Chapter 1:

001

Cryogenisis


“What does stirring your coffee have to do with bringing about world peace?”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

“Does the color blue taste differently when you are reading a book?”Bookmark here

“...”Bookmark here

I could tell that out of the litany of her questions that that was the last one based on the satisfied look that she had on her face. She pushed the bridge of her gold-rimmed round framed glasses using her index finger.Bookmark here

“I see. I think your N-Chip is malfunctioning.” she stated with a flippant grin. Bookmark here

“Chip?”Bookmark here

The woman placed her right hand on her right cheek and looked at me with pity. Bookmark here

“Oh dear, it seems like it’s worse than I originally thought.”Bookmark here

Translation: here came an onslaught of more questions. Just my luck. Bookmark here

As I was regretting having asked about what she meant by “chip”, she rolled on her office chair towards her desk area where she started typing away on her console. Bored, I started looking around the room. This room seemed oddly familiar but for some reason my mind was fuzzy to the point where I couldn’t think about any time in particular when I was here. But I definitely have been here. Tap, tap, tap. The electronic sound effects of her hitting the keys of her console were the only things that I could hear as I was racking my brain trying to make sense of where I was. Bookmark here

A rectangular shaped room, couldn't have been bigger than a studio apartment, lined with cupboards on one wall, a hospital bed on another and console adjacent to the bed. As I sat on the bed, nothing about the room seemed out of place besides the foreboding sense that I had been here before. Why it was foreboding eluded me too.Bookmark here

The room started to smell like smoke. The right side of the hospital bed caught on fire. Shaking, I turned towards the direction of the lady that was overseeing me. She continued to type away on her console, not paying any mind to the fire that was behind me. I turned my attention back towards the flame. I tried to move but was immobilized by fear. The flame didn’t care, as it started spreading, burning the white hospital bed sheet until it got close enough to me so that I could feel the heat of the flame starting to be centimeters away from consuming me. Bookmark here

Before I could let out a scream, I felt a needle pierce the part of my skin between my right shoulder and the right side of my neck. The flame immediately dissipated and a hologram appeared directly in front of my visual field. In large blue letters a message read “Neuro-Chip deactivated ⇒ source: Cerebral Spinal Fluid Manipulation ⇒ danger_level: nil (modification of neuro chip within the bounds specified by system administrator: Echo High School)”. Bookmark here

My body let go as if I had been a marionette whose puppet master had let go of its strings and as a result laid face-up on the bed, my legs sticking to the side of the bed. I was only able to move the muscles from my neck up.Bookmark here

“My oh my. It wasn't as bad as I had initially thought. It’s bad squared” the lady stated in jest as she pulled my legs and lined up my body so that I would be laying down in bed normally.Bookmark here

“You think!? Maybe you should do your job better instead of having to need three chances to realize how severe my case is!” I managed to yell despite having been fatigued to the point of my body having gone limp. Something about that injection made me recall how it was that I ended up here, and where here was. That’s right, I was in the nurse's office. Not just any nurse’s office, though. The foreboding sense was due to having been in a particular nurse’s office. Bookmark here

“Oh that’s no way to speak to your favorite school nurse now is it?” she said while making a coy expression and grazing my leg with her hands. Bookmark here

Our infamous school nurse Shimao Komari’s expression reminded me of why there were rumors circulating around the school that she was an “easy woman”. The expression she threw my way as she “reprimanded” me for being impertinent made me think that she saw this appointment as more of a happy-go-lucky tryst than a student diagnosis. It didn’t help that as opposed to all the other school nurses, all of whom wore long skirts to work, she chose to leave her legs bare. Her lab coat with long hemmings, something that also out of all the school nurses only she wore, covered her crotch of course, but there were some boys in my grade who thought (or rather fantasized) that she actually wasn’t wearing anything at all beneath that coat. That was of course false, but leaving her legs bare didn’t help her case for not being “like that”. Bookmark here

Still, I had to admit that she was kinda hot. If she were grazing my leg in any other situation except this one I would have surely needed to put some books on my lap lest I get expelled. Given that my body was limp at the moment though that wasn’t an issue. Bookmark here

“What’s with that expression? Are you thinking of something naughty?” she asked with a playful tone. Bookmark here

“W-what, no, of course not!”Bookmark here

Did she know? Was it my face? No… don’t tell me. Could she read my thoughts due to her having access to my Neuro-chip’s data? … No, that couldn’t be. There were regulations against that sort of thing even if it was the case that these chips had been regulated by the school. Yeah, yeah, right, of course…Bookmark here

“Hmmm, I see…” Bookmark here

“Y-yes?”Bookmark here

She was back on her office chair, bare legs crossed, staring at her console as she spun an e-pen on her right hand. Her gaze seemed laser focused and her mien more serious than the one she usually sports.Bookmark here

“You said your name was Isei, right?”. Bookmark here

I nodded and her demeanor suddenly changed from having been serious to having been characterized by her usual nonchalance as she wore a huge closed mouth smile on her face.Bookmark here

“Well, Isei, the good news is that your condition is nothing serious.”Bookmark here

I let out a gasp of air. I thought I was in real trouble there for a second. Still, I found it strange that she went from it being worse than she had initially thought to now it having been nothing serious. Was Shimao Komari that bad at her job?Bookmark here

She continued. “Now, while we don’t have enough data to know what its cause was, we can treat it. I’ll spare you some of the more technical details, so basically here is the deal. Your Neuro-Chip was defective and it was causing you to engage in “false pattern recognition”, or FPR.”Bookmark here

“False pattern recognition?” Bookmark here

“That’s right. It’s a rather rare condition but all cases include symptoms where people intuit patterns that aren’t there. In the worst case these can be aberrations or other such occurrences that can interfere with everyday life.”Bookmark here

“So the fire that I sensed was one example of such an aberration?” I asked.Bookmark here

“That’s right. Quick on the uptake I see. Note well though that this doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with your physical neurology per se, this is merely a mechanical problem- your Neuro-Chip being defective and affecting your perception. That’s what I was able to determine after asking you those non sequitur questions. Your neural spikes indicated that your neuro-computer system was engaging in FPR.” Bookmark here

“I see… so what now?”Bookmark here

She rolled her chair towards the bed and lowered the bed by pressing a button, afterwards placing a small cardboard box on the side of my face. Her face was inches away from mine. I stared at her with annoyance. Was this all a game to her? What kind of sick sense of humor did she have?Bookmark here

“This will help you temporarily. Consider it… palliative care. They are contact lenses that will prevent you from seeing anything due to FPR. You might still smell or feel unusual things but the symptoms won’t be severe enough to affect your day to day functions due to the shot I gave you… probably.”Bookmark here

“Probably?!” Bookmark here

Ignoring my righteous indignation, she continued. “However, this won’t treat the actual cause of the problem. For that you will have to get a referral from a C-Doctor so that you can get a new Neuro-Chip designed for your neo-cortex and so that it can be installed.”Bookmark here

I sighed heavily. This wasn’t anything remarkable… I should be grateful, right?Bookmark here

“Oh, and, by the way.” she saidBookmark here

“Hmm?”Bookmark here

“About the bill…”Bookmark here


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After two class periods worth of laying in that hospital bed I had nothing to show for it except that tiny contact lens box and 10,000 yen’s worth of debt in my student account. I didn’t even bother to put on those damned contact lenses. Unable to pay for my meal, my stomach grumbled as I sat dejected at a lunch table.Bookmark here

“What’s up with you, Isei?” my friend, Kibe, asked. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t told any of my friends that I had these weird symptoms, or that I decided to go to the nurse’s office today. Why hadn’t I told them? I suppose it just never came to mind. Plus, I doubt they could have helped in any way. Problems that I could solve on my own don’t require the input of others. Bookmark here

“Your stomach grumbling can be heard a mile away… you need me to spot you?” came the voice of my other friend, Yosuke.Bookmark here

Not precisely the sort of lunch that I wanted to have today, and I am by no means someone that likes to freeload, but my stomach practically forced me to accept Yosuke’s offer.Bookmark here

“You don’t have any money in your student account? Let me guess, have you been spending all of your money on Metaverse E-girl’s?” Kibe asked with a tone that was in between being in jest and being serious.Bookmark here

“Shut up! Of course not!” I stated while snatching Yosuke’s student I.D from his outstretched arm. Bookmark here

I only did that once and I didn’t even go through the full show… 15 credits per minute at 1,000 yen per 5 credits is pretty outrageous. Bookmark here

As I walked to the food stalls I could hear Kibe and Yosuke guffawing. Some friends…Bookmark here

The queues for the food stalls at Echo High School were generally not that long, even though all three years ate at the same time. Even faculty members tended to get their lunch from the food stalls sometimes even though the stalls served primarily students. Given that lunch was already halfway over, whenever I lined up there weren’t that many students in front of me. Bookmark here

“Hey, hehe, stop it!” came a feminine voice behind me. Bookmark here

“But they look so cute on you, Aria! You should wear them more often” came anotherBookmark here

I turned towards the sounds of the voices just to be met with a familiar sight. It was indeed Aria Kanbaru. It seemed like she was currently being coddled by one of her friends that was encouraging her to wear some type of hair accessories.Bookmark here

Aria Kanbaru, better known as the Matsune Kujikawa of the third years… not by my estimation, mind you, was seemingly unanimously considered to be the most popular third year at Echo High. It seemed like the rumors of the third years, that merciless distillation of the collective unconscious of the youth at any high school, deemed her apt to be comparable to a idol that was popular around all of New Tokyo, and therefore not just any one district. Apart from being at the top of our class, just second to last actually, she was also meritorious in athletics. There wasn’t any sport, physical or Metaverse alike, that she hadn’t tried at Echo High; the one exception was swimming, oddly enough, to the great dismay of the third year boys and to the great relief of all the third year girls. Bookmark here

Well, rumors weren’t harsh towards everyone, I suppose. Bookmark here

Despite all of the accolades that the rumors bestowed upon her, I couldn’t help but look at her as merely another stereotypical, run-off the mill honors student who happened to be pretty. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s not as if I don’t like the girl. I don’t even know her. And I do find it admirable that she has attained high success in seemingly everything she has done during her time at Echo, but anytime that I come across someone whose rumors that spiral around them leave their reputation untarnished, I can’t help but feel skeptical about that person’s authenticity. Call me a hater, but I just think that I am careful. Yes, I’m a careful person who has found great advantage in hesitating and suspending judgment. I observe, I watch, I hesitate- unlike those that spread said rumors. Bookmark here

“C’mon Aria! It’s super useful! Whenever you aren’t doing sports you can use them like this, and then whenever you are doing athletic stuff you can use them to tie your hair back!” the other girl stated beaming. Bookmark here

I had seen the short-haired girl that was next to Aria before, but I’ve never caught her name. Given their same colored blue ribbon, I take it that they are in the same class. Bookmark here

And suddenly just like that, my attention shifted suddenly although I hadn’t looked away from their direction. Bookmark here

Pickled plums. Yes. That’s what it smelled like. Then suddenly… that’s what it reeked like. Pickled plums. I looked around quickly but saw no sign of anyone eating pickled plums. Plus, who would reek of pickled plums at a high school? I suppose that if I was surrounded by old people it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities, but here?Bookmark here

Then, I suddenly remembered the words of our third rate nurse, Shimao Komari, when she said that I would still experience aberrations, even though they weren’t going to be severe enough to affect my day to day functions. Still, I wasn’t expecting that I would smell pickled plums out of all things. Bookmark here

I felt someone’s finger prodding my side. Bookmark here

“Um, excuse me. Are you okay?” Bookmark here

I turned towards the direction of the questioner. It was Aria Kanbaru looking at me with large hazel eyes. Now that she was next to me, I noticed that she was actually rather tall and supple-looking, and her long straight blue hair that was maybe a half a meter away from touching the ground only made her seem that much more statuesque. Bookmark here

I was surprised that the girl that I had just been thinking about moments ago would talk to me in such an abrupt manner. Although I suppose it did make sense considering that they had just gotten in line and that I was making weird facial expressions after smelling an intense odor of pickled plums. Bookmark here

My throat was in tangles. Flustered, I stumbled into the first sentence that came to mind.Bookmark here

“Ah yes… it’s just pickled plums…”Bookmark here

“Pickled… plums?” Aria responded back with a confused tone, tilting her head slightly.Bookmark here

Realizing that I couldn’t just lay bare my FPR problem with a girl that I didn’t even know, I tried some damage control.Bookmark here

“Yeah… it’s just, I could really go for some pickled plums right now! I wonder whether they have any, hehe.” I stated, averting my gaze.Bookmark here

“Y-yeah, right.” Aria managed.Bookmark here

She looked at her friend and her short haired friend managed an awkward laugh. Despite me having made no sense when asked to explain, although not directly, why I was making those weird faces, they managed to pay it no mind. Any other meaner pair of girls would have surely either been completely repulsed and showed it with their body language or would have made it explicit, or worse passive aggressively, with their acid tongues. I knew more than a couple of girls like that in my class. It seemed like Aria and her friend weren’t like that though. Maybe there was more truth to the rumors about her than I thought. After all, not only did she not mock me for not making any sense, but she also was worried that I was making those weird facial expressions. It didn’t help me enough to not make me feel embarrassed though.Bookmark here

Time cures all ills, however. I was now close enough to the food stall to actually order what I wanted.Bookmark here

“Hey, Aria, I know that this is probably a dumb question but… are you going to swim during P.E today?” came the voice of Aria’s short haired friend behind me.Bookmark here

“I already told you, Chiyo, that my parents don’t allow me to swim. Deciding that is out of my control.” Aria replied in a cheerful manner. Bookmark here

“Ahh, I need to go talk to your parents and convince them! It gets so boring during swimming practice when you aren’t around, Aria!” Chiyo stated, making me finally realize that this girl seemed to speak in all caps every single time she opened her tiny mouth. Bookmark here

That’s right, despite Aria Kanbaru having excelled in all Metaverse sports and physical sports offered for girls at Echo High, swimming was one that she kept a distance from. Bookmark here

Being drawn to their conversation, I turned my eyes towards their direction in the slightest manner so as to not draw too much attention to myself. Bookmark here

Chyio propelled herself towards Aria like a dog wanting affection from its owner after having not seen her all day. Aria held out her left arm and stopped Chiyo dead in her tracks by having her palm on her face. Chiyo flinged her arms back and forth as she was still attempting to embrace Aria. Bookmark here

“I doubt that would work Chiyo, my parents work all day every day, remember.” Bookmark here

“Ahh… I guess you’re right…” Chiyo stated, giving up her line of persuasion and having given up on embracing her friend as well. Bookmark here

As Aria was patting her friend’s head, her eyes suddenly turned towards my direction. I soon noticed that I was overtly staring in her direction, and now both of their eyes were on me. Embarrassed, I quickly turned my gaze elsewhere. My curiosity had gotten the best of me as I thought that I might have gotten some indication as to why the ace of nearly all school sports doesn’t swim. I guess even I got curious about the affairs of the girl that was deemed most popular by the unofficial committee presiding over that sort of thing. I should have just listened instead of turned my gaze.Bookmark here

Even though I shouldn't have, I turned towards them again hoping not to find that they had labeled me as a weirdo. To my great surprise, Aria was still staring in my direction. Her neutral expression soon turned into a full smile. Bookmark here

Bliss! Pure bliss! All was right with the world. They didn’t call her the Matsune Kujikawa of the third years for nothing. Bookmark here

I used Yosuke’s student ID at the scanner to pay for my food and went back to the lunch tables.Bookmark here

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“Why was he looking at me?” Aria thought to herself. Bookmark here

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There was nothing remarkable about the start of P.E, per usual, with the one exception that I had a good opportunity that I was not going to let pass me by. Yes, I had a ticket that would allow me not to have to bore myself with all of the trivial exercises the school enforced on us. Bookmark here

“Ah, I mean I guess this is a valid excuse to not do any strenuous exercise” came the disappointed voice of my P.E instructor after I handed him the slip that Shimao Komari gave me after having diagnosed me with a defective neuro-chip. His tone made me think that he was implying that the sort of lackluster effort that I put in day after day during P.E isn’t really justified. However, it’s not my fault that the sorts of exercises that they make us do during P.E are trivial at best, and counterproductive at worst. After all, there are no such things as wars in New Tokyo- at least not the sorts of physical wars that would require physically fit people. Given that I didn’t have any athletic ambitions, it all struck me as a pointless endeavor to waste my time in P.E. The closest thing to sports that I enjoyed were the sorts of Metaverse Sports that we sometimes engaged with during P.E. Calling these activities “sports” might be seen as a bit far fetched but to me they were sure as hell more useful than any physical sport that they would have us do during P.E. Out of all of those so called sports, I was actually rather good at Bomb Man: a team game where you have to be able to be able to blow up the enemy’s base. It was a rather tactical game that is more complex than it seems, and it fosters teamwork so it could be seen as worthy of being engaged with as a school activity. Of course, Echo High school saw it as their responsibility to make sure that their students got a “well-balanced education”, which to them meant rarely using the Metaverse in order to engage in activities. I guess the adults in our society wanted to curtail the time that teenagers spent on the Metaverse considering that it already encompassed such a huge portion of our free time. Bookmark here

Having nothing particular to do, I started pacing around the swimming pool. The males and females of all three third year classes were divided into separate pools, each group doing the same sorts of exercises as the others. I scanned my eye through the girls section, not because I had any reprehensible ulterior motives mind you, and noticed a familiar face. After having done the front crawl from one side of the pool to the other, Chiyo lifted her head in one fell swoop and took off her goggles. She soon lifted her body from the pool, and sat at the edge of it, eyes averted towards the ground, kicking her feet up and down the water’s surface- gently splashing pool water every which way. Even though I didn’t personally know the girl, she seemed rather down compared to how she was acting during lunch. Perhaps she was dejected given that she had to spend another P.E swimming session without her dear friend Aria. Soon though, she was corralled by girls that started jovially talking to her, and I noticed that her expression changed rather quickly. Must be a hassle to be that popular, having to pretend that you are fine all the time just to keep up appearances. Bookmark here

I eventually reached the extremity of the pool facility and sat on a shaded portion, my back resting on the wall. I suddenly recalled Shimao Komari’s happy-go-lucky expression as she held the nurse’s slip in her hand and shot a wink in my direction, telling me that “aren’t you lucky for getting a slip that would exempt you from P.E?”. Even though her constantly flippant attitude was annoying, she wasn’t wrong. As I looked around the swimming facility, I noticed that our instructors were concerned with teaching the class, and that every student swimmer seemed engaged. Why not take the oh-so-magnanimous offer of Shimao Komari’s slip to the next level and shoot the breeze somewhere else? No one would notice and I had time to kill. After some deliberation, I knew just the spot that would do the trick.Bookmark here

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I had forgotten about this spot for a while now. During my first year though, this was my haven. One of the perks of being a thoughtful, careful, and solitary person like myself that doesn’t rely on others is that you soon find places of refuge that the masses don’t find. Places that those that simply follow the crowd wouldn’t be able to. What is this place of refuge you ask? None other than the annex in the auxiliary building. Bookmark here

Okay, fine, maybe figuring out that the auxiliary building has an annex isn’t exactly an accolade of brilliance, but during my first year at Echo High School that’s what it felt like. Echo High School can be divided primarily into a main building and an auxiliary building. The main building contains all of the main first year, third year, and third year classrooms, as well as facilities such as those that are needed for athletics. The auxiliary building, on the other hand, is used for either classrooms for non-athletic extracurricular activities or simply for storage. Therefore, finding the annex in the auxiliary building was finding the remotest of the remote. As Shimao Komari might say, it was “remote squared”. That meant that for someone that had to transfer to another New Tokyo district for high school, this was a sacred place where I didn’t feel like I had to adopt a pretense to get by. That slowly started changing as I started to adapt, and I started to rely on this place less and less.Bookmark here

Even so I sort of grew attached to the place. I know it might sound mawkish, but for the longest time this was the only place where I felt comfortable. Plus, there was another thing that made this particular annex special: the view. Since it was situated at the extremity of the auxiliary building, and since it had a particularly placed window, the view from the window pointed to one of the edges of New Tokyo bay. Our school happened to be right besides the southernmost portion of the bay. Something about seeing the shimmering blue water of the bay through that tiny window, a view which you had to stack boxes on top of each other to be able to reach, made me feel as if I was trapped inside a prison cell that had a great view. The view from that bay represented freedom for me, I suppose. I never forgot that. Due to this, I made it a ritual to visit this place once a week, even though in my third year things had died down to the point where I guess you could say that I no longer needed it. Bookmark here

This will now be my second trip this week. An extra day of reverence couldn’t hurt. As I approached the annex after traversing the long hallway that leads to it, I noticed something that was a bit off though. The door to the annex was slightly ajar. I can’t remember a time that I had gone to this annex where the door wasn’t completely shut. Such a fact made me think that no one really knew that this place existed. Perhaps I was wrong.Bookmark here

The real question now though was, was someone currently there? I suppose that there wouldn’t really be a problem if there was someone there. Even though we weren’t technically in a passing period and it also wasn’t afterschool, if someone tries to reprimand me for being in the annex, I can simply say that I was sent here by my P.E instructor to get some supplies. I had a nurse's slip, after all, so I could try to maneuver my way by saying that “well, since I couldn’t exercise today, my instructor put me to good use by sending me on an errand”. Yup, I could just play the role of the earnest errand boy. Sort of like one of those workers that knocks at your door and jovially says “package for you sir!”. A lap dog like that. Bookmark here

With that in mind, I grabbed the handle of the door and peered through the portion of the door that was ajar.Bookmark here

I wasn’t sure what to make of what I saw at first glance. Standing with their back towards the door was a tall girl with long blue hair that stretched downwards, almost reaching the floor. It was unmistakable. It was Aria Kanbaru. What was she doing in the annex? What’s more, why was she facing the wall?Bookmark here

“I suppose that there is a really slim chance that you are lying given everything that you’ve told us, but still, there is no guarantee that you are her. We need definitive proof.” came a distorted male voice. Bookmark here

This voice definitely was not Aria’s voice. It sounded like the sorts of voices that people would use in order to parody groups like Anonymous, the sorts of distorted voices that were used in movies and T.V shows to represent evil hacking groups and the like. Bookmark here

If that wasn’t bizarre enough, there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the room besides Aria. Granted, I wasn’t able to see very much into the room, but Aria wasn’t facing anyone. But, given the voice, there had to be someone else that was there. Bookmark here

“If this will seal the agreement… then fine” Aria’s managed. Her tone sounded firm yet troubled. What was she being asked to do and by whom?Bookmark here

She took her left hand and touched her right arm. Just like that, as if she had been wearing some type of camouflage, a strange gray cloth that up to that point seemed to have been the same color as Aria’s skin tone, and had fit perfectly with the outline of her right arm, came right off. What remained seemed beyond comprehension at first glance. Her arm -her entire right arm- was a robotic prosthetic. Not just any prosthetic though. It didn’t look like the sorts of medical devices that people that were paralyzed, for example, would use in order to regain their bodily functionality. Her arm looked more like the sorts of arms that robots at fast food places or at dark factories would have. As a matter of fact, if all you had shown me was her arm, I would have thought to myself that that was a robot’s arm, one of those robot’s with an A.I that was sophisticated enough to handle menial labor. Bookmark here

Shocked, I inadvertently let out a small gasp.Bookmark here

“What was that? Is someone there?” came the same distorted male voice from before. At that, I decided to make a run for it. The decision was more instinctual than rational, but in retrospect it made all the sense in the world. As I was running through the long hallway, I didn’t look back. Having eventually turned the corner I stopped to catch my breath. Hopefully they hadn’t seen me, whoever “they” included anyways.Bookmark here

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“Well miss, is anyone there?” came the impatient voice of a distorted kind. Aria pretended to look around thoroughly. Bookmark here

“No, it was a false alarm. Probably the janitorial staff making a loud noise that echoed over here.”Bookmark here

Despite her pretext, she knew what she saw. What she would do about that fact, however, would come later as now she had to finish her negotiation with the Crawler.Bookmark here

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“Now boarding for the Odakyu Line, departing from - Shonandai Station.” came the monotonous voice of the announcer. That voice managed to be the only thing that had woken me up from my reverie. Bookmark here

“Hey, Isei you getting on? C’mon.” Bookmark here

“Ah, yeah. Sorry about that.” I replied to my friends. Bookmark here

Considering that we lived near the same neighborhoods we tended to commute both to school and back home together. Kibe, though, typically got off on the Soutetsu Line while Yosuke rode with me all the way to Yokohama Station. Bookmark here

The sounds around me were attenuated as I was deep in thought. Even as I was watching Yosuke and Kibe talk, probably about something trifling, it was as if I was only witnessing them moving their lips with no sounds coming out of their mouths. Bookmark here

I know what I saw. Aria Kanbaru, the star of the third years, and arguably the star of the whole school, had a robotic arm. That was unmistakably the case. Despite my certainty, there was a part of me that felt that something was missing, that I wasn’t considering something of crucial importance. Bookmark here

“Isei!” Yosuke exclaimedBookmark here

“Ah, yeah?!” I repliedBookmark here

“What’s gotten into you, man? Ever since lunch you’ve been acting weird, bro.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, man, it’s like you aren’t here with us.” Bookmark here

If I explained to them what it was that had me in a constant day dream, that Aria Kanbaru had a robotic arm, that would have the sour taste of a bad idea. For starters, I have no idea who she was talking to and why I couldn’t see them. What’s more, having a robotic right arm is no joke. There was no one that I had ever heard of, and probably no one else in New Tokyo, that had prosthetics like those. Me telling Yosuke and Kibe would certainly aid in starting rumors about Aria, even if I told them not to tell anyone else. Everyone knows deep down in their hearts that rumors spread in exactly that way. The next person that’s told is always told not to tell, followed by the next connection, ad infinitum, until eventually the rumor itself gets distorted. In any case, it didn’t seem productive to do so. Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”Bookmark here

They looked at each other. I could tell that they weren’t convinced but we were able to leave it at that after the one sight that always left everyone on the railway train speechless and focused for at least a minute. Bookmark here

New Tokyo Bay.Bookmark here

The shimmering water of New Tokyo Bay now had an orange-esque glow due to the afternoon sun. There was something about the Bay that seemed to be a respite for not only me, but for all of the passengers. It seemed like the Bay had a similar effect on others as it had on me when I would see it from the view of the remote window in the annex of the auxiliary building. Although, the feeling was different in important ways. In the annex it felt as if the Bay was too far away to be reached, but whenever the railway train would pass the central part of New Tokyo Bay, once the train was getting close to reaching the Soutetsu Line, it felt as if the Bay was only a grasp away. The dock that was adjacent to the Bay had been under construction for some time now, so there were never any people around the Bay. The closest thing that one could get to experiencing the Bay up close was to commute through this particular railway line, or to live near the Bay itself, which obviously fetched a high housing price. Now that I thought about it, it was rumored that Aria Kanbaru’s house was near the New Tokyo Bay. After all, she is a rich girl. Bookmark here

After reaching the Soutetsu Line , we said bye to Kibe as usual and Yosuke and I rode off to Yokohama station. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought to myself that this was just another end of a school day, but what happened during P.E today was anything but usual. Bookmark here

Once we got to Yokohama station, we got to Yosuke’s apartment complex. Now it was just me heading towards the direction of my house. Bookmark here

As I walked my usual path, the bizarre things that occurred today kept circling around in my head. I was trying to find a logical explanation for all of this, but I wasn’t able to. My day didn’t get any more normal as when I waited at the last intersection that I needed to cross in order to get to my house, something unbelievable came into view. A couple of paces from the intersection was a huge blue force field. It stretched up towards the sky, far enough to the point where I couldn’t see the end of it. As I looked to the side, it also stretched vastly enough so that I couldn't see the end of it. Call me crazy, but after more than a year of taking the same route from school to my house, there had never EVER been any force fields. Then again, in all my time at Echo High School, I had never witnessed a classmate with a robotic arm. Maybe God intended for today to just be that kind of day. At this rate, God might even grant me a girlfriend today! I bet she’s waiting for me as we speak in my room, hehehehe.Bookmark here

“Excuse me young one, could you press the button to cross the intersection?” came the sweet voice of an old lady.Bookmark here

So… not exactly the girlfriend that I had in mind, God. I could do without the rollator at least, God. Bookmark here

I eventually broke out of my insane fantasy and assisted the old lady. “Oh, sorry about that ma’am.”Bookmark here

Soon after pressing the button, the cross sign turned green. The old lady started crossing the road with her rollator. I hesitated to even get close to the force field, and the prospect that an old lady seemed to have had no qualms with getting closer to it wasn’t making me feel any better. Could she not see it?Bookmark here

“Um, ma’am?”. Despite me trying to get her attention, it was as if she couldn’t hear me. Now merely a meter away from the force field, I averted my gaze from witnessing what would happen to this reckless old lady. Not hearing anything sounding remotely like she hurt herself, I directed my gaze quickly towards where the old lady had crossed.Bookmark here

She was no longer there. As a matter of fact, she was on the other side of the force field. It seemed like she had walked through it as if it was a regular occurrence to do so.Bookmark here

Mustering up the courage to cross it myself, I finally made it home.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

The faint sounds of a crowd’s applause impinged on my ears. It wasn’t as if this surprised me though.Bookmark here

I made my way to the living room and saw my Dad using his Metaverse headset, as expected. He was undoubtedly watching that one Metaverse variety show that he’s into, I forgot its name. Bookmark here

I walked close enough to him so that it would trigger the headset’s human proximity disturbance function. Bookmark here

“Hey, Isei. Welcome back. Can this wait? The Akechi’s Conference is live right now.”my Dad said, Metaverse headset still onBookmark here

So that’s what that damn show was called. Even though I would usually just respond with a “yeah, no problem”, the recent events that transpired were way too out of the norm for me not to bring them up to at least someone else. It was for my sanity’s sake. Bookmark here

“Hey, Dad. Did you happen to see a… forcefield when you were making your way back home from work?”Bookmark here

My Dad tore off his Metaverse headset. Bookmark here

“Huh?” he responded with a tone that was between confused and worried.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I know it sounds crazy but when I was walking back home from school I saw a huge blue force field near the last intersection I cross before getting back home.”Bookmark here

“ You mean the intersection that marks the start of the sixth district?”Bookmark here

“Start of the sixth district?”Bookmark here

We were clearly making no progress considering that we were communicating with questions. The sounds of applause and fanfare could be heard coming from my Dad’s headset.Bookmark here

“Let’s talk about this later, yeah? The show’s about to finish” my Dad said before putting his headset back on.Bookmark here

Our attempt at communicating didn’t aid my sanity, but it wasn’t as if I was expecting too much. With seemingly no other alternative, I decided to just head to my room.Bookmark here

I went inside my room and closed the door behind me, letting out a sigh of relief afterwards. The outside world might have been insane, but at the very least my room wouldn’t be.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

I felt like an animal that was being grabbed by the scruff of their neck. Bookmark here

“Pickled Plums… to think that it was you.” came a voice that had only grown more and more familiar due to the particularities of this very particular day.Bookmark here

The person that was grabbing the back of my neck pushed me with surprising force towards one of the walls of my room. The impact that my body made with the wall was of a great enough magnitude so that one of the frames that was hanging on the wall fell, adding to the sound made by my impact. Dazed and confused while on the ground, I turned my gaze towards the sound of the familiar voice.Bookmark here

Directly in my field of vision was none other than the Matsune Kujikawa of the third years- Aria Kanbaru. Well, not exactly. It was only her head. Her head was floating in space directly above me. Her hair was tied back by the same accessory that her friend had given her today, revealing Aria’s sharp lower facial features.Bookmark here

Aria’s eyes, which were typically sweet and innocent looking, were looking down at me with scorn and indignation. I suddenly thought back to that pretty expression she directed towards me during lunch today- the expression that she sported now could have been characterized as the complete opposite. Bookmark here

I sat up from having been on the ground and moved my body away from her floating head until my back was against the wall. Not knowing what to make of this predicament, my brain decided to output the first candidate solution it could muster to such an ordeal.Bookmark here

“M-my name isn’t pickled plums.” I managedBookmark here

She didn’t look pleased. The spot on the wall directly next to my face suddenly made a harsh sound as if someone had hit the spot with a blunt object, except that nothing that I could see was there. Aria’s head was now merely centimeters away from mine. Bookmark here

“Good that you can admit it so readily. It’ll make my job that much easier. Now tell me, what is your name?”. Bookmark here

Her tone harsh, her gaze sharp, she looked at me as if I was a menacing threat that had to be exterminated. My thoughts were racing at 100 miles an hour as I was racking my brain trying to figure out what could have possibly gotten a girl that, until now I thought was a sweetheart, to have grown so violent with me. Was it because I saw that she had a robotic right arm? Was this her revenge on me for seeing that?Bookmark here

Not seeing any other hand that I could play, I decided to fold.Bookmark here

“I-it’s Isei… Isei Kitagawa.”Bookmark here

She didn’t seem particularly impressed by hearing my name, as her expression remained just as hostile as it was before. Suddenly, the spot next to my face where the blunt impact sound came from started to change. As if it was manifesting slowly from having been invisible to now being visible, her robotic right hand was on that particular spot on the wall next to my face.Bookmark here

“So then, Isei…” the way that she said my name added to the mounting pressure that she was exerting on me with seemingly every fiber of her being.Bookmark here

“What’s your goal here? Were you sent by someone? What did they tell you? Did they just tell you to catch a girl whose right side of their upper body is robotic? Did they use the term Frankenside, or was it merely robotic arm or robotic part or something along those lines?”Bookmark here

Her barrage of questions left me speechless. So it wasn’t just her right arm that was robotic, it was the entire right side of her upper body? As my brain was overheating trying to find a way out of this predicament, I decided that honesty was the best policy.Bookmark here

“Listen… I don’t know what happened to you or who you think I might be, but I am not who you think I am.”Bookmark here

“Sure you aren’t. I’ve never seen or heard about you in school until today. You aren’t actually a student at Echo are you?” she stated with a snort.Bookmark here

Ouch. Bookmark here

So basically she was saying that she thought that I was extra suspicious because until my “pickled plums” stand up comedy bit that I displayed today at the expense of myself, she didn’t know that I existed.Bookmark here

“I am a student at Echo High School!”Bookmark here

“Prove it!”Bookmark here

“I can telepath you my I.D!”Bookmark here

“Okay, go” she replied.Bookmark here

Finally feeling like I was going to make some progress, I tried telepathing her my school I.D just to be met with a really unfortunate circumstance. Oddly enough, that circumstance also seemed to put things into perspective. Bookmark here

I had a defective chip. Bookmark here

Not only did that mean that I wasn’t able to use telepathy, it also meant that I was engaging in FPR. How could I have forgotten something so important that happened today? I guess that after the whole Aria robotic arm situation, the defective chip thing seemed to simply not have been as important. It slipped from my mind. I even suddenly recalled that I had chosen not to wear the contact lenses that our third rate school nurse gave me that would ostensibly aid me from seeing aberrations. Could all of this… Aria having a robotic right side, me seeing that huge blue force field… all of it… could it merely be FPR?Bookmark here

“The signal isn’t going through.” I managedBookmark here

My bangs, which up to that point had been covering a part of my face, were pulled upwards by something invisible which I could only assume was Aria’s left arm. Bookmark here

“You’re really testing my patience!” she barked.Bookmark here

This sure as hell didn’t seem like FPR. The pain on my scalp felt too real. Her visage- unmistakably Aria.Bookmark here

“My backpack… it’s in my backpack!” I stated in between long breaths.Bookmark here

As I stood up to go get my I.D from my backpack, my hair was still being pulled upwards. I could feel Aria behind me, guiding me towards my backpack by holding on tightly to the hairs on my head. I also felt something prodding my back.Bookmark here

I reached for one of the back pockets of my back pack. Bookmark here

“Here… here it is.” I said, stretching my physical I.D towards her floating head. Bookmark here

She squinted and examined the I.D thoroughly before turning her skeptical gaze towards me. Her whole body suddenly started manifesting. Aria Kanbaru’s whole self had now manifested completely in my room. Bookmark here

She was still in her school uniform, with the exception of her tied up hair she would have looked like your typical everyday school-girl Aria Kanbaru- and with the notable exception that on her left hand she held a gun. That must have been what was prodding my back earlier.Bookmark here

As fast as a cobra strike, she stuck the gun’s muzzle on my cheek.Bookmark here

“I swear that if you are lying I won’t hesitate to kill you.” she stated neutrally, which made it that much more menacing. Bookmark here

It seemed like the star of the third years had no qualms spewing out death threats. Rumors were indeed misleading- just as I had intuited.Bookmark here

“Yes, I promise I am not!” Bookmark here

With that she lowered her guard, ever so slightly. She put a gray arm sleeve on her right robotic arm that then turned into the same color as her skin tone, making her right arm seem like a perfectly normal human arm.Bookmark here

“Still, Isei Kitagawa, I want you to explain everything to me. I want you to start with why you were staring at me during lunch today with such a suspicious look. Then I want you to tell me exactly how you knew that I was going to be in the annex. Followed by what you saw and what you heard from my meeting there.”Bookmark here

Even though I had a bone to pick with the way that she framed some of her statements, how could I refuse?Bookmark here

“Yes, yes, I’ll tell you everything. But first, can I go to the restroom real quick?”Bookmark here

“... I guess it would be counterproductive if you have to go to the restroom while I’m interrogating you. So yes. You can go. But I have to go in with you lest you do something suspicious.”Bookmark here

What?! A girl walking inside a restroom with me?! I mean… if she was up for the idea how could I refuse. But her train of thought wasn’t heading in the right direction, I didn’t actually need to go relieve myself in the restroom.Bookmark here

“I don’t have to go, I just have to put on these and need a mirror.” I stated, while pulling out the contact lenses that Shimao Komari gave me earlier today.Bookmark here

“What are those?” she stated with a cynical toneBookmark here

I didn’t want to tell her that I had a defective chip that made me engage in FPR for that would only bring more attention to myself, so I merely came up with the most obvious excuse. Bookmark here

“They are just contact lenses. I can’t see well and that doesn’t let me focus. I want to give you the best recount of everything that has happened so I want to put them on first.”Bookmark here

She didn’t respond for a couple of seconds as she was deliberating it in her head.Bookmark here

“... Fair, I don’t see how contact lenses could be used as a weapon.”Bookmark here

With that, we went into the restroom that was inside my room. She left the door open and stood in the entrance of the door with her arms crossed. Her back was facing outside of the bathroom directly in line with the front door of my room. As I was reading the instructions to put on the contact lenses, I could tell that she was staring daggers into my soul.Bookmark here

“Pretty strange that you would have to scour the instructions if you’ve had bad vision for a while.” she stated, skeptical as ever. Bookmark here

“I just got this prescription today.” Bookmark here

Technically not a lie.Bookmark here

I put one contact lens on, choosing not to look her way until I had the other one on. I put the second one on then I stared at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were now bright green as opposed to their typical hazel color. Bookmark here

Okay, if her being here was indeed just an epiphenomena of FPR then she wouldn't be there whenever I turned towards the direction of the bathroom door. Perhaps all of the strange occurrences that happened today also weren’t real. This was potentially going to be the first step towards my road back to sanity. Bookmark here

I turned slowly towards the direction where I hoped the Aria of my imagination had been. Bookmark here

Standing at the entrance to my bathroom was indeed Aria Kanbaru. Her being in my room wasn’t a figment of my imagination, it was real.Bookmark here

“Isei? The show finished and then I heard a ruckus coming from your room. What’s going on?” my father’s voice came from outside of my room.Bookmark here

Before any of the two of us could think of something, my Dad opened the door to my room. Typically I locked the door to my room to prevent situations not quite like this but still potentially aggravating. However, this was just the kind of day where all normalcy went out the window.Bookmark here

Aria and I looked towards the entrance to my room, where my Dad stood there in direct line sight to us. Bookmark here

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