The Mecha Monogatari, Book Two, Chapter I
Posted by Doug on December 8, 2008
My name is Hatsutori Masao, fourteen years old. Four months ago, I was just an ordinary third-year junior high school student, living with my parents in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima prefecture. With my grades, I had a good chance of getting admitted to one of the more prestigious high schools, and from there, into a good college, maybe even Tōdai, but of course, that wasn’t going to happen now.
On Tuesday, May 24, 2016, I went with the rest of my class to the Jieitai Special Testing Facility in Yoshinogawa to get the yearly synchronicity testing. By law, anyone with a score over 8 gets conscripted into the Titan Gundan; last year, I had only scored a 1.403. It didn’t seem like anything had happened: I just sat in the testing chair, the examiner and her aide made a few adjustments, and then a minute or two later, they said I was finished.
So it was quite a surprise when I managed to fully sync up with the facility’s testing system this year. I even got a really high score: 15.730, the highest in my school. Not just my school: that’s in the top five percent of new titan pilots in all of Japan. I had always wanted to become a video game designer, but being a titan pilot was a lot cooler. My parents had taken it pretty hard, though—Mom started going to counseling, even—but I was excited. What could possibly compare to being a titan pilot?
The moment I stepped out of the testing facility’s exam room and rejoined my waiting classmates, I was transformed. I was special. Everyone congratulated me. My friends were jealous of me. I started getting invited to go do stuff with my classmates, like singing karaoke or watching movies. The boys that had always bullied me suddenly became my bodyguards. The girls, who normally would not have given me the time of day, started paying attention to me.
All told, I went from pretty much a nobody to the most popular guy on campus overnight. I even got a letter from a secret admirer in my shoe locker at school. It wasn’t signed, but the handwriting seemed very familiar. I bet it was Endō Shiori from the Tennis Club, who was easily the hottest girl in my class. How cool is that?
I should have asked Endō-san to go out with me. That would have been perfect. Of course, I didn’t know anything about dating, except what I had learned from anime and manga. I had never had a girlfriend; before I had been conscripted, it had been difficult for me to even strike up a casual conversation with a girl. Still, I could have figured something out.
The zoo would be good. Girls like cute animals, right? No, too clichéd, bad idea. The beach? Oh, yeah. Endō-san was just incredible in the boring one-piece sukumizu; I bet she would look awesome in a real swimsuit. Like a bikini. Yeah, a bikini. She spends a lot of time outside for tennis practice; I wonder if she would have tan lines—
I never noticed Hijū-sensei walk up behind me; I was oblivious to her presence until she slapped me in the back of the head with a rolled-up magazine so hard it almost knocked my glasses off. I looked up to see Hijū-sensei glaring down at me, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. “I-I was l-listening to you, sensei!” I pleaded.
Hijū-sensei’s frown deepened. “I wasn’t the one talking.” She pointed to the front of the classroom, where our civilian history teacher Naitō-sensei stood, also frowning. I felt myself turning red as a giggle rippled through the classroom. “Stop daydreaming, Hatsutori-kun.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I couldn’t help it, though. Even though we were all here at the Takagi Miharu Titan Academy to become titan pilots, we still had to take ordinary classes, like history and science. I had always done well in school, but back in junior high, my teachers had not cared too much if I did not pay attention, as long as I kept my test scores up. And I always made good grades.
My ears burning, I chanced a glance at my teammates as Hijū-sensei returned to her place at the back of the classroom. To my right, Ōhashi-san was still trying to keep from giggling too loudly; behind me and to the right, Tsuchiya-san was looking the other way, a plainly disgusted look on her face. Behind me and to the left, Seki was trying hard not to smile, and failing.
Naitō-sensei continued his lecture. “Ahem. Well, now that Hatsutori-kun has decided to rejoin us-” Another round of giggles went through the class, but Naitō-sensei silenced it with a wave of his hands. “Now, now, the question was, ‘When did Buddhism come to Japan?’ I mentioned it earlier, but I don’t suppose you were paying attention, were you, Hatsutori-kun?”
I stood respectfully before answering: “Sensei, it was during the Asuka-jidai in the sixth century.”
Naitō-sensei nodded, and continued with his lecture. If nothing else, I have an excellent memory, and I’ve always done well with my school work. I returned to my seat, sighing in relief.
I’m not sure what I was expecting the Academy to be like, but it wasn’t this. Basic training had been an hour of physical training and eight hours of simulator drills every day for six days a week. It was only the second day, but so far, we had not done a single simulation. I figured we would have went straight from the introduction ceremony to the simulator rooms. How are we supposed to learn how to operate a titan if we never, you know, operate a titan?
This was boring. Of course, Benkei-sensei, our lead instructor, had said we would begin the simulations this afternoon, so hopefully things wouldn’t stay like this forever.
* * * * *
“You’re going to get all of us in trouble if you don’t start paying attention in class,” Tsuchiya-san said as we found an empty table in the cafeteria. “You heard what Benkei-sensei said: if one of us gets punished, we all get punished. And I am not going to have you screwing up my record like that.”
“I didn’t see Hijū-sensei hit you,” I retorted.
“I think that was just a warning,” Seki said.
“Why we have to take history anyways?” Ōhashi said. “It’s not like the Eschatos are going to challenge us to a trivia duel.”
These were my teammates. Tsuchiya Rin-san was pretty, I guess, if you’re into petanko, her long, wavy hair styled into twin ponytails. In the short time since I had met her, Tsuchiya-san had proved to be really domineering; I could tell she grew up getting everything she ever wanted. Her older brother may be a hotshot titan pilot, but that doesn’t give her the right to treat the rest of us like we were her servants.
Ōhashi Chizuru-san was a total bokukko—unlike the other girls in our class, she wore the pants version of the Rikujō Jieitai uniform instead of the much-more-popular skirt version, kept her hair short, and even actually used boku to refer to herself more than once. Definitely not my type. Unlike Tsuchiya-san, Ōhashi-san was friendly and outgoing, but at 167 centimeters, she was intimidatingly tall.
Hey, I can’t help it if I’m short. I’m still growing, though.
Seki was my roommate, and by far the easiest to deal with. Nothing seemed to bother him. I had expected some sort of argument to come up over who got the top bunk, but surprisingly, he just let me have it. He was into kendō, and was in disgustingly good shape. Our morning physical training, led by Benkei-sensei (who had like zero percent body fat), had almost killed me, but Seki had barely broken a sweat.
“A regular education is just as important for us as it is for civilians,” Tsuchiya-san said. “My brother says that—”
“Oh, here we go about your brother again,” Ōhashi-san said with an exaggerated sigh.
“Don’t be rude! My brother received the Kyokujitsu Shō,” Tsuchiya-san snapped. “And he’s a nitō rikusa, and he has a shikona—”
“I know, I know,” Ōhashi-san replied, waving her chopsticks dismissively. “You’ve already told me that ten thousand times.”
“Is there something wrong with me talking about my brother?” Tsuchiya-san asked.
Ōhashi-san rolled her eyes. “Other than you having a complex about him, no.”
“I do not have a complex!” Tsuchiya-san was fairly shouting now.
Everyone in the cafeteria could hear, and, hesitantly, I tried to calm them down: “Uh, would you two not—”
“This is none of your business!” Tsuchiya-san snapped.
“Quit bossing everyone around!” Ōhashi-san said.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Tsuchiya-san said.
“Oh, pardon me, ōjosama,” Ōhashi-san said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your highness.”
“You would do well to try and act a little more ladylike,” Tsuchiya-san said. “With that ugly hairstyle and those pants, you could be mistaken for a boy.”
“You’re one to talk, petanko!” Ōhashi-san said.
“Urusei!” Tsuchiya-san shouted, shaking with rage.
I cast a nervous glance over at Seki, who, amazingly, was just ignoring Tsuchiya-san and Ōhashi-san. He just ate his bowl of noodles, seemingly without a care in the world. “Ano, Seki…”
“Do you have to be so noisy?”
The booming voice sent a chill down my spine, and I turned to see our lead instructor, Benkei-sensei, towering over me. He was huge, and I was so glad he wasn’t on my case. His gaze was focused on the two girls, who had both frozen, their eyes wide with dread.
No one spoke for what seemed like forever.
Tsuchiya-san snapped out of it first. “Ōhashi-san started—”
“Stop,” Benkei-sensei said. “I don’t care who started it. Team Three, lunch is over. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” I asked.
“Be quiet and get moving,” Benkei-sensei said.
And I didn’t even take two bites of my lunch. Benkei-sensei led us out to the hallway, where Hijū-sensei met up with us. “Hey, Shōta, what’s going on?”
“Hijū, don’t call me that here,” Benkei-sensei told her.
“Sorry, Benkei, sorry,” Hijū-sensei said.
“An argument,” Benkei-sensei said. “They need to work on their teamwork.”
I thought about mentioning the fact that Seki and I had not been arguing, but I thought better of it. Stupid girls! They start throwing a fit, and I get punished, too. This is so not fair.
Tsuchiya-san tried to appeal to Hijū-sensei. “Sensei, Ōhashi-san said I had a brother complex—”
What a suck-up. Just because Tsuchiya-san’s brother used to serve with Hijū-sensei, she probably expected to get special treatment, but Hijū-sensei simply ignored her. “What are you thinking, Benkei? Make an example out of them?”
Hijū-sensei’s grin turned ominous. “Prisoners on the Beach?” she asked, in English.
Benkei-sensei chuckled. “Sounds good.”
“Purisuna on za Biichu?” I echoed, mangling the words. My English was really bad, I know. I understood it, but I couldn’t speak it very well. “What’s—”
“Quiet,” Hijū-sensei ordered.
I decided to keep my mouth shut. Hijū-sensei was hot—amazing legs—but she was scary, especially when she smiled, and she was always smiling.
We stopped by Benkei-sensei’s office, where Hijū-sensei collected four pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs? Why did Benkei-sensei keep handcuffs in his office? And what was ‘Prisoners on the Beach?’ Were we going to a beach? What was with the crazy English, anyways? What was going to happen to us? None of us had any idea what the sensei were thinking—I caught Seki’s attention, but he seemed just as puzzled as the rest of us, and could offer only a shrug.
We ended up at the Academy’s outdoor pool. It was one of two Olympic-size pools here, which meant it was thirty meters wide by fifty long and at least two deep, and the pool and the small building with the changing rooms were surrounded by a four-meter-high chain-link fence. Benkei-sensei unlocked the gate, and led us inside. “Stand in a circle, backs to each other.”
We did so.
“Seki-kun, switch with Tsuchiya-san,” Hijū-sensei said.
“Why?” Benkei-sensei asked.
“Symmetry,” Hijū-sensei said. “Okay, Team Three, hold still for a second.” And then she handcuffed us together. No one dared protest, not with Benkei-sensei overseeing the process, his arms crossed over his chest, staring at us in the most incredibly forbidding way. He had donned his sunglasses, which only amplified the effect. There is just something unsettling about not being able to see a person’s eyes, especially when it was a gigantic man like Benkei-sensei.
Tsuchiya-san’s right wrist was cuffed to my left wrist, my right ankle was cuffed to Ōhashi-san’s left ankle, Ōhashi-san’s right wrist was cuffed to Seki’s left wrist, and finally Seki’s right ankle was cuffed to Tsuchiya-san’s left ankle. Okay. This was…different…I had no idea what was going on.
“Okay,” Benkei-sensei said, and checked his watch. “You have fifty-one minutes until we start today’s simulation briefing. You are going to need to work together to escape, and get to the classroom before 13:00 hours.” He and Hijū-sensei walked out of the pool area, and locked the gate.
“You can’t do this!” Tsuchiya-san protested.
“We can’t?” Benkei-sensei asked. “Oh, I forgot. Here, give them the key.”
“Right,” Hijū-sensei said, taking the key from Benkei, and then she pitched it over the chain link fence. I watched in horror as the key, glinting golden in the sunlight, arched through the sky, and plunk! went right into the pool.
Tsuchiya-san let out a short scream, a mix of surprise and utter confusion. She started to move towards the pool, but since her ankle was shackled to Seki’s, she stumbled, and yanked me off-balance, and when I tried to move to regain my balance, Ōhashi-san was moving a different direction, and she took my leg right out from underneath me, and I fell back into Seki, and like dominoes, we all came tumbling down into a most disgraceful heap, Tsuchiya-san on bottom. “Get off me!” she screamed.
I couldn’t move; Seki and Ōhashi-san were both on me. “I can’t!”
Ōhashi-san started slapping Seki. “Don’t touch me there!”
“It wasn’t on purpose,” Seki growled. “Hey, stop! I said it was an accident!”
Tsuchiya-san was starting to cry. “Just get off me, please!”
Someone almost knocked my glasses off. “My glasses! Don’t break my glasses!”
There was much screaming and cursing as we struggled to untangle ourselves. We finally all got sitting up, somehow having twisted around so that we ending up facing each other, sort of. Miraculously, my glasses were intact. Tsuchiya-san had ended up kneeling, her skirt hiked up; I could almost see her—
“Hentai!” Tsuchiya-san shouted, and she instantly tried to pull her skirt down, but when she pulled her arm back, that just pulled my hand straight towards her, and I ended up with a handful of her thigh. “Sukebe!” She tried to slap me, but the handcuffs saved me; then she tried again with her free hand, and accidentally hit Seki, who was trying to separate us, instead.
“Stop it!” Ōhashi-san said, as Seki pulled her arm.
“I’m sorry!” I shouted, covering my head with my right arm. “I didn’t mean to look!”
“Quit it,” Seki said. “All of you, stop it! I said stop it now, damn it!“
Tsuchiya-san quit hitting me. Ōhashi-san was all but sitting on Seki, but she was still. This was the first time that Seki had raised his voice like that.
As we fell silent, the only sound to be heard was the raucous laughter of our instructors. “They’re so cute,” Hijū-sensei said. “Listen up: do not try diving in the pool—you’ll drown for sure, and there are no lifeguards around to save you. Be careful, okay?”
“Forty-eight minutes. Do not be late,” Benkei-sensei warned us, and then the two of them disappeared back into the main Academy building.
Tsuchiya-san was crying now.
“Aw, is ōjosama upset?” Ōhashi-san said.
“S-shut up, Ōhashi-san,” I said. “You’re the one that g-got us into this mess.”
“She’s the one that started it!” Ōhashi-san countered, jabbing a finger towards Tsuchiya-san, dragging Seki’s arm with hers.
“Ōhashi-san, you should apologize to Tsuchiya-san,” Seki said, pulling their arms back.
“Why me?” Ōhashi-san demanded.
“Listen, we don’t have time to waste on this,” Seki said. “We need to get that key out of the pool, and fast. Just apologize to her.”
“I don’t want her apology,” Tsuchiya-san sobbed.
“Oh, come on,” I said.
Seki sighed. “Whatever. Just quit arguing. We need to figure a way out of this.”
“We can’t go into the pool,” I said. “I-I don’t even k-know how to swim.”
“You can’t swim?” Ōhashi-san said. “How lame.”
“Don’t start,” Seki snapped. “Is there anything we can get the key out with?”
There was silence.
“Great,” Seki said.
“Maybe there’s something i-in the changing rooms,” I suggested.
“Okay, let’s check,” Seki said.
We managed to stand up without too much difficulty, and we shuffled over towards the changing rooms. Of course, Tsuchiya-san had to complain: “Wait-we can’t go in there! That’s the boys’ room!”
“Fine,” Seki said, and began to head towards the other one.
“Wait!” Tsuchiya-san said. “That’s the girls’ room, you can’t—”
I could not help but laugh at the look of complete incredulity and exasperation on Seki’s face, and when I started laughing, Ōhashi-san started, too. “Oya oya,” Ōhashi-san said. “This is so lame.”
Seki took a deep breath, and with a saintly amount of patience, stated his case. “Tsuchiya-san, we need to find something to get the key out of the pool. There is nothing out here we can use. Now unless you can think of something better, we’re going to have to go in one or the other. Understand?”
Tsuchiya-san started to protest, but not only was Seki right, he didn’t look like he was backing down, either. Tsuchiya-san nodded her consent.
We went inside the guys’ changing room. Getting through the doorway was a little difficult, though. Inside was exactly what you would expect to see: benches, lockers, a table with a stack of towels on it. “This is weird,” Ōhashi-san said. “I kind of expected it to be, you know, different.”
“The only difference between boys’ locker rooms and girls’ locker rooms is that the girls’ locker rooms have more mirrors,” I said. “And girls’ locker rooms smell better.”
All three of the others stopped and looked at me strangely, like I had said something wrong.
“Uh, how much time have you spent in girls’ locker rooms?” Ōhashi-san asked.
Oh. My face was turning red again. I could feel it. “No! Well, I m-mean…T-that’s not wh-what I meant!”
Ōhashi-san giggled, Tsuchiya murmured ‘hentai’ under her breath, and Seki rolled his eyes and led the way over to the nearest lockers.
We hit the jackpot on the first try: the very first locker we opened had two wire clothes hangers in it. “Perfect,” Seki said.
“We’re going to need more than that,” I said. “At least four or five.”
“We need to make sure to replace these later,” Tsuchiya-san said.
“We will,” Seki said.
It did not take long to collect a half-dozen clothes hangars and an unexpected boon, a small magnet. Returning outside, we hurriedly set about straightening them out and connecting them together to form a three-and-a-half-meter-long piece of wire, one end of which Ōhashi-san twisted into a short hook to hold the magnet we had found.
We bunched together at the pool’s edge, and carefully, Seki extended the contraption out into the water. We were lucky the water was crystal-clear: I could just barely see the key at the bottom, glinting in the sunlight. Seki landed the magnet right on the key, but when he pulled it back, the key did not move.
“What?” Ōhashi-san said.
“Seki, put the magnet on it,” I said.
“I did,” Seki said.
“Then why didn’t the key come up?” Tsuchiya-san asked.
“I don’t know,” Seki said.
“Maybe the metal in the key isn’t ferruginous,” I said.
“Isn’t what?” Ōhashi-san asked.
“Magnetic,” I said.
“Just say magnetic, then,” Ōhashi-san said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Seki said. Moving quick, he withdrew the wire, took the magnet off, adjusted the end a little, and then tried to hook the key directly, but to no avail. “Damn.”
“Let me try,” Ōhashi-san said, and we all rotated so that she would be closest to the water. She managed to drag the key to the side of the pool, but she couldn’t hook it to pull it out. “There’s nothing to hook onto.”
I looked at my watch. “It’s 12:23, guys.”
“This isn’t going to work,” Ōhashi-san said.
With the clock ticking, we sat and desperately tried to think of a new strategy. Draining the pool was a dead end-the valves to drain the pool were covered and locked. Seki and Ōhashi-san tried picking the locks with the clothes hangars to no avail. 12:32. Seki’s calm demeanor was starting to crack as he once again returned to trying to fish the key out with the clothes hangars, and Tsuchiya-san looked like she was going to start crying again.
Ōhashi-san had given up. She just sat there laughing fatalistically. “We’re doomed.”
I didn’t have any ideas, either. The handcuffs were starting to get to me. If the joint at the base of my thumb was smaller, I probably could just slip the damned thing off-that’s it! “I-I have an idea!”
The others turned their attention to me as I tried to slip my hand out of the handcuff, and I did not have to explain further. It was clearly impossible to get out of the cuffs around our ankles, but we might be able to our hands free.
Unfortunately, neither me nor Seki could get free-our hands were just too big. Ōhashi-san, too, could not free herself.
“I’m almost free,” Tsuchiya-san said.
We watched at Tsuchiya-san tried to squeeze her hand through the handcuff, but it was just a little too tight.
“We need some kind of lubricant, like soap or something,” I said.
“Hurry,” Seki said, and we rushed back into the locker room, where the first thing of the sort that we found was a jar of petroleum jelly.
Tsuchiya-san started to protest once again: “You’re not—”
“Yes, we are,” Seki said, and without further ado, he slathered a huge handful of the jelly on her wrist.
“Eww, gross,” Tsuchiya-san said, but her complaint was summarily ignored.
“Here, gimme some,” Ōhashi-san said, and took some and began her own efforts to escape anew.
“I just want to know why someone had some petroleum jelly in here,” I asked.
“Swimmers use it to prevent chafing,” Ōhashi-san said. “I used to be on the Swim Team my first year of junior high. You put it around your neck, under your chin, on your underarms, in between your—”
“Too much information,” Seki said.
Grimacing in pain, Tsuchiya-san managed to slip free of the handcuffs, and everyone cheered. However, even with the help of the petroleum jelly, the rest of us still could not manage to escape. Hijū-sensei knew how to put handcuffs on people. I wondered where she learned that, and just as quickly decided I did not need nor want to know.
Now, instead of an extremely awkward circle, we formed an only moderately awkward line. “12:37,” I reported. “Only twenty-three minutes.”
“We’ve got to get that key,” Ōhashi-san said.
Again, silence fell.
Tsuchiya-san finally spoke up. “I have an idea.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
“Yeah, come on,” Ōhashi-san said.
Tsuchiya-san glanced over at Seki nervously. “We go in the pool, and I reach down and grab the key.”
Go in the pool? That did not sound like a good idea at all. “All of us?”
Seki shook his head. “No, just me and Tsuchiya-san will have to go in, because our ankles are connected.”
“Great idea, Tsuchiya-san,” Ōhashi-san said sarcastically. “That’s hardly fair to Seki-kun.”
“It can’t be you two,” Seki said. “Hatsutori can’t swim. I don’t care. Let’s just get this over with.”
This still sounded dangerous. “B-but Hijū-sensei told us not to—”
“We’re not going to dive in,” Seki said, removing his shoes. “We’re just going to lower ourselves in from the side. Ōhashi-san will hold onto me, I’ll hold onto Tsuchiya-san, and you’ll stand ready to help pull us out.”
I guess there wasn’t much danger that way, but it still worried me. I don’t like the water. Not at all.
It was October, and the water was cold-Tsuchiya-san whimpered as she lowered herself in, and even Seki clenched his teeth. Hanging onto the edge of the pool, Seki gave some last-second instructions. “Don’t fall in, Ōhashi-san. Hatsutori, when Tsuchiya-san comes up, help her out,” Seki said.
“Right,” Ōhashi-san said.
“This is kind of dangerous,” I said.
“Too late to complain now. Go,” Seki told Tsuchiya-san.
Tsuchiya-san nodded, and then she took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface. Seki, too, submerged, all save for the hand still chained to Ōhashi-san. Underwater, he held onto Tsuchiya-san’s hand as she fished around the bottom. Tsuchiya-san sprang back up to the surface, the key clenched in her right hand. “I got it!”
Yes! “Come on!” I said, and helped pull her out as Ōhashi-san helped Seki, but as I leaned forward to grab Tsuchiya-san’s hand, Ōhashi-san stepped back, and for a second time, pulled my foot out from underneath me. Plunging face-first towards the water, I screamed and flailed, trying desperately to latch on to anything that might stop my fall.
I couldn’t help it. I can’t swim. Not even if I didn’t have one of my legs handcuffed to Ōhashi-san. The few times they made us swim back in physical education class, I always had to use a kickboard, and even then I almost drowned.
Fortunately, I didn’t go in. I landed on Tsuchiya-san, and as Seki grabbed my arm, I pushed myself back, splashing one hand in the water and the other hitting Tsuchiya-san in the back, flattening her to the concrete with an audible splat. Frantically, we scrambled back from the water’s edge, gasping and cursing.
All of us were shaking. Seki and Tsuchiya-san due to the fact that they were soaked in icy cold water, me because I had just had a near-death experience, and Ōhashi-san because she had found the whole thing to be utterly hilarious, and was trying not to laugh out loud.
“Baka!” Tsuchiya-san shouted, slapping me.
“Sorry!” I said. “Ōhashi-san knocked me off balance!”
Ōhashi-san held her hand up. “Hey, don’t blame me!”
“It doesn’t matter!” Seki shouted. “Here, unlock us.”
“All right,” Tsuchiya-san said, and her hand shaking, she reached down to the handcuff around her ankle and— “What?”
“What what?” I said.
Tsuchiya-san looked up at us in shock. “This…this isn’t a handcuff key.”
“What?” Seki, Ōhashi-san, and I shouted simultaneously.
Tsuchiya-san held the key up for all to see. It was an ordinary key, plated with some golden metal, like the kind which would go to a padlock or something like that. It was clearly not a handcuff key. There was no way it would work. Aghast, we sat there, staring at the key we had struggled so hard to obtain. It was not the key we needed. It was worthless. Worthless!
“Hijū.” Seki spoke her shikona like a curse.
“I hate this place,” Tsuchiya-san said, shivering.
Ōhashi-san just started laughing again.
I replayed the events in my mind. Come to think of it, I did not see Hijū-sensei with a key when she was shackling us together. The only person with any keys was Benkei-sensei, who used a key to— “That’s the key to the fence!”
“What?” Tsuchiya-san said.
“Here,” I said, standing, and took the key from Tsuchiya-san. We moved over to the gate, and sure enough, the golden key unlocked it.
“But we’re still handcuffed together,” Tsuchiya-san said. “It’s so cold. I’m going to get sick like this.”
“Where can we find a handcuff key?” Seki said.
“What about the guards at the front gate?” Ōhashi-san chuckled, wiping her eyes.
“Maybe. But we’re running out of time. Let’s go!” Seki said.
We only fell eight times in our dash to the Academy’s front gate-sorry, I’m no good at the three-legged race, either-and obviously, the soldiers stationed there, all men in their twenties, had seen us coming, for they were beside themselves with laughter. One was a santō rikui, and when we saluted him, Ōhashi-san slapped herself in the face with Seki’s hand, which was still attached by the handcuffs. “Ow,” she said.
That just set the other soldiers off again. One got a camera, and we got to suffer the additional indignity of having our photograph taken. Seki, through clenched teeth, managed to say, “Please, sir, could you unlock these handcuffs?”
The santō rikui could not stop laughing, and just waved his hands towards us. A rikushichō came forward, and thankfully, he produced an appropriate key and finally, finally freed us from Hijū-sensei’s accursed handcuffs.
With a final salute, we ran from the front gate, the other soldiers’ laughter following us. “How much time?” Seki growled.
I checked my watch. “Nine minutes.”
“Run!” Seki said, and led the way towards the dormitory building.
It did not take Seki very long at all to get into a fresh uniform, but Tsuchiya-san seemed to take forever, even with Ōhashi-san helping her. Seki and I waited in the hallway outside their room. “Hey, Seki, we should go ahead to the classroom-“
“It wouldn’t change anything,” Seki said. He stood motionlessly, his face a mask of barely contained fury. “If they’re late, we all get punished. Again. If that happens…”
This is bad. He was pissed. I couldn’t take it anymore; I pounded on the door. “What’s taking so long in there?”
Ōhashi-san came to the door. “She’s almost done—her hair took forever to dry!”
“B-but we’ve only g-got two minutes!” I said.
“I’m ready,” Tsuchiya-san said, bolting out the door so fast she almost knocked me down.
The ‘no running in the hallways’ rule was completely ignored.
Of course, I was the slowest runner. Ōhashi-san made it to the classroom first, then Seki. Even Tsuchiya-san was faster than me, and she was wearing a skirt. The three waited just outside the door, waving frantically to me as I caught up, and finally, Team Three entered the classroom together, a whole eleven seconds before the clock turned over to 13:00 hours.
We were greeted by a mix of groans and cheers from our classmates, and I saw Hijū-sensei, grinning from ear to ear, collect a fistful of yen from Benkei-sensei, who just shook his head, a similar expression of amusement on his face. “Okay, Team Three, what did you learn from all this?” Benkei-sensei asked as he came to the front of the class.
Ōhashi-san rolled her eyes. “That we’re a team and we need to work together in order to succeed.”
“Wrong,” Hijū-sensei said.
Huh? I looked at the others, and it was clear they were just as confused as I was. Well, Seki wasn’t. He just glared at Hijū-sensei.
“Perseverance in the face of adversity?” Tsuchiya-san ventured.
Hijū-sensei just shook her head. Benkei-sensei said, “Try again.”
I was lost. “Don’t argue in the cafeteria?”
“Nope,” Benkei-sensei said.
“That you two are sadistic?” Seki said.
Did he just say that out loud? I looked over at Seki, my jaw slack. He stared unflinchingly at Hijū-sensei. On the other side of him, Tsuchiya-san and Ōhashi-san just stared at him with equal incredulity. The class was silent. What was he thinking?
This was going to be bad. Really bad. I stood there and awaited the end.
For her part, Hijū-sensei met Seki’s gaze with complete sangfroid, and then turned to Benkei-sensei and smiled. Benkei-sensei chuckled, and Hijū-sensei turned back to Seki. “Well, we are, but that’s not the point,” Hijū-sensei said. “The point is, you’re all pilots, and your team is like family. You take care of each other. You back each other up. And if there is a problem between you, you take care of it in private. You are pilots. Don’t be yelling at each other where everyone can hear you, like a bunch of kindergarteners. That’s so immature and disgraceful. That’s not the way we roll in the Titan Gundan. Right, Benkei?” Benkei-sensei nodded, and Hijū-sensei turned her attention to the rest of the class. “That goes for everyone. Got it?”
“Hai,” everyone responded, except for us in Team Three. Personally, I didn’t get it. We went through all that because they don’t like us arguing in public?
“Congratulations, though,” Hijū-sensei added. “You’re the first team that managed to escape on your own.” Then she held up the money Benkei-sensei had handed her. “And you earned me ten thousand yen, so I owe you guys one. Take your seats.”
“All right, then,” Benkei-sensei said. “Now let’s get started. For our first simulation, we’re going to start off with something basic…”
As Benkei-sensei began explaining what sort of simulation we would be facing, I could not help but think that our instructors were a couple of really scary people, especially Hijū-sensei. Were all titan pilots like them?
The Academy was nothing like I had imagined. The rules here were a lot different from back in basic training, and it did not feel much like a military facility. I had always heard that the Titan Gundan formed their own subculture within the Rikujō Jieitai, but this was completely unexpected.
It wasn’t the last completely unexpected thing to occur, either.