The pothouse was just as focused on the man walking in as it was on us whenever we walked in for the first time.
There wasn’t anything about the man that stood out as particularly troublesome, although it was a bit hard to tell what his complexion looked like due to the dimly lit entrance of the establishment. As he came closer, the light of the front bar illuminated his face and body. Wearing a double breasted coat that scarcely looked like the sort of attire that one would expect of a denizen of an area where kids in the vicinity were playing around with robotic prosthetics in a junkyard, he shot Aria a quick glance and nod. I noticed that he shot me a longer glance that was more ambiguous in tone than the one that he shot Aria, although not overtly hostile. To call the man’s face as standing out would be a lie. If I were to have seen him in my New Tokyo, I would have assumed that he was just another middle aged salary man slaving away for this week’s wage- but the dichotomy that came from him dressing like that in this New Tokyo made him stick out like a sore thumb.
“Hello, Perry-san. What will it be today?” came the amicable welcome of the bartender.
It seemed as if I was the only one that found it strange that he was dressed in a way that betrayed the standards of this place, or well, at least what I thought were the standards. Then again, didn’t that mean that I was also an outlier? Wait, am I standing out right now?!
After telling the bartender his order, and waiting for the bartender to retire to the back of the establishment- the man spoke up.
“What’s the meaning of this, Aria?”
Aria whisked her liquor filled glass in a circular motion before downing it, taking her time, and only then answering the man’s question. Was that brown stuff actually liquor? Could the star of the third year truly down hard liquor as if it was fruit punch? Or perhaps what she was drinking was oil to keep her mechanical body parts lubed up and functional. That last hypothesis was something that she would never hear coming from my mouth though, that’s for sure.
“I suspect you mean the space case to my right?” she spoke up
Hey that wasn’t very nice! I mean it’s kinda true given where we are, but still…
“No retort either? Did you bring him just to take up space?” the man asked.
Were all people associated with the so-called “third caste” assholes?
“Oh, make no mistake though Perry-san, he’s actually tougher than he looks. It’s just that you have to push him so that he can take things seriously enough to contribute. If not he just half asses them.”
How exactly am I supposed to retort where almost everything that is being spoken about is true?
The man looked at me for an extended period of time, as if examining my worth.
“Well, I’ll admit that I’ll take talent over mere work ethic any day. Talent you can cultivate, but work ethic without talent can only take you so far. So, instead of calling you Aria’s acolyte, how about you tell me your name?” Perry asked.
This felt like the beginning of a RPG where the scene cuts to a character creation screen.
“Isei. So, I take it that you want him to join us?” Perry asked Aria.
Perry-san’s question prompted Aria to look at me instead of to respond. I couldn’t really read what was behind her expression, as I was only able to see its solemn veneer. It might have seemed like she was leaving the decision as to whether or not I would join their group up to me, but in reality I knew that this was just a pretense of choice. After all, I was practically being forced to join.
“Well, Isei? What will it be?” Perry asked.
This time they were both staring in my direction.
This seemed redundant in some sense since I was already being forced to a part of Aria’s “forces”. Saying no would only bring about trouble for me, but there was something about merely saying yes that would also do similar damage. If I was being offered even the illusion of choice, I was going to take it. I had no better hand to play.
“He doesn’t know,” Aria answered for me.
The man’s expression changed quickly to one of genuine surprise before returning to its default stoic expression. He sighed and reached for one of the pockets of his breast coat, whipping out a cigarette with the sort of fluidity one would expect from a habitual smoker. The man took off his left glove, which revealed a robotic hand that was akin to Aria’s. He held the cigarette in his right hand, and leaned the tip towards the tip of his right hand’s index finger. His robotic index finger soon produced a small fire that lit the cigarette.
After a couple of puffs he offered Aria a cigarette.
“Sure,” she replied coolly.
She soon adopted the same procedure that the man had done to light up his cigarette. Now, I was watching what until a few days ago I thought was a quintessential honors student, smoking a cigarette in a pothouse in the middle of the lowest common denominator sector of society. As I saw the puffs of smoke escaping her lips, the age gap between us seemed to me to increase by at least ten years.
Perry handed the cigarette pack to Aria, which prompted her to offer me one. This felt like some sort of initiation ritual to me for some reason, despite both of them acting with a substantially casual air.
“Oh, no thanks. I-I don’t smoke.” I replied
A couple of long minutes of silence passed, the only real sense data impinging on my nervous system being the acrid smell of cigarette smoke and the stench of pothouse alcohol.
Aria suddenly broke in.
“Well, shall we have him meet the group? After all, if he is undecided, the only way that we can get him to join us would be for him to see what the group is like for himself.”
“That sounds fine.” Perry replied simply, getting up from his chair and heading towards the back of the establishment.
I would have expected for him to head towards the exit of the pothouse.
It was now only Aria and I in the front bar.
Something about this whole situation struck me as betraying the sort of experience I thought that I would have with Aria here. I decided to confront her with my worries.
“Aria, I don’t get it.”
“Get what?” she asked between puffs of smoke.
“ I thought that we had agreed that I would join you. Why are you making it so that it seems that I am still undecided?”
Before answering, she flicked the cigarette turned cigarette bud towards the canister that was behind the front bar with keen precision.
“It’s true that you agreed to join me. That is, you agreed to join me. Your supposed uncertainty can be used as a bargaining chip.”
There was something cryptic about her words, but the answer still seemed to be clear to me. Perhaps she decided not to iterate further because she thought that I would understand what she meant. Or maybe it was because we were here in the 3rd caste. And I think I did get it, but a meeting with this group would confirm my suspicions.…
After a couple of minutes of Aria and I sitting in the front bar, the bartender came out of the room that was behind the front bar, prompting us to come inside.
Aria casually got up and started heading towards the direction of the back of the pothouse, which prompted me to follow her. As we walked past a long corridor in the back of the pothouse, the wooden boards beneath our feet creaked telling of the old age of the place.
Eventually we went inside a room that looked like a storehouse for liquor.
“Will that be all, Aria-chan?” the amicable bartender asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine Wilhelm-san.” she replied
The bartender shut the door and it was now only Aria and me inside. The room was pitch black for a couple of seconds until Aria used the same technique she had used to light up her cigarette in order to light up the room slightly enough so that I could make out the dimensions of the room and where Aria was.
“How do you produce a flame on your finger tip like that?”
“If you must know, I squirt a little bit of oil from some of the openings of my index finger, and then I heat that oil up using a heating mechanism within the right side of my body. It’s really no different from how regular lighters work” she stated while kneeling down and searching for something on the ground.
She squirts a little bit of oil, huh…
“Say, you like magic and stuff right?” she asked suddenly.
“Huh, where did that come from?”
“Just wondering.” she replied.
“I mean, yeah I guess I think it’s cool.”.
After all, the sorts of games that I would play on the Metaverse were almost always RPG games that allowed you to use magic. Those RPGs weren’t advanced enough for you to actually be deeply immersed enough to feel like you were truly wielding magic, but it was a hell of a lot better than real life role playing.
“Yeah, you look the type.” she stated while having found what she was looking for.
She soon grabbed on a handle that was on the floor and lifted it up so as to reveal a hidden entrance on the floor. As the door opened, the room we were inside illuminated as the staircase that led down to the secret room contained a lit up room all the way to its base.
“Was that supposed to be a diss?” I asked her.
“Lighting a small fire isn’t the only thing I can do, you know?” she stated, ignoring my question.
We stepped inside the staircase and Aria closed the latch door behind us.
“Wait, so you’re telling me that you can use magic?”
“No, magic doesn’t exist. But there are certain, let’s say, abilities that people with my, what is it, body type, maybe? can use that people in the second caste would probably consider abnormal. They are called configurations because they configure the information of matter and energy in order to do the wielder’s bidding”
What she said reminded me of the fray at the park that occurred a couple of days back, when Aria had uttered words that would have sent shivers down anyone’s spine. She used her gun in order to blast that cyborg with, what I could only describe as being plasma. I was surprised that I hadn’t reacted to something so different from what I had ever seen throughout my life. Perhaps I was so confused about everything else that had happened that day that the last thing on my mind was admiring Aria’s magic-like abilities.
Wait, why was she telling me all this?
Before I could ask her why she bothered to tell me that she could use these so-called configurations, we were already at the end of the staircase. What stood before us was a rectangular room, with a large squared table in the middle. There were four other people in the room besides us- and yet, I was surprised that out of those other four, I already knew two of them: Perry-san and…
“HUH!? GISE!?” came the acid tongue of Hori, Yosuke’s girlfriend.
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