“It’s finally here! The incredible product you’ve all been waiting for has arrived. Never again will you have to wonder what snack to buy. Enjoy this extra-hard Happy Churn created with a new and improved thickener!!”
“Oh, ohh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
The 17-year-old boy named Sugiyado Souha gave a bizarre cry inside the supermarket’s snack section.
“I-is this what they meant by X Day? There must have been signs, so how did I overlook them!?”
The core of his body was shaken by the news.
Yes. Happy Churn was humanity’s greatest invention, but it was brittle. The slightest impact would cause the short-lived snack to break. The family packs had each one packaged separately, so how many times had he shoved a couple in his pocket only to find his partner crumbled to dust within the clear wrapper? But that would never again be a problem. No longer would Happy Churn be bound to the home. It could finally spread its wings and fly out into the open world!!
(Th-this is it. With this, I can have Happy Churn with me 24/7!)
Most people discussed how the flour could be improved, but that was not what truly mattered. The Happy Churn God understood where the true foundation lay. It was all about the thickener. It was the same as cooking soba. Yes, Happy Churn had an English name, but it was built on a much more local foundation. And just like arare or rice crackers, this was a snack where you enjoyed the crunch between your teeth.
He nonchalantly grabbed a value pack and placed some random items like bread and milk in his basket to hide what he was really after, but his heart would not stop pounding wildly. After all, this harder version meant 24/7. He could eat them at home and on the go. No one could stop him now. He had to wonder if this was really legal. It was like finding a cheat code to make yourself Level 99 in an RPG.
“That will be 399 yen. Would you like a bag?”
The young wife working part-time saw him off with a smile and the legendary item was finally his.
It was a weekday morning, but no one was going to question his presence out here these days. Skipping school years or skipping straight to employment was fair game in this age where the merit system reigned supreme, so insisting kids should be in school was seen as discriminatory in some circles.
(Hell yes! What do I do now!? I can eat them at meals, as snacks, and even in the bath. No, no. I really need to try eating them on the go. Time and place are no longer meaningful constructs!! Mwa ha ha! Who needs to visit another world when my paradise is already here!?)
However, reality was not so kind.
It happened the very moment he set foot outside the supermarket’s automatic door.
“Mfh mrh mrh mfh ghh!!”
He was surrounded by extremely concerning metallic noises in all directions.
With men in black pressing the muzzles of their carbines against his cheeks, Sugiyado Souha’s face was transformed into something hideous while he tried his best to protect the shopping bag by holding it close.
“D-don’t…what!? Were they illegal after all!? But hold on! Unbreakable Happy Churn should be a dream come true for every last member of the human race!!”
The boy stubbornly insisted on protecting the shopping bag, but then he heard a solid footstep.
This sort of person did not generally produce audible footsteps. Moving silently was the most basic of basic skills. This was being used in lieu of a business card
The different schools had distinctive ways of moving silently and those in the know could tell them apart. It was similar to how shurikens had been developed to be as logical and efficient as possible, so their distinctive shapes could be used as evidence of who had been at the scene.
“Sugiyado Souha-san, I presume?”
The voice was as clear as a bell.
But the boy managed a frown on his hideously distorted face. He could tell which direction the sound had come from, but he could not pinpoint who had spoken the words.
Because he saw two girls in white dresses there.
Their long skirts with large slits fluttered in the wind.
The twin girls stood alongside each other with such precision they almost looked like each other’s shadow. Their semi-long hair had a golden glow reminiscent of heads of wheat after soaking up the sun’s blessing. There was no mistaking this for bleached blonde hair. One sister had a white hair extension next to one ear and the other had a red one, so that my have been how they distinguished themselves from each other.
The girls manage to be lovely and flashy simultaneously, but that was why the “shadowy scent” they carried with them seemed so out of place. Almost like they were being swallowed up by the shadow cast by the very light they produced.
“I am Shirazaya Guren,” said the one with the red hair extension.
“I am Shirazaya Suiren,” said the one with the white hair extension.
He was finally able to tell them apart. Although if he had not focused on the movement of the lovely buds of their lips, he would have remained trapped by the illusion.
“I apologize, but we have paid you a visit in order to ask your assistance.”
This apparently had nothing to do with the miraculous invention of hard Happy Churn, so Sugiyado breathed a sigh of relief and slowly put his hands up while wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt and loose pants that made movement easy. The itchiness of his large scarf bothered him.
“I’m sure we have much to discuss, but isn’t this public location a problem for both of us?”
“If we were second rate or worse, perhaps,” replied one of the twins, Suiren, while she shut her eyes and teased her right earlobe. There was a hint of mockery in her voice. “But surely one of the Hidden Ones is aware of a way to speak in public without any of the uttered secrets reaching unwanted ears.”
They knew of the Hidden Ones rank which was a secret in and of itself. That alone placed the twins beyond a certain line. Whoever they were, they were not going to just let him leave.
It was possible this would become a case of kill or be killed. Even though he had already withdrawn from the front line.
Shortly afterwards, his lips stopped moving altogether. No, his tone of voice had changed entirely as he whispered in a way that vanished into the chatter of the surrounding crowd.
No one outside of 3 meters could hear them and the average person could not make it out even within that range. Even if it was recorded, the wavelengths of the background noise and their voices would match too closely to be decoded.
This technique was known as Chirping.
In a field kept hidden from ordinary people, this was as basic a technique as hiding one’s footsteps or presence.
“This tells me you’re active on the front line, so what do you need with someone like me?”
“We would like your assistance as Instructor Sugiyado.”
“Sorry, but the class is full. I am only accepting four individualized digital courses. I wish I could handle more, but I can’t. Besides, what could I teach you if you can do all this?”
“We are aware of that.”
They had introduced themselves and everything, but he briefly lost track of which was Guren and which was Suiren. Although those twins with black bracelets may have been fine with that perfect symmetry.
At any rate, the two girls spoke.
“We would like details on the thought patterns of the four Elite Ninjas you teach: Kuhou Ouka, Hanasawa Bara, Nantou Hoozuki, and Shizukuma Asagao.”
The meaning of his silence changed entirely.
Going after the girls’ instructor to learn how their targets thought showed extreme persistence. This was not just for a love of fighting. They intended to come up with a plan and lay a trap to deal with their target.
“I am sure you were very proud of your students. They have all reached the position of Elite Ninja, the highest rank among the spies working directly for the shogunate. And even though they are already working on the front line, we hear you get along well enough to have exchanged addresses so they can periodically return to ask for lessons.”
“And as a former Hidden One, you would know better than anyone how those four think. Yes, enough to predict their actions.”
Of course, he was not just going to agree to this.
Even if they normally only interacted via their phones, they were his students.
“What we have is nothing so special, dammit.”
He was already surrounded. Since his opponent was using the power of an organization, there would already be people watching his home and friends. How much could he do? How much could he protect? He was honestly having a hard time finding any option other than doing as he was told.
But he still said it.
Straight to their face.
“I just wanted someone else to fulfill the dream I lost, so I handed out all of the techniques I had. And those girls decided to stick with this selfish bastard. …How can I abandon those kind girls after all that?”
The white dress twins breathed exaggerated sighs.
This was their actual voice rather than the Chirping. The parents with children arriving at the supermarket finally noticed something was amiss and looked over at them.
Shirazaya Guren’s throat moved alluringly as she breathed.
“We are not unregistered ninjas, you know?”
“Shogunate spies have come to you, so please think about what that means.”
In other words, this was about an incident the ordinary police could not handle.
A crisis threatened the very survival of the country and it was on the same level as the unseen war with the heavily-equipped knight sand musketeers who targeted the country’s technology openly and in secret.
But what did that have to do with Kuhou Ouka, Hanasawa Bara, Nantou Hoozuki, and Shizukuma Asagao? As ninjas, they were supposed to be the ones standing up to those threats.
“It looks like he is unaware what has happened.”
“Are you sure he did not run out to buy some snacks to soothe his sulking heart after they failed to contact him well after they were supposed to?”
That hit the bull’s eye.
But there was no need to let it show on his face.
“What are you saying those girls did?”
The twins shrugged at that question. They had to be skilled kunoichis, but the action perfectly matched their blonde hair and bright skin.
“They stole and ran off with a modular nuclear reactor which can be broken down and transported via freight train. If modified, that could function as a dirty bomb, or it could simply be set to detonate. To be clear, we are acting on the assumption that they will actually use it and not simply use it as a bargaining chip. So please help us.”
“We are front line ninjas as much as they are, but they are a step ahead of us. They seem to have a half day or full day lead on us. So we need to fill that gap somehow. That is where your understanding of their thought processes and ability to predict their actions comes in to play.”
2: Beautifying the Flowers
In a simple shower without a tub, a middle school girl with chestnut twintails let the warm water wash over her. Countless drops spilled down her somewhat curvy but still undeveloped bodylines.
In a life on the run, it could be easy to forget how you smelled. It could slip your mind since it was neither visible nor audible, but it could create an unidentifiable sense of something being “not quite right” that could gather attention. Thus, you could not neglect basic hygiene.
Also, the soaps and shampoos provided in these simple shower booths tended to be for men, and that was a problem.
“Think of it like a muscular bandit standing out because his hair has the sweet scent of a women’s herbal conditioner, Ouka.” Her teacher had once explained it like this. “So you need to acquire that along with suitable clothing and makeup and use them before an infiltration as the specific situation warrants.”
Kuhou Ouka had then asked him a question with a mischievous smile.
“Oh? And what kind of scent do you think suits me, Sensei?”
There was one thing she always remembered when seeing her undeveloped naked body in the mirror while washing away the sweat as part of that “necessary work”.
But she was dragged out of her thoughts by a voice from surprisingly close by.
“Ouka, it’s cramped in here, so quit spreading your hair back behind you with both hands like in a conditioner ad. Restrict your movements a little.”
“Hey, Bara. Did we really all have to cram in here together? The shower booth is cramped enough as it is.”
Ouka was answered not by sexy Hanasawa Bara, whose red ringlet curls were wet and flattened, but by cool beauty Nantou Hoozuki, who had undone her ponytail so her long silver hair was plastered against her lithe back.
“Because this is the shower at an internet café. It would actually gather more attention from an unsavory sort if a single young girl went to the shower alone. It is best not to underestimate amateur peeping toms who put their talents to the most useless use imaginable.”
Black bob cut Shizukuma Asagao was a head shorter than the rest, so she seemed to be drowning in the soft flesh surrounding her. She managed to puff out her cheeks and ask a question.
“What do you think Sensei would think if he knew we were about to be living out of places like this every day?”
In front of Sugiyado Souha, those girls had demonstrated the moody and meaningless pride so common in teenagers, but they had analyzed their own profiles and taken things in the opposite direction. He would never imagine all four of them were cramming themselves into a shower booth as small as a phonebooth.
In the past, finding places to sleep would not have been easy because hotels and inns had built a network with the police that supplied them with photos of wanted criminals. But the spread of room sharing and share houses had expanded their options considerably. At first glance, the advance of digitization seemed to have laid everything bare, but this age was actually convenient for those who lived in the shadows.
Silver-haired Hoozuki grabbed the body soap that sexy Bara held in her arm and reached below her own arm to apply it to her back while asking a question.
“So why have you been staring at your reflection with such a troubled look on your face, Ouka? Checking on your day-to-day growth?”
“No, it’s not that. But bath mirrors always remind me of something.”
The other girls crammed into the shower booth looked over to the cheap mirror that tended to get fogged up.
They all had a faint bitter look on their face. Like they were remembering some kind of failure.
“You too, Ouka?” asked alluring Bara while water dripped down her flushed skin.
“I think it happens to everyone. Everyone knows that’s part of being a kunoichi.”
Even the youngest, bob cut girl Shizukuma Asagao, stared sadly into the distance with her small face buried by the other three girls’ chests.
Ouka sighed while catching her fellow kunoichi’s face with her body and getting their wet legs tangled together.
“Yeah, when you’re training to be a kunoichi, you just know you have to seduce the closest guy to you.”
“On that note, Ouka, what look did Sensei give you when you went all out in your attempt?”
Bara skipped past what that “attempt” entailed, but Ouka still fell silent for a moment.
If he had blushed and angrily told her she was too young for that kind of thing, she might have retained some of her pride as a girl. She might have even found it cute and accelerated further.
But their teacher had provided the “perfect” response.
The resurrected memories brought an ashen look to her face.
“He said everyone has to start somewhere and that I could keep trying until I was satisfied. He didn’t even have to think about it and he looked downright bored. Heh. Heh heh.”
“He wasn’t even interested!? At least look up from the newspaper, Onii-chan!! What’s more important, the TV guide or me!?”
Asagao’s complaint shouted down by a modest chest suggested that their teacher had not mechanically provided them all the same response. But the depressed looks on all four faces staring at that mirror suggested they had all given it their best shot and been shot down.
Ouka lightly stretched her back to forcibly push out her still-growing chest while the shower water poured down her body and she looked to the mirror once more.
“I’ve been working on my looks since then, so maybe I could make his heart skip a beat now.”
3: The Four Girls – Again
Those girls had always been following him around like baby chicks.
The modern ninja class was meant to be done over their phones with the materials shipped to them, so it was not designed for in-person contact. Nevertheless, they had worked out his location themselves and arrived uninvited.
“Heh heh. I finally outdid you, Sensei,” Ouka had said with a beaming smile. “A ninja needs to excel with information. Isn’t that what you taught me?”
She had apparently long since learned that he lived alone.
He could still remember it like it was yesterday.
And it had not just happened the one time. They had patiently supported him.
The hotpot they had made for him had been delicious. He had made sure to lecture them on not letting their personal lives interfere with their duties, but they had ended up laughing together, making rice soup out of it, and finishing off every last drop.
They were good kids.
Or he had thought they were. So why had they done this?”
“If I may be so bold.”
After he was led onto a black SUV, Shirazaya Guren cleared her throat and stopped Chirping. The special vehicle had thick bulletproofing and he imagined it was made so shining a laser on the windows was not enough to eavesdrop.
“We have concluded that you did nothing wrong. That is why we have asked for your assistance.”
“We were unable to acquire your records, but we have heard how fiercely you fought against those powerful knights and musketeers.”
“I didn’t do much. The only thing left to prove I fought at all are these scars on my body.”
“Officially speaking, yes.”
“Yes, but only officially speaking.”
Past glory was a double-edged sword.
Especially when you had three bolts in your spine and springs inserted in your legs to replace your ligaments.
A 5kg weight would make his spine feel funny and a 10kg weight would make it explode with pain. Plus, ordinary clothing with no bulletproofing or bladeproofing weighted about a kilo and a winter coat would add another kilo onto that. Frontline combat gear was out of the question.
He could hardly believe those kids had stuck around with an empty shell like him.
“Let’s get started. I want to know details.”
A modular nuclear reactor.
That was what Ouka and the others had supposedly stolen.
No matter which side they were on to begin with, that was too much to smile and ignore. He could not let them use the ridiculous power of a nuke as a bargaining chip no matter what their reasons were.
Shirazaya Suiren traced a finger along the edge of her right ear.
“As the name suggests, it is a nuclear reactor with its design simplified and size reduced to the extreme. It is contained in several linked containers that can be transported by freight train when separated.”
“Although it was not designed for domestic use. It was being researched as a form of infrastructure business to be shipped overseas from Dejima.”
The twins sat on either side of him in the back seat and they took turns providing the explanations. They could only be told apart by the white and red hair extensions next to their ears.
“Shrinking it down makes it easy to transport,” groaned the boy. “But that also makes it easier to steal, or it could be suspended from a plane or chopper and dropped on a target site.”
This had been developed under the fishy-looking title of a mobile nuclear reactor that could be set up anywhere on the planet. If they were lined up along a national border, they would likely function identically to a line of nuclear landmines. Plus, the country could claim it was a peaceful use of nuclear power, so if another country sent out a bomb squad in secret, that other country would be accused in an international conference of using their ninjas, tuxedos, or other special forces to commit infrastructure sabotage. It really was a convenient toy.
When Guren traced a finger along her throat, Sugiyado’s phone rang and it received mission relevant documents he had not asked for.
“Early this morning, the four ninjas under your instruction broke into the Resource Energy Agency’s nuclear physics lab located here in New Yokohama Domain and stole a single Hinata Type-1 Modular Nuclear Reactor. The lab was performing a final stress test in preparation for a demonstration in Southeast Asia, so all of the units were installed with fuel rods. That means they could detonate it at any time.”
“Why would they do that?”
“That is what we would like to know. The Elite Ninja spies you instructed already had status and honor, so why would they suddenly turn on the shogunate they are meant to serve?”
“No, not that.” Sugiyado corrected them while teasing the large scarf over his mouth. “They went to the trouble of breaking into a shogunate lab and then they only steal one of them? If they risked their lives on this, isn’t it human nature to want to steal as much as they could get their hands on?”
The twins exchanged a glance with the boy between them.
“Well…wouldn’t it be a simple issue of the weight limit? While they are simplified and small, these models are still only meant to be transported by freight train. Even with a specialized vehicle at their disposal, a group of just four would only be able to carry out so many.”
“If they got greedy and tried to take too many with them, they could have lost everything.”
They made a good point.
“Then why did they break into a shogunate lab? Wouldn’t it be easier to head overseas where security is laxer and ‘borrow’ one of the reactors lined up on a national border?”
“I won’t name names, but not every country has as many hang-ups about nuclear power as we do. Some leave rusted nuclear subs sunk at the bottom of a bay or power lighthouses with nuclear batteries and don’t bother to track what happens to them.”
That made him extremely curious why his students would break into the nuclear physics lab.
“Are you suggesting they are not that fixated on the modular nuclear reactor? They went to such lengths to obtain a bargaining chip as absurd as nuclear power, but that was no more than a smokescreen?”
“It worked, didn’t it? Thanks to that, no one knows what their true objective is.”
The SUV seemed to have reached its destination.
Sugiyado Souha stepped out into an underground parking garage somewhere, but he was not guided to the elevator or the stairs.
He was brought to the back of a giant tanker truck parked in the same garage.
And a glance down the maintenance hatch in the top showed the walls were covered in mission documents and it was filled with a fridge, a microwave, and sleeping bags for overnight work.
Within the faint smell of fancy Western sweets, Suiren toyed with her earlobe and whispered to him.
“Welcome to our home.”
There were no windows. The twins closed the hatch after climbing in with him, so he had no way of even guessing where they were headed. He could not even see the 1000m broadcast tower that could be seen from any part of the city. He could only tell they were moving thanks to the inertial forces affecting his body.
“Allow me to introduce myself again. I am Shirazaya Guren, a shogunate spy.”
“Likewise, I am Shirazaya Suiren. We are ranked as High Ninjas, but they say we could take an Elite Ninja’s head when we work together.”
They did not ask for a handshake.
Guren pointed at the wall of documents with her slender chin.
“I know this is sudden, but we would like to fill in the gaps in our information. You claimed earlier that the modular nuclear reactor is no more than a diversion. Would you care to elaborate?”
“It isn’t their style. They wouldn’t know what to do with nuclear power if they had it.”
Images of the four girls’ faces were displayed in the center of the document wall. The photos were probably the ones from the resumes they sent in to be registered as shogunate spies.
“Listen.” Sugiyado Souha recalled a memory of a more pleasant time that was hard to think back on now. “I am going to teach you many things. Some of them will be ways to hurt and harm people, but if you always work toward a righteous goal, there is no fear of your knowledge and techniques getting the better of you. So do not laugh and do not feel shame as you carry in your heart a righteousness you can believe in. That will support you more than you could ever imagine.”
He could remember them cheerfully replying on the screen.
As if shaking free of something and readying himself to fight, he pointed at the photos on the wall one by one.
“Kuhou Ouka. Age 14. Specializes in direct combat. She can control fire, water, wind, earth, and all else with only Midnight Tempest, a bayonet-equipped vertically-stacked double-barrel hunting gun she made herself. That might not sound very ninja-like, but carrying that high firepower in case of emergencies helps reduce the psychological pressure on the other members.
“Hanasawa Bara. Age 18. Specializes in disguise, camouflage, and other recognition interference techniques. If a door can’t be opened from the outside, she will get inside and open it from there. On the combat front, she is the assassin type. She sows confusion, yet her single attack is extremely powerful. In a way, she is the most ninja-like ninja.
“Nantou Hoozuki. Age 16. She uses Countless Calamities, a transformable multitool of an off-road motorcycle, and those close to her call her a stunt master. Her job is to construct a route into wherever they need to go. She is also skilled at using ropes and ladders. Plus, she can fight. Be on your guard if you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a roundhouse kick from that bike of hers.
“Shizukuma Asagao. Age 11. She is an information gathering expert and she can sneak into enemy territory using the tears and cuteness of a child, but she is also growing into something akin to a hacker. The ninja world is a world of data. You can assume she is the one who gathered all the information needed for a pre-mission briefing. She has no direct combat ability, but she excels at breaking apart enemy groups by causing friendly fire and paranoia. If things seem to be going badly, you should come to a stop and make sure no outside factor is artificially influencing things.”
Of course, those were all fake names.
In fact, anyone who reached their level would have their family register entry and national ID number erased. That meant they had no way of proving their Japanese citizenship.
Each of them was worth their weight in gold and it was said four Elite Ninjas together could bring down a feudal lord holed up in their castle. To reiterate, modern ninja techniques were an extremely dangerous form of Strategic Martial Arts that had been developed anew on top of a foundation taken from existing arresting techniques and military martial arts based on judo, karate, kendo, etc. Even with his injury, Sugiyado could destroy a unit of tanks as long as it was in a limited environment. Ouka and the others were in their prime, so how far could they go while working together?
That was an impressive roster, but Suiren silently tilted her head while toying with her right ear.
“I notice none of them specializes in mass destruction. The closest one would be Ouka, the direct combat expert.”
“She wouldn’t do that. For better or for worse, her only firepower is Midnight Tempest, that hunting gun with a bayonet. If you look through her past records, you should see she never even tries to detonate a gas pipe or gas tank. Unpredictable fire sources mess with her calculations and she wants to avoid the possibility of harming her allies.”
“Then what are they trying to do?”
That question suggested the four girls had not sent any kind of demands. Although it was possible they had contacted some high official and it was being dealt with internally.
If they were going to negotiate, they would isolate the target.
They would demand the target did not let the police or the shogunate ninjas get close.
Sugiyado himself had taught them that.
“The city seems to be continuing as normal, but the theft of a modular nuclear reactor must have messed with some plans below the surface. Do you have a list of the effects?”
Shirazaya Guren’s alluring throat tensed as she pointed wordlessly toward the wall.
One scrap of paper toward the outer edge of the documents appeared to be what he wanted.
“The foreign VIPs scheduled to visit New Yokohama Domain have delayed their visit, a popular motor show was canceled, a new smartphone announcement was canceled, and various others.”
“A major bank, a stock exchange, an insurance company, a government library digital archive, and a cellphone data center have gone into lockdown, but I imagine they are afraid of a largescale EMP attack. The VIPs with delicate medical implants have been evacuated into shielded shelters deep underground.”
Sugiyado viewed the documents on the wall, approached them, and flicked one.
“This motor show was canceled at the last minute.”
“Yes, what about it?”
“But not all events were canceled. This wall wouldn’t have enough space to display it all if they were.” The boy thought for a moment. “Was this motor show canceled because it is backed by the shogunate’s Ministry of Transport and the people running the show were warned?”
“Canceling the show at the last minute will leave tens of thousands of people with nowhere to be. They went to the trouble of traveling all the way here, so they aren’t just going to head home. That means the other events will be more crowded. In the worst cases, the expected occupancy of the venue may be overrun two times over.”
“Are you saying that will inevitably leave the security understaffed?”
“And this might seem crude, but not everyone visiting a motor show is there to see the cars. A lot of them will be there for the companion girls.”
Suiren stopped teasing her right earlobe and rushed over to a laptop. She called up a list of the events being held in the next few days. She must have found it online.
Sugiyado viewed the screen over her shoulder and pointed at one entry in the list.
“That’s it. And it’s only 200m from the motor show venue.”
“An idol festival supported by the international airport? But with 100 groups participating, it looks like it will be a real mixed bag quality-wise.” 𝓲n𝑛𝓻ℯ𝗮d.＆nbsp;𝚌o𝒎
“That fits the demographic perfectly. Some self-proclaimed idols might even work as a companion girl for the time being. If you don’t need a ticket reserved in advance and last-minute entries are allowed, they’re probably getting a huge influx of people.”
It looked like Ouka’s group of kunoichis had broken into a shogunate lab and stolen a modular nuclear reactor in order to cancel the motor show and send tens of thousands of people to the idol festival at the international airport. With so many extra people flooding in at the last minute, security would be completely overwhelmed.
Shirazaya Guren gulped.
“But what do they hope to accomplish by sneaking into an idol festival?”
“Beats me. They’ve never been into idols before.” Sugiyado glared at the screen. “But have you forgotten? That festival is taking place at one of the airports that have been doing poorly against the country’s linear motor train network. Sneak in there and you can accomplish most anything.”
4: Strategic Martial Arts
The Dejima-like New Yokohama Domain was an area of reclaimed land built out at sea. The only land route in was a large bridge known as the Umbilical Cord. The airport was an extension added onto the edge of the reclaimed land like a second scoop of ice cream. New Yokohama Domain itself was large enough to grow into a city of a million, but its land was not unlimited.
When the tanker truck arrived near the scene, Guren and Suiren left through the tank’s maintenance hatch.
They focused on their earphones.
“As planned, please ‘clean up’ the runways, fuel storage, and anything else that could cause major damage! After that, deal with the digital threats such as the control tower and server room!!”
“We don’t know how they intend to take people’s lives, but we need to assume they are planning something big enough for a modular nuclear reactor to be mere bait! Act accordingly!”
Sugiyado Souha left shortly thereafter and shielded his eyes from the sun with a hand.
There were more people than even he had anticipated.
With so many customers stolen by the linear motor trains, the airport had remade one of its vast international flight terminals into a festival venue. There was no entrance fee and they made their money on the drinks, but that meant the place was entirely out of control. The people who could not get inside were flooding the area outside the building.
“Is this wall of people too much of a challenge for shogunate kunoichis?”
“Do not be ridiculous.”
“You wait out here, advisor.”
By the time he heard the sound of large clothes beating at the air, the twins had both stripped off their white dresses to reveal their ninja outfits made with a spider web structure.
It was like a magician’s handkerchief. The dresses twisted around and the twins’ silhouettes seemed sucked into them before they transformed into the ninja outfits with collars and belts to cover the important parts and some decorations like a large flower on the back of the hip.
Overall, they were a mixture of Japanese and Western. They looked like a sleeveless kimono with a pleated miniskirt added on. They looked as revealing as a cheerleader uniform, but the entire body would be covered by a special flesh-colored material, similar to figure skaters. …Although that was similar to wearing full-body bike shorts, so they still had to wear something on top.
It was strange, but just like with figure skaters, the short skirt was still distracting even when you knew their entire body was covered.
The girls disappeared before anyone in the crowd could turn back their way.
(Does that flesh-colored part support their movements with electric potential elastic belt cylinders? That would be Soaring Wings Ver…what’s it up to now? Regardless, that’s a lot of support. Overusing accessories like that will wear down your own cartilage.)
He could not help but start grading them.
He shook his head, exasperated with himself. That was not his role here.
There was no point in looking up into the blue sky to watch the girls leaping from rooftop to rooftop. He had his own idea of where to check.
He lifted his large scarf up over his mouth.
The cloth covering his face like a mask had been given some special decoration so it would fool facial recognition. It was not much different from the sunglasses and other commercial products to that end. It was all in how you used it.
He had never hoped to get in through the main gate stuffed full of people and he no longer had it in him to leap around between rooftops, so he made his move on the ordinary backdoor. It was of course locked, but he pulled one of his Fierce Fang air pressure kunais from the back of his hip.
(The nitrogen would be too powerful here.)
He simply stuck the sharp tip in the gap and used leverage to force off the electronic lock’s cover. Then he messed with the wiring within to get inside.
Airports seemed so spacious, but the corridors were cramped when you entered through the back.
Shirazaya Guren and Suiren seemed to think Kuhou Ouka’s group was trying to attack the airport and that the idol festival’s presence was happenstance. Sugiyado had somewhat led their thinking in that direction, but he had another idea.
(A mixed bag of idols, huh?)
A total of a 100 idol groups would take turns performing on stage. They were treated with a lot less care than with ordinary concerts where a single idol or group rented out an entire domed stadium, but this really was a mixed bag. There really were some with the “national” title who earned a billion or even ten billion yen in a year.
A modular nuclear reactor was definitely expensive, but not many people could do business with them. And that included with threats. So if you were after profit, it would be a lot better to use the reactor to get close to an idol whose value most everyone could see.
And despite their value, an entertainer was a lot less strictly guarded than a giant diamond in a museum’s glass case or a gold bar in a bank vault. It was laughable to think you could protect a diamond or gold bar if it was free to wander around town with only a few muscular bodyguards.
It pained him to think Ouka and the other three would be committing crimes purely for money, but this was a professional job at this point. Combat was not kind enough to change its result if you prayed hard enough. He had to harden his heart and assume the powder keg had already been lit back when they stole the modular nuclear reactor.
He borrowed a pamphlet from a cardboard box that probably contained excess stock, he viewed the list of participating idols, and he tapped his finger on the photo of the biggest earner there.
(Shitou Kyouka. It’s gotta be her.)
This might be a largescale idol festival with 100 groups performing, but the organizers and sponsors at the top had their own plans.
This was likely all a way to give their prize girl the trophy so they could claim she fought fair-and-square with a hundred competitors and emerged victorious. And if you ignored the fixed game that was first place, the other unknown idols did have a chance here.
Locating her was not hard.
The internal staff had welcomed that superior idol very differently from the rest. Listening in from the edge of the corridor told him a lot. She was not to be given any cold drinks before her performance, no part-timers were allowed in to play amateur paparazzi, and so on.
When Sugiyado visited her location, he did not find a dressing room.
She had been given a rehearsal booth that was the exact same size as the main stage. It was impressive. With 100 groups participating, it was hard to give them all separate rooms. Idols from the same production company were probably forced to share a room. Simply giving this one a space larger than a school gym all to herself was enough to know how much of an advantage she had been given.
The rehearsal booth was lit up by several lights powerful enough to act like heaters.
In the center of the stage stood a girl with short hair and a mostly black costume with a flashy miniskirt, small wings, and a tail. It was probably supposed to look like a demon.
That was Shitou Kyouka.
Her refreshing voice contained an odd intensity and charm that ruled this vast space even during meaningless voice training.
There was no sign of any staff in here. It was so convenient you would think she had known this was coming.
Sugiyado Souha frowned, slightly twisting the scar on the tip of his nose, and spoke.
“Who are you?”
That national someone tilted her head with microphone and stand in hand.
Everything down to her fingertips was identical to what he had seen on TV and in that pamphlet.
He immediately pulled a Fierce Fang air pressure kunai from the back of his hip and threw it toward her cute little face. A hit from that special assassination weapon could pry open a tank.
Time seemed to stop and silence covered all.
Yes, the girl who was supposedly a professional idol and a combat amateur instinctually tilted her head the other way so the deadly weapon passed right by her.
He asked another question as if that came as no surprise.
“Are you planning to sing and dance looking like Shitou Kyouka?”
Kidnapping a top idol would not mean getting paid a massive ransom. Even if her family handed over her credit card or bank information, the bank would reject any request to withdraw all the money from her account.
And no matter how valuable an idol was, she could not simply be sold for that supposed value. She was the same as the modular nuclear reactor in that sense.
So the cleverest method was to use abducted Shitou Kyouka’s body to copy her fingerprint and iris patterns. If her family could not give you access to her bank account, then you only had to disguise yourself as the idol herself.
The top idol on the stage answered him with a bewitching grin.
The microphone stand she held shook.
In the blink of an eye, she revealed a black, chrome steel gun with a grip and stock decorated like a katana. That vertically-stacked double-barrel hunting gun was known as Midnight Tempest.
He knew what that meant.
A memory meaninglessly flickered in the back of his mind.
He decided this was a form of coquetry meant to capture a target, so he forced it out of his mind. Time was flowing all the while.
She threw off the stage costume to reveal the spider web ninja outfit that seemed to proudly display the undeveloped bodylines of a middle school girl. That bodysuit revealed all of her shallow curves and it was covered by a hybrid outfit that looked like the combination of an old-fashioned sleeveless kimono and a lower-body apron. Decorative cloths blew in the wind, a red rope danced behind her hips like a cat’s tail, and long chestnut hair was worn in twintails. He recognized it all.
His thoughts immediately turned to Midnight Tempest, which could control fire, water, wind, earth, and all else and was equipped with a bayonet and a multipurpose sight that resembled binoculars. She was like an incarnation of direct fighting power, a rarity for ninjas. He took a few steps back to adjust the distance between them. It had a close-range blade and its capsule rounds could contain incendiary, freezing, electric, acidic, or adhesive materials. Taking a rush of those varied attacks head on would not be the best idea.
But then it hit him.
She was an incarnation of direct fighting power, but chestnut twintailed Kuhou Ouka had lacked the skill in disguise needed to fool a crowd of a hundred thousand and all the TV cameras.
“No, is that Bara!?”
As soon as he saw through the disguise, the silhouette melted once more.
The ninja outfit he now saw had an entirely different design. This one was a bodysuit worn below a flashy oiran-style kimono that left her shoulders exposed and left the ends of the large obi draping down past her knees. At 18, her bodylines were more alluring than cute. She had a large chest and a slender waist. Her fiery red hair was worn in splendid ringlet curls for a luxurious look very unlike a ninja.
But now was not the time to stare.
He could already hear the sharp sound of something like a long needle stabbing through the air.
It had not been thrown by hand.
Each of Hanasawa Bara’s ringlet curls had a powerful electromagnet woven in, for a total of 18. Each of them was a coilgun that used powerful electromagnetism to launch a metal core, similar to how a linear motor train worked.
She specialized in disguise and camouflage, so her job was to sow confusion and then assassinate the enemy with a single powerful attack.
In this case, she had used the double disguise to alter the distance between them and then destroyed the stage lighting to “increase” the number of flying weapons. It was all an issue of the focal point. If you held a finger in front of your face and then tried to look into the distance, the number of fingers would seem to increase. And adjusting the eye’s focal distance was not the only way to adjust the pupil size. It could be done against your will when the brightness of the light changed. The confusion did not even last two full seconds, but that was plenty of time when you wanted to make a projectile attack.
If he had not been familiar with her habits, it would have all ended here.
His hand danced around before his mind could catch up.
He had drawn a new double-edged knife-like Fierce Fang from the back of his untucked short-sleeved dress shirt. He had never submitted the designs to anyone and it was a delicate enough weapon that he doubted even Ouka and the others could use it.
He took that thick, tungsten steel blade and slashed up from below to knock down the pin-like weapons flying toward his eyes. A kunai was originally a digging tool, not a projectile weapon, so it was plenty sturdy.
But that had not been the best move.
He was familiar with Bara’s thorns. Her weapon was named Candy Needle. Those were special poison needles made by mixing various chemicals with melted sugar and letting them harden. They must have also had iron sand mixed in to launch them with those coilguns. If stabbed by one, your own body heat would melt it and allow it to infect you, but if you deflected one, the shattered pieces smaller than glass shards would enter your body through the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Targeting his eyes had been no more than a way to get him to reflexively move his hand.
He immediately shut his eyes and turned his head away, but the right half of his vision immediately died. The poison was already being carried around his body after being absorbed by the mucous membranes. But he did not have time to tremble in fear. The enemy was approaching fast.
Sugiyado Souha was not the kind of guy who would let himself be killed just because he could not use one eye. He was suffering from extreme pain and fear, but on a different level, his strategic thinking continued.
(Bara uses the coilguns made from the electromagnets hidden in her hair. That means she needs a large power source – a large-capacity lithium ion battery. If I destroy that, I can bring down her strategic support system.)
Then where was her second heart?
There was only one possibility.
(That oiran-style shoulder-exposing kimono seems like it doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but just like an unzipped coat, her back is always covered. She must be using a harness or something to carry the battery pack like a backpack!!)
It might seem unrelated at first, but the way her large chest seemed lifted by something was likely due to the harness. He could tell a slight difference there compared to her usual red dress. It was like she was wearing a push-up bra.
He forcibly cut the pain off from his mind.
He accurately launched one of his air pressure kunais into the groove between panels forming the stage floor below his student’s feet. He had already spun the dial with his thumb, so after exactly three seconds, the nitrogen activated the device and mercilessly destroyed the floor below Bara’s feet.
First, he knocked her off balance.
Once she showed her side or back to him, he would aim for and destroy the large-capacity lithium ion battery that would be hidden below her kimono and obi.
“Was that your plan, Sensei!?”
A moment later, Bara let out a roar while embracing her own body as if squishing her large chest.
Did she fold up her arms like that to avoid accidentally hitting herself?
Her 18 red ringlet curls all floated up and became cannons. She actually fired the coilguns at the floor all around her as if to add damage atop damage. The floor material burst up around her like a crater or splash.
This was not an attack from the Candy Needles that shattered upon impact. This had to be Final Cannon, thick and heavy metal needles that wove depleted uranium into well-tempered steel. Unlike the easily-shattered Candy Needles, these supplied the full power of the coilguns. But what was Hanasawa Bara’s true intent here?
(A makeshift barrier!?)
In terms of modern weapons, his Fierce Fang was similar to a precisely-aimed rocket. Instead of piercing the target like a sniper rifle, it would shred the target from within once it recognized a hit.
That made it vulnerable to obstacles. A single tree branch of leaf in the way would block the line of fire and it would shred the wrong thing.
Both sides of the fight knew each other well enough to block their tactics and ninja arts with simple tricks.
While Sugiyado’s air pressure kunai was blocked by the pieces of the floor, Bara’s Final Cannon could break through that obstacle like it was wet paper and break his entire body and her Candy Needles could weave through the gaps and inject him with powerful poison.
Normally, this would be the end – a hopeless checkmate.
“Is that all you’ve got, Bara!?”
He was not broken.
When reaching out toward a student being swallowed by the depthless darkness, his spirit would never be broken no matter how desperate his situation. He had no reason to doubt himself here. He was willing to make an enemy of the world if it would save them. He did not need to think twice to know that.
This was why he had agreed to help Shirazaya Guren and Suiren.
The situation was worsening at an accelerated rate. If it continued on to the end, they would lose everything. And here he was working to save people within it all. He felt like he was once more floundering in that nightmare where he had broken his spine, but that changed nothing about what he had to do.
He could not abandon someone he had grown so close to.
No matter what.
It was in fact his student Bara who looked shocked when faced with that willpower of steel.
He knew they would not hit his target, but he still threw a few more Fierce Fangs. They hit the flipped-up floor panels before reaching Bara, but that was fine. He used the devices to tear apart and destroy the floor material, rearranging the layout in midair. In a shape that Bara had not expected.
Her ringlet curls finally fired the Final Cannon needles of depleted uranium alloy at Mach 7.5, but it was too late.
Just as a bullet fired through glass would have its course diverted every so slightly, Bara’s Final Cannons had their paths bent by the unexpected number of obstacles in their path. They shot right past his face.
He did not even blink.
There was now a narrow empty space between them, much like the eye of a needle.
A Fierce Fang left the boy’s hand and poisonous Candy Needles left Bara’s hair, but the kunoichi girl would only have noticed something after launching her attack: Sugiyado Souha had lured her into making that attack.
His target was not Bara who had been disguised as an idol. In fact, he could not hope to hit her body that continued its living motions even as she fired from her hair. With an eye taken out and poison in his bloodstream, it was hard to hit a target that could escape the single point of a sniper blast.
So he did to her what he had done to himself.
As soon as a Candy Needle was launched from her ringlet curl, he hit it with his kunai. From the front, that was like targeting the tip of a needle, but the ringlet curl coilgun barrel could only launch the Candy Needle straight out. The ballistic path was easy enough to predict if he already knew which way that barrel was pointed. Especially when the line of fire between them was limited by so many obstacles. That was far easier than targeting Bara herself who continued evading as if dancing.
By throwing the kunai through the open path, it naturally flew toward the Candy Needle. He only had to use the guidelines already set up for him. Unlike Bara’s flowing, living movements, this was as easy as completing a tutorial.
The shattered Candy Needle burst in front of the kunoichi and covered her small face with its small fragments.
She leaned back, unintentionally jiggled her large chest, and quickly held a hand to her face, but it was too late.
The flow of time seemed to revert to normal for both of them.
The floor materials spreading out around her like a crater or splash clattered back down.
Sugiyado cautiously pulled a Fierce Fang out into his hand as he spoke.
“Now we’re even, Bara. No, we aren’t. What are the basics of poison effects? I taught you this!”
She held her right eye and bit her lip a little before finally giving in and answering.
“It comes down to the speed of blood flow and your weight.”
“Yes. And your smaller body means it takes less to reach a lethal dose. Plus, standing under those bright spotlights must have warmed you up like a halogen heater. That means the exact same poison will spread through your body faster. This is checkmate, Bara!”
Given the poison, she needed to avoid getting worked up and thus accelerating her blood flow.
But the boy was at his limit too.
Each of the girls had their own circumstances.
He had taught them all of his secret techniques in order to give them the strength they needed to face this harsh and cruel reality without being crushed.
He had believed it would lead them to happiness.
So why was this happening?
“Then tell me this before we both collapse! Why did you do this? And where are the others!? Ouka and Hoozuki are a part of this too, aren’t they!? Where are they!?”
But in truth, he was in the more dire situation.
I am going to teach you many things.
Some of them will be ways to hurt and harm people.
But if you always work toward a righteous goal, there is no fear of your knowledge and techniques getting the better of you.
That was what he had tried to teach them.
No, he had taught them that.
“Yes, Sensei. Your Ouka is over here.”
He heard a voice from behind him.
Even with the poison’s effects, he had been careless to let someone sneak up on him. Or was this a testament to their skill?
He recognized the voice.
It was Kuhou Ouka, the strange ninja who specialized in direct combat.
He tried to spin around like a tornado with Fierce Fang in hand, but the active-duty Elite Ninja was several times faster.
A dull pain ran through the back of his neck.
Impossible sparks filled his vision.
Once he realized he had been hit with the stock of her unique gun, he had collapsed forehead-first to the stage without bracing for impact.
“Ouka!!” shouted sexy Hanasawa Bara. But she did not sound happy to see help arrive. “Wasn’t there a better way of doing that!? Poor Sensei!!”
“Yes, I’m sorry, Sensei. Are you okay? That hurt, didn’t it?”
She gently flipped him over onto his back. He saw someone with still-growing bodylines peering down at him. He saw chestnut twintails and red ringlet curls. If not for the sinister bayonet-equipped hunting gun named Midnight Tempest and the coilguns hidden in those curls, they would have been beautiful enough to forget all about the ninja outfits and fall in love.
They really did sound worried about him. They were exactly how he remembered them, but that was what made no sense here.
One wore a sleeveless kimono plus lower-body apron and the other wore an oiran-style shoulder-baring kimono. They both wore bodysuits below that. Those kunoichis made no attempt to hide their ninja outfits made with a cutting-edge spider web structure. That proved they were willing to turn this city of a million into a battleground.
They had stolen a modular nuclear reactor and abducted a top idol. Those were not your average crime.
“Why are…you doing…this?”
He could barely even see while collapsed on the stage, but he still squeezed out a voice as if groping through the darkness.
“Did I…do something wrong? Tell me, Ouka, Bara.”
“Bara, hurry and give him the antidote. Anyone could get their hands on it, but the shogunate’s dogs can be careless in the weirdest ways.”
“Aye, aye, ma’am. It’s really not much more than an animal tranquilizer, so it doesn’t have a lethal limit. Oh, I’m feeling dizzy now too. That’s not good. Ouka, carry me if I pass out, okay?”
They briskly made preparations just like they always did. He could not even imagine what had caused everything to go wrong.
While peering down at him, Kuhou Ouka smiled in an alluring way that did not suit her undeveloped silhouette.
“Nothing has changed, Sensei. Not for us.”
“ ‘I am going to teach you many things. Some of them will be ways to hurt and harm people. But if you always work toward a righteous goal, there is no fear of your knowledge and techniques getting the better of you.’ Right?”
She sounded like she was begging for his praise. Almost like a puppy.
But wait. Could that mean…?
“Hold on. What are you trying to do?”
“Shitou Kyouka is a top idol who makes 10 billion yen a year. If you earn that much, you’ll get the VIP treatment in asset management. She should be immediately welcomed into the special sectors of banks and stock exchanges. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise.”
“But the shogunate will have secret external storage for any information they don’t want to keep too close by. They’ll use the excess space that not even the server administrator is aware of. That defeats the purpose of the usual security methods, but they’re afraid of rival factions learning about the skeletons in their closet.”
Based on the documents shown to him by blonde-haired Shirazaya Guren and Suiren, Sugiyado had guessed that stealing the modular nuclear reactor would cancel some other events and have the bank and stock exchange servers isolated in fear of an EMP attack. But what if those servers contained more than just money?”
He felt like his brain was tingling.
And not from the poison. He was probably subconsciously refusing to connect these hints together into an answer.
This was about information the shogunate would want to keep hidden no matter what.
And also information they would fear to keep nearby.
And his students had said they were working toward a righteous goal, just as he had taught them.
“We want to learn the truth of the final mission that led to your position being unfairly taken from you.”
“We would do anything for you, Sensei. Tch. What an embarrassing line. Stop making me say stuff like that.”
His brain froze.
Yet his heart pounded wildly like it was going to boil over and burst.
This, he had not even remotely expected.
(To save me?)
No. That was the one thing they could not do! Warning bells blared in his mind.
“It isn’t just us. Hoozuki and Asagao feel the same way.”
“It’s over for me. I’ve accepted it. So you don’t have to dig this back up! No one wants that!!”
“But we can’t accept that. You can’t return to the front line because of your injuries? You can only work as an instructor now? Not a chance. I don’t know what actually happened back then, but they clearly treated you unfairly. If they hadn’t intentionally delayed your treatment, those wounds wouldn’t have been so bad! And making you an instructor wasn’t some kindness from the shogunate. It was the opposite! They didn’t know what you would say if you were given your freedom, so they surrounded you with us. I can’t think of any other explanation for every scrap of evidence we’ve seen!”
“It’s wrong for us to get all the credit. Someone else clearly deserves more praise than anyone. Isn’t that right, Sensei?”
“~ ~ ~!!”
To be honest, he was glad they cared so much for him. It helped immensely to know they remained true of heart and were not kidnapping people for money.
But they could not do this.
The darkness of that final mission was too deep.
If they got involved, not even those four Elite Ninjas would escape unharmed.
“Don’t worry.” Kuhou Ouka crouched down and gently smiled while peering down at his face. “Sensei, we won’t cause you any trouble. You report everything that happened here and continue pursuing us as an enemy. The shogunate’s dogs need some kind of assistance to keep up.”
“And it should help rattle the shogunate bigshots who have something to hide here.”
Sugiyado just about cried out in a desperate attempt to stop them, but he must have predicted that they would have slipped from his grasp before he could do anything.
“You do the honors.”
“Really? I wouldn’t hold back if I were you.”
Kuhou Ouka laughed and took a swig from the vial that Hanasawa Bara handed her. But instead of swallowing it, she kept it in her mouth and moved her face in close. Her slender fingers pulled the scarf down from his mouth.
Her lips tasted of medicine.
The bitter liquid that flowed into his mouth dissolved the toxin wreaking havoc on his body.
“That was my first? What about for you, Sensei?”
After a short bashful pause, it was finally over.
That acted like a dividing line.
“Okay, Sensei, we will be leaving for today.”
“Once this is over, let’s have another hotpot party. We can finish it off with udon this time.”
After laying limp Sugiyado down on the stage, the two girls in cutting-edge ninja outfits stood up. They were really going to leave this time. Without Bara remaining to play the role of Top Idol Shitou Kyouka, the alert level would go up, but they must have decided staying would be too dangerous.
That meant they were moving to the next stage of their plan.
They were headed toward near certain doom.
They really would reach that final mission at this rate. If his students were headed toward the abyss, he could not just sit idly by and let it happen.
He desperately tried to reach out a hand while collapsed on the stage.
But he could not do anything.
A moment later, the girls had entirely vanished from view.
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