It took Atsushi a few seconds to realize what was different. On the surface, the club room looked as it always did: a little dim, a little dusty, and crammed with relaxing high school boys (plus one semi-inanimate teacher they all tried their best to ignore). There was Yumoto in a corner, nuzzling a resigned-looking Wombat. There was En sprawled gracelessly in a chair, staring pensively off into space. There were Ryu and Io playing with their smartphones...
The smartphones. That was it. The two second-years had a pretty set routine from which they did not waver: Ryu checked emails from his legion of admirers and Io checked the stock market. Now they were both looking at identical screens and typing rapidly.
"What are you guys playing with?" Atsushi asked, as he settled into his chair. "Some new video game?" If it was a video game, he was surprised En wasn't messing with it, too. Video games were one of the few things that would rouse En from his customary torpor, at least until he inevitably beat them or got tired of seeing how high he could run up his score.
"It's a new chat app," said Ryu. "Haven't you heard of it yet? It's called LocalLink. Everybody in the school is playing with it."
"So what does it do?" asked Atsushi, leaning in to get a closer look.
"You tell it your location," Io explained, "and it links you with other people in the area - anonymously, of course. You can find people who share your interests or just chat randomly. I'm using it to make business contacts. It's all about networking these days, if you want to get ahead."
Ryu grinned. "I'm just using it to meet girls. Turns out there are a few who haven't heard of me yet."
Atsushi smiled a little. "I'm amazed."
"I know, right?" said Ryu. "But it's turning into a fad. Everybody in school is getting into it. They're all convinced they'll meet the love of their life or their new best friend."
"I think it's the lure of knowing that whoever you're talking to could be right around the corner," said Io. "Most of the people you meet on the internet, you know your chances of ever seeing them in person aren't so good. It's more real somehow, when you know you're talking to someone nearby."
"Maybe so," said Atsushi. He glanced towards En and Yumoto. "So why aren't you two playing with it?"
"If I want to meet somebody, I'll just walk up and talk to them," said Yumoto. "What do I need a computer for?"
"I have all I can do to keep up with all of you," said En. "Besides, I forgot my phone at home."
Atsushi laughed. "Well, maybe I'll try it out later, after I've finished my homework."
"You're so dutiful," said Io, sounding amused.
There was a knock on the door, a polite tappity-tap, and everyone turned to regard it warily. Wombat, apparently glad of the excuse, flung himself out of Yumoto's arms and went to revive Mr. Tawarayama.
"If it's that Gero guy again," said Ryu, without looking up from his screen, "tell him to get lost."
But it wasn't Gero. When Atsushi opened the door, he found it was only Vice-President Arima.
"I have handouts for you," he said brightly, as if handouts were an unexpected treat. He removed a stack of paper from under his arm, briskly peeled off a few of them, and thrust them into Atsushi's hands.
"Thank you," said Atsushi automatically. "What's this all about?"
"Club business," said Arima. "The yellow one on top is a flyer about the upcoming school festival, and the white pages are for you to fill out and turn in. New policy is that all active clubs need to turn in a progress report every month summarizing their activities." He was still smiling, and there was nothing particularly ominous in his tone, but Atsushi still got the message loud and clear: if the report did not get filled out and turned in, and if it did not have something that sounded suitably productive written on it, the Earth Defense Club was going to be in trouble. Again.
"I see," said Atsushi. "We'll take care of it."
"Forms are due at the end of the month," said Arima. "You can bring them by the student council room or give them to me or one of the other council members during class. Either way is good."
"I understand," said Atsushi. "Don't worry. We'll have it done right away." Fat chance of that, but what else could he say?
Arima nodded, still looking around vaguely. Despite the fact that he had apparently completed his mission, he didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave.
"I've never been in here before," he remarked. "What are you doing?"
Io obligingly turned his phone around so that Arima could see it. "Networking."
"Is this club-related?" asked Arima, his mild expression turning puzzled.
"Well, sure," said Ryu. "We're the Earth Defense Club, right? This is the perfect way for us to learn more about people's problems. We can't help anyone if we don't know what's going on in the world, right?"
"Ah. I see." It was impossible to tell if Arima bought this excuse or whether he was merely giving Ryu a brush-off. Either way, he looked intrigued by the chat program. He took a few steps closer to get a better look at it. While Atsushi rifled through the stack of paper he'd been given, Io and Ryu gave Arima a detailed rundown on what the program was and how to use it. Arima nodded, asked questions, and eventually got Io to show him how to download the program onto his own phone. Once he was satisfied that it was working correctly, he thanked everyone, reminded them to get their forms filled out on time, and ambled off, presumably to distribute more paperwork.
"He seemed nice," Yumoto remarked.
"Yeah," said Ryu. "I wish he was our student council president, and not that other guy. I bet we wouldn't get such a hard time, then."
"Oh, Kinshiro isn't so bad," said Atsushi, feeling the need to defend his old friend. "He just has a very orderly mindset. He doesn't like it when things don't work the way they're supposed to. And you have to admit, from the outside, it doesn't look like we're doing anything much here. We can't exactly tell anyone we're superheroes protecting the world."
"Which means that we're wasting school funding, from his perspective," said Io. "I suppose I can sympathize. If I were him, I'd be suspicious of us, too."
Ryu glared at his friend. "Hey, whose side are you on?"
"Never mind that now," said Atsushi. "Look, the important thing is, we need to fill out these forms somehow. Any idea what to write?"
Wombat looked affronted. "You're protecting the Earth with the power of Love! What more needs to be said?"
"Geez, do you pay attention to anything that goes on here?" Ryu complained. "We'll just have to think of something we can do to keep the council off our backs."
En groaned. "What a pain."
"It'll be okay," said Atsushi, giving his friend a reassuring pat on the back. "There are a lot of things we can call club activities that won't be much trouble for us."
"Yeah, don't worry," Ryu agreed. "We'll just put our heads together, and... oh, wait, just let me answer this message." He turned his attention back to his phone and began typing rapidly.
Atsushi sighed a little. He could say all he wanted that it wouldn't be much trouble to come up with an idea, but with this group, even things that weren't a lot of trouble could be a lot of trouble.
"I don't know why we didn't think of this before," said Kinshiro, gazing with satisfaction at the small pile of papers that had accumulated on his desk.
Arima made a small noise of agreement, not looking up from his smartphone.
"It was a clever idea," Akoya agreed. Easy for him to say - it had been his idea. Not that he was wrong, and Kinshiro wasn't above giving credit where it was due once in a while, especially where a vain creature like Akoya was involved. Prick his ego once too often and he would take his interests elsewhere. He was a good ally, but he was also too clever and too vindictive to offend.
"We should have done it a long time ago," Kinshiro said instead. "It's the perfect way to weed out those so-called clubs that are wasting school resources doing nothing useful."
"Mm-hm," said Arima distractedly.
"Any club in particular?" said Akoya slyly.
But Kinshiro wasn't in the mood to be baited. He instead busied himself flipping through the stack of forms that had already been turned in. Most of the clubs he actively approved of, such as the archery club, had already filled theirs out and turned them in.
"Arima, I hope when you handed these out, you made sure you informed everyone of the due date," he said instead. "If any of these are turned in later than the last bell that day, we won't accept them. Anyone who is late will be subject to serious review and possible dissolution."
Kinshiro looked up and glared at Arima. "Are you even listening?"
"Anyone who turns in their forms late is subject to serious review," said Arima obligingly, not even looking up. Kinshiro's eyes narrowed.
"What on earth are you doing over there, anyway?" he snapped.
Arima held up his phone so everyone could see. "It's something I found out about from the Earth Defense Club when I went to drop off their forms." He must have seen the warning glares on his companions' faces, because he added quickly, "Naruko showed it to me."
"Oh, him," said Akoya, in a tone that suggested anything Naruko had something to do with was probably acceptable. "He's the only one in the lot worth listening to."
"That's your opinion," Kinshiro grumbled. "So what does this wonder app do, anyway?"
Arima explained. Kinshiro listened, frowning slightly. It sounded like complete nonsense to him. Then again, now that he thought of it, he thought he did remember hearing snatches of babble about it from his classmates. He usually tried not to listen to them, but some things had a way of being so omnipresent that he couldn't fail to notice them.
"How pointless," said Akoya, when Arima had finished wrapping up his explanation. "If anyone wants to talk to me, they can find me. I don't exactly blend into a crowd."
"Maybe they want to talk to people besides you," Arima suggested innocently.
Akoya sniffed. "Why should they? All commoners are the same. One is as good as another, so why bother seeking out new ones when they can talk to the ones at hand?"
A small flare of green light from Kinshiro's pocket announced Zundar's arrival.
"You are missing an important point, da," the hedgehog chided them. "This could be a valuable tool in your quest to conquer the world, da!"
Kinshiro gently lifted Zundar out of his pocket and placed him on the center of his desk. Arima hastily set his phone aside and hurried to fetch him a teacup, then waited respectfully for him to make himself comfortable in it.
"Please, enlighten us," said Kinshiro humbly. "What use is this toy to our cause?"
"It is a means of gathering information," said Zundar. "Humans will gladly tell their innermost secrets when they believe they are anonymous. You will be able to seek out people who harbor darkness in their hearts, and have your pick of strong potential monsters."
"That does sound efficient," said Kinshiro thoughtfully. "Very well, we'll try it." He fished his phone out of his school bag and handed it to Atsushi. "Here. Install it, will you?"
Arima beamed, as if being asked to handle Kinshiro's tech support were the culmination of all his desires. "Of course, President." He began cheerfully pressing buttons. Kinshiro turned away, satisfied. He could always count on Arima to get things done.
"Now that's settled," Kinshiro said, "so we can turn our minds to more important matters. We shouldn't rely on technology to do for us what we can just as easily do for ourselves. Let's find ourselves a monster."
"Geez, what a day," Atsushi muttered. Today's problem had turned out to be a hyper-stressed student who was trying to juggle his school course load, multiple after-school clubs, and a part-time job, and had been lectured one too many times about burning his candle at both ends. Even after a thorough scrub and a long soak at the Kurotama, Atsushi was still finding bits of wax stuck to various parts of his anatomy.
"Who comes up with these things anyway?" he asked himself.
He sank into his desk chair with a sigh and cast a reluctant glance at his textbooks. He didn't have all that much homework, really - a test at the end of the week he needed to study for, a project due at the end of the month, a couple of chapters of things to read for class tomorrow, a few math problems that he'd mostly already finished during a lull in his classes. He didn't really feel like doing any of it just yet. When he'd been young, he'd imagined that being a hero would be glamorous and involve a lot of cheering admirers. Now that he actually was one, he was learning it involved a lot taking a beating from really strange-looking creatures and then trying to pretend afterwards that it hadn't happened. He made a halfhearted stab at his studies, only to realize five minutes later that he'd been reading and rereading the same paragraph without absorbing any of it.
"Fine," he said, pushing the book away. "If I'm not going to get any work done anyway..."
He turned on his computer and looked up the main page for the chat program his friends had been messing with earlier. If he wasn't accomplishing anything, he might as well go see what all the fuss was about. Within minutes, he'd set everything up, selected a username and password, and was contemplating the options for who to talk to. How far away did he consider "local"? Did he want to find someone who shared his interests, or have his chat partner selected at random?
Well, it's not as though I'm looking to meet my soulmate. I'm just killing time, he thought. He clicked the "random" button and waited for results.
A few seconds later, a new screen opened up, and he typed, "Hello?"
Someone with the handle "Golden Arrow" typed back, "Hello to you too."
Atsushi smiled. Apparently the program was working. He typed, "Nice to meet you. So, you live in Binan?"
"That's right. I'm a student at Binan High School."
"So am I," Atsushi wrote back. "I guess this program really is getting to be a fad there."
"So it seems. I wasn't sure I'd meet anyone interesting this way, but it seemed worth an attempt."
"Same here," Atsushi replied. "I guess I'm not completely sold on the idea, but I've been working hard and needed a break."
"Working hard on what?"
Atsushi weighed his answer carefully before answering, "Homework, most recently." Not entirely a lie. He had been doing homework, or at least trying to.
"You have my sympathies," his new friend answered. "Today has been busy for me too." There was a small pause, and then he added, "Club activity, mostly. I'm in the archery club."
"That must be where your name comes from," Atsushi asked. He thought about mentioning that he'd had a friend who was fascinated by archery, and decided not to bring it up. Now didn't feel like the time to mention Kinshiro. "I've never been good at it. I don't have the coordination."
"It takes intense focus," said GoldenArrow. "That's what I've always liked about it."
The two of them continued to chat, rambling from the archery club to the doings of various other clubs and bits of school gossip. They chatted about books - both of them were readers, and seemed to enjoy a lot of the same authors. Atsushi found that he was enjoying himself. GoldenArrow, whoever he was, seemed highly intelligent and keenly observant, and some of his shrewd remarks about some of the school's more eccentric denizens made him laugh aloud. He was surprised to look at the clock and realize that nearly two hours had gone by.
"I'm really sorry," he said, "but it's getting late and I need to go."
"I understand," GoldenArrow typed back. There was a pause, and then, "Will you be back tomorrow?"
"Yes," typed Atsushi without thinking about it. He realized he'd meant it. He had never met this person before, and he already was looking forward to seeing him again. "Tomorrow, about the same time."
"I'll see you then," GoldenArrow responded, and logged out.
Atsushi stared at the screen for a moment, gaze lingering on the words he and his new friend had exchanged. Then he sighed and turned the computer off. As much fun as this had been, he really did need to finish his homework. Still, he felt more relaxed now, in much better spirits than he had been while griping to himself about finding bits of candle in his hair. He reached for his books to settle in for a night of studying.
And of thinking about what he was going to say to his new friend tomorrow.
Kinshiro frowned as he stared at the glowing words on his screen. By the standards of his original plan, tonight had been an abject failure. He had meant to trawl this chat program in search of useful victims - to chat with someone for a few minutes, sound out whether they seemed unhappy or stressed, and then move on if they didn't seem suitable. It had been his bad luck that the first person he encountered had been cheerful, friendly, pleasant, and so far as Kinshiro could tell, as well-balanced as they came. Kinshiro should have moved on as soon as he'd realized that. Instead, he'd found himself being drawn into conversation. He'd meant only to put the stranger at ease, to make him feel they had common ground and common interests, so as to encourage personal confessions to an anonymous and apparently sympathetic stranger. Instead, he'd found himself getting caught up in conversation in spite of himself, until he was the one who was saying things he hadn't meant to let slip. He'd certainly said more about himself than he'd meant to.
It wasn't entirely his fault. This other person, whoever he was, had listened to him. It had been a long time since Kinshiro had felt so at ease with anyone, not since... no, he wasn't going to think about that. Say that he'd found a kindred spirit, and leave at that.
He supposed he ought to get back into the game and start looking for more likely victims, but somehow, he couldn't bring himself to do so. He was in a mellow mood, and that made it hard to really get invested in the idea of talking to someone miserable enough to make a suitable monster. Even taking over the world felt more like a chore than an ambition. For now, it was a lovely night, and he was content to relax and enjoy it. He pulled his chair over to the window and opened it a crack, just enough that he could enjoy the night air and smell the scent of flowers coming from the garden outside. The stars were shining very brightly. He looked up at them and let his thoughts wander.
To Be Continued...