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The Mecha Monogatari, Book Two, Chapter V

Posted by Doug on March 4, 2009

Finally, we were getting a break.

It felt like a month since classes had started at the Takagi Miharu Titan Gundan Shikangakkō, but according to the calendar on my watch, it was only the ninth of October, which means that it had only been six days since we had all sat through the endless succession of speeches that marked the beginning of our training to become a titan pilot.

And the training… Junior high was nothing like this. Basic training was not even close. Every day was a struggle just to finish the scheduled training events, much less excel at them, and Benkei-sensei and Hijū-sensei had not limited their tortuous regime to the daytime hours, either. Last Friday morning, at about two a.m., we had all been awoken by ear-piercing sirens, and then immediately stuck in a two-and-a-half-hour-long battle simulation. That probably would have been the least difficult sim they had given us, except for the whole middle-of-the-night/being half-asleep business which had turned it into a nightmarish exercise in frustration. To make matters worse, we were still expected to be up and ready for morning PT with Benkei-sensei at 07:00 hours.

Seki was right: Benkei-sensei and Hijū-sensei were sadists.

But that’s in the past. Today I got to sleep in (until almost eight a.m.!), there was no PT, and we could do whatever we wanted. None of the others wanted to stay at the Shikangakkō all day, and as much as I wanted to sleep until mid-afternoon, I wanted to get away from this place much more.

So we the members of Team Three gathered at the subway station west of the Shikangakkō a little before nine. It had rained overnight; it was still cloudy out, but according to Benkei-sensei, who we had seen as we were leaving the Shikangakkō, it was supposed to clear up before the day was out.

This was the first time I had seen either Chizuru or Rin-chan wear something other than their Rikujō Jieitai uniforms. Chizuru wore a gray hoodie, faded jeans with torn knees, and sneakers-so predictable for a bokukko like her. Rin-chan wore a dark red top, a short black pleated skirt, black over-the-knee socks, and a pair of stylish black sunglasses that must have cost ten or twenty thousand yen. I really hope Rin-chan didn’t notice me gawking, because her impeccable zettai ryōiki was really pressing my moe moe button.

Oh, yeah: we all call each other by our personal names now. That was Chizuru’s idea-we couldn’t exactly bond as a team if we were all stuffy and formal around each other, could we? So instead of me saying Tsuchiya-san, Ōhashi-san, and Seki, I now call them Rin-chan, Chizuru, and Akira. I would call Chizuru ‘Chizuru-chan’ but she threatened to punch me if I did, and I haven’t figured out if she was serious or not.

They all call me Masao.

Akira still wore his regulation-issue uniform shirt and trousers, because he did not own any civilian clothes. I had overheard him saying “I threw all those hand-me-downs away” once when talking to Hijū-sensei, and I assume he was referring to the clothes they had given him at whatever orphanage he had been raised at. Figuring that was a touchy subject, I had not pressed for details. Akira had forgone the name tag, rank insignia, and necktie, though, so he almost looked like he was wearing civvies.

But not quite.

Me? Jeans, a t-shirt, and the awesome black leather jacket one of my uncles had bought me last year, which was a little big on me now-I guess all the PT had taken off a few kilos.

“So, where are we going to go?” Chizuru asked as we descended the stairwell into the subway station.

I had been looking forward to this sort of opportunity for a while now, and I instantly spoke the name of the otaku’s Mecca: “Akiba.”

“Shibuya,” Rin-chan said, at almost the same time.

Shibuya? Ugh. I did not want to stand around all day and wait while she shopped for clothes. Rin-chan would probably make me carry all the stuff she bought. I looked over to see her glaring at me, but rather than feeling intimidated, for some reason I found it kind of charming. No, no, no, no. It would just be too embarrassing if she found out I thought she was cute. I put on my best angry face and matched her glare.

“We are not going to waste all day in Akihabara,” Rin-chan said.

“Well, I d-don’t want to spend a-all day clothes shopping,” I said.

“You really ought to start wearing nicer clothes,” Rin-chan said. “Ah, gomen nasai-I meant, ‘clothes that didn’t look like a vagrant rejected them.'”

That was kind of harsh. What was her problem?

“Here they go again,” Chizuru said, shaking her head.

“There’s n-nothing wrong w-with my clothes!” I said. She might be cute, but when Rin-chan got aggravated…watch out.

“Stop it, you two,” Akira said. “I’m not putting up with you two bickering like you’re a married couple again. Not today.”

I felt myself blush; it wasn’t like that at all. Really, it wasn’t.

“You two always take each other’s side,” Rin-chan said to Akira. “And when it comes to clothes, you’re in worse need than he is.”

Akira nodded, acknowledging the point. “Yeah, I know. Sorry, Masao, but I was kind of hoping to buy some decent civilian clothes today. We can go to Akihabara next week.”

Wait another whole week before I could finally check out Akiba to my heart’s content? That seemed an unbearably long time, but against both Akira and Rin-chan, I had no chance of winning this argument. “Ugh. I h-hate shopping for clothes. A-akihabara next week f-for sure?”

“Yeah,” Akira said, and then turned to face Rin-chan. “Right?”

“Whatever,” Rin-chan said dismissively.

“Does anybody care what I want to do?” Chizuru asked.

No one answered her question. We showed our passes and boarded the line to Shibuya in silence.

* * * * *

“Don’t worry, Seki-kun, I know all the best shops here in Shibuya,” Rin-chan said, leading the way through the city. Her ill mood had not lasted long; she actually seemed like she was enjoying herself now. This was probably the first time it clicked in my mind that Rin-chan was only thirteen, two years younger than me. “Me and my cousins used to come here all the time. My niisan, too-I’ll take you to the places he got his clothes at. You’d look really good in the type of clothes he liked.”

Of course. A sentence from Rin-chan would not be complete without some mention of her older brother.

“I don’t want to spend all my money,” Akira said. “These shops look really expensive.”

I thought so, too. This section of Shibuya just screamed Rich people only, and I felt terribly out of place. If I had known we were coming here, I might have worn a nicer shirt. Everyone we passed on the street was well-dressed; my Kidō Senshi Gandamu t-shirt was one of my favorites, but it wasn’t very classy.

“That’s just the price of fashion,” Rin-chan said.

Yes, Rin-chan, please be as snooty as possible-it will make us all feel a lot better.

She led the way into a little shop that catered more to trendy young men with lots of money than trendy young women with lots of money, and I was surprised when not only did every one of the half-dozen employees in the store greet Rin-chan, they greeted her by name. “Irasshaimase, Rin-ojōsama,” they all said in unison, bowing deeply.

“Ohayō,” she replied casually, although it seemed she scarcely noticed them. Grabbing Akira’s sleeve, she pulled him deeper into the shop.

Chizuru and me loitered near the entrance. “Rin-ojōsama?” Chizuru muttered incredulously. “I knew she came from a wealthy family, but…chikushō…”

One of the clerks approached me. The look of forced politeness on her face told me, beyond any doubt, that I did not belong in this store. “Irasshaimase. May I help you find something?”

I waved my hand nervously. “No, we’re w-waiting on those two…”

“Sure you can!” Chizuru said, smiling mischievously. “Masa-bōzu here was looking to buy some new pants!”

What did she just say? New pants? There was no way I was going to buy anything here! It was clearly too expensive, and I had no idea what size I wore, and I absolutely was not going to try on any pants in some strange fitting room! “No!” The moment I said it, every head in the store turned my way. Great. Too much volume. “N-no,” I said again, in a somewhat more normal tone. “W-we’re just w-waiting on them. R-really!”

The clerk’s plastic smile did not change in the least. “Well, just let us know if we can be of any assistance, sir.”

As the clerk walked away, Chizuru began to snicker uncontrollably. “W-what did you s-say that for?” I demanded, keeping my voice as low as I could.

“Oh, just to see you squirm,” Chizuru replied, poking me in the side, making me squirm even more.

“Well, s-stop it!” I said.

“What are you going to do if I don’t?” Chizuru taunted me.

To be honest, I had no idea what I would do. There was no malice in her words-Chizuru was just teasing me because she was bored, but I did not have to put up with it. Hmmm…what would Akira do? He’d just ignore her. I guess I’d try that.

Realizing I wasn’t going to play her game, Chizuru sighed. “I really hope we aren’t clothes-shopping all day.”

Well, I was going to ignore her, but… “Agreed.”

* * * * *

“Bakayarō!” Rin-chan shouted at Chizuru as we hurried out of the fifth shop we had visited. “Now I’ll never be able to show my face in there again!”

Chizuru, who was usually too laid-back to get overly upset at anything, had finally gotten fed up with the Rin-chan’s overbearing attitude. “You’re not going to want to show your face in public again after I rearrange it!”

Rather than intervene, Akira just turned and started to walk away. “Have fun slapping each other around. I’m going to go look for a Muji or some place like that.”

Lately, Akira had been the one breaking up the never-ending series of arguments between Chizuru and Rin-chan, but he did not even try this time. Maybe he was fed up with them? If so, I could not blame him. “Y-you’re not going t-to stop them?”

“Why bother?” he said coldly. Cold like liquid helium. Yeah, he was fed up with them.

Rin-chan hmphed and started following Akira. “Seki-kun is right. Making a scene like a couple of little kids is so disgraceful. And please tell me you’re not going to buy your clothes from a Muji!”

I had always thought Muji was kind of on fancier side of the clothing spectrum. “What’s wrong with Muji?”

“Too low-class for you, Rin-ojōsama?” Chizuru asked, still angry.

Uh-oh. Just when the argument was over, Chizuru says this. I braced myself for the inevitable Round Two.

Surprisingly, Rin-chan did not take the bait. Ignoring Chizuru, she asked Akira: “So how much do you want to spend?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. Our abrupt ejection from the last shop had been prompted by his desire to avoid spending his entire last month’s salary on a single outfit, which had led Chizuru to comment quite loudly that the items in the shop were horribly overpriced, which led to Rin-chan being so embarrassed she had herded us out into the street under the piercing gazes of the shopkeepers. “Maybe five thousand yen for a shirt and pants.”

Rin-chan sighed. “Even for a guy, you have got to be the most clueless person I have ever met when it comes to clothes.” Then Rin-chan looked over at me. “Okay, the second most clueless.”

Remember what I said about Rin-chan being cute? Forget it. Just forget it. She is not cute at all.

* * * * *

Fifteen thousand one hundred thirty-two yen. I could have bought two or three really nice PVC figures for that much money, four volumes of anime on Blu-ray, or at least a dozen tankōbon. Instead, at the insistence of my three teammates, I had bought a pair of sunglasses. Admittedly, they were really cool, especially in combination with my leather jacket, but ¥15000 was a lot of money.

To make matters worse, if I wore them, I couldn’t see more than a meter in front of me clearly. I didn’t wear glasses because I was going for the studious look, I wore glasses because I was seriously nearsighted. I had tried contact lenses once, but they irritated my eyes too much.

Then again, I did look really cool in them.

Akira and Chizuru had also bought sunglasses, and Rin-chan already owned a pair. At first, I wasn’t going to buy them, until they talked me into it. I’m glad I did, though. They were really cool.

For lunch, Rin-chan recommended a carry-out American-style restaurant, which was situated on the edge of Memorial Park; we all ordered the house special hamburgers-except for Rin-chan, who got a salad-and carried them to a picnic table in the park in the shade of a tall statue to eat. As Benkei-sensei had said, the skies were starting to clear up some.

The burger was excellent; Rin-chan had earned herself back some points.

Akira had changed into the civvies he had bought at the store Rin-chan and Chizuru had conned him into believing Hijū-sensei shopped at. I can’t believe he did not see straight through their flimsy story-maybe he just went along with it to appease them? In any case, I thought it was cheap of them to exploit Akira’s crush on Hijū-sensei like that, but I said nothing. If it would help end this whole clothes-shopping stuff so we could do something, anything, interesting, I was all for it.

Yeah, Akira totally had a crush on Hijū-sensei. It was obvious, even to me. I wasn’t the only one who thought so-Chizuru and Rin-chan had been talking about it, too. I render into evidence exhibit A: the sunglasses Akira had bought were the same brand and almost the exact same style as the ones Hijū-sensei was never seen without. And don’t forget exhibit B: Akira had only agreed to visit that last shop because he had been told Hijū-sensei shopped there.

Chizuru had also suggested that it wasn’t one-sided, either-after the early-morning simulation last Friday, Hijū-sensei had pulled Akira aside, and he did not return to our quarters until right before PT, skipping even his typical morning kendō practice. Chizuru said she had seen them return to the Shikangakkō on Hijū-sensei’s motorcycle.

I really doubted anything too weird was going on. Hijū-sensei was too much of the ‘cool big sis’ type for that to happen. Akira had problems with what Hijū-sensei and Benkei-sensei called ‘hypersynchronicity’-basically, Akira could sync with a titan’s OS so well it was difficult for him to unsync, sending his blood pressure through the ceiling and putting him at risk of a heart attack. He actually had to take medicine that suppressed some of his ability to sync up just to function more-or-less normally. So, if it ever came to a wager, I’d place my money on Hijū-sensei just watching out for the health of one of her students.

Of course, this didn’t explain why they left the Shikangakkō that morning…

In any case, while we ate, we discussed what to do with the rest of the day, and Rin-chan shot down my proposal to swing by Akihabara again. “We’re going next week, remember?”

“We ought to go by that martial arts store Akira mentioned,” Chizuru said, and then put the last bite of her hamburger in her mouth. Masaka! I had barely eaten a fourth of my burger, but Chizuru had already finished hers, and ate most of the steak fries, too!

“That’s over in Setagaya,” Akira said. He had eaten less of his burger than I had of mine.

Setagaya? I couldn’t think of anything interesting in Setagaya. “I don’t think w-we should go that far.”

“It isn’t that far,” Akira said.

“Well we’ve already done what you and Rin-chan wanted to do,” Chizuru said to Akira, and then turned to me, “and we’re hitting Akihabara next week, so I say it’s my turn to pick where we go.”

“That s-sounds fair,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. The three of them get to go where they want this week. I get to go where I want next week, and I really doubt I’ll get to spend much time there.

“Okay, once we finish eating, we go to Setagaya,” Rin-chan said, and then looked over at Akira, who had taken off his sunglasses, and was holding them up, peering intently into them. “Something wrong with your sunglasses?”

“No,” Akira said. “I was just…checking my reflection.”

“Oh,” Rin-chan said, and then reached into her purse. “Here, use this.”

Rin-chan handed Akira a small squared mirror and, after thanking her, he scrutinized his appearance more thoroughly.

Chizuru stuffed a steak fry loaded with ketchup into her mouth. “What is it?”

Akira did not answer immediately, as if he was debating whether or not to even mention it. “Well, I need to get my hair dyed again. My roots are beginning to show.”

“I noticed that,” Rin-chan said. “Is that your natural hair color?”

Akira nodded.

Chizuru grinned. “So, you’re gray-headed like an old man?”

This topic had already been discussed among the guys in our class during the first time we had hit the showers after PT, back on the first day. “Yeah, he’s like that all over. It’s really bizarre-looking.”

There was a pause. Then Chizuru almost spit out a mouthful of her soda as she began to laugh raucously. Even Rin-chan giggled uncontrollably.

I didn’t get it. Had I said something funny? I looked over at Akira, and there was an evil look in his eye. Directed at me. “W-what? W-what did I s-say?”

“Shut up, Masao,” Seki said, turning a little red, “Please, just…shut up.”

I still didn’t get it.

The two girls laughed nonstop, then finally got themselves under control…but then they looked at each other, and Chizuru snorted, and that just set them off again. It was the first time I had seen either of them laughing like this-Rin-chan was usually too dignified to laugh, and Chizuru’s laughter tended so sound a little cruel. But they just giggled like little girls.

After some time, Rin-chan caught her breath, wiped her eyes, and said, “You ought to let your hair grow back natural, Akira-kun.”

“That would l-look really weird,” I said.

Chizuru was trying really hard to stop laughing. “Oh, you’re one to talk about weird!”

I still don’t understand what I said that was so funny.

Akira shook his head at Rin-chan’s suggestion. “Masao’s right. I would stand out too much like that.”

“No, you really ought to do it once, just to see what it looks like,” Rin-chan said, her tone more-or-less serious. “You can always dye it black again if you don’t like it.”

“Yeah, do it,” Chizuru said. “I would pay real money to see it.”

“It would look stupid while it was growing out,” Seki said.

Rin-chan waved her hand dismissively. “I’ll tell you what: there is a stylist named G.G. with a salon just a couple stops from here. He is the absolute best in Tōkyō, and he could dye your hair back to its natural color, and you wouldn’t have to worry about growing it out.”

I was no expert, but I was pretty sure dyeing Akira’s hair wouldn’t be that easy. “Is that e-even possible?”

“G.G. is a miracle worker,” Rin-chan said with complete confidence.

“Do it,” Chizuru goaded him. “We’ll even help pay for it, if you want.”

Rin-chan nodded. “We’ll split the bill between the three of us. Right, Masao-kun?”

I had spent more money on things I would not normally have spent money on today, but I had been wondering for a while now what Akira would look like if he hadn’t dyed his hair. “Yeah, I w-want to see this, too.”

Akira’s expression was grave as he pondered the issue. It was as if he were caught in a life-or-death decision. He looked at each of us in turn. “No pictures. Not a single one.”

He was going to agree to it-I could tell. “A-absolutely not!” I promised him.

“Don’t worry about that, I won’t take any pictures, I promise,” Rin-chan said.

“I don’t even have a camera,” Chizuru said.

“We won’t laugh at you, either,” Rin-chan said. “Right?”

I nodded my assent.

Chizuru gave a sheepish grin. “Well, I won’t laugh too much.”

If Chizuru had promised she wouldn’t laugh, nobody would have believed her for a second. Fortunately, this was enough reassurances for Akira. “Fine. Let’s go get this over with, then.”

* * * * *

“That…that looks…awesome.”

There was no two ways about it: Akira looked like an entirely different person, and that entirely different person was a complete and total badass. Like an anime super-villain, or an ōkami-yōkai. G.G., the very…effete proprietor of the salon Rin-chan had led us to, was indeed a miracle worker-there was no trace of Akira’s crudely dyed-black look left, only a silver sheen.

After waiting for almost two hours for G.G. to work his magic, we gathered around to see the finished product, and I wasn’t the only one impressed by the results. “It suits you, somehow,” Rin-chan said, looking like she was repressing a giddy wai. “Well, of course it suits you, it’s your natural hair color, after all.”

G.G. shook his head. “No, it’s a shade or two darker than his natural color. Once it grows out, his hair will be just absolutely brilliant.”

“It makes you look a lot older,” Rin-chan said. “More mature.”

I looked over at Chizuru, who was on the verge of another bought of laughter, but she just smiled and shook her head instead. “Oya oya, they’re going to have a fit over this back at the Shikangakkō.”

“They can’t do anything,” Rin-chan said. “The regulations for personal grooming are relaxed for titan pilots.”

“Very true. And he does look so handsome this way,” G.G. said, looking down at Akira as if he were a painter gazing upon his latest masterpiece. I found it really difficult to believe that G.G. had once been in a Jieitai reconnaissance unit-if civilians look up to the Jieitai, and the Jieitai look up to the Titan Gundan, then the Titan Gundan look up to recon units, who are known for handling terminal guidance for air strikes against the Eschatos from point-blank range and attacking Eschatos with shoulder-mounted missile launchers. Benkei-sensei had mentioned that he owed his life to a nameless recon unit.

Staring at his reflection in the salon’s mirror, Akira muttered something; to me, it sounded like he said It’s you.

I wasn’t the only one who heard it. “What did you say?” Chizuru asked.

Akira shook his head. “Nothing. I don’t know, this just…it doesn’t even look real.”

“You look good. Trust me,” Rin-chan said.

“Yeah,” Chizuru agreed.

“Dark hair just doesn’t match your features, anyways,” Chizuru continued. “Are you sure you’re all-Japanese?”

Oh, no. This was probably a touchy spot with Akira-he was an orphan and had no knowledge of his parentage, according to Hijū-sensei. “Y-yes, he’s Japanese! You look r-really badass, Akira, like Izāku Jūru from Gandamu SEED! Except you d-don’t have a facial scar.”

Akira turned and fixed me with a mildly disgusted look.

Rin-chan sighed. “Hatsutori-kun, you’re not helping.”

Well, I thought it was a compliment. I knew that Rin-chan utterly despised mecha anime-maybe Akira did, too?

“This is what you really look like, Aki-chan,” G.G. said, turning his attention back to his reflection. “Close enough, anyways. You’re not just another teenager who has to fit in with the crowd. You’re a titan pilot. You’re not supposed to be like everyone else. You’re supposed to be you.”

Akira seemed to agree with the sentiment, but I got the feeling that his discomfiture was caused by something else entirely. Maybe it was the calandatine. Maybe it was G.G. and the girls fawning all over him. Maybe it was being called Aki-chan. Maybe it had something to do with whoever he was talking to when he said It’s you. “I guess I’ll give it a try.”

* * * * *

“Hey, it’s Team Three!”

After leaving G.G.’s shop, we headed to the subway station yet again, with an intention of going to Setagaya, only to be stopped just outside the station. I had been wondering if we would bump into any of the other teams today, and it turns out we did.

The four girls who formed Team Two were walking up. “Seki-kun, is that you?” the oh-so-amazingly-cute Nakamura Ryōko asked. Short skirt, turtleneck, tights…now that she was no longer hidden by the boring Rikujō Jieitai uniform, my suspicions about how good she looked were one hundred percent confirmed. Everyone in class had started calling Nakamura-san ‘the Iinchō’ because she was just so nice and dependable and friendly and helpful and good-natured. Even Benkei-sensei recognized this, using her as an assistant whenever Hijū-sensei was out…or too lazy to be of any help.

I wondered if Nakamura-san was a good cook. I bet she was.

“It sure is,” Rin-chan said.

Did I just hear a note of jealousy in Rin-chan’s voice?

Akira seemed a little embarrassed being at the center of attention. “Rin-chan, I can speak for myself.”

“That is so wild,” Kanno Tamaki said, walking up beside Nakamura-san. She was kind of plain, really; her most noteworthy feature was that when she smiled, her dimples looked ten kilometers deep. While Nakamura-san was clearly more charismatic and diplomatic, Kanno-san had been designated the leader of Team Two by Benkei-sensei, apparently due to the merit of her name coming first alphabetically. Still, unlike Chizuru in our team, Kanno-san actually lead Team Two (albeit with considerable support from Nakamura-san).

The third member of Team Two was Hirose…um…Kaname? No, that wasn’t it. I know I had heard her personal name a few times before, but I couldn’t remember it. She was a soccer otaku and demonstrated her team spirit with a size-too-small Ōmiya Arudīja t-shirt that revealed her to be only slightly more endowed than the very flat Rin-chan. “Yeah, no kidding. What made you want to dye your hair white?”

“It’s not w-white, it’s s-silver,” I said.

“You know what I mean,” Hirose-san said.

“This is my natural hair color,” Akira said simply.

“Really? Well, I think you look really handsome,” Nakamura-san said, smiling. “But to tell the truth, I didn’t even recognize you at first! The only reason I knew it was you was because you were with Ōhashi-san, Tsuchiya-san, and Hatsutori-kun.”

Kanno nodded. “It makes him look…oh, what’s the word for those painting that look so real that they don’t look real at all?”

There was a pause as everyone tried to think of the word. Art wasn’t my specialty, but… “Do you mean s-surreal?”

“No, surrealism is when the images have a dreamlike quality,” Rin-chan said.

Akira seemed a little bemused by this. “So, you’re saying I look fake?”

He’s teasing her. Cool as he appears on the outside, he’s really digging all the attention. Yeah, yeah, enjoy all the attention while it lasts, you ginpatsu-bishōnen. Tomorrow this will be old news and everyone will be all hyped about something else.

Kanno-san, however, thought he was genuinely angered by her comment. “No! That’s not what I meant! It’s just that you look-“

She was cut off by the piercing wail of the public safety alert sirens, a sound that had never ceased to send a cold chill down my spine. For longer than I had been alive, longer than my parents had been alive, that sound had been the harbinger of the Eschatos. It meant running to the nearest underground shelter, squeezing in with scores of other scared people, waiting for hours, sometimes feeling tremors, sometimes hearing explosions, never knowing what was happening above, never knowing if the Eschatos would suddenly decide to take notice of the shelter and wipe everyone out like they had in Aomori and Hachinohe.

A calm but firm woman’s voice called out over the citywide public address system: “As of this moment, the Tōkyō region is under a Class One invasion alert. This is not a drill. All civilians are to evacuate to the defense shelters immediately. Public service personnel are to assist with the evacuation. All designated MGT routes are to be cleared for Jieitai deployment. I repeat, the Tōkyō region is under a Class One alert. This is not a drill. All civilians…

Evacuation alerts were chaos, plain and simple. Back in elementary and junior high school, we had monthly ‘public safety’ days, usually on Saturdays, when we only had a half-day of classes. We were taught what to do in an alert-evacuation drills, locations of all the shelters in the community, basic first aid, that sort of thing. Still, when the real thing happened, everyone tended to panic.

“We can get to the nearest shelter this way!” Nakamura-san called out, waving everyone towards the subway station.

“Let’s go! Hurry!” Kanno said, pulling the fourth member of Team Two behind her. A very shy girl, I did not know her name-I could not recall ever hearing it-but I remembered that she was the one I saw huddled up in a ball, crying in the hallway during that first marathon simulation last Tuesday. Everyone was spooked by the evacuation alert, but she was absolutely petrified with fear-

No, check that. Akira wasn’t moving, either, but it wasn’t because of fear. In fact, he almost seemed excited.

Rin-chan grabbed his arm. “Seki-kun! We’ve got to go to the shelter!”

“We are pilots,” Akira said, looking back towards the Shibuya skyline with the calmness of a Buddhist saint. Between his silver hair and his equanimity, he possessed the most otherworldly aura I had ever experienced. “I will not hide in a hole. Not ever again.”

At a different time, I might have been impressed, but there might be a battle here soon! He could get killed, or as Benkei-sensei and Hijū-sensei were in the habit of saying, he might ‘move on.’ “A-A-Akira, it’s d-d-dangerous! And w-we’re not p-p-pilots yet!”

Nakamura-san nodded. “Hatsutori-kun is right, Seki-kun. We need to go to a shelter right away.”

Akira just turned away from us all. “Go ahead. I’m going to go somewhere I can see what’s going on.”

I looked over at Rin-chan and Chizuru, hoping that one of them could think of something that would knock a little sense into Akira. Unfortunately, Rin-chan’s ego overwhelmed her fear, and she began to follow him instead. “Yes, let’s go. I’ve always wanted to see a real battle.”

“You can’t be serious!” Kanno-san said.

Dialing her snootiness up a few notches, Rin-chan asked, “You’re not afraid, are you?”‘

Well, of course we’re all afraid-this place could be attacked by gigantic alien war machines any minute! That’s what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t speak.

Kanno-san was clearly insulted by the accusation of cowardice. “No, I’m not!”

Nakamura-san put her hand on Kanno-san’s shoulder. “This is no time for childish games!”

“I’m not playing a game,” Akira said. He was walking with a purpose now, his long legs widening the distance from where I stood, frozen in place.

Chizuru, too, started to follow him. Donning her sunglasses, she feigned a casual tone: “You know, back in junior high, me and a bunch of my classmates snuck out of school during an evacuation, but we were found by a police officer. I got in so much trouble.”

“I’m going, too,” Hirose-san said.

“Kazue!” Nakamura-san said (oh, so that’s Hirose-san’s personal name).

Hirose-san turned and held her hand up in front of her face apologetically. “Sorry, Iinchō, but hiding in a shelter is so uncool.”

I don’t mind blowing large percentages of my pay just for the sake of coolness, but risking my life wasn’t worth it. However, at this point, it was only me, Nakamura-san, and Kanno-san who were still for going to the shelter. Even the shy girl had dashed to catch up with Akira.

Nakamura-san looked over at Kanno-san, and then at me, a worried look on her face. I nodded fatalistically. Yes, I was going to come along, despite my better judgment. “All right, but we have to stick together!” Nakamura-san said. “Remember what Benkei-sensei told us!”

The question of what to do in an evacuation had come up yesterday when Benkei-sensei had informed us we would have today off. Surprisingly, other than telling us to stay together in our teams, he had not forbidden us from doing anything. He just said we could do whatever we thought was best. “This isn’t a license to be stupid and move on,” Benkei-sensei had told us. “But the evacuation orders are for civilians, not us. Just stay together no matter what and watch out for your team, and other than that, just do what you think is best.”

And of course, Akira felt that going and watching the battle unfold was ‘best.’

“This is a bad idea,” Kanno-san said, as we hurried to catch up with the others.

Nakamura-san knew there was nothing she could do to stop the others, so wisely she switched into damage-control mode. “Before we find a place to watch, we need to make sure we know where all the shelters in the area are! If fighting breaks out, and it starts coming anywhere near us, we will take refuge in a shelter!”

I doubted that Akira could hear her. He was already halfway down the block; everyone else was jogging or running to catch up with him.

Again, I was bringing up the rear. Hey, I can’t help it that I can’t run as fast as everyone else. I’m only 163 centimeters tall. I have short legs. It’s not my fault I wasn’t blessed with the athletic genomes. Ugh… “Akira! Wait up!”

* * * * *

“Those are KV-129IIA R-red Swords,” I explained to Hirose-san, pointing to a group of helicopters flying overhead. Everyone had calmed down a little-I know I had. I guess it was just a sense of fatalistic resignation. In any case, Hirose-san and I walked at the back of the pack, and she had noted the large number of helicopters that had filled the skies since the evacuation began. Since I knew a little about this sort of stuff… “Th-they’re designed for CSAR-combat search and rescue. That one o-over there is a Mitsubishi, l-looks like a NHK news chopper.”

“I wonder if we’ll be on the news,” Hirose-san wondered.

“M-maybe,” I said, but I doubted it. None of the helicopters were loitering here. They were all flying to the south or southwest.

“What are those?” Hirose-san asked, pointed towards some really small helicopters that were painted jet black.

Oh, yes, I recognized those. “Cool! KVU-1078 Eagle Eyes! Those are AI-controlled mini-copters that create high-angle visual feeds that titan pilots can sync into for improved situation awareness. The pilot just designates a loitering zone, and the Eagle Eyes’ onboard computer flies itself. Then he can use their visual feeds to see over the horizon, over hills, around buildings, stuff like that! They’re the latest technology-I didn’t even know they were using them yet. Last I heard-“

For some reason, Hirose-san started giggling. Oh, no, what did I say this time? “W-what?”

“You’re really into this kind of stuff, huh?” Hirose-san asked.

Well…yeah. “Th-the Eagle Eyes are c-c-cutting edge,” I said. She probably wouldn’t understand but… “It’s a n-next-generation tool for t-titan pilots-“

“I wasn’t making fun of you,” Hirose-san said. “Were you into this kind of stuff…you know, before?”

‘Before’ as in ‘before I was conscripted into the Rikujō Jieitai’? “Y-yeah.”

“I guess I’m pretty much the same way,” Hirose-san said, laughing. “Except I’m not a military otaku, I’m a soccer otaku.” She grabbed the front of her orange-and-blue t-shirt and held it out to emphasize the stylized squirrel mascot. She smiled self-depreciatingly. “Guess that’s kind of obvious, huh?”

Flat as it was, I realized I was staring at her chest, and returned my attention to the sky. “Nothing w-wrong with that! Th-there’s a couple of KV-177 tilt-rotors!”

“That’s what I always say!” Hirose-san said. “Soccer is just so awesome. I wish I could play, but I have weak ankles, so I always used to cheer them on from the sidelines. I grew up in Ōmiya-my parents’ house was only about fifteen minutes away from the NACK5 Stadium, so I got to go see almost every game. I was so disappointed last year when the Arudīja got dumped back down into J2. That was totally unfair. They had a better standing than either Kashiwa Reisoru or the Urawa Red Diamonds, but they got to stay in the JFL. I think it was just because Reisoru and the Red Diamonds have a much bigger fan base-somebody had to drop down a division, but the big-shots didn’t want to alienate more fans from the JFL than they had to. That’s just stupid. It should be about talent and passion, and Arudīja has more of that than any other team out there! Especially since they got Kakihara and Konishi back. Konishi’s my favorite. Did I ever mention I got his autograph?”

“No,” I said. I seem to recall Chizuru mentioning that Hirose-san was talkative. I now see that Chizuru’s description was a classic example of understatement. Maybe her nervousness was exacerbating that trait.

“He wrote ‘To Hirose Kazue, thanks for believing in me! Konishi Tetsuya‘ on a twenty-by-twenty-eight glossy my dad had bought for me. Isn’t that so cool?” Hirose-san said, but then her smile faded. “Well, actually he wrote ‘Hiroshi Kazue‘ instead of ‘Hirose Kazue,’ but that really doesn’t matter-he still wrote it to me!”

Yeah, that was pretty cool. I had seen Satsukawa Miki-the leading actress in, like, every great movie ever made, ever-leaving G.G.’s salon earlier as we were arriving, and I so wanted to get an autograph, but I didn’t have any paper on me or even a pen, and when I asked Rin-chan if she had either, she had just muttered baka and dragged me into the salon.

“…and the ref calls the penalty on him instead!” Hirose-san exclaimed. “I mean, does that sound even remotely fair to you?”

Oops. I was thinking about seeing Satsukawa Miki earlier, and I somehow forgot Hirose-san was talking. I had no idea what sequence of events she had just described, but I was willing to bet it involved a certain sport… “N-no, not at a-all.”

Her views confirmed, she continued: “I mean, even the radio announcer thought it was bogus, but Nishi-T got red-carded for it anyways. That’s why he left Arudīja for Tokushima Vorutisu, I know it. He couldn’t have been swayed away by money-it was his way of protesting Anno’s decision. My proof? Right after Anno retired, he came back to Arudīja.”

I was about to ask who ‘Nishi-T’ and ‘Anno’ were, but I was stopped when I heard the sound of heavy vehicles coming up the road from behind us. If I seemed excited about the Eagle Eyes earlier, the sight that I now beheld was an order of magnitude cooler: five, six, seven…no, eight drab olive Toyota HLT semis with flatbed trailers, each one loaded down with a San’nanashiki Senjinzōningen-an ‘Atlas’-class titan.

Oh, yes.

Even though they had been in service for six years now, the Atlas was still, by far, the most impressive fighting machine ever built. In standard configuration, they were eighteen point five seven meters tall, and weighed 61 tonnes, armed with a MWS-850X4A 45mm cannon and two hundred fifty rounds of discarding sabot tungsten carbide rounds, with a standard engagement range of two thousand five hundred meters. Powered by a compact N3 fission generator, on flat, open terrain they could run at speeds of over two hundred eighty kph. The military defense of Japan was centered around titans such as these; indeed, it was often said that in the Jieitai, there was only the Titan Gundan, and support.

And I’m going to be piloting one some day!

Akira and the others had stopped to watch them pass by, too, allowing Hirose-san and me to catch up (although I was walking half-backwards so I wouldn’t have to take my eyes off the approaching spectacle). “Oh, wow,” Chizuru said. “Check them out.”

As the semis approached, Hirose-san gave a little hop and waved energetically. I was fairly expecting the slow-moving convoy to proceed down the road past us, maybe sounding their air horn like they did in parades, but instead, the passenger-side door of the lead semi opened, and a female rikusōchō in technician’s coveralls leaned out, holding the mic to the semi’s loudspeakers to her mouth. “Stupid kids!” she yelled at us. “This ain’t no damn festival! Get your asses in a shelter, stat!”

Yes! See? We’re supposed to be in a shelter, not wandering around the streets like-

Akira snapped to attention. “We’re with Titan Gundan Shikangakkō Class 275!” he called out, saluting her.

“What?” the woman said, and then turned to the driver of the semi. The semi, which had only been rolling along at maybe forty kph, came to a stop with a high-pitched whine from its air brakes, and the rikusōchō hopped out and headed our way. Of course, when the lead semi stopped, the others had stopped, too; the second semi blared its air horn, but the rikusōchō just turned and gave them a particularly rude gesture before returning her attention to us.

Or, to be more precise, she returned her attention to a certain silver-haired young man at the head of our pack. “Is that your natural hair color?” she demanded.

Oh, what a thing to ask.

“Yes, ma’am,” Akira replied, still saluting.

“Weird. And you can stop saluting,” she said. “So you brats are from the Shikangakkō, huh? Let’s see some ID.”

Akira held his Jieitai identification card up. All of us had one; it was the one item Benkei-sensei had told us to never be without, whether we were at the Shikangakkō, or out on the town, or asleep in our bed, or going for a swim, or in the bath. One of the girls from Team Five had been caught without hers the other day-I had no idea what cruel punishment ‘Over the Rainbow’ was, but I certainly did not want to find out, either. I kept mine in a plastic slipcase on a lanyard around my neck, even when I showered. The others were also holding up their ID cards up for the rikusōchō to see, and I followed suit.

I saw motion by the semi: a man had jumped down off the trailer. He wore a pilot’s characteristic gray beret and a pair of mirror-lensed sunglasses, the arms of his jumpsuit tied around his waist, leaving him shirtless. While not as incredibly muscled as Benkei-sensei, this man was no stranger to the gym, I guarantee it. A pair of dog tags with black rubber silencers hung around his neck. He sauntered up to us. “What’s the holdup, sōchō?”

“Bunch of stupid kids from the Shikangakkō,” the rikusōchō said.

“Oh, yeah?” the pilot said, grinning. He turned to the other semis in the column and made a few quick hand signs-Proceed to target; I will catch up-and then turned back to us. “Looking for a good spot to check out the action?”

“Yes, sir,” Akira said.

“Then you want Cerulean Tower,” the pilot said, pointing to a tall building in the direction we had been walking. “Highest spot in Shibuya. Hop on, we’ll give you a lift.”

“Since when did we become a damned taxi service?” the rikusōchō asked.

“Since right now,” the pilot said.

Nakamura-san spoke up: “If it’s a problem, we could always walk. It’s only a kilometer or two.”

The pilot shook his head. “Nah, we’re in no hurry. Nothing’s going to happen for at least another hour or two. Go ahead, get on, before I change my mind.”

We didn’t have to be told again. The rikusōchō retreated back into the cab of the semi, muttering a nonstop barrage of profanities under her breath. She sure was in a bad mood, but it didn’t matter. Clearly, the pilot’s decisions overrode hers. I was glad: not only did we not have to walk, but I would get to see the Atlas up-close. There wasn’t much room on the trailer-I got squeezed in between Hirose-san and Chizuru next to the titan’s leg. Still… “This is so cool.”

“Beats walking, huh?” Saji said, plunking himself down on the titan’s knee as the trailer started moving. He had to shout in order for us to hear him: “I’m Saji, with the 16th Battalion. Whose class you in?”

“Benkei and Hijū, Class 275,” Kanno said.

“Hijū? For real?” Saji said. We nodded in confirmation, and Saji got a serious look on his face. “Next time you see her, tell her the 29th still owes us thirty thousand yen from the baseball tournament.”

“They didn’t pay up?” Chizuru asked. Okay, I know she had to speak up to be heard over the semi’s engine, but did she have to scream in my ear? “Isn’t that bad luck?”

“Yeah,” Saji said. ” Hijū paid her part-so did most of the others-but a couple of them didn’t have the money on them, so we told them they could pay up the week after. That was two months ago, and we still ain’t seen the money.”

Rin-chan suddenly asked, “What’s the 16th’s call sign?”

“Takeyari!” Saji said, mimicking thrusting a spear forward.

“Were you based out of Kagoshima a few years ago?” Rin-chan asked.

Saji was surprised by this. “Yeah, how did you guess?”

“My niisan is in the 577th,” Rin-chan said.

Of course. I should have seen that one coming.

“Small world!” Saji said, and then a flash of recognition crossed his face, and he looked more carefully at Rin-chan. “Your niisan? You don’t mean you’re Tessen’s imōto?”

Beaming, Rin-chan nodded.

“Oh, wow, this is a small world!” Saji said. He jumped up, and moved closer to her, plunking himself down on the titan’s shin. “Me and Jun used to go out and get drunk all the time when I was in Kagoshima! I haven’t heard from him in forever! How’s he doing?”

Rin-chan’s utterly perfect big brother used to get drunk all the time? I looked over at Chizuru, and she had the biggest, most mischievous smirk on her face. I knew she was going to never let Rin-chan hear the end of this.

“Good,” Rin-chan said, her smile frozen on her face. Yeah, that little revelation didn’t sit too well with her. “I remember him talking about facing the Omega Cuélebre with the Takeyari unit.”

Saji nodded, his face grim. “Yeah, that was a bad day. It was cold, and it had been raining nonstop for hours, thunder and lightning and all that, and to top things off Sakurajima was having another fit. I’ll never forget what Jun did that day: right before the counterattack began, standing not even a kilometer away from Cuélebre, he syncs out, climbs on the shoulder of his titan in the pouring rain, holds his fan out in front of him like an old-time samurai general, and declared that this was Japan, and Cuélebre had two choices: surrender-” Saji paused for dramatic effect, “-or die. That’s how he earned his shikona. Bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Whoa. If Rin-chan’s brother did that, he really was a badass. Up until fairly recently, standing your ground in battle against an Omega was a death sentence. Even still Omegas killed more pilots than the regular Eschatos did. To have the courage to not only face an Omega, but to sync out and taunt them like that…I had always wondered how he had earned his shikona, and now I knew.

“Aw, cool,” Hirose-san said.

“Did Cuélebre surrender?” Chizuru shouted into my ear. Dial back the volume, Chizuru, please.

Saji shook his head grimly. “Nope.” Then he smiled triumphantly. “He chose the latter option.” I was getting the distinct impression that this man named Saji was not your average titan pilot, either. With the arms of his jumpsuit tied around his waist, I could not see his rank insignia or nameplate, though. I was considering asking if he had a shikona, too, but we had arrived at our destination. “Here’s the tower,” Saji said, and then hopped up and ran up across the titan’s torso so he could shout something at the driver.

The semi stopped, and we disembarked. Saji stood tall atop the reclining titan, “I’m all for you watching the Show, but, just for the record, there’s shelter access in the lowest basement level, if things get too intense. Don’t be stupid and move on, imōto-chan-your niisan would never forgive me!”

“Don’t worry,” Rin-chan said, bowing. “We’ll be careful.”

“Say hi to Benkei and Hijū for me,” Saji called out, and then he turned to his driver, and then the semi continued on down the road to the southwest. As it pulled away, I caught a glimpse of the rikusōchō who had confronted us earlier-her face was still scrunched up with anger, and whatever she was saying, I doubted it was pleasant.

* * * * *

I sat on the stairs, trying to catch my breath.

Well, I made it to the twelfth floor before I ran out of steam. Everyone else had just flown up the stairwell, even Kanno-san, who had been so opposed to this earlier. It must be nice. I was in a lot better shape than I was back when I was a civilian-back then, I would have not even tried to climb forty flights of stairs-but it was obvious I had a ways to go before I would be able to keep up with Akira or Chizuru.

“You just need to pace yourself,” Hirose-san said, leaning over the guardrail a half-flight above me. Like the others, she had bounded up the stairwell with great alacrity, but when Nakamura-san had noticed me falling behind, the two of them had slowed to allow me to catch up.

“It looks like most of the civilians have evacuated already,” Nakamura-san said, sitting next to me on the stairs, her purse in her lap. “I don’t think it would hurt anything to use the elevators now.”

That sounded like a great idea. Just get in the elevator, press the button, and up we go! Listen to some canned music, enjoy the air conditioning. I frowned. I just knew what would happen. We’d get to the top, and Chizuru would never let me live it down that I had been forced to ‘wimp out’ and take the elevator. “No, I’d r-rather take the s-stairs. It’s g-good exercise.”

“What does it matter if we’re in shape or not?” Hirose-san asked. She was leaning way over the guardrail, looking straight down the center of the stairwell. It must have been thirty or forty meters straight down-doesn’t the vertigo get to her? “When we pilot a titan, being fit won’t help us.”

There was a certain logic to her argument. When synced into a titan, the strength of your physical body is more or less irrelevant. The titan’s OS interrupts the signals going to and from your brain to your body, and replaces the signals from your body with signals from the titan. Effectively, you trade your human body for the gigantic body of the titan. Still, the thought of Chizuru pestering me… “I’d just l-like to be in b-better shape,” I said, standing up. “I-I’m okay. I can k-keep going.”

“Well, there’s not really any need for you to overexert yourself,” Nakamura-san said.

“No kidding,” Hirose-san said. Of course, she didn’t seem like she had exerted herself at all.

We continued the climb to the top…at a significantly slower pace.

“I’m hungry,” Hirose-san suddenly declared.

Nakamura-san laughed softly. “Kazue-chan, you’re always hungry.”

“I didn’t have much for lunch,” Hirose-san said defensively. Hirose-san did not look like the type to have a big appetite-I doubted she weighed over fifty kilos. “You think there are any vending machines around?”

“I’m not sure,” Nakamura-san admitted. “Sorry. I think I came here once or twice when I was little-my father works for Tōkyū Dentetsu; he had an office here before he got transferred to Yamaguchi-but I really don’t remember much.”

Lately I didn’t have as much of an appetite as I used to (which was a good thing), but something to drink would be nice. “O-office buildings like this always have break rooms w-with v-vending machines and stuff,” I said. “Let’s l-look around.”

* * * * *

I could see the stairwell did not go any higher; it just ended with a door labeled Heliport/Observation Deck. I had made it. It had taken an eternity, but I had made it. I had climbed all forty flights of stairs. My legs burned from the exertion, but I felt proud.

Hey, it might have been a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.

“Here you go, Hatsutori-kun,” Nakamura-san said, handing me the orange soda I had bought back on the eighteenth floor. When Hirose-san had hit the vending machines for a snack, I had suggested we buy drinks for everyone, and Nakamura-san had thought it a great idea. Her purse proved to be just barely large enough to hold everyone’s drinks for the ascent.

“Sankyū,” I said. Yes, I was very glad I had saved this for now.

Hirose-san bounded out onto the observation deck, candy bar in hand, and Nakamura-san and I followed shortly thereafter.

The others had clustered together at the railing on the southwestern side of the observation deck, below the tower’s helipad. There was also a group of civilians, no doubt employees who worked here, gathered together on the far side, but they were paying little attention to us. “It’s about time you decided to show up,” Chizuru said. “Too much of a climb for you?”

She’s not going to get to me. “No, w-we took the scenic r-route.”

“Hatsutori-kun thought everyone might want something to drink, so we stopped and picked some up,” Nakamura-san said, holding her purse full of refreshments up for all to see.

“Cool,” Kanno-san said. “Which one’s mine?”

“The r-raspberry soda, the m-milk tea, and the lemon-lime are ours,” I said, collecting them. I handed Rin-chan the can of milk tea.

“Oh, you remembered,” Rin-chan said. “Dōmo, Hatsutori-kun.”

It seemed like such a small, inconsequential thing, but doing small stuff like this really seemed to go over well with my teammates, Rin-chan in particular. “I-it’s Masao,” I reminded her.

She smiled. She was really cute when she smiled. “Gomen. Dōmo, Masao-kun.”

“M-mondai nai,” I said.

“I knew you were good for something,” Chizuru said, taking her lemon-lime soda and popping the top open.

And I knew you would say something like that, and I’ve been thinking about it since the eighteenth floor. I held out my hand. “That’ll be five h-hundred yen.”

Chizuru was just about to take a sip when I said that. “Five hundred yen? For a soda? If I’d have known it was going to cost that much-“

“J-just kidding. It’s on m-me,” I said. Gotcha!

Rin-chan hid a smirk behind her can of milk tea.

“Kisama,” Chizuru growled.

I just laughed at her, and headed over to where Akira stood at the rail, gazing intently out over the city. I don’t think he had even noticed I had reached the observation deck. “Here,” I said, handing him the raspberry soda.

“Oh, dōmo,” he said, taking the can absently.

Suddenly, we were overwhelmed with the roar of a squadron of huge, awkward-looking helicopters passing not two hundred meters from the tower. “What are those?” Hirose-san shouted, pointing at them.

I hadn’t even noticed her walk up beside me. “HKV-7II Super Ch-Chariots,” I said. “They’re b-big enough to h-hold an Atlas inside them. I don’t think they’re l-loaded, though.”

“How can you tell?” Hirose-san asked.

Hirose-san was standing so close her arm was pressed up against mine. I’m not complaining, not in the least. It was kind of nice…but it was kind of distracting, too. What was the question again? Oh, yeah! How did I know the Super Chariots weren’t loaded again? “They’re m-moving too f-fast. An A-Atlas weighs sixty to s-sixty-five tonnes, depending on its l-loadout. The S-Super Chariot can c-carry up to seventy-three t-tonnes, but it slows i-it down a lot.”

“Hey, aren’t we getting all chummy?” Chizuru said, knocking me and Hirose-san apart as she pushed in between us.

I bumped into Akira, almost making him drop his raspberry soda. “Watch it!” he growled.

“Hey!” Hirose-san said, staggering back.

What had brought this on? “W-what did you d-do that for?”

Chizuru grinned maliciously. “I figured you two sweethearts needed a chaperone.”

“What?” Hirose-san said, blushing. She waved her hand frantically in front of her face. “No! It isn’t like that at all!”

Oh, you evil, evil girl. Ruining this nice little moment… Is this your little revenge for me pulling that joke on you earlier? I could feel my face turning bright red, and readied myself to make a proper comeback. Unfortunately, I really couldn’t think of anything…except… Just throw it back in her face. “W-what, are you j-jealous?”

Chizuru jumped away from me. “No!”

Win.

“Hatsutori-kun was just telling me about the different types of helicopters,” Hirose-san explained. “That’s all, really.”

“Oh, an otaku conversation,” Chizuru said. “Gomen, gomen, I’ll leave you two to it.” Then she walked around to the other side of Akira, and started talking to him about his hair. Akira, for his part, barely seemed to be paying any attention to her.

“Everyone!” Nakamura-san called out. She had dug out a little disposable camera from her purse. “We should get a group photo!”

Most everyone agreed that was a great idea, and those who did not agree (myself among them) did not voice any dissent, so it was decided. Nakamura-san talked one of the salarymen into being the cameraman-probably with little more than her hundred-million-yen smile-and we all gathered close so we would fit into the frame.

Ugh. I hate being photographed, especially group photos. Having a bunch of people pressing in from all sides tended to make me a little claustrophobic. At least it was out here on this more-or-less open observation deck. I can remember once back in Yoshinogawa being stuffed into a purikura booth with three girls and two other guys. All I got to say about that memory is that I really hope it was one of the girls who grabbed my butt.

Somehow, I got stuck in between Chizuru and that shy girl (what was her name? I should have asked Nakamura-san or Hirose-san earlier), and when Nakamura-san said, “Okay, everyone, V!”, we all struck our pose. I was trying to just play it cool, but Chizuru elbowed me just as the flash went off, and I have this sneaking suspicion the camera caught me with a pretty weird expression. Thanks, I appreciate that, Chizuru.

“You really ought to submit that to the titan pilots magazine!” Hirose-san suggested, as Nakamura-san thanked the salaryman and reclaimed the camera.

“Y-yeah, they always have p-pictures from Shikangakkō cadets,” I said. Yes, I am very familiar with the Gray Tops Newsletter. I’ve collected every single issue except November 2011 and May 2015; all save the most recent four are carefully archived in my room back in Yoshinogawa.

“That would be great!” Rin-chan said. She did not say it, but I could read her mind: she was hoping that her brother would get to see her picture in the magazine.

“I will,” Nakamura-san said. “But there’s still a bunch of exposures left, and I’d like to get some of Benkei-sensei and Hijū-sensei, too, to send back home to my parents. When I talked to them this morning, they…” Nakamura-san’s voice trailed off, her usual upbeat personality fading into a deep melancholy. I wondered what could possibly be wrong, but then I realized: Nakamura Ryōko-san was homesick.

“Oh, Ryōko-chan,” Hirose-san said, rushing to her side to try to cheer her up. Kanno-san and the shy girl whose name I still didn’t know did likewise as Nakamura-san began to cry softly.

I turned and leaned over the guardrail to look out over the city, feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. It felt like it would have been an invasion of Team Two’s privacy to watch for even a moment longer. Life here at the Shikangakkō was no picnic, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who had felt reassured by Nakamura-san’s seemingly indefatigable good cheer. No matter what, she had always seemed to have a smile and a word of encouragement, not just for her teammates, but for everyone else in the class, too. No doubt Nakamura-san had been holding her feelings in, maintaining the façade for everyone else’s benefit-she was that kind of girl, I could tell. Seeing her break down just reminded everyone of the families they scarcely saw anymore.

I looked to my teammates. Chizuru was slumped over the guardrail, staring blankly off into the distance to the northwest. Her hometown in Niigata was about two hundred fifty kilometers away. Hijū-sensei had mentioned that her father had raised her and her brothers as a single parent-what had happened to her mother?

Rin-chan also bore a grave look, but she stood straight and kept her chin up. Of course, her family lived here in the Tōkyō area-if not for the evacuation, we could have easily taken the subway or a bus to go visit them. Well, her brother wasn’t in Tōkyō; he was in Kagoshima, and that was on the far side of Kyūshū, twice as far from here as my hometown of Yoshinogawa. After basic, I had used my week’s furlough to return home…it had been hard to get back on the train to Tōkyō. Really hard.

That left Akira. His expression was inscrutable; he rarely spoke about himself, making it hard to gauge what he was thinking at any given moment. Hijū-sensei had told me a little about him, but it was more than Akira had ever said. Unlike the rest of us, he had no family. I wonder what he was thinking as everyone around him moped about in such a brown study, longing for the idyllic days before we had been conscripted?

Really, Seki Akira-what were you thinking?

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One Response to “The Mecha Monogatari, Book Two, Chapter V”

  1. […] The Mecha Monogatari, Book Two, Chapter V […]

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