Volume 1 – Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Sono Ichi
Chapter 2 – Love Letter (Part 3)
The morning had been a rather crazy one.
After surviving the first period, Asaba thought he should explain things to Iriya. He should tell her more about their club activities and their editor-in-chief’s personality, and that he welcomed her if she would still like to join the club. If she didn’t want to join—
He would try to persuade her to once more.
Asaba felt strangely resolute; perhaps Suizenji’s audacity had influenced him somewhat. Standing up and turning around—
Iriya wasn’t there.
The seat right at the back of the classroom, in the third row from the corridor, was empty. Only a bucket with the numbers ‘2-4’ written on it sat beside her desk. A bouquet of sunflowers stood in it.
Asaba hurriedly scanned the classroom and very nearly missed the sight of Iriya’s back as she was about to leave the classroom.
Where was she going?
Asaba chased after her and was able to catch up with her almost immediately, but he slowed his pace and put some distance between them as he slunk after her. He was nervous. How should he strike up a conversation with her, and how detailed an explanation should he give her? He was still dawdling over such thoughts when he reached the main entrance of the school building on the first floor. On that floor was a dusty shoe locker for visitors, some slippers scattered about messily on a worn-out duckboard, and a very old curtain drawn over the window at the reception counter. Beside the counter was a row of three public phones.
Iriya walked to the public phone on the right and removed a gray card from her purse.
Asaba’s heart skipped a beat.
There was no doubt about it. It was that card, that mysterious card which looked and felt like a phone card.
Iriya unhooked the receiver of the phone and pushed the card through the slit on the telephone.
Asaba squinted, trying to make out the movements of Iriya’s fingers.
After keying in those numbers, Iriya pressed the receiver to her ear and waited in silence.
Perhaps no one answered her call, or perhaps she was listening to an information providing service, but she remained standing there for close to a minute. Not long after, she returned the receiver to its hook, pulled out the card that the telephone spat out, and turned around unexpectedly.
Their eyes met, and Iriya froze.
Struggling to put on an air of nonchalance, Asaba said:
“—you were on the phone, so it was hard to talk to you.”
Iriya maintained her stony silence. She didn’t even blink.
“Err, you know, I’m really sorry about this morning. He gave you quite the shock, didn’t he? That person who brought you flowers out of the blue is our editor-in-chief. I spoke to him about you yesterday, and he said he’d really like you to join our club. He does get some weird ideas sometimes, but he isn’t a bad person.”
“I’m, um, from the Journalism Club too. Do you know Sudou Akiho? She’s in the club too. Right now, the club only has three members; Chief, Akiho, and me, but…”
Asaba stopped to inhale a breath, which he mixed and cooked with courage in the pit of his stomach before turning it into the words he wanted to say.
“—uh, if you were to join us, we’d have four people.”
Well of course.
Despite veering off point a little, to Asaba, it was the best thing he could come up with to convince Iriya to join.
Asaba had nothing left to say, so he cast his eyes down to look at his nails. The silence continued, and when he became unable to bear it…
“Eh, um, you don’t need to give us an answer right away. You could take your time to think about it, and…”
“I’m busy, so.”
Iriya said, abruptly.
As soon as she uttered those words, she turned on her heels and began to walk away. She didn’t give Asaba the time to say anything else and walked quickly, as though she wanted to shake Asaba off her trail.
I’m busy, so.
Her peculiar, clumsy voice echoed around in Asaba’s head.
He wondered what she had meant. Did she mean, “I’m busy right now, so I don’t have the time to listen to your detailed explanations”? Or did she mean, “I’m busy with a lot of things, so I don’t have the time to participate in club activities with you”?
No matter what she had meant, he thought he had already done what he could.
Asaba felt exhausted from being on the edge for so long. Thinking that he should head back to the classroom, he was just about to shuffle forward when…
—the gray card.
Asaba stopped in his tracks. He scanned his surroundings. No one was around.
This part of the school saw little human traffic as it was a good distance from the classrooms, with the school’s hustle and bustle nothing more than a distant echo in the hallway. With bated breath, Asaba stood in front of the same public telephone Iriya had used earlier and unhooked the receiver.
He took out the gray card he swiped from Iriya’s bag the previous day from his wallet. Listening carefully to the receiver, he slid the card into the slot.
At first, he heard nothing but white noise, but a familiar dial tone soon followed.
Slowly, he punched the buttons:
The telephone line connected elsewhere without as much as a ringtone.
On the other end of the phone, a synthesized female voice began to speak.
“This is the Advanced J-STARS Data Link. A request for a Picture Call has been made from Terminal S-S-8-9-0-1-1-3. The time now is 1-0-0-4. AWACS is now out-on-campaign. AWACS is, Navaho 02, Shield 01, Shield 02, Gorkii 05, the aforementioned four, planes. I will now report their statuses. Navaho 02, Picture Clear. Shield 01, Picture Clear. Shield 02, Picture Clear. Gorkii 05, Picture Clear. I repeat, Navaho 02, Picture Clear. Shield 01…”
From somewhere very close by, the cicadas were warbling.
Asaba slammed the receiver back on its hook. Snatching up the card that emerged from the slot, he ran, away from the telephone.
He wanted to be somewhere without cicadas, where there were people.
Running up to the second floor, he weaved through the crowd of people coming and going along the corridor and finally managed to calm down a little. He drank and drank from the water fountain on the corridor until he felt like throwing up, and then wiped his mouth with a forearm.
It was then he realized.
The twenty-fourth of June was International UFO Day.
Plan Number 26.
He would wait till lunch break. He would go for the moment right after the bell for the end of the fourth period, when the class would be disorderly and everyone would only be thinking about lunch and their empty stomachs.
He would casually stand up and casually walk up to the front of the desk right at the back of the classroom in the third row from the corridor.
There, he would say:
—Iriya. Could I have a minute? I have something important to tell you.
He would then casually lead Iriya out of the classroom while maintaining a careful distance from her as she followed him through the corridor, up the staircase, and into the clock tower’s engine room, where no one would see them. He would not take no for an answer. He would, in one fluid motion, push her down and—
No, the script. He would have to stick to the script.
—I want to apologize for opening your bag without your permission yesterday.
It’ll be good if he could come up with some random excuse, and it’ll be great if he could produce a sufficiently remorseful expression on his face. Finally, he will inch his hands towards his pocket and say:
—I’m sorry I didn’t return this to you. I didn’t know what this was and took it only because I was curious.
He would pull the gray card out of his pocket and return it to Iriya.
This plan might work.
Asaba somehow made it through the second, third, and then the fourth period. Finally, it was lunch break. The ravenous hunger which was swirling about the classroom was released into the air all at once. At Nakagomi’s command, the entire class stood and bowed. About half the class sat back down and took out their lunchboxes while the other half made a fast break for the school canteen.
When he was poking about the contents of Iriya’s bag the day before, the voice in his head had said:
—don’t you know by now that you’re already in so deep that you’re up to your neck in a canal?
That voice was spot-on.
On the other side of the thin veneer of his ordinary life was something big, something monstrous that, unbeknownst to anyone, had been brewing insidiously under the surface, like a fetus stirring in a womb. He had not ‘seen’ it up to now, and even if he were to ‘see’ it, his brain will tell him that he did not. However, Asaba had finally started to notice its presence, after almost losing his footing at a very important juncture.
At the very least, he should return what he took from Iriya’s bag. He did not know if things would cool off after that, but he knew he must do something.
Before it was too late.
Asaba took a breath, amidst the hubbub of voices in the class during the lunch break.
—plan No. 26, Action.
He casually stood up.
“Yo Asaba, I see you’re without a lunchbox today.”
It was Nishikubo.
From the second period till now, he had taken great pains to scrabble together whatever little courage he had, and he couldn’t turn back now. Tripping over the legs of tables that were lined up haphazardly along the walkway, he walked straight to Iriya’s desk as he dug his hands into his pocket, his fingers tracing the edge of the gray card. Iriya had her hand on her pouch’s handle and was about to get up from her seat, but she sensed Asaba approaching her and stiffened.
“Iriya. Could I have a minute?”
Plan No. 27. He would pick a time when Iriya was not in class to throw the gray card in the compartment under her desk.
It was too late for that.
“—uh. I have something important to tell you.”
Nishikubo and Hanamura chose that very moment to lean forward on their seats and prick up their ears to listen to what Asaba had to say to Iriya. Akiho’s hands, which were about to open the lid of a massive lunchbox, stilled; she must be watching them closely from the corner of her eye.
The air of relaxation which accompanied lunch breaks must have drifted into the staff room as well; Kawaguchi Taizou, single and thirty-five years of age, was leaning the back of his head on the backrest of his chair, the delivery menu in one hand as he weighed his options: rice topped with a pork cutlet or chilled soba. In the infirmary, Shiina Mayumi had a finger on the button of the hot water dispenser as she filled her cup of instant udon with hot water. In the canteen, the usual scuffle for the odd bread roll or rice ball had broken out and Suizenji, with his coin purse in between in teeth, was kicking away rivals standing in his way.
It was a snapshot of the school at a typical lunch break.
All at once, from the speakers all the over the school, a siren blared at full blast.
The Level One air raid siren.
Everyone jumped out of their skins.
It’s the war, they thought.
The war had finally begun.
When the Level Three siren sounded, the students were to quickly file into the corridors and there they would have to wait, curled up on the floor, for further instructions. In Sonohara Middle School, the teachers were obliged to lead the students to safety. There are five teachers in the school who have undergone training by the Japanese Self Defense Force and have been certified ‘Third Level’ in ‘Emergency Preparedness’. The official arrangement was to have these teachers supervise the students and lead them to the air raid shelter in times of emergencies.
All those plans were as useful as snot on one’s sleeve.
In the face of a siren which announced the end of the world, no one, not the students nor those foolish teachers, could move a finger. It was as if a gaping abyss suddenly opened up in their everyday lives and no one knew how deep it was.
—the anti-air raid drill was today.
Asaba wondered who first remembered that.
This is a drill, right? The drill was today, right? The students began to whisper amongst themselves, and the whispering gradually increased in volume, spreading across the whole school like a message relay game. All who heard the murmurings rubbed their chests in relief and, in order to hide their embarrassment, said to each other in righteous indignation, I knew it, it was a drill after all, it’s impossible that there would be a war. Then again, why raise a false alarm like that? Don’t they usually announce the commencement of the drill before playing the siren? But oh, the look on your face was priceless just now, you had your mouth wi-de open and your eyes looked like they were going to pop out of your skull—
The siren continued to wail.
Someone shouted across the corridor, “Oi! They’re saying it’s a drill!”, and the tense atmosphere in Class 2-4 slowly started to loosen up.
Asaba let out a relieved sigh.
He recalled what Akiho had said.
“Nakamura-sensei was getting all pumped up for it, too. He was saying, ‘the theme for this round of anti-air raid drills is realism!’ or something like that.”
That would explain the airing of the Level One siren without pre-empt.
Even so, Asaba thought that Nakamura had overdone it. Usually, an announcement would be made to tell everyone that an exercise was to take place, followed by the siren. This was the first time the siren had been activated without an announcement.
The siren continued to wail.
However, the unprecedented drill made it clear as day that there were problems with the conventional drill. Asaba thought that the drill this time round was effective in that sense.
Even though it was firmly established that all were to immediately go out into the corridors and curl up like turtles once they heard the siren, in reality, when push came to shove, no one was able to move even a finger. Only when they realized it was a drill did they calm down and finally start to file into the corridors while acting like it was a huge bother to do so.
At this point of time, Nakamura would probably be in the broadcasting room with a grin on his face that said “Ha ha! Gotcha!”. Wrapped in such thoughts, Asaba inadvertently turned back to look at Iriya, thereupon—
Asaba witnessed a look of sheer terror upon her features.
Iriya was usually expressionless, but on her face was pure, undiluted horror. She looked paralyzed in fear as she shrank into her chair, staring upwards at the siren-blaring speakers like cornered prey. Impulsively, she tried to rise from her chair but tripped over the leg of desk and fell flat on her face.
Her fearful eyes met Asaba’s, who had hurried over to help her onto her feet.
The siren continued to wail.
—maybe Iriya had mistaken the exercise for a real air-raid.
“It’s okay, because—”Asaba yelled, in order to make himself heard above the siren.
This is just a drill.
That was what he was about to say, but just before he could get those words out, he saw the fear in Iriya’s eyes turn into resolve.
Iriya sprung up, closed her fingers around Asaba’s hand in a vice-like grip, and started to run, pulling Asaba along with her. She ran, past the surprised looks of everyone watching them, out of the classroom and down the corridor.
“W-What’s wrong?! Wait—“
He couldn’t say anything more, and Iriya had no ears for him anyway. She continued to run with all her might at a speed that even Asaba struggled to keep up with, dragging him along behind her. At the Air Defense Committee members’ commands, students were starting to stream out of the classrooms in groups, forming sluggish lines against the wall in the corridors. They also dawdled along as they curled up in a turtle-like position on the floor.
There was a pictorial description of this defensive ‘blast-proof’ stance on page sixty-three of their student handbook, under the chapter ‘In Case of Emergencies’. It was supposed to help you withstand the impact of a bomb blast and to survive an outbreak of war.
The siren continued to wail.
Iriya, who was running past them along the corridor, stopped abruptly in her tracks right in the middle of a line of crouching students. She looked around at the throng of turtles as if she couldn’t believe her own eyes.
Then, she yelled at them, in a voice that sounded like she was squeezing whatever hope she could from a heart that was already filled with despair.
What are all of you doing?
What’s the use of doing that?
Pick yourselves up and run behind me if you do not wish to die!
However, no one heeded her words. A turtle right next to her raised its face, startled by her shouting, but looked up at her as if it didn’t know why she was making such a big fuss.
What a strange sight it was.
Rows of turtles snaked along the traditionally messy corridor, and, in the shadow of each stack of corrugated cardboard boxes and every cleaning equipment locker, there’d be a few turtles huddled together, shoulders touching.
It was a sight Asaba had never once beheld.
That was because he himself had always been curled up on the floor the entire time. This was his first time looking down from his full height at the students performing the anti-air raid drill.
That was why he could tell, at just a glance.
Those students probably made an unconscious decision to hide amongst the cardboard boxes and lockers. Even if he were to grill them about it afterward, they might simply deny doing it on purpose. Perhaps somewhere deep in their hearts was the notion that those cardboard boxes and lockers would serve as protection against the nuclear warheads raining down on them from the sky above.
Right at the end of the corridor stood Kawaguchi Taizou, single and thirty-five years of age.
“What are you two doing, get to the wall and roll up in a ball on the floor at once!” he roared, waving his hands about in the air.
To Asaba, Kawaguchi at that point of time seemed very much like a low-ranking warden ordering his turtle slaves about.
Asaba thought to himself.
—why don’t you curl up like a turtle too?
When the siren first started sounding, he could bet that Kawaguchi was frozen in place, just like everybody else. Only when he realized it was a drill was he able to lord over them and raise his voice at them in such a pompous manner. But, was he confident of being able to do the same when a real siren sounded? Or would he throw his responsibilities out the window, run as fast as his legs can carry him, and crouch in the shadow of the cardboard boxes and lockers after pushing away the students in it to make space for himself? In the first place, didn’t he feel like there was something strange about the scene along the corridor right now? Had he ever thought, just for a second, that there was something wrong with the exercise, despite looking down at the students from such a great height every time a drill was carried out? There was no way he would take orders from Kawaguchi now.
The siren continued to wail.
Iriya didn’t stand around for very long. Tugging on Asaba’s hand, she started running again, almost jumping down the steps as she rushed firstly down the stairs, then along the corridor leading to the gymnasium and out into the school grounds. They were still wearing their indoor shoes, and Asaba could hardly breathe as he moved his legs as fast as he could to keep up with Iriya without falling over.
In no time at all, they had reached the armored door of the air raid shelter.
The shelter’s armored door was large enough to easily accommodate two large military vehicles going in and out side-by-side. The wall itself looked extremely thick and was covered with enameled signs advertising for a health tonic or a pesticide, among other things.
Finally able to stop running, Asaba sank down onto the floor, gasping for breath.
Students were not allowed to actually go into the air raid shelter, not even during drills. They only lined up in front of the shelter to have their numbers counted, after which the drill would end. He also once heard that the Sonohara Air Base had direct control over access to anti-air raid shelter. Thus, Asaba had never seen the inside of the shelter before.
However, Iriya slid a gray card into the slit on the door that shouldn’t have been able to open. Almost without a moment’s delay, the lock clicked and the armored door began to swing open slowly, revealing its full cross section. Asaba found himself so fascinated by how thick the wall actually was that his eyes followed the movement of the door.
Once again, Iriya grabbed onto his hand, and Asaba crept into the shelter after her.
The air raid shelter was as large as the inside of the school gymnasium and looked cleaner than he thought it would be. On the floor were a row of hatch doors and many different lines of various colors, much like the corridor of a hospital. The revolving lights that were installed all over the place bathed the room in yellow light, and from a speaker somewhere a recording of a female voice played on repeat:
“The root code is in utilization. All locks are currently de-activated. The root code is in utilization. All locks are currently de-activated.”
Then, a shockwave ripped through the air, and Asaba’s insides shook in its wake. It was as if someone had dropped a very large boulder.
Asaba looked behind him in alarm and found that the armored door, which was previously two meters open, was now firmly shut. Iriya was operating some sort of panel beside the gate and a few moments later from the speakers:
“The root code has been modified. Encrypted sealing of the shelter is complete. All outside communication is blocked. Air circulation is in complete isolation mode. The root code has been modified.”
In surprise, Asaba asked, “Y-You locked us in?”
Iriya did not deign to reply as she tapped on several keys on the panel. Like a submarine missile silo, the hatches opened one after another and shipping containers rose up from below the hatches.
Asaba finally found his tongue again.
“You know that the siren just now was for an anti-air raid exercise, right? We do it once every month. Didn’t you have them at your previous school?”
For a brief moment, Iriya looked like she didn’t believe him, but that expression vanished as soon as it appeared. She hurried over to one of the shipping containers and tapped the gray card on the decoder which caused the lid popped open.
“Hey, listen. You might not know this since you have only just recently transferred here, but it was decided many days in advance that the drill would be today. Usually, though…”
Usually, an announcement along the lines of “We will be commencing the drill now” will be made before the siren is switched on.
However, the siren was played without an announcement just now.
A tiny hole opened in the pit of Asaba’s stomach.
—the anti-air raid drill was today. So what? That was no guarantee that the siren just now wasn’t real.
What nonsense, he decided. He was overthinking it. The war will never break out, and that broadcasting of the siren without an announcement just now was simply Nakamura enacting some weird plan he had concocted in the capacity of an Air Defense Committee member.
—what if that very same Nakamura had actually lost all color in his face and was pissing himself in the broadcasting room right now? If the Level One siren had played via the direct communication line without him pressing the button, he would be the first person to realize how dire the situation was, after all.
No, that can’t be.
It was decided many days in advance that the drill would be today. Everyone would go out to the corridors and turn into turtles and then form lines in front of the anti-air raid shelter and get their numbers counted…
—then do you think that the enemy would be considerate enough to think, oh, since Sonohara Middle School is carrying out an anti-air raid drill today, we shouldn’t confuse those people, and we should probably drop bombs on them tomorrow instead? Asaba, don’t avert your eyes from reality. The siren played. The usual broadcast that assured everyone that it was going to be a drill did not play. That is the truth.
No, Asaba. This drill was special this time round. Akiho said that Nakamura was enthusiastically saying that “the theme for this round of anti-air raid drills is realism!” didn’t she? That’s why…
—that’s why, what? Say it.
The tiny hole in the pit of Asaba’s stomach was growing larger and larger by the second, and everything ordinary about his life was slowly but surely draining away, disappearing out of that hole, leaving behind black, inky nothingness.
—what’s with that expression of yours? It seems like you still don’t understand. Since Nakamura said ‘the theme for this round of anti-air raid drills is realism’, let me explain to you what ‘real’ means. It’s this reality you’re grappling with right now. This is the ‘real’ air raid that everyone has been anticipating. Oi, what’s wrong? Did you think that you should at least be able to hear the blasts outside from inside the shelter if war had begun? If you thought that this air-raid shelter was that primitive, how would it be able to withstand an attack from the skies in this current generation? Ah well. They say ignorance is bliss, after all. I guess I shouldn’t say anything more, since it’s all up to you anyway. It’s show-time for you; the start of a performance with your life on the line. Everyone was taking it easy, thinking that they would never have to experience war. Yet, they may have become bored with their ordinary lives and secretly hoped for a real war to begin.
Someone prodded his shoulder.
When he looked up, Iriya was standing right in front of him.
The moment he laid his eyes on what Iriya held out to him, Asaba’s intestines knotted up. It had been completely re-engineered into a shape that was slightly unusual, but Asaba knew what it was at a glance.
It was an automatic rifle.
Asaba limbs went numb, and he was unable to move his fingers.
“Just in case. They might come inside.”
Iriya already had a rifle slung over one shoulder. Looking pointedly at each of the small boxes that lay at her feet, she carefully explained:
“This one contains spare ammunition. This Level Four bio-hazard safe packaging contains Botulinum neurotoxin bullets. The bullets may not work on them but don’t use them until I give the green light. Protective gear is in the one over there…”
“—you’re joking, right?” Asaba whispered hoarsely.
“This is only a drill, right? Everybody is perfectly safe outside and laughing at us now, I think. After all, there will never be a war.”
While still holding out the rifle, Iriya eyes turned upwards to look intently at Asaba.
“The war began in 1947,” she said. “It’s just that no one noticed.”
Everyone might have already been reduced to ashes by now. Outside, beyond that armored door might lay a world that he no longer recognized, a world devoured by the raging fires foretold by the Buddhist teachings. The school building and the rest of town reduced to a pile of rubble, and everyone he knew, along with everyone he didn’t know, burnt beyond recognition, till you couldn’t even tell if they were male or female.
Asaba reached out weakly to take the rifle that was proffered to him, and just as his shaky fingers were about to close around the—
A telephone rang.
Asaba cried out in shock, and Iriya dropped the rifle that she was holding out to him. Seized with panic, Asaba looked around him wildly and realized, for the first time, that there was a telephone on the wall to his right. A red lamp above the telephone flashed in tandem with the ringing of the telephone. Since Iriya could only stare wide-eyed at the flashing light, Asaba was left with no choice but to pick up the cordless receiver.
He had half expected to hear something like “Surrender!” in broken Japanese, but not only could the person on the other end of the line speak perfect Japanese, he could also tell what Asaba’s name was just by hearing his voice.
“Oh! Asaba?! It’s me it’s me. Enomoto.”
He had no recollection of such a name. Or did he?
The person on the other end of line seemed to be in a rather noisy place, and the cacophony of voices in the background made Asaba think that they were carrying out a rather difficult operation. Someone in the background could be heard shouting, “Nami-san made contact! Woah, as one would as expect of Nami-san! Yeah yeah I got it I’ll treat you, I’ll treat you to whatever it is you wanna eat!”
“Oi hello, Asaba? Can you hear me? We kind of forced our way through an emergency communication line to connect to the phone you are using, so do say something if you can hear me.”
Without thinking, Asaba said:
“—um, Who do you wish to speak to?”
“Hm? Oi, what’s this about, didn’t we meet at the pool at night the day before yesterday? Did I not tell you what my name was?”
Asaba recalled everything, all at once. The man who suddenly appeared at the pool at night, who told him of the story of the querulous old janitor, the mysterious man who called himself ‘something like Iriya’s elder brother’ with droopy eyes and a face that looked like someone who would crack ribald jokes and laugh uproariously at them himself. He could almost picture in his head the huge grin on that man’s face.
“Ohhh ya know, we were literally at our wit’s end. We were caught by surprise when control of the system’s root over at where you’re at was suddenly taken over by someone else. Then Shiina Mayumi called and told us that Iriya had mistaken the anti-air raid drill siren for a Level One siren and had dragged you into the shelter against your will. You okay? Your cherry not popped yet?”
Asaba felt all his strength leaving his body. He was so overcome with relief that his vision started to dim. It was a drill after all. There was no war. Akiho, Nishikubo, Hanamura, and Chief were safe.
“Sorry for the trouble we caused you. You see, Iriya lived her entire life on a military base. No military personnel would play something that sounds as disturbing as a Level One siren even during drills, ya know. Well, I guess we can’t really blame her for getting all worked up after hearing it.”
Asaba’s mouth wasn’t working properly.
“So, it really was just a drill?”
“You bet. The world out there is perfectly fine. Everybody over here are like cats on hot bricks though.”
“Where exactly is ‘over here’? Where are you?”
“At the Sonohara Command Centre. Ohhh man, we tried all sorts of ways to open the shelter but it seems like that Iriya had modified the system’s root to encrypt its lockdown. I’m sorry but you’ll have stay inside for a while longer. Not that I think you’ll mind, though. There’s food, booze, and cigarettes in there… Will you pass the phone to Iriya?”
Swiveling around to find Iriya standing right behind him, Asaba said:
“—like I said, it was a drill.”
Iriya wordlessly took the receiver that Asaba held out to her. She then spent the next three minutes on the phone repeatedly saying yes, yes in a small voice in response to what sounded like one-way instructions to Asaba, who was right next to her. After the conversation ended, Iriya quietly returned the receiver to its hook.
She then collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Asaba thought she was so relieved that she lost the strength to stand.
“—but you know, it was great news, right? That war didn’t happen for real. I mean, just now, I really thought that…”
Iriya’s shoulders were heaving slightly.
She was crying.
Asaba was momentarily stunned. He did not know why Iriya was crying, nor did he know what he should say to her. Not knowing what to do, he circled her awkwardly.
“U-Uh, Iriya? Um, are you okay?”
Iriya started to break into quiet sobs, loud enough for Asaba to hear. Tears fell on her skirt and with each teardrop, Asaba became even more flustered, wondering what he should do. But, he couldn’t think of anything at all. He reached out a hand to pat her back, thinking that she would find it comforting, but his hand stopped when he saw the automatic rifle on her shoulder.
Softly, in between sobs, Iriya said:
“I wish the air-raid was real.”
“I wish everyone was dead, and we had lost the war.”
Asaba opened his mouth a couple of times, but no words came out of it. Only time passed.
He did not know what was going on, and he doubted she would give an explanation to him even if he asked.
But as he looked at Iriya in her middle school uniform with the sling of a rifle cutting into her shoulder as she cried and muttered things like ‘I wish everyone was dead’, he thought he should not carelessly say things like “It’ll be okay!”, or “Cheer up!” to a girl like that.
Completely at a loss, Asaba stood there stiffly as Iriya hugged her knees to her chest. Only time passed.
Asaba worried for Iriya, who was still crying with her knees to her chest, but he also had a feeling that things would get awkward if he stuck too close to her. So, he decided to tour the inside of the air raid shelter.
In the room were three other large doors. They looked rather similar to the armored door at the entrance of the shelter in terms of how they were constructed. They didn’t look like they could be pushed open or shut by hand.
If one were to think about it, this shelter was Sonohara City’s fourth one. In event of an emergency, this was not only a place of refuge for all students of the Sonohara Middle School, but also for all residents in the vicinity. This probably meant that behind those doors were large rooms like the one Asaba was currently in, with sufficient space to house large groups of people for an extended period of time.
There were a total of twenty-six hatches cut out on the floor. The eight hatches that Iriya had opened remained open, with the shipping containers still sticking out of the hatch from somewhere below the floor.
Asaba deduced that those shipping containers were actually cargo trailers. Lying below the floor was some sort of construct with rails running in all three directions. Asaba believed it to be some logistics system that acted on instructions from a panel to send containers full of goods from a central storage area to the nearest hatch door at a specified destination.
The shipping container that Iriya had opened with her gray card was fully loaded with, firstly, automatic rifles, but also other small firearms.
Asaba tried pulling different items from that box. He didn’t know an awful lot about guns, but he had always thought that all guns were like .44 Magnums, made entirely out of metal, shockingly heavy, and would snap off the wrist of an unpracticed user should he to try to pull the trigger.
But, to his eyes, the ‘real’ guns that lined the container looked exactly like toys. They were far lighter than he thought they would be, and were made of a material similar to plastic. Just above the grip were the words a-ta-re, which could be read as a prayer to hit one’s target. Asaba thought that there should be a limit to how much frivolity one should apply to things like that.
Yet, these were definitely real guns.
Just like how a nail-clipper is a nail-clipper, and a coffee mug is a coffee mug, what he was holding in his hands now was, beyond a doubt, a real gun.
Asaba playfully cocked the gun at his hip and made ‘bang bang bang’ sounds while gunning down imaginary enemies to his left and right.
Iriya was standing right in the line of fire.
Deeply mortified, Asaba stammered:
“E-Erm. Someone wrote the words a-ta-re on these guns. Do you think it is some sort of good luck chant?”
Iriya simply said:
Asaba was trying to hide his embarrassment, and Iriya played along with his attempt. However, his embarrassment must have shown on his face as Iriya sounded a tiny bit harried as she continued:
“That word indicates your section. The a in a-ta-re stands for anzen (safety), the ta for tansha (injection), and re for rensha (rapid-fire).”
Asaba was tickled by the fact that Iriya sounded a little flustered. His lips twitched into a smile, and he looked away so she would not see it. When he finally killed the urge to break into a foppish grin, he turned back to Iriya and found her trying to say something and pointing timidly at his nose.
“—is there something on my nose?”
When he felt his nose, there really was something hanging from it. The Band-Aid that Akiho had given him had peeled off halfway. As he pressed on the hanging end of the Band-Aid with his fingers trying to paste it back on his nose, Iriya said to him, in a voice that sounded like a mosquito’s whine:
“Do you like cats?”
For a brief moment, Asaba wondered what she was talking about, and—
“W-Was it you, Iriya?! Were you the one who put that cat in my shoe locker?!”
Something unbelievable happened. Iriya suddenly flushed beet red and shook her head vigorously from side to side. She then turned her back on Asaba.
“Eh, erm, it’s okay even if you did. It’s not like I was angry about it…”
Iriya, still refusing to look at him, cried out loudly:
“I did not!”
She probably meant to deny it by saying “I did not put that cat in your locker” but she was far too inept at feigning ignorance for anyone to believe her. Iriya was the culprit, no matter how he looked at it.
But, why would she—
Asaba thought briefly before asking:
“—Iriya, do you like cats?”
Iriya was still not looking at him, but after a short silence, she said:
“I touched one for the first time today.”
Asaba was slightly taken aback.
“You’ve never touched a cat before? Not even once?”
“—so, how did the cat feel?”
Iriya slowly turned around to face Asaba.
“It was warm.”
She was looking at Asaba with upturned eyes.
“Do you, Asaba, dislike cats?”
“—nope, I like them.”
Iriya lit up with a tiny smile on her face.
With the way things were going, perhaps he could get answers to some questions he had for her, Asaba thought. It was then he noticed an item that was thrown down onto the floor next to the telephone.
“Is that yours, Iriya?”
Iriya looked at where Asaba was pointing, making a small sound of surprise.
It was Iriya’s cloth pouch, the one with the handle.
Come to think of it—
Right before the siren started playing, Iriya was about to get up from her seat while holding on to her pouch. She seemed to have been holding on to it the entire time, from when she was having a panic attack after hearing the Level One siren to when she was running to the shelter, and yet neither of them noticed.
Asaba chuckled in amusement. In manga, he had read about people running away from fires in the middle of the night, still in their pajamas and holding on to kettles and pillows. That portrayal was not entirely inaccurate after all.
“—right. There was a game console in that pouch, wasn’t there?”
Asaba decided to take another brave step forward.
“Would you let me play it?”
Iriya looked slightly troubled by his suggestion, but she nodded her consent. Asaba ran over to where the pouch lay and proceeded to take out the game console in it. Flipping it over, he found that the ROM cartridge in its slot had the words “BARCAP—S06” written on it.
Iriya had seated herself behind him, so close that she was almost plastered on his back.
“Put on the earphones. You can’t play it if you can’t hear the sounds from it.”
Asaba heeded her words and pulled out the earphones from a reel inside the console. He then jammed the ear buds into his ears.
“What kind of game is this? What does BARCAP mean?”
“It’s the name of a mission. Barrier Combat Air Patrol.”
Asaba didn’t really understand what she said but decided to press the power button anyway. The LCD screen lit up, and the three laser projection points around the screen also started up.
However, nothing else happened.
There was nothing on the title screen. The LCD screen remained blank and the holographic screens the laser projection points projected were light green, but also blank.
“Press the start button.”
Iriya was leaning herself over his right shoulder to look and whispering into his ear.
He could feel her breath on his ear, and he was more than ninety-nine percent sure that pressing on his back over there and right about there were Iriya’s boobs. He could feel his heart beating faster.
He obliged, and some images along with some words appeared on all four screens. Asaba thought it looked like a flight simulation game.
The holographic screen right in front of him probably showed him the view above the plane. Asaba knew that at least, from the movies he had seen. However, that was all he could comprehend. He had absolutely no idea what the data on the LCD screen and its flanking holographic screens meant. He was also beginning to hear strange sounds coming from his earphones. It sounded like a number of pipe organs playing different chords at the same time.
Iriya pointed at the images on the LCD screen the auxiliary holographic screens in turn as she said,
“HUD, MFD, MFD, DED. ADI, VVI, HSI.”
Then, she pointed at various points of the image marked ‘HUD’ as she explained, “Altitude relative to sea level, air velocity, compass gauge reading, AOA indicator, Flight Path Marker, tadpole, funnel, crosshair…”
Those words sounded like incantations for spells. However, he could at least understand words like ‘altitude’, ‘velocity’, and ‘crosshair’.
“In other words, all I need to do is aim the crosshair at the enemy and shoot, right?”
He thought he got that part right, but he could feel Iriya shaking her head against his back.
“This is in EEGS mode now, and this curve over here is the funnel. This is the record of the Manta’s mechanized surface. You put the enemy inside this.”
Asaba still didn’t understand.
“—so, the first thing I should do is…?”
“Contact AWACS. You switch channels from Sonohara TACAN vector 027 to TALOS 01 and make a Picture Call.”
Asaba pressed it anyway. The LCD screen then displayed some sort of image he couldn’t comprehend.
“What is this?”
“Updated information from the JTIDS giving you the altitude and distance from the bearings of a designated location. Bulls-eye heading 020, 40 nautical miles away and 12,000 feet above us are three hostile objects, and one unidentifiable object which would probably be a Seed. The current bulls-eye is Sonohara.”
“If you press the B-button you can send a command to the element. Have the Missile Carriers and Dummies go out ahead of you and accelerate to around 700 knots in aircraft heading 020. Once you break 30 nautical miles, a Predator spike will come at you so you would have to do a Chainsaw with seven Missile Carriers. Then you tuck your head in and do a Fox.”
Asaba couldn’t understand a single word, but he decided to try playing the game for the time being while following Iriya’s instructions.