It might have been for a minute; it might have been for an hour.
Minato stayed at the sea floor of the Osaka area for some time after.
Having witnessed over the last two hours the deaths of all those precious to him, not a single proper thought drifted through his mind. And yet, at some point, his body started to move by itself, sitting in the cockpit seat and grabbing the lever to set the submersible in motion. It’s possible that in the absence of his thoughts, MAI took over everything in his stead. Minato lacked the life in his expression to do even that.
Then came an enemy attack. Its shadow flew across the front glass.
It was one of the random D-rank Unders that was wandering about around the facility. Upon spotting a vehicle with a human inside, it seemingly dropped all pretenses that it had been part of some larger group. It was like some country hooligan that just spotted a luxury car.
“. . .”
Neither panicking nor raising a ruckus, Minato went to open the submersible’s hatch.
Natsuka was still inside the craft after all. I couldn’t bear for her to be eaten. With that simple thought his only motivator, he went into the ocean. Well then, time to turn them into seaweed. This was all that drove him. His mind just wouldn’t function. That’s why, when he opened the hatch, he was taken aback by all the water that suddenly started to flow into the cockpit. This isn’t good. I have to take care of this and get back to land quickly or else my precious childhood friend will start to bloat from the water.
He quickly made his way outside, and there the three Unders were moving around intimately with each other. The three of them together might have seemed like a formidable opponent, but—come on, I’ve seen enough of these before. There’s nothing special about them.
With MAI active, it’ll be a piece of cake.
《MAI – warning》※detecting three E-rank Unders ※no defensive equipment ※extremely dangerous
“. . . Huh? Where’s my knife?”
Thinking back, I get the feeling that my knife was knocked off my belt at some point. It probably happened when I was jumping around during the final escape.
Even for the heroic Minato, returning alive after constantly toeing the line between life and death, picking a fight with a monster like that one empty-handed was a bad idea.
What should I do? I’ll end up dying after all this.
“—Whatever. . .”
Minato decided to give up.
And then, a gust of wind swept across the bottom of this deep ocean. From out of the depths came a pair of jet-black wings as if soaring through the water. They came at lightning speeds, and after taking a dropkick (underwater) of unrivaled ferocity, the Unders before Minato were launched away as if in some kind of slapstick comedy. It happened with a display of force that rivaled what Minato’s rifle could produce.
The black wings in their underwater suspension were truly like that of a fallen angel.
The woman that appeared there folded up those very wings of hers and pointed a finger at the dumbfounded Minato.
“Are you that stupid, like are you really that stupid? The hell you doing, freezing up like that? What are you tryin’ to accomplish by not fighting back when there’s a monster right in front of you? You got a death wish?”
Yes, I do.
But enough of that. Minato, in a bewildered state, started to mutter something with quivering lips, half in denial—
“Yeah,” she responded briefly with a short nod, “Probably thought I went and got myself killed, didn’t you? I was scared out of my mind, you know? I got myself caught up in a tangle with some of those monsters right after diving. And it was nothing like those ones just now too. There were squids and sharks, I just kept booking it, hiding and fighting, and I finally escaped just a bit ago. Sorry, I made you search for me, didn’t I?”
“You couldn’t even call it ‘searching.’ It was harrowing.”
“Yeah. . . I’m really sorry. I really made things difficult for you. Dinner’s on me when we get back, so try to forgive me. Actually, you know that shop Bayside Wagon? That place is a real hole-in-the-wall, and it has a huge secret menu. Well, let’s forget about that for the moment. Is everyone still on standby back at the cruiser?”
—she asked without a hint of malice, oblivious to all that had transpired.
Minato couldn’t find a way to answer, and so she started to sing his praises in all her wishful thinking.
“They aren’t, are they. You really do piss me off sometimes, but man are you sensible. Sending the boat back to the Academy and staying behind yourself is just like you. Now that we’re in this mess, I really am glad that you’re the one I’m paired up with. Even if you can be such an insufferable brat sometimes! But if it were Muhammad, he’d just start praying the second we ran into trouble. Having you be the only one who stayed behind really puts me at ease. . . That’s what happened right? Come on, please say something.”
“The cruiser. . .”
He hadn’t planned on hiding anything. After a deep breath, he told her the bare truth.
“The cruiser was attacked by unidentified organisms and capsized in the aftermath. I am the only survivor among the passengers.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I am not. All three members of the television production crew, as well as all five of the trainees. . . All of them have perished.”
“H-Hold on. . .” In a state of shock, Aishwarin pressed her hand to her head and moved backwards. “You can’t mean. . .”
She stumbled as if dizzy and murmured in a low voice—
“You can’t mean, you went into the facility to search for me?”
Minato nodded only once.
He should have never ever set one foot inside of it.
That was the truth.
Without a single ounce of help, Aishwarin had made it back outside in one piece. Minato and the girls should have gone straight back to the Academy, not even considering the rescue effort. Knowing it now wouldn’t change a thing. There was no way to take any of it back.
“All of it was because due to the mistakes in my judgment. I. . . I killed all of them.”
It was only natural for him to say that.
Had they only turned back at the start, Chloe would not have died.
Had Minato been the one to open the Central Management Room door, Michel would not have died.
Had he chosen a different plan to fight the Giant Squid, Meifa would not have died.
And he never should have brought Natsuka Hoshino along on this expedition from the start.
He had failed at each and every decision, and because of it, he had brought upon them the worst of all endings.
Say nothing of instructors, he was worthless as a human. Why am I still alive?
“No you didn’t!” shouted Aishwarin in a raspy voice as she hugged him tight. He only saw her face for an instant, but it seemed racked with pain. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t! It’s not your fault! If the roles were reversed, I would have searched for you! If I’d only come back sooner. . . No, I shouldn’t have even come down to a place like this in the first place. I’m so. . . I’m so sorry. . . You had to go through so much because of me. . .”
She was crying.
“I won’t let anyone blame you for any of this. All of this rests with me. I will protect you, Minato, I promise. Please, I beg you. . . Let me protect you. . . If you don’t, I won’t be able to bear what becomes of you. This is all just too cruel. . .”
“Protect. . .” repeated Minato as he heard the words.
As he did, the tears began to well up from within him once more. He began to remember his childhood friend’s final promise.
“How could I possibly protect. . . Is it even possible for me?”
The tears that left his eyes dispersed into the sea around them and dissolved into nothingness—and eventually they transformed into a heart-rending wail.
In Aishwarin’s arms, Minato cried and cried until his voice ran dry.
It’s painful, so painful; it’s just all too much to bear.
Please, I beg of you, just this once, he wanted to be able to protect someone until the end.
Just once was all he wanted, but it was a wish that would never be granted.
No matter how much he apologized, the words would no longer reach the girls. He would never be able to see them again.
Yet in all of this, there was only one thing he could do.
—fulfill Natsuka’s final promise, even if it cost him the world.
“I. . . I. . . want to protect. . .”
This time—without fail.
Standing opposite a senseless reality, weakness was not an option.
“I need. . . I need to become strong. . .”
—I need strength.
—the absolute strength that would allow me to overturn our cruel fates and protect those important to me.
For now, he sobbed like a child in this place, a land enveloped in the darkness where no light might reach.
. . . . . . . .
. . . .
At the moment—
The curtains now fall upon the first tragedy perpetrated by the Unders, by the monsters born of Solaris.
They are living weapons.
Ever cruel creatures manifested from human greed, those very humans cannot know just what effect they will have on world after tomorrow. The tranquility that humankind has finally recovered 100 years following the Oceanic Calamity has started to crumble without a sound.
Many are unaware of this truth.
Those, however, who plan to use the Unders and scheme from the shadows are also similarly unaware.
—unaware that in these deep ocean depths was born a determination that would soon oppose them.