeless body of the younger girl preciously to her own; her face was stained with the dried trails of her tears.

She whispered in a raspy voice as Minato and Meifa returned, “Both Michel and Chloe. . . There was so much more I wanted to talk with them about. . . I wanted to see them tomorrow too. . . but they’re both dead. It’s so painful. So painful. . .”

The deaths of her friends had taken a toll on her.

Although it was completely understandable, Natsuka’s emotions were starting to crumble apart. The shape of her Territory was wavering severely, as if its contours were undulating like strong waves. It seemed like it would fall apart at any moment.

Meifa brought her body close to hers, holding her tight. “I feel the same way. But forget for now. We must live.”

Minato too was unable to forgive the culprits behind this facility. He wanted to do something. He wanted to inflict upon them suffering that dwarfed what Chloe and the others had gone through.

But, for now, all they could do was try to stay alive.

He activated the gate-control system that Michel had overwritten and inputted the password. This time there was no blackout, and he was able to successfully configure the settings.

“The gate will open in ten minutes. Let’s get down there.”

Paying special care to his childhood friend and her haggard expression, Minato stood at the front of the group and made his way down the stairs.

There were four submersibles. They seemed to be split into those meant for construction and those meant for patrolling. One of them was currently hanging from a crane, but the other three were already floating in the water. Next to one of the open hatches was a corpse, but Minato felt no need to point it out by this point.

The three survivors silently approached the edge of the pool. Beyond it was an arched water gate that was currently closed shut. In ten minutes, that gate would open, and once the water pressure stabilized, the next gate would open, leading them to the outside world.

“Hey, sir, Natsuka.” Meifa was the one who spoke first with their escape on the horizon. Just as he wondered what she was about to say— “Starving.”

It was approaching noon, now that she mentioned it. They did run into some preserved food back in the storeroom, but Minato didn’t touch any of it. The other two were probably the same.

She continued on that peaceful subject. “On the artificial island, next to the beach at the airport’s south exit. There’s a shop called Bayside Wagon.”

“Oh yeah, I know that one.” Minato went along with it. “I’ve been there a lot. The seafood curry is amazing.”

“Personally, the chili shrimp is unmatched.”

“Chili shrimp? I didn’t think they did Chinese food there.”

“They will if you ask. Big secret menu.”

“To think I could lose in a war of information. . .”

I’m a regular. Face gets me a discount. Go with me for special price. You know, go with me for special price.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll treat you next time we go there.”

“Such kindness. On that note, what will Natsuka have to eat?”

Meifa was probably doing this in order to lift her friend’s spirits.

And Natsuka was aware of this as well.

That’s why, when Meifa asked her question, she pushed herself to create a smile on her face and tried her best to start thinking about what to eat tomorrow. “What do I want to eat. . .?

Both of them were trying to take care of the other.

—in order to not give in to the despair, so that they may live on.

“I want—”

And as if mocking them for it—

it showed itself in front of them.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

The ripples that formed in the pool grew larger over time and then eventually started to foam white. When the thing’s massive body finally broke through the surface of the water, it caused one of the submersibles to capsize.

Is it possible that the facility had connecting sewage tunnels running beneath the floor?

This was Minato’s second time laying witness to the creature.

The first time was back when it attacked them inside the storeroom. At the time, all he could see were its tentacles; however, he was able to find comprehensive data on it inside the computer in the Central Management Room.

An A-rank Under. Perception Specialist organism No. 02.

The size of its massive body rivaled that of a whale’s and it could freely extend any of its countless, wriggling tentacles.

Those at the research facility called it Giant Squid.

The upper half of its body, however, resembled a woman’s torso, and other than the fleshy tentacles it possessed, from it sprouted two arms with fingers at the end. And, as its body rose from the overflowing water basin, it stared at Minato and the others with vacant, emotionless eyes.

Why couldn’t it have waited only 10 more minutes?

Now, even if the gate opened, it didn’t necessarily mean they’d be able to quickly get outside. Between when the first and second gates opened, it would take time for the water to rush into the middle section and allow for the water pressure to equalize. If that monster got in there as well, it would be over for them.

Even if they wanted to turn back and run away, the creature was poised to take to the surface and cut off their escape from the control room.

They would have to dispose of it eventually.

“. . . Seriously, learn better timing.”

Meida crouched low like a feral cat might up against a dog and quickly put her powers on full display. She twirled the violet-colored Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

“A big one. But, if the head goes, so does it.”

“Stop, Meifa!”

Minato guessed that the girl was about to pounce forward, and in a moment of panic, he quickly yelled out to stop her.

“S-Sir?”

“Each of its tentacles can perceive sight and sound. It essentially has no blind spots. If you make any sort of mistake when attacking, it will counterattack without fail.”

On each of the squid’s appendages were what looked to be suction cups but were in fact fine-tuned sensors, so as a result, it could see in a 360 degree radius around itself. Even if you were to approach it without it realizing, it would still be able to capture you without question.

It was an enemy far too dangerous to take on without a plan.

“Still, going for the head is the best idea. In order to do that, however, we have no other option but to assign ourselves roles and be wary of its tentacles. At any rate, don’t go jumping in.”

“U-Understood. But. . .”

For some reason, Meifa looked white in the eyes.”

“It’s, uh. . . hand. . .”

“Hand?”

As soon as she mentioned it, he realized he was gripping her you-know-where. It was a truly regrettable moment. He had been so proud of the fact that he never initiated contact despite his reputation as a first-rate sexual harasser.

Stay calm, stay calm.

“My bad.”

“. . . It’s fine.”

They didn’t have any more time to waste on something like this, however.

Once the Giant Squid Under laid its eyes on the humans it considered prey, multiple tentacles launched out from the pool at around the same time.

Of them, six came flying at the three.

“Natsuka, make a wall with your Territory!”

“—Yeah.”

Before he could give her any more instructions, she expanded her pink Territory and produced a thick meaty wall in front of them.

It wasn’t his imagination after all. Her Territory seemed much denser than even before. Perhaps using her powers in real combat situations was spurring her growth. If anything, it was a fortuitous miscalculation on his part.

The sharply-aware tentacles picked up on Natsuka’s wall and their movement slowed. In the next moment, Minato used his rifle to fire a shot at them, near the base. He only had two magazines remaining. Including what he still had left in the gun currently, that put him at only 32 shots remaining.

In comparison, the Under possessed 18 tentacles, more than squids normally had in the wild. It would take around two to three shots to sever each tentacle, so it would be difficult to take care of each one before running out of bullets completely.

To make matters worse, according to the research lab’s data, it had the ability to regenerate those tentacles. In other words, taking time and exhausting his supply of ammunition would only put them further at a disadvantage.

There was no choice but to secure victory as soon as possible. Minato aimed the rifle at its head and fired two bullets into its human-like visage.

“..It’s not enough.”

It seemed the head was far thicker than the tentacles after all as there were no signs that the bullets had inflicted deep damage. In that case, all he could do was gamble everything on the final option left to him.

As he fended off the incoming tentacles, he explained his plan out loud. “Meifa, can you aim for the head on my signal?”

“Was the plan from the start. Ready to go. Perfect.”

“Okay. Natsuka and I will stop the surrounding tentacles. We will absolutely not let them get close to you. We’ll leave the juicy bit to you.”

“Meifa,” Natsuka stared, her face as if in prayer, “if things look dangerous, it’s okay to run away. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, if you’re okay, that’s all that matters to me.”

“No problem. I will win.”

Meifa Lee broke into a smile.

For Minato at the very least, it was the very first time he had ever seen her with an expression that matched a girl her age.

“There’s no way I can lose. I have you two, after all. With you here, I become invincible. There’s no way I can lose. Absolutely none.”

It was a beaming smile that refused to acknowledge even a hint of inauthenticity.

Her eyes dispelled even the faintest traces of the fear that resided within Minato.

—all for the sake of their final battle.

 

The time arrived.

“I’m going to count down from three.”

“Okay.”

“Three, two, one—”

Minato held up his gun to the closest tentacle to him.

“—GO!”

Simultaneously, he tore through one of the tentacles with a well-placed shot from the rifle.

Meifa also jumped up from the floor. Immediately, she put her genius on display for everyone to see. The second she leapt up, her supple muscles launched herself forward, taking her fearlessly to the part of the Under that possessed the head.

With its almost twenty tentacles, however, the Under was essentially an impenetrable fortress. There was no way she could make it past all of them.

Minato readied his rifle and pressed forward, giving Natsuka instructions as she prepared to give rear support as well. “Natsuka, make a wall on Meifa’s left!”

“Got it!”

“I’ll take care of the rest!”

It would be impossible for him to shoot all of the tentacles down at the same time, but by utilizing her powers, Natsuka would be able to limit the movement of several of them. It’s not ideal, but I’ll make do somehow. There’s no way in hell I’ll let you die, he thought. Overloading his each and every nerve, he blew apart tentacle after tentacle as they chased Meifa.

MAI was also running at its fullest capacity.

《MAI – judgement》※firing suppression shots at targets H, M, B in succession ※securing advance route for friendly ※advise retreat ※situation favorable

And with that, a single route undeniably opened up.

A route that would end their nightmare.

Unwavering trust in her allies behind her, Meifa never for a moment slowed her pace, and when she finally caught up to the colossal monster, she propelled herself forward using the tall submersible crane as foothold. She was high up—the sight was like the giant-slaying immortalized in fairytales. Meifa’s Territory—the Green Dragon Crescent Blade—and the violet light it emitted drew a magnificent arc in the air.

—and yet. . .

At that very moment same a single malignant appendage.

It was not a tentacle.

It was one of its massive arms that retained their human appearance.

“Tsk.”

A chill traveled down Minato’s spine. Just before, it had used its arm to block the bullet from Minato’s rifle in an attempt to protect the tentacle.

—as if it possessed the intelligence to do so. Because of the action, even if only for a moment, the support was delayed.

A terrible image ran through Minato’s mind.

As Meifa was in that moment, suspended midair, she had no options available to her. The single remaining tentacle started to take action and extended towards the girl like an arrow in flight.

What was going to reach what first? No, it seemed that before the girl’s blade would be able to reach the monster’s neck, the tentacle would just barely be able to piece her body.

And yet, even then. . .

“DIE!!!”

Even the surprise attack was thwarted. Meifa’s movements exceeded what Minato thought possible.

With the tentacle to her back, she managed to twist her body around and thrust the Green Dragon Crescent Blade into it, bringing her body close to the approaching appendage, and then turning the enemy’s attack into a foothold in and of itself, she used that to propel herself one more, even more quickly forward.

Minato felt as if he would never be able to erase that sight from his mind—not for an eternity. It was a maneuver that seemed as if it had the gods themselves in its devising.

Was it a miracle?

No.

It was a single attack born of her vast bravery and sheer strength of will. This time for sure, the monster’s unguarded neck was left to bear the full brunt of her impending attack.

—The battle was decided.

That’s what would have happened.

Yes, that’s what would have happened if the Green Dragon Crescent Blade hadn’t disappeared immediately before impact. She would have undeniably been the victor.

What actually happened, however, was the power she was supposed to have wielded vanished, and her bare hands swung emptily at the nothingness.

It should have been the deciding strike.

But she had been forsaken by fate.

It was likely that the girl herself had no idea what happened to her body, even up until her final moments.

“. . . . . . What?”

Immediately following the small, confused whisper that left her mouth, the tentacles in their pursuit of the girl finally caught up to her in her free-fall and destroyed her. They thrashed the girl over and over and over without ever letting up. Her flesh and gore flew in all directions like a popping water balloon. Her legs spasmed and convulsed as they remained on the floor. It was like a frog that had been run over. The Under withdrew its gore-splashed tentacles back into the pool as if to wash them off. Was it the kind of creature that liked to keep itself clean? Flies, for example, tend to worry about their cleanliness a lot, contrary to popular belief, so it wasn’t necessarily out of the question. True or not, however, both that monster and flies had something else in common—they were both shit-loving pests.

Meifa Lee died.

 

“—Huh?”

Minato suddenly glanced up at a high spot on the ceiling. It was right above where the Giant Squid was. Clinging there was a single Under, a red, blotchy patten over its skin.

“Was it because of you?” he asked, his voice a whisper.

The thing remained silent, but he didn’t need to ask it in the first place of course.

The only creature that possessed the Territory Virus, an ability that robbed water manipulators of their powers, was the monster this research lab named Blotch. Had it been here from the start? Did it just manage to make its way in? He had no idea. Had it only made its appearance sooner, they could have taken it into account when planning what to do. It hid itself until only seconds prior, and then chose that moment to interfere. Really. . .

“Hahaha, this is just too much, you know?”

Minato smiled faintly to himself, and pointed his rifle up at the ceiling, pulling the trigger without a moments delay. The nimble Blotch managed to avoid the shot, but the ceiling panel it was gripping onto was blown into pieces, causing the monster to fall downwards. He adjusted the aim and fired again. And again. And again. AND AGAIN! He pulled the trigger as to not even leave the smalled trace of its corpse behind. He pulled it with every single twisted emotion concentrated in his finger. This won’t do. It died way too quickly. Get back up. I’ll fucking kill you again. I’ll erase every last part of you.

“No, wait. . .”

It suddenly dawned on him that he couldn’t waste his bullets like this. He realized he wasn’t thinking straight, and so he slowly started to come back to his senses. The reason he did so was because he had noticed Natsuka Hoshino completely break down into tears behind him.

“Meifa. . . Meifa is. . . ! M-Meifa. . .”

She repeated her friend’s name over and over as if she were broken. No, maybe she was already broken by now.

By now, Minato was starting to feel like he wanted to toss everything to the wind and just take it easy. I’m tired. If the only person remaining hadn’t been Natsuka Hoshino, he might have decided to retire from this whole thing a long time ago.

But as much as it infuriated him, he still had fighting spirit left in his blood.

The Giant Squid was still going strong. Deaf to lament of humankind, the tentacles that had slaughtered Meifa rose up once more.

Minato moved in front of his childhood friend as to shield her from the danger and then finished ejecting the spent magazine, replacing it with his final backup. It didn’t matter how he felt about it—there were only ten shots remaining. This would have to be what secured their means of escape.

MAI had been recording the passing time.

There were about five minutes left until the gate opened. If they missed that opportunity, they would have no future ahead of them. There was absolutely no way the rifle alone would be able to take down that monster.

That meant there was only one way.

He would wait for the moment the gate opened and then try to prevent it from moving. He’d have to keep something that size in place for two minutes at the very least—there wasn’t much chance of it happening to be honest, but, well, he might as well try it if he was going to end up eventually dying anyways.

The biggest problem was the tentacles poised to attack them even now. There were far too many of them to deal with using only one rifle.

Strengthening his resolve, Minato decided to retreat into the pool for the time being. To that end, he grabbed Natsuka’s body, and then—

“Go to hell.”

—hearing unfamiliar words, Minato stopped dead in his tracks.

In the following instant, his vision in its entirety was dyed a sinister pink.

It was maximum expansion. What’s more, instead of it expanding like a balloon inflating, Natsuka’s Territory essentially exploded, and in no time, it had already stretched out ten meters from her body. She screamed at the enemy, letting her tears continue to fall even now without so much as an attempt to hide them.

“GO TO HELL! JUST DIE. DIE. DIE!!!”

—the foreign words continued to flow from her in a voice that he never knew she could have produced. The region her territory enveloped continued to expand even more, and its mass grew only ever denser. It was like her pure malice was itself materializing.

At this moment was when Minato first understood the ‘problem’ that had been plaguing his childhood friend. It was marked by a relative lack of power and sickly Territory.

From the very start, the water manipulator known as Natsuka Hoshino possessed a disease. It had been observed in only an exceptionally few number of cases, but it had precedent nonetheless.

It didn’t belong to any of the four types—Crystallization Specialists, Perception Specialists, Order Dictators, or Limit Operators. Their power fluctuated depending on their emotions, and it was difficult for them to control it—a fatal flaw for any water manipulator.

—the Emotion Dependent.

Colloquially, they were also known as berserkers.

It was a case related to the correlation between the human psyche and Territories. If the lid was blown off the jar of her pent-up feelings, it would be just like what happened in the most generic of shounen manga. The rage and sadness within her became the trigger that allowed her true powers to blossom. To counter that, her capabilities were below average normally. That’s why her peaceful Academy life led her into a slump, whereas the sadness and tension of coming down to this underwater facility caused her power to flourish.

And now, unfortunately, it was probably nearing 100%.

The true face of her expanded powers became clear.

—it was pressurized crushing. The forceful application of pure mass.

“I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS.”

One of the tentacles that had been flying toward them was engulfed by the pink, and in that instant, it was mashed, twisted, and torn apart like paste. Matter was compressed beyond its limits in the dense mass, like a kind of black hole. It was a power with destructive capabilities that could rival even that of Chloe Knightley’s. Even if she was just as worked up as Natsuka was, she probably wouldn’t have been able to output something with this much power.

It was a storm of blinding pink—the kind that would erase even her own life.

“I don’t care about anything else! I’ll give everything I need to, so please. . .! Please just save Minato!”

The rampaging waves of her Territory continued to expand outwards, stealing more and more of the Giant Squid’s body away. The colossal monster was probably only moments away from having its existence completely erased. It was a monumental power. An overwhelming one. Yet, her body was consumed by it faster than it could happen.

There was a squishing sound—

—as if her organs and muscles were being torn apart.

As the sounds made their way into Minato’s ears, he immediately stopped his childhood friend. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and brought her close to him.

“Stop, Natsuka! It’s okay now!”

In only a little bit, she’d be able to kill that goddamned Under! But there was a problem even more simple that that.

She would only destroy herself at this rate. Minato desperately begged her to stop. But it wasn’t easy to calm someone down once their feelings exploded.

“It’s not okay! It’s nowhere near okay!” She squirmed violently in his arms, continuing to use the power that drew from her very own life. “Unlike you, I’m dumb. I’m not strong like Meifa, and I don’t know a thing about computers! I couldn’t do a single thing right this entire time. So. . . so why am I the only one alive. . . Why did everyone but me have to. . . Just-Just this once. . . I want to protect you so much, and yet. . . This isn’t enough! If living means I’ll continue to feel like this, then I don’t care if I die!”

What she felt toward the Under that had killed her friend wasn’t simple rage. The dominant emotion that ate away at her core now was—

—regret.

It was the thought that, had she only done something more, she might’ve been able to change their future. The guilt in knowing that there was no way she could change what happened. It was exactly the same as what pained Minato so. Even more than the Unders, what she couldn’t forgive was her own self.

I know exactly how she feels, painfully so. But even then, it wasn’t reason enough for Natsuka to gamble her own life.

So these words will be a lie.

“Let’s die here together then.”

“Mi—”

Her resolve shook.

The shape of her pink Territory started to lose its form as if subject to a strong gale, and the expansion momentarily stopped.

She turned to him with a bewildered expression. “W-Why? Why do you have to die too? What are you saying. Stop screwing around.”

“If you die, then I’ll have no reason to go on.”

“No, please don’t say something stupid like that!” An entirely new anger sprouted forth from her. “Don’t talk about dying like that! Don’t make me hit you!”

I’m truly glad she’s such a simple, honest person. Does she have any idea what’s she’s saying right now?

A single sentence was all it took for her to finally revert back to her normal expression. Her pink Territory also dissolved as if mist before a sunny day. Hers was a power of historic strength, but it would likely never manifest again.

The girl in question, however, didn’t think about that in the slightest. “If you died, Minato, there would be no point. It would be like a mochi shop with no mochi.”

“Try to gather your thoughts a little before you say them. Let’s bide our time, find the right moment to strike, and then get out of this together.”

“. . .Yeah. That’s the best option.”

“Alright, leave it to me.”

At this moment, there is no longer an ounce of an instructor in me.

Minato Yamajo, Natsuka Hoshino’s childhood friend, once more faced their reality head-on.

Now that we’ve come this far, all we can do is accept what comes.

Had he only embraced these calm feelings from the start, who knows what kind of result they might have achieved.

There’s no point thinking about it now.

It’s time to resume our gamble at life.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

Fortunately, they had cleared the largest hurdle—time. There was only one minute left until the gates would open.

In addition to that, although Natsuka’s berserker powers didn’t manage to finish of the Giant Squid, it had dealt serious damage to a majority of its tentacles. It was accurate to say that most of the monster was in a sorry state.

Likely due to that, it showed no signs of continuing its barrage. It was probably focusing its efforts on regenerating itself. They planned to finish off the monster before it had time to collect itself, but the regeneration had progressed much more quickly than expected.

Once it finished regenerating several of its tentacles, it resumed activity again and entered the pool in order to corner the two.

Minato saw this from inside the submersible cabin floating in the pool. Feeling the low engine hum in his body, he carefully lined up his rifle sights. “The gate’ll open in 30 seconds.”

“M-Minato. . .” a begging voice came from inside the submersible. “Just to make sure, it’ll go forward if I push this lever, right?”

“That’s right. Just like that, three times. Take your hand off it for now.”

“G-Got it. . . I-I’ll do my best.”

I hope she doesn’t mess up.

He was a little nervous about the situation, but the Under was already beginning to move. They wouldn’t be able to make any changes to the battle plan at this point. From here on out will be nonstop action.

To make matters worse, the monster was almost incomparably faster in the water than it was on land, fitting of its squid-like appearance. Left to its own devices, it would probably be able to catch up to them in under ten seconds.

It should go without saying that he had no intention of leaving it to its own devices.

“Die already.”

Minato fired a shot.

However, that shot wasn’t aimed at the Under currently swimming beneath the surface. Not at the water, but near the ceiling. It was where the single submersible was hanging suspended from the crane.

Of the four supports holding it up, three had already been destroyed, and the fourth and final chain was blown apart by the rifle, allowing the submersible to fall directly down upon the Under’s head. Although it was admittedly designed to float, it was at the same time a 20 ton mass of metal.

That very mass became a deadly impact which broke through the surface of the water and made contact with the Under. In a further stroke of good luck, the craft’s hatch was open as it was undergoing inspection at the time and Minato’s 12.7 millimeter round-bearing rifle shattered the front glass into thousands of shards, so it would pierce the water on impact and continue to sink. If this impact finished the job and killed the Giant Squid by itself, Minato would have nothing left to say.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like it was going to be that easy. The monster grabbed the vessel on top of it with its monstrous strength and threw it aside in no time flat.

“Unfortunate. . .”

Well, it bought time at least, and that’s all I wanted in the first place.

BZZZZZZZZT, the buzzer rang, and finally the first gate started to open.

If they went forward now, though, they’d only crash into the gate. They had to wait until the gate was sufficiently raised.

“Hold on a sec. Wait for my signal.”

“O-Okay.”

Having avoided the falling debris, the Under once more began its watery pursuit. At the same time, Minato gauged the gate’s progress. Taking the speed at which it raised into account, he started a mental countdown.

Three, two, one. . .

“—Now!”

The moment he shouted it, Minato jumped into the submersible’s open hatch. The vehicle sped forward at maximum power.

That said, maximum power for a mere research vessel propelled it forward at even less than 10 knots, but the motor moving the heavy craft was by no means weak.

They quickly passed through the first gate and proceeded all the way to the pressure-equalizing area. At the far end of the 20 meter space was the second gate. Once that opened, they’d be able to break free.

But before that, the first gate had to close. Not to mention, it would require two more minutes.

The Giant Squid Under wasn’t going to just stand by and watch that happen.

The difference in underwater speed between the two was overwhelming. and within moments, numerous tentacles had managed to catch up to them, wrapping themselves around the vessel’s frame as to not let it escape. Their forward momentum stopped immediately.

Minato hurriedly poked his head out of the hatch, and then he shouted to Natsuka who was still inside.

“Keep the lever pushed down!”

As it turned out, the both of them were actually in separate submersibles. They used two of them as to disturb the monster’s focus as much as possible.

Out of the two of them, Minato was hoping the Under would go after his own submersible, but he of course had a plan of action in case the reverse happened instead.

The vessel Natsuka was piloting was already working at full output, but the colossal Under possessed fearsome strength, and the vehicle slowly started to be pulled back as a result of it. From the side, Minato used the rifle to destroy one of the tentacles. The creature’s grip on the submersible started to weaken, but that only reverted the tug-o’-war to a standstill. It would probably recover its strength before long. With that maneuver, he ended up expending two bullets. Three shots were all he had left to him—he could afford to use one more.

As a result, Minato started to move himself towards Natsuka’s vehicle, well aware of the danger it put him in.

The Giant Squid’s tentacles were entirely made up of sensory organs. They perceived his approach, and one of the tentacles that was gripping onto the vehicle suddenly whipped around like a scythe, with his body as the target.

As it came near, however, it collided with a lead round. Two bullets left. I can’t afford to waste them.

Using the split-second opening he created with the shot, he slipped rapidly into the vessel with Natsuka inside and tightly closed the hatch door.

The interior of the craft was cramped. Seeing him enter the cockpit, his childhood friend flashed him a relieved smile as she held on unsteadily to the unfamiliar controls.

“I feel like my heart’s about to stop working.”

“You did a great job, Natsuka. The gate will start to close soon. Hang on for a little longer.”

Until it happened, there was no way they afford to lose in their test of strength against the creature. If they happened to be pulled back out, then that was their loss confirmed. From now on, it was a simple matter of perseverance.

Well, it’s not like suddenly having two people in the submersible would give it any extra power. . .

—But. . .

If this is the end for us, I want to be together with her. This was the thought that ran through his mind.

Minato activated one of the switches on the console and then finally leaned forward as if adding his weight to Natsuka’s in order to continue pressing the lever down.

Her body twisted around.

And then she pressed her head to his neck as if taking in his smell.

“You know, Minato?”

“Hm?”

“I love you,”

—she said with an incredibly tender voice,

“I almost can’t think straight right now, I love you so much.”

 

At that moment, the vessel started to shake more than ever.

It’s possible the tentacle he destroyed earlier, plus several others, had regenerated by this point. Their grip on the vehicle intensified, and it started to be pulled back at a now-visible pace. Can’t you give us some space already? he thought.

However, the buzzer finally sounded a second time. It was the sound that indicated the first gate was about to close in order to seal the pressure-equalization chamber.

It’s likely the gate would close at the same speed or possibly even faster than when it originally opened. If that turned out to be true, they would undeniably be able to hold out.

The descending gate would crush and sever the monster’s tentacles and the two of them would be able to escape—it would mean the end of their nightmare. They would be able to return to the outside world.

Their future was just in sight.

Minato, however, summoned all of the strength available to him and let out a shout:

“Let’s go! Let’s do this! This is really the end!”

Natsuka as well nodded with everything she had:

“Yeah, Minato! Let’s do it!”

There was no way they could leave and run like this, try as they might.

There was no sense in fighting any further.

This was the manifestation of their ego, however, and it demanded that they validate their humanity.

—We will defeat that Under.

Bringing Natsuka’s body close to his, he used his rifle to shoot through the submersible’s front glass without hesitation. The reinforced glass shattered into countless fragments, and water poured into the craft.

He then quickly wrapped his belt around the propulsion lever—

—and then firmly secured it into reverse.

CLUNK! came a loud noise in response.

The propulsion system immediately switched direction, and the submersible started to zoom backwards.

In response to that happening, the Giant Squid sprang backwards. It wasn’t a surprising reaction considering the prey it was pulling so desperately suddenly stopped putting up a fight. And then, when the creature stopped moving, that was when the submersible moving in reverse collided with its body. That, of course, inevitably caused it to retreat once more.

Minato and Natsuka had already escaped the vehicle and stuck their heads out of the strange-smelling water.

The true identity of that strange smell—

—was gasoline.

When Minato had originally entered the submersible, he had activated the switch that opened the gas hatch to the vessel’s dual diesel engines. The 400 liters of gasoline that continued to leak from the tank formed a fire trail all the way to the vessel itself.

In other words, all the way to the vessel that the Under was currently gripping onto.

“Let’s see here. . .”

Minato prepped the rifle with its final bullet and tried to think up a fitting one-liner.

Like something from the movies. Something good that people will remember.

Anything’s fine, really.

“These gloomy depths suit you just fine! . . . or something like that.”

1,500 meters below the surface of the ocean, at the sea floor of the Osaka Area.

Orient Federation Academy, expedition, day 4.

2 hours and 37 minutes following the sinking of the research cruiser.

It was like this that one of the nightmares came to an end.

 

◇ ◆ ◇ ◆

 

“It’s all over. . . isn’t it. . .” she muttered as if giving herself into to a blissful midday nap.

Inside the other remaining submersible, Natsuka Hoshino was lying down with a thin smile on her face. Her head resting on his lap, he nodded without any strength to spare either. Large qualities of water were pouring into the room around their vehicle, sounding like a grand array of waterfalls.

The room was filling up in preparation for the second gate to open.

“Yeah, it’s all over. . .”

“Minato, it’s okay to cry now, you know? I’ll hold you tight when you do.”

“It’s not that easy to cry on command. . . And come on, you’re already crying before I get the chance.”

Natsuka smiled, tears running down her cheeks.

“It’s so weird, don’t you think? Even now, I keep thinking, what if it was all just a bad dream? What if we get back to the Academy, and Chloe and Meifa are both there, and they both welcome us back like nothing ever happened—? Haha. . . ha. . .”

After a drained chucked, she coughed violently.

“But you know what? Even if it is all just a dream, the fact that I love you will always be real. . . Oh man, it all happened so sloppily. Before we get married, would you go out with me?”

“Of course.”

Minato responded immediately, and her eyes opened wide as if in surprise. She tried to raise her head, but in the end continued to lie down.

“You mean it? You really, really mean it?”

“I mean it. In fact, let’s not even bother waiting on the marriage. Let’s do it right away. And right after, let’s start having lots of children—ten of them! That way we can make our own team of fishing fanatics with all of us in it.”

“Yeah! Where do we find the storks for it? Or wait, do you get them from cabbage patches?”

“. . . You’re going to have a tough time in the adult world, I mean it.”

“Hm? But. . . Haha, Oh jeez, oh jeez, oh jeez, oh jeez, I can’t believe we’re actually married!”

“Woah, don’t jump the gun, there. We can only submit the marriage registration once we get back to the Academy. If we try any sooner, we could get busted for marriage fraud, you know?”

“Come ooon, you won’t do that. I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful husband who buys roses for his wife every weekend.”

“You won’t find a version of me like that no matter how many parallel words you search.”

“Hahaha.”

Maybe it was because she was so happy that she took her childhood friend’s hand and pressed it to her cheek.

And then, in the softest of whispers,

“Does this kind of bliss really exist?”

The smile lasted only a second.

The more he looked, the more her expression twisted in anguish under endlessly flowing tears.

“I’m sorry. . . I’m so. . . I’m so s-sorry.”

She suddenly couldn’t stop apologizing.

Hearing her say it, Minato felt as if all the air had been squeezed from his lungs, and he started to frown.

“Why. . . Why are you saying sorry?”

“’Cause. . . ‘Cause I’m being so selfish. I’m asking you to go out with me and making it harder and harder on you. . . Even though I already know. . .”

“I’m the one that wants to get married. I love you too, Natsuka.”

“Yeah. . . Yeah, thanks. . .”

As water manipulators, there was no real reason for them to stay inside the vessel.

However, for a little while now, Natsuka’s Territory had started to lose its effect.

It was, without a doubt, because she had expended so much, so violently in the final fight.

But it was just a momentarily lapse in her condition, that’s all. She was just crying about how weak she was at the moment. If we just rest in here for a bit, she’ll be back to normal in no time—Minato continued to tell himself.

But. . .

“I know. . . what’s happening to my body,” the sobbing girl confessed. “I can tell that my heart is getting weaker and weaker. It’s like it’s running out of blood, I think I used too much. I’m so stupid. You did so much to protect me, but. . . I’m so stupid.”

“Stop talking about that kind of stuff!” he suddenly yelled, his voice growing intense without his realizing it. All he could do was refuse to accept it.

—but deep down, Minato knew.

He knew that in the few cases involving Emotion Dependent types, there were many situations in which something similar happened and the affected lost their lives. There was no damage to their internal organs, but rather, it was just as Natsuka put it—it was as if they had exhausted their own life energy, invisible to everyone else.

So what?

There’s nothing that says she has to follow the same pattern. We have the chance to get out of this alive; like hell I’m going to give up on her.

I will not let Nastuka die.

There’s no way. If she did—

“Oh no. . .”

Natsuka shakily lifted up her arm and gently brushed Minato’s cheek as his head drooped over.

“I went and made you cry. . . I’m sorry, it’s all because of me. But maybe I’m a little relieved. You’ve been holding it in for so long now. You should go and cry.”

“. . . I’mmot crying.”

“You liar. You are crying. Look at how many tears there are. How long has it been since I last saw you like this?”

Ba-dum

“Oh. . . no. . . I’m so worried about you, but I’m just so sleepy. . . I want to look at you so much more, but. . .”

Ba-dum. . . ba-dum, it went.

Under the watchful gaze of Minato’s Territory, her heartbeat grew softer and softer.

“Stop it. . . Don’t do it. Don’t go to sleep.”

“Mhm, I’m wide awake. I can still hear you.”

Her pupils were large and vacant.

Minato’s voice neared a begging whisper by this point. Gripping her hand growing ever colder, he continued to desperately try and pull her back.

“I’m begging you, please. . . don’t give up. Don’t go to sleep. You’ll be better before you know it, I’m begging you. . .”

“Mina. . . to. . . I know we got married. . .”

—the girl smiled, eyelids softly closed,

“but, still. . . someone important. . .”

She took in a deep breath of air.

And then smiled again.

“Promise me. . . Protect. . . her—. . . . . .”

The sentence was cut short.

“. . . Natsuka? Hey. . .”

And with that, there was no answer.

The girl slept, nary a breath in her—

—as if she were having the most blissful of dreams.


Episode.4 – Deeper, DeeperMain PageLast Episode – If You Start to Cry…


  1. A reference to a line by Chinese general Zhao Yun, as depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms