Dismayed teacher Kirin Asaji looked down at the slip of flimsy yellow paper she had been delivered a week ago. She was still not entirely sure she believed or trusted the memo's contents, but it had been handed down from the management, and she was therefore bound to follow its instructions whether she wanted to or not. With half an ear to the chaos caused by students who know the bell is going to ring in the next five minutes, she sighed and read the memo one more time.
It has been brought to our attention that the methods of teaching used in this school, while adequate for imparting facts, are less than stimulating for creativity. In the future, all teachers will be expected to prepare activities to encourage creative thinking on at least a weekly basis.
She looked back over her students. In one corner, she could see Takato drawing pictures of assorted firebreathing beasts in his Earth Science notebook. She grimaced a bit.
*One of my students has such an active imagination, it got up and started walking around on its own. How much more creativity do they want?*
Meanwhile, the students were carrying on as was usual for a Monday morning - everyone trying to get in a few last hijinks before the teacher called them to order and made them settle down for another week of scholarly work. Hirokazu was sitting at his desk, in plain view of the teacher, blowing bubblegum bubbles, despite the fact that gum wasn't allowed at school. Takato was showing off his newest drawing to Juri: a depiction of Juri as a princess, being rescued from an ogreish-looking knight by a Guilmon in shining armor. Even Kenta, not usually a troublemaker, was more interested in showing Marine Angemon to a crowd of admiring classmates than in preparing for a day's work. It hadn't been a full month since the Digimon had found their way back to the material world, and their novelty had yet to wear off, especially since Marine Angemon was a shameless showoff.
"Is it too much to hope," said Miss Asaji, in her best parade-ground voice, "that we might get a little bit done today?"
Relative quiet descended, as roughly half the class reluctantly stopped what it was doing to pay attention. That was good enough for Miss Asaji, and she walked around the room, silencing the last of the troublemakers.
"Sawatari, put that thing away... Your makeup looks fine, Miss Hina; your face won't fall off without another layer... You can look at the Digimon later - get back in your seat... Mister Shiota, spit that gum out. It's not allowed in school."
Hirokazu obediently spat the gum into his hand and pretended to be depositing it back into its wrapper, but he put it back in his mouth as soon as the teacher turned her attention from him. Takato reluctantly turned his notebook to a clean sheet of paper. Marine Angemon, who knew of nothing so utterly dull as schoolwork, crawled into Kenta's knapsack for a nap. Miss Asaji took her place at the front of the room.
"Well, class," she said, "the esteemed management of this school believes that your creative impulses are being stifled."
"Has whoever said that taken a look at Takato lately?" said Hirokazu. A few of the other students snickered, Takato blushed, and Miss Asaji bit her tongue to stop herself from saying she had wondered the same thing. She forced herself to continue as if she hadn't heard.
"Therefore," she said, "we are going to spend the rest of the school year completing weekly projects designed to give your stagnating imaginations a chance to stretch their muscles."
The class groaned in unison at the prospect of extra homework. Miss Asaji sighed, knowing they wouldn't sympathize if she told them it taxed her, too; she was the one who would have to dream up these brain-building exercises.
"We're beginning these projects today," she informed them. "I spent the weekend assembling these boxes for you. You'll pair up in teams of two, and each team will receive a box, which will contain your materials. You will use these materials to construct something. You'll receive grades based on how useful and creative your construction is. Does anyone have any questions?"
"Do we have to use everything in the box?" someone wanted to know.
"Yes," she answered, "but you are allowed to add other things if you need them. And no fair just gluing them to the outside for decoration!"
"Can we trade boxes with someone else if we don't like what we get?" another student asked.
Miss Asaji smiled wickedly. "Only before you open them."
A few students laughed, and a few others mumbled objections.
"No more complaints!" Miss Asaji declared. "Don't worry, kids. This will only last until the management decides creativity is too expensive. Pair up!"
There was a sudden rise in the level of noise as students rushed to pair up with their friends. Predictably, Juri and Takato paired up, and Hirokazu and Kenta shoved their desks closer together. Miss Asaji waited until everyone had settled down reasonably well, and began distributing the boxes. As she passed, the students could be seen shaking their boxes and swapping them with people whose boxes sounded more interesting.
When Hirokazu and Kenta got their box, they opened it immediately. Hirokazu never would have admitted it, but he had a notion this might actually be fun. It was more interesting than doing worksheets, anyway.
Inside the box, they found a variety of odds and ends: thumbtacks, batteries, bits of wire, a Christmas tree lightbulb, some strips of plastic wrap, a toilet paper tube, and other less identifiable objects. Kenta stirred through the jumble with a finger, looking as if he expected something in there to bite him. Hirokazu scowled.
"How are we supposed to figure out how to make something with this junk?" he asked.
"That's for you to figure out," Miss Asaji replied. "Be resourceful! Someday you might be in a situation where you don't have the tools you need, and you'll have to figure out how to use what you have." Seeing his disgruntled expression, she said, "Come on. I know you're not stupid. You'll figure something out."
Hirokazu looked annoyed, but didn't argue. Kenta began picking through the pieces and examining them.
"Come on, lighten up," he said encouragingly. "We've got a week to think about it. We're bound to come up with something."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Hirokazu agreed. "Well, let's get this thing out of the way. I'll think about it later."
Kenta nodded and closed up the box, shoving it into his backpack. Marine Angemon chattered at him.
"Oops! Sorry, little guy," he said. "Forgot you were in there. Here, play with this stuff and see if you can figure out what it's good for - and don't lose any of it!"
Marine Angemon cheeped agreeably and crawled inside the box. He liked playing with toys.
"All right, class," said Miss Asaji over the babble of students' voices. "You've had enough time to look at your boxes. Mess with them after class. Right now, we have a unit on rainforests to get through. Eyes to the front!"
Reluctantly, the class turned its attention toward the blackboard. Hirokazu, in an act of silent rebellion, blew a bubblegum bubble behind the teacher's back. It popped loudly, splattering all over his face.
"I heard that," said Miss Asaji, busily writing on the board. "I told you to put that gum away, Hirokazu."
Hirokazu sighed. You really couldn't have any fun in school.
Yamaki's morning had started off reasonably well. Since the pace of work had dropped radically since the end of the D-Reaper's interference and the resulting hubbub, he'd actually managed to get a full night's sleep, for once. Consequently, there had been time for a leisurely breakfast with Reika and even for a quick glance at the newspaper before he'd had to go to work. Traffic had been so light as to be almost eerie. It should have been a warning. He should have known that no morning, however well planned, could go that smoothly.
As he arrived at the Hypnos building, he took a moment to stand and admire it. He was justifiably proud of the work he'd done there, and was dedicated to it to the point where Reika teased him about it, calling it her rival for his affections. But why shouldn't it have a special place in his heart? He had devoted years of his life to learning about the existence of Digimon, of convincing others of their presence and possible danger, of rallying the backing needed to initiate the Hypnos project. Many of the sophisticated machines in there had been built to his designs; it was because of him that the building stood there. There would be something wrong with him if he didn't feel some kind of emotional attachment to the building and what it stood for.
His thoughts were interrupted as he suddenly realized that there was something different there today. That was nothing too unusual; there had been some changes in the way the company was run since he had come to understand the Digimon a bit better, and since the building's existence and purpose had become public knowledge. Normally, though, people consulted with him when major changes were made. Now, though, there was a sign taped to the front door, with bold letters that had the authority of an announcement. He walked closer to read it. He stared. He took off his sunglasses and read it again. It read:
"When did this happen?" he asked Reika.
"Hm?" She glanced down at the sign. "Oh, that. I don't know. Nobody told me anything. What's the matter?"
"Nobody told me about this either," he said. "I don't like people making changes in company policy without telling me... and in case you've forgotten, I'm in the unhappy minority affected."
"You don't smoke that much," she said. "You told me you were going to quit, anyway. Now you've got a good excuse."
"Humph," he said irritably. "That makes no difference. It's the principle of the thing."
"Well, if you have to complain, go complain," she said. "Me, I'm going to get suited up and get ready for work. See you in the control room."
She breezed off without bothering to listen for his unenthusiastic goodbye. He headed for the elevator and pressed a button for one of the upper floors, where the executive offices were kept. While he waited for the elevator to make its journey, he considered the problem at hand. Reika might have been right in thinking that it really wasn't such a big deal. He did like a cigarette once in a while to help him unwind on a bad day, but he wasn't what he would have considered a chain smoker. Furthermore, smoking had never really been smiled upon in this building. People claimed it was a health hazard, or something of that nature, and kept it under restrictions. Still, it had been permissible in the staff lounge, and while it wasn't strictly allowed, no one had ever objected to him sneaking a smoke in his office - after all, he was the boss, and if the boss wanted to ruin his own lungs in his own office, that was his problem. The truth was that he, like many smokers, knew it was a bad idea - he just didn't like anyone else telling him that.
The elevator stopped with a soft chiming noise and divested its single passenger into a carpeted hallway. Yamaki walked swiftly up the hall until he reached the office of the man he wanted to see. He rapped on the door and had it opened by one of the senior executives - not quite equal to him, but high enough up the corporate ladder that he was worth being polite to.
"Ah, Mr. Yamaki, good morning," said the executive, bowing politely. "What can I do for you?"
"You can tell me about that sign on the front door," Yamaki answered.
"Sign?" the man repeated blankly.
"The one with the obnoxious message about smoke-free environments."
"Ah, that! I would have thought someone would have told you about that already."
"Well, then someone has been remiss in their duties, because I hadn't heard a thing," Yamaki replied, "so I have come to you for an explanation. Explain."
"Well, it's like this, Mr. Yamaki. This isn't exactly a private enterprise anymore. Everyone knows about us now. We've got corporate sponsors and advertising and all that commercial business. We get tourists now, standing on the front sidewalk and taking pictures. We just can't run the place like we used to. So now smoking is prohibited. I'm sorry, Mr. Yamaki," he said quickly, as Yamaki looked like he would like to argue. "I don't like it, either, but there's nothing I can do about it."
"I see," said Yamaki.
The executive shrugged. "Oh, well. My wife keeps nagging me to quit, anyway."
"The next person to nag me to quit," answered Yamaki, "won't have to worry about quitting, because he'll be fired."
"Yes, sir, I understand completely," said the executive. "Sorry I couldn't be of more help to you. Goodbye."
He closed his door a little too quickly for good manners, but Yamaki hardly cared; he didn't feel like talking to him anymore. He stalked down the hall in a bad mood; nothing ever made him desire a cigarette half as much as being told he couldn't have one. Probably, he reflected, he wouldn't have wanted one all day if that stupid sign hadn't put the idea in his head. Instead, he stopped by the lounge to procure a cup of coffee in hopes that the caffeine might offset the craving for other chemicals a little. Then he went to his office to sulk.
*I almost could hope something bad happens today,* he thought grumpily. *Just now, I would like nothing more than to have something big, ugly, and destructive to blunder into the Real World so I can watch it get deleted.*
A shadow passed across his window, and he turned to see a large, pink bird perched on the windowsill. It was a Piyomon, one of the Digimon who had wandered into the Real World recently and had not yet decided to leave on its own, nor had it caused enough trouble to merit being encouraged to leave. The establishment of a permanent, two-way portal between the Digital World and the Real World had brought about a variety of results. The most immediate had been the reunion between the Digimon Tamers and their partners. Afterwards, other Digimon had made the journey as well. Some were just curiosity seekers, while others hoped to establish a permanent home in the Real World. A small but slowly increasing number of Digmon had found Tamers of their own. The work of Hypnos now was not so much to halt the flow of these visitors, but to keep track of them, as well as to study the Digimon and the effect they and the two worlds had on each other.
There was one observation about Digimon that had been made almost instantly: Digimon, for whatever reason, were attracted to Hypnos the way iron filings were attracted to a magnet. So much Digital energy had been run over, around, and through the building that it carried an energy signature all its own, and Digimon could feel it miles away. It was only a very subtle tug, and most sufficiently developed Digimon could ignore its pull easily. Only very young or very stupid Digimon felt the need to hang around the building all the time. The technicians were in the process of researching this phenomenon and finding a way of damping it, but until then...
"Piyo?" said the Piyomon, in what sounded like an inquiring tone. It hopped a few inches sideways, to get a better view of the person through the glass. "Piyo, piyo?"
"Go away," Yamaki said, waving his hands at the bird.
"Pi, pi, pi, piyo!" the bird chirped, hopping up and down excitedly and fluttering its wings; it seemed to have the notion Yamaki wanted to fly. Certainly that was the only reason for him to be waving his hands around like that.
"Go on, scram!" he ordered. He smacked the glass in the general area of where the Piyomon was. It shrieked in fright and went fluttering off. He dropped back into his chair with a sigh.
"Why can't things go wrong?" he muttered. "I don't ask that everything go right all the time. I can handle things going wrong once in a while. I can handle emergencies. I can even handle world-wide calamities and interdimensional catastrophes if I have to. What I can't handle is things just being aggravating!"
He slammed his fist on his desk. The phone rang. The timing was so surprising that he jumped, and nearly knocked his sunglasses off. He reached for the phone and attempted to regain his aplomb.
"Yamaki here. What is it?"
"Mr. Yamaki?" That soft voice was Megumi; she had always been a bit shy around him, particularly when she knew he was under strain. "I wish you'd come down here. There's something not right."
"Could you be more specific?"
"No. That's part of the problem. We don't know exactly what it is, but there's something... a bit odd going on. We'd appreciate your expertise."
"I'm on my way," he replied.
With no more formalities, he hung up the phone and began heading for the lab. As he walked, he considered the "something a bit odd" Megumi had mentioned. He sincerely hoped it wasn't just a glitch in the computers. Something new, strange, and challenging would be almost enjoyable today. It had been a while since he'd had a real challenge. Mulling over how his day had gone so far, a challenge sounded like exactly what he wanted.
"We shouldn't have to do this," said Hirokazu to his friends. "We ought to be exempt."
"How do you figure that?" Takato asked.
"Well, because it's stupid, that's why," Hirokazu replied. "Everybody ought to know we're plenty creative already."
He, Takato, Kenta, Juri, and Jenrya, along with their partner Digimon, were holding a small meeting in the park, relaxing in the sunny clearing in front of Guilmon's old shed. In the middle of their circle were two white boxes, which were being subjected to scrutiny suitable to holy relics.
"And what makes you so special?" asked Jenrya. He wasn't in the same class as the others, and was therefore free to be objective about the white box project.
"Come on," said Hirokazu. "We're the Digimon Tamers! We traveled to the Digital World! Nobody's supposed to be able to go there unless their imagination's in good working order. Since there's only us and a few others who've been there, that ought to say something about our creativity."
"Hey, I just thought of something," said Kenta, looking suddenly worried. "What if we stopped using our imaginations? Would we not be able to get into the Digital World then? What if we lost our Digimon?"
The others were silent; obviously, that thought had never crossed their minds before. Marine Angemon nuzzled his partner's chin and cheeped reassuringly. It was clear he didn't think anything would ever get between him and Kenta.
"Oh," said Hirokazu. "Oh, well. Guess we might as well get this thing over with."
He tipped the contents of the box over on the ground and began sifting through them. Takato shrugged and did the same, bemusedly sifting through the collection of paper clips and soda tabs.
"What use is there for one of these things?" asked Takato, picking up one of the tabs and studying it.
"Maybe we could sew it to something and use it as a button," Juri suggested.
"This looks electrical," said Kenta, picking through a collection of multicolored wires. "I wonder if we could find anything at the library that would tell us how to hook the lightbulb to the batteries without electrocuting ourselves?"
Their ruminations were interrupted by a low rumble. All eyes turned to Guilmon, who had dropped to all fours and was sniffing around the ground, ears pricked forward, growling softly to himself. His pupils were contracted to narrow black slits, a sign everyone recognized as meaning trouble.
"What is it, boy?" asked Takato. "Is there trouble?"
Guilmon paused in his sniffing to give the question some consideration before nodding an affirmative.
"I hear something," he said. "I hear it, but I can't see it, and I can't smell it, and I don't like it."
"Where is it?" Jenrya asked, getting to his feet.
Guilmon pawed the ground. "Down there."
"Underground?" asked Takato. "There's nothing down there but-"
A phone rang. Everyone jumped. Jenrya looked sheepish.
"What a time to get called home to dinner," he said. He fished through his backpack and pulled out a small cellular phone. "Hello, Jenrya Lee speaking."
"Jenrya, this is Yamaki. Are the others with you?"
"Some of them," Jenrya replied.
"Fine," said Yamaki. "There's been a small emergency here at Hypnos. Your presence would be appreciated."
"Okay, no problem. We'll be along in a minute," Jenrya replied. "Over and out."
He hung up his phone. The others were looking at him curiously; they had only been able to hear one half of the conversation.
"That was Mr. Yamaki," Jenrya told them. "He wants us to come to Hypnos - apparently they've got what he calls a small emergency. I'm assuming that means big enough that he doesn't want to deal with it himself, but small enough that he can still ask politely."
"Sounds like fun," said Hirokazu. "I'm up for a quick fight - it's more fun than homework. What d'ya say, Guardromon? Sound like fun to you?"
"Hm? What? What was that?" Bored by the talk of homework, Guardromon had dozed off in the warm sunshine.
"Obviously, he's just thrilled by this assignment," said Hirokazu. "C'mon, buddy. Mr. Yamaki says he's got a job for us."
"A quest!" Guardromon exclaimed, surging to his feet with a clatter of metal. "Why didn't you say so? We must depart forthwith!"
"Yeah, let's hurry it up," Terriermon chimed in. "We don't wanna keep the boss-man waiting, right?"
"Guess not," said Takato, scooping the odds and ends back into his box. "Are you coming, Juri?"
"No, I think I'll sit this one out," she said. "You can manage without me... I'm not ready for another fight, just yet."
"I understand," he assured her. "Come on, Guilmon. Leave that alone. We have to go."
"But, but, but!" Guilmon protested, as Takato dragged him away from the patch of ground he'd been sniffing.
"You can sniff for gophers later," said Hirokazu impatiently. "Come on."
Reluctantly, Guilmon let himself be hauled away. He didn't tell anyone, as they rushed toward the Hypnos building, that whatever he'd been hearing beneath the earth seemed to be traveling in the same direction.
A few minutes before he made his phone call to the Tamers, Yamaki had been bending over a computer console, watching a peculiar energy pattern as it crackled across the screen. He, as well as most of the rest of the staff, had been watching it all day, and they were no closer to figuring out what it meant than when it had started. It had begun as barely distinguishable from the normal haze of digital energy that hung around Hypnos, but it had grown steadily throughout the day. As a matter of fact, it was acting very much as if a Digital Field were trying to form somewhere very close by - right on top of the building, in fact - but so far, nothing had appeared. They had checked and rechecked the machinery, but everything was working fine. No one had been able to decipher where this energy reading was coming from.
"I don't understand it," he muttered, frowning slightly at the screen. "According to this, it should be right on top of us, and yet..."
"Say that again," said Reika suddenly.
"Say what? That it's right on top of us?"
"Yes," she said. "It just now occurs to me that maybe we're right on top of it."
"You mean... underground?" he mused. "Yes, that would explain why we're not seeing it. Good thinking, Reika. Does anyone know what's under this building?"
"Not much," said one of the engineers timidly. "This lab is already underground. There isn't much below us but some electric cables, water pipes, sewers, maybe a subway tunnel..."
"Somebody find out," Yamaki ordered. "Now."
"I'm on it," said Megumi, turning to a nearby console. Her fingers flew over the keys, and an image constructed itself on the screen. "According to this, there should be the remains of a subway tunnel that was shut down when this building was constructed. Other than that, it's only the pipes and cables that supply the building."
"At least it's not a sewer pipe," said Yamaki, with a grimace of distaste. "All right, let's see if we can get a lock on this thing, now that we know where it is."
"Negative," said Reika. "The readings are continuing to rise; there's something major going on down there. It's like - it's like there are hundreds of wild Digimon moving around down there. I can't nail anything down."
"Well, keep trying," he ordered. He was distracted from issuing any other instructions, as the computer he was working on suddenly let out a whining siren. "Now what's happening?"
"Mr. Yamaki, we've got a problem here," one of the technicians shouted. "Whatever's down there is messing with our power supply; we've got a massive electrical surge coming in."
"Don't we have surge protectors to deal with that?" he asked.
"They're trying, but they can't hold out. If we don't do something fast, we're heading for a breakdown."
"Well, don't just stand there! Get these machines turned off! Now!"
There was a scramble as people hurried to throw switches and pull plugs. There was a rapid rise in the noise level of the room as warning signals blared, and then a descent to silence as machinery shut down. For a moment, there was only the urgent sound of hurrying footsteps and the whine of slowing fans. Then there was a breathless silence. In that silence, there was a rumble.
"Here it comes," someone muttered.
The rumbling increased to a dull roar. There was an ominous creaking noise, then a snap like striking lightning. Then a large chunk of the floor and part of one computer sank suddenly into the ground, throwing up great clouds of dust and making a noise like an avalanche. For a moment, everyone stood in the darkness, staring at the hole.
"You call that an electric surge?" Yamaki heard Reika mutter. He continued looking at the hole in the floor. It was large enough that a medium-sized car could have been dropped through it without scratching the paint. The bottom was invisible in the near-darkness.
"I think now would be a good time to call in reinforcements," he said.
The small group of Tamers and Digimon that raced toward the Hypnos building were surprised to encounter another of their number coming from the other direction.
"Ruki!" Jenrya exclaimed. "Where are you going? Did Mr. Yamaki call you, too?"
"Did he call you guys?" she asked. "All I know is, Renamon said she sensed something, so we were going to check it out." She looked mildly irked; apparently it bothered her that anyone should know more about the situation than she and Renamon did.
"We don't know much," said Kenta, ever the peacemaker. "All we were told was that there was a little emergency, and he wanted our help."
Ruki cracked her knuckles in a manner that looked a great deal like something flexing its claws. "Wonderful. I was having a boring day, anyway."
"Then let's get going, already," said Hirokazu. "The boss-man's probably pacing the floor."
Sure enough, when they arrived at the lobby of the Hypnos building, Yamaki was indeed walking in circles like a caged animal. His head snapped up as he heard the door opening.
"There you are," he said. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."
"We came as soon as we could," said Takato, trying to sound polite. "What was the problem?"
"Well... perhaps it's better that I show rather than tell," he replied. "We still aren't entirely sure what caused this, but..."
He didn't finish his sentence, but instead turned and began walking away, gesturing brusquely for the children and their partners to follow. They tagged along in a straggling line, Takato and Guilmon in the lead, Hirokazu trailing behind (he'd been detained by the process of getting Guardromon through the door) and the others strung out in the middle.
They traveled unevenly, staring around curiously, bumping into each other, then hurrying to catch up to whoever was in front of them. This was the first time they had actually been inside the building that had played such an important role in their lives, and they were eager to get their first good look at it. Unfortunately, it seemed disappointingly office-like, with the usual assortment of tiled floors, potted plants, and doors with nameplates on them. Just as they were getting bored, they were ushered down a flight of stairs and stepped straight into a science-fiction movie.
"This is the main laboratory," said Yamaki calmly, as the door slid open. "We get most of the real work done here. I apologize for the mess, but as I said, it's been a difficult morning."
The group stared. They were looking into a cavernous room that appeared to be two or even three storeys high, and all of it was piled with massive machinery, winding cables, tanks of mysterious fluids, and webs of catwalks that leaped over their heads. It took a moment for them to process the whole in the floor. It was only when Guilmon walked closer to it and began to sniff its perimeters that everyone else noticed it.
"There are Digimon down here," he said, sounding pleased with himself. "Lots of them. They sound just like the ones I heard in the park."
"You heard Digimon in the park?" asked Yamaki. "Why didn't anyone report them before this could happen?"
"How were we supposed to know?" Takato asked. "We thought it might have just been gophers."
"Don't mind him," said the pretty redheaded woman - Reika Ootori, Takato remembered she was called. "He's just grumpy today because they told him he can't smoke in the building anymore."
"Did you really have to tell them that?" Yamaki muttered.
"That's a bummer," said Hirokazu. "Want some gum?"
Yamaki looked at him as if he'd just stepped out of a flying saucer. "What?"
"Gum," Hirokazu repeated, blowing a bubble and popping it. "When my dad was trying to quit smoking, he chewed a lot of gum."
Yamaki looked heavenward, but declined to comment.
Renamon walked slowly up to the edge of the pit and peered into it.
"There are Digimon down there," she said. "Guilmon has it right, for once. I believe we should see what they're doing down there before they cause any more damage."
"There's a Digimon with some sense," said Yamaki with approval. "Will you do it?"
Ruki went to stand beside her partner. Scooping up a stray piece of rubble, she tossed it down the hole. It was a moment before they heard it hit the bottom.
"Why," she said, "can I not help thinking about what happened last time I crawled down a big hole in the ground?"
"You think there might be another digital portal down there?" asked Takato eagerly.
"If there is," said Yamaki, "that's all the more reason that we should know about it. You all are the experts at this kind of thing. I can't demand you put yourselves in danger, but..."
"Cut the small talk," said Ruki. "If there are Digimon going around putting holes in things for no good reason, I'm sure not going to sit around painting my nails. Who else is coming?"
"I am," said Takato, and Guilmon nodded his agreement.
"Us, too," said Jenrya and Terriermon.
"Count us in," said Hirokazu, gesturing to himself, Kenta, and their partners.
"Good. I knew I could count on you." Much to their surprise, Yamaki took off his jacket and picked up a flashlight and a handheld computer.
"You aren't going down there, are you?" asked Kenta.
"Anything that goes on at Hypnos is my responsibility," he answered calmly, removing his sunglasses and tucking them in his shirt pocket. "And don't anyone dare insinuate that I can't take care of myself."
Jenrya, remembering how the man had once lifted him off his feet with one hand, was disinclined to argue.
"No reason why he can't come," he said.
"Mitsuo, I wish you'd rethink this," said Reika.
He gave her a "don't call me that in front of the children" look. "Don't you go mothering me, either. I'm perfectly capable of investigating a hole in the ground - particularly with a bodyguard. Don't worry."
There seemed to be no arguing with that. No other objections were offered, and Yamaki was grateful. He'd always suffered from a nagging feeling of being cheated; he was the one who had studied Digimon and the Digital World for years before the Tamers had appeared, and yet they had all the adventures and left him to work in the shadows. It was about time he got to do something for himself. Besides, he was having a bad day, and that was a good excuse for getting out and finding a way to give something else a hard time.
Very soon, the little group was descending into the pit. Renamon went first, dropping lightly to the ground far below. She reported back to the others that the floor was some thirty feet down, but relatively flat and stable. The others made the descent more slowly, climbing carefully down the sides. The climb was nearly vertical, but the edges were roughly broken, and there were enough hand and foot holds that, with the Digimon to help them, they were all able to reach the bottom with nothing more than a few scraped palms and knees. Once they were there, Yamaki flipped on the flashlight and beamed it around.
They were indeed standing in an old subway tunnel. They could see the tracks a few feet away from them. The walls were covered in the bright colors of graffiti, and there were even a few old advertisements pasted to the walls for products that had gone out of fashion years ago. Benches, their wood slats rotted, waited patiently for passengers who would never arrive. The walls were cracked and crumbled, forming pockets of shadow where the flashlight couldn't reach. The whole area had a haunted feel.
"Did anybody ever see that episode of Vampire Princess Miyu?" asked Hirokazu. "You know, the one where the guy would wait on the subway for the last lady to leave the train, and-"
"Shut up," said Takato. That show had always given him the creeps, and he didn't feel like remembering it now. Not in this place where it truly felt like the spirits of past riders might truly be waiting for a rescue that could never come...
Just then, a dark blip shot past with a soft whoosh. Yamaki tried to turn the flashlight toward it, but it was gone before anyone could get a good look at it.
"Yipes!" Kenta yelped, jumping instinctively away from the object.
"What was that?" asked Jenrya.
"A Digimon," said Renamon with certainty. "A very small, very fast Digimon."
"Faster than you?" Ruki asked.
Renamon considered. "Maybe."
Terriermon pricked up his long ears. "Hey! I hear another one! It's coming from... over there!"
He pointed, and this time Yamaki was able to shine the light in the correct direction. Something small shot into the light, and then halted, surprised by the sudden brightness. In that moment of hesitation, they were all able to get a good look at it. It was a spherical creature, dark blue in color, no bigger than a ping-pong ball. It had little room on its tiny body for details; it had only eyes, mouth, arms, and legs. It's only decoration was a mark like a lightning bolt on the top of its head. No sooner had they all seen it, when it rocketed off into the shadows again.
"Was that a Digimon, or a big insect?" asked Hirokazu.
"That was a Digimon," Renamon replied. "I recognize it now. It is called a Thunderballmon. They are electrical Digimon - small, but very powerful and nearly impossible to catch, as they can move in all directions at very high speeds."
Yamaki looked thoughtful, though it was hard to tell in the dim light. "Would a large number of them gathered together be enough to cause an electrical surge?"
"I don't see why it couldn't," Renamon replied.
"You want me to fight with that thing?" asked Guardromon, looking affronted. "It would hardly be a fair fight. I've seen Hatchlings larger than that."
"Hey, you heard what Renamon said," Hirokazu replied. "The little bugger's tougher than he looks."
"And I'm willing to bet there are a lot more where these last two came from," Jenrya commented. He was looking critically around the tunnels. "The question is, where?"
Guilmon sniffed the air and flipped his ears. "I hear something. It's coming from over there."
"Does it sound like more Thunderballmon?" Takato asked.
"It sounds like... kaboom!" Guilmon exclaimed. He made an explosive gesture with his claws and nearly smacked Yamaki in the face.
"Kaboom?" Kenta repeated. "I didn't hear any-"
There was a tremor in the floor, enough to make a few chunks of the ceiling fall. Everyone looked around nervously.
"I think," said Jenrya slowly, "it would be a good idea if we found somewhere else to stand."
Everyone else agreed. Walking the length of the tunnel, they found that it was blocked on both ends, leaving a segment roughly twice the length of the building above them clear. However, near one of the blocked ends, they found a hole in the wall on the other side of the tracks - a hole that looked freshly and purposefully made.
"The stupid things are blasting tunnels down here," Hirokazu muttered.
"Well, someone is going to have to tell them to stop before they make a building cave in," said Takato. "Hope they'll listen to reason. Renamon?"
"I couldn't say if they will or not," she replied. "I have little to do with Thunderballmon."
"They won't listen to us," said Guardromon unexpectedly, "but they'll listen to their leader."
"How do you know?" asked Ruki, surprised.
"I've had dealings with a few of them before," Guardromon replied. "Thunderballmon live in hives, like Flymon do, and they're usually governed by a royal ruler. If we can find their lord or lady and persuade them to listen, the Thunderballmon will listen to them."
"So what we've got here is an infestation of Thunderballmon trying to make a nest under our city," said Jenrya. "And I thought the cockroaches at school were bad."
"Well, at least we know what we're doing now," said Kenta. "All we have to do is find the leader and talk to him. How hard can that be?"
To answer his question, Marine Angemon flew across the tracks and down the tunnel. He came back a few minutes later and relayed his findings to his partner. Kenta winced.
"Let me guess," said Terriermon. "It's not going to be easy, is it?"
"Marine Angemon says the Thunderballmon have made tunnels going every which way," Kenta replied. "This whole place is like a huge maze!"
"Something tells me we should have put more planning into this," Yamaki muttered.
"Come on, gang - we can't throw in the towel now," said Takato. "We've got Guilmon and Renamon to sniff the way for us, and Terriermon to listen for us. We can find our way."
"I'm with the goggle boy," said Hirokazu. "I didn't climb all the way down that stupid hole just to climb right back up again."
"Same here," said Ruki.
"I don't know about this," said Jenrya. "We could get lost down there."
"Take a vote?" Takato suggested. "All for going forward, raise your hands."
Hands went up. Counting was unnecessary; only Jenrya, Kenta, and their partners abstained from voting.
"Majority rules," said Hirokazu, nodding in satisfaction. "We're going in."
It was easier said than done. Scrambling across the tracks took a certain amount of careful climbing, difficult work in a dark subway tunnel with only one small flashlight for illumination. Kenta managed to complicate matters by getting his foot caught in a crack, and it took the combined efforts of Hirokazu and Ruki to extricate him, with Marine Angemon chattering the whole time and generally getting in the way.
At last, they all made it safely across the divide and were able to enter the tunnel. It was rougher going than the subway tunnel had been. While the subway had originally been intended for human passage, this tunnel had been built with only the tiny Thunderballmon (and possibly their mysterious leader) in mind, and it was not a comfortable fit. The ground was uneven, and their flashlight was not bright enough to light the floor for all of them. Water dripped from the walls and ceiling, making everything slippery. The children stumbled often, and Guardromon sometimes had to break off bits of the wall to fit through the hole. Going was slow.
"I thought Marine Angemon said there were more tunnels," said Ruki. "Where are they? I don't see them."
"You don't see much of anything, unless you can see in the dark," muttered Hirokazu, but quietly.
"He says they're still ahead," Kenta said, translating his partner's chirps and squeaks.
"Why don't we send him up ahead to scout?" Jenrya suggested. "I bet he could do it a lot faster than we could."
Marine Angemon chattered rapidly, and Kenta listened with a serious expression.
"It's okay," he assured his partner. "It's not your fault... Marine Angemon says he's afraid he'll get lost. His sense of direction isn't good underground. He's a light creature; he loses his bearings when he can't see the sun."
"Well, it was a good idea, anyway," said Takato.
Marine Angemon had been right about one thing. In only a few minutes, the group came to a place where the tunnel branched in four different directions. They stopped a moment, and the Digimon held a hurried discussion as to which fork to take. Eventually they all agreed that the passage on the far left was the best choice, and they followed it to another passage, which in turn led to another set of forks branching left and right, slanting up and down. This time they chose the downward tunnel. It led to another set of forks, and then another, and another, and another...
"This warren goes on forever!" Yamaki said in frustration, as they reached yet another divide.
"We're lost," moaned Kenta, rubbing his aching feet. "We've been going in circles!"
"We are not," said Renamon with authority. "I, at least, can keep my sense of direction in the dark. We have been moving in roughly the same direction the entire time - gradually downwards, north and slightly west."
"Well, that's a comfort," said Hirokazu, with a tinge of sarcasm. "We're still lost."
"Not really," Jenrya replied. "If we know we're going downwards and northeast, then we know that going upwards and southwest will take us back where we came from."
"Correct," said Renamon, "and logic tells us that since we started at the top, we are making progress as long as we go down. I am guessing that the ruler of the Thundermon will make his lair at the bottommost part of the warren."
"Makes sense to me," said Takato. "Okay, which way do we go now?"
Renamon investigated the latest divide in front of them. However, before she could make her decision, a Thunderballmon shot out from one of the other tunnels and crashed into Guardromon. It rebounded with a clang, and Guardromon stumbled. Hirokazu jumped out of the way to avoid being squashed and ran into Guilmon, who in turn fell over and knocked over Renamon and Terriermon. Takato tried to help his partner and tripped over his tail, adding to the confusion. The Thunderballmon, meanwhile, ricocheted and bounced into Yamaki's shoulder. The flashlight fell from his hands, clattered on the floor, and went out. Kenta yelped in alarm and jumped backwards, falling on top of Ruki. In the darkness, there was a whirr as the Thunderballmon recovered himself and flew away. Then there was silence, save for the rasp of people breathing.
"Is everybody okay?" called Takato into the blackness.
"I bruised my pride," muttered Ruki, sounding disgruntled. "Get off me, Kenta... That is you, isn't it, Kenta."
"Yeah, I think it's me. Hang on-"
"Don't put your hand there!"
"I can't see where I'm putting it!"
"That's okay," said Terriermon, cheerful no matter what. "Now she can't see to hit you."
"Great. That's a big comfort."
There was a scuffle as everyone tried to untangle themselves. Yamaki felt around on the floor for the missing flashlight.
"Where's the light?" called Hirokazu.
"I dropped it when the Thunderballmon hit me," Yamaki replied. "Now I can't find it. It must have rolled down one of the other tunnels."
"Great," Takato sighed. "Looks like we're going to have to turn back. Renamon, which way is out?"
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
"I don't know," she admitted at last.
"You don't know?" squeaked Ruki indignantly. "I thought you said you knew!"
"I fell when the Thunderballmon passed by," answered Renamon softly. "I've lost my bearings. I don't know which direction we were going anymore, so I don't know the way out." Even more quietly, she added. "I am sorry for failing you."
"Can't you still smell the way we came?" asked Jenrya, a hint of fear in his voice.
There was a whuffling sound, and Guilmon said, "Nope. Sorry, Jen."
"He is right," said Renamon. "These tunnels are too damp to hold a scent properly. Everything smells the same."
"Great! We're lost!" Hirokazu exclaimed. "We're going to starve to death down here!"
"No, we're not," said Takato. "Sooner or later, somebody will come looking for us... or we'll think of a way out. There's got to be a way out. There's always a way out."
"Well, I can't think of one," said Hirokazu stubbornly.
Jenrya sighed deeply. "Well, I don't know about the rest of you guys, but I'm out of ideas. The only thing I know is to sit tight and hope somebody will come looking for us."
"Someone will," said Yamaki. "Sooner or later, Reika will get worried and send for help... It might take some time for anyone to find us, though. We're a good ways under the ground by now." There was a rustling in the darkness, like someone searching through pockets. "In the meantime, I am no longer in the Hypnos building, and if ever there was a time when I deserved a cigarette... Will anyone mind if I smoke?"
"Knock yourself out," said Hirokazu.
There was a rasp of flint, a brief flare of fire, and then the dull orange glow of a cigarette being lit. It occurred to Kenta that maybe the lighter could be used to guide their way... but what good was light when they wouldn't know the way out anymore, even when they saw it? With a sigh, he leaned back against a wall, cuddling Marine Angemon for moral support, and listening to the sounds in the darkness. Noises seemed so much louder in the dark, especially in the echoes of the cave. He could hear the creak of Guardromon's hinges, and rustlings every time someone moved. From time to time, there would be a whirr as a Thunderballmon whizzed by. Somewhere just ahead of him, he could hear Hirokazu popping his gum. The only thing that could be seen was the glowing tip of Yamaki's cigarette. Suddenly, a matching light went on in Kenta's head.
"Mr. Yamaki, gimme your lighter and one of those cigarettes," he said.
Yamaki's disapproval was clear even in the dark. "Young man, you are entirely too young to smoke."
"That's not what I want them for," he replied. "Hirokazu, I'm going to need your bubble gum, too. I've got an idea."
"What kind of idea have you got that needs cigarettes and bubble gum?" asked Ruki scornfully. "Do you plan to open a convenience store for the Thunderballmon?"
"No," he answered. "Listen! It's just like Miss Asaji told us - we don't have our flashlight anymore, so we've got to use what we've got handy if we want to find our way. I just thought of a way to get us out, but we're going to have to be really quick. Renamon, do you think you could catch one of these Thunderballmon, next time one goes by?"
"I think I could," she answered thoughtfully. "Why do you ask? They won't guide us; they'll run as soon as they can get free."
"And where would a frightened Thunderballmon run?" asked Kenta.
"Toward its leader, I would assume," said Guardromon. "But we cannot follow them in the dark."
Kenta smiled to himself. "Oh, yes we can."
Yamaki took out the requested lighter and cigarette and offered them into the darkness. "This, I've got to see."
Kenta reached out and managed to get hold of the items, and Hirokazu passed him the used chewing gum. Kenta made a face, but this was too important to be worrying about sanitary issues. He mashed one end of the cigarette into the gum, and carefully lit the other end. By the glow of the lighter, he passed this strange torch to Renamon.
"Here," he said. "Next time a Thunderballmon comes by, stick this to him."
Renamon carefully took the sticky creation. "You know we won't be able to follow them, even with this light to guide us. They're just too fast. I might be able to follow, but the rest of you..."
Even as she spoke, a Thunderballmon whizzed by. Renamon jumped up and snatched it from the air. The Digimon squeaked and struggled, but didn't win free until Renamon was able to glue the cigarette to him. As soon as he could escape, he shot down one of the tunnels. The group watched until the orange light vanished around a curb.
"Well, now we lost him," said Terriermon. "Now what happens?"
"We haven't lost him," Kenta replied. "At least, not if Renamon's nose is any good. What do you smell down there, Renamon?"
She walked toward the tunnel and sniffed. "I smell... cigarette smoke. That way."
"Right!" said Kenta victoriously. "We may not be able to see him, but we'll be able to smell him. Now we just have to follow the smoke!"
"Kenta, you are a genius!" Hirokazu enthused.
Kenta blushed invisibly in the darkness. "I just paid attention in class, that's all."
Emboldened, the exploration party followed their invisible guide down the tunnel. It was easy to feel confident, now; even the human members of the party could occasionally catch the whiff of smoke that meant they were going the right way. Renamon added her own assurances that they were back on track, pointing out that they were once again moving downwards. As they continued their journey, the noticed other signs of progress: the tunnels were becoming wider and smoother, leading to the conclusion that they had left behind the "back roads" and were now nearing the main part of the complex. Finally, just as the children's feet were beginning to tire and everyone was wondering how much further these tunnels could go, they rounded a corner and were nearly blinded.
For a moment, all anyone could do was stand and shield their eyes as they waited for their vision to adapt to the sudden brightness. It actually wasn't that bright, but after long minutes of pitch blackness, even a small light was painful. Yamaki put his sunglasses back on. The others blinked and squinted until the landscape gradually became clear.
They were looking at what appeared to be an underground cave - not something that had been blasted out by the Thunderballmon, but one that had apparently been there for eons, perhaps hollowed out by the volcanic action that had created the islands ages ago. Now someone had added a few modern touches: small electric lights had been strung along the walls like Christmas decorations, making the stone shimmer softly. Ahead of them, they could see the black water of a narrow lake, with a stone bridge crossing over it. There appeared to be a small habitation on the other side.
"That's got to be it," said Takato. "Hope they don't mind us dropping in unannounced."
"Wait a minute," Yamaki said. "Let me send a signal up to the people on the surface. I've lost track of how long we've been down here, but if they don't hear from us soon, they're liable to panic."
He took out his computer, which had been resting safely in his pocket, and tapped out a quick message.
Reika - we've arrived at our destination. Everyone is safe and sound, so you can tell everyone not to send a search party just yet. We'll be returning to the surface as soon as we can.
He pondered adding a few more lines, but he didn't know how public his message was going to wind up being, so he decided not to risk it. Instead, he signed his name and sent the message on its way to the surface.
"Can that thing send mail through all this rock?" Jenrya wanted to know. He had inherited from his father an interest in everything computer-related.
"It's the same one I used to keep in touch with you in the Digital World," Yamaki replied, pocketing the machine. "If it can reach another dimension, it can reach a building directly above us."
They set out. No one really wanted to trust the spindly, unrailed bridge, but there was no other way across the lake - even Renamon couldn't jump that distance, and no one wanted to trust that dark water. Instead, they walked as quickly and lightly as they could, and hoped no Thunderballmon would come flying past them and shove them in. A few of the little Digimon did pass by, but they ignored the bridge. Instead, they skipped across the surface of the lake, throwing up plumes of water behind them. It would have been pretty, if anyone had cared to watch.
On the far side of the lake, there was a lot more activity. Thunderballmon zipped in every direction on their own mysterious errands, chattering to each other in high pitched voices. Some of them shot in and out of bulbous constructions built of stone and mud, which seemed to be their houses. Renamon gave them a scrutinizing look.
"Hives," she said.
Hirokazu rapped one with his knuckles. "They look kinda like light bulbs to me."
"Well, they are electric critters," said Ruki. "Maybe they feel at home in light bulbs."
As they walked up what appeared to be the main street - it was actually more like a broad divide in the houses than an actual road - a Thunderballmon popped up in front of Takato's face and chattered at him. If it was speaking any language they knew, its voice was too fast and too high-pitched to be intelligible. Takato looked at it blankly, and it glared at him.
"I don't know what he said, but it can't have been good," he said.
The tiny Digimon buzzed angrily at him.
Marine Angemon fluttered up to it and made soothing noises. The Thunderballmon turned its attention to the little Digimon and chattered back at him. The conversation bounced back and forth for a moment before Marine Angemon turned back to his partner. He squeaked and chirped a bit, to the accompaniment of some flipper gestures.
"He says the Thunderballmon wants to know what we're doing here," Kenta translated.
"We have to talk to whoever is in charge," said Yamaki to the Thunderballmon. "It's very important."
"Yeah, so take me to your leader!" Hirokazu chimed in. He grinned. "I always wanted to say that."
The Thunderballmon flew in a circle, looking thoughtful. Then he buzzed in what sounded like a positive tone and beckoned for the group to follow him. Fortunately, he flew at a slow pace, slow enough that the children could keep up with ease. Their guide led them straight through the city to the far side of the lake, where a large stone house seemed to have been carved directly out of one wall. It was still attached to the back of the cave, leading them to wonder just how far back it went. However, it was not the house that interested them, but the terrace in front. Someone had constructed a dias from which someone might overlook the rest of the town. Someone was.
Seated in a throne of polished white rock was a most peculiar Digimon. He bore a passing resemblance to the Thundermon, being round and metallic, but he was several sizes larger. Had he been standing up, he would have just barely not been able to look Kenta in the eye. He wore a crown and a fur-lined cape, and he held a scepter in one hand. The other hand was busy with a pair of chopsticks, which he was using to daintily take bits of fish from a tray. When he caught sight of his guests, he sat up suddenly and nearly dropped the piece of fish he'd been in the process of conveying to his mouth.
"Visitors!" he exclaimed grandly. "Why, you are from the world above! Are you ambassadors?"
Yamaki glanced at the children and himself. All of them were rather muddy and disheveled from the hike. Then again, if this character thought they looked like ambassadors, he wasn't going to gainsay him.
"Yes," he answered. "My name is Mitsuo Yamaki, and these children are the warriors who defeated the D-Reaper, as you might remember. We've come to speak to you about an important matter."
"Very good," the strange Digimon replied. "I am Prince Mamemon, ruler of these Thunderballmon. So, you're here on a diplomatic mission? Lovely! My people and I wish to live in peace with your world. You are assured our full cooperation on all matters."
"So what are you all doing here?" asked Takato. "Not to mention going around and putting holes in things."
"Ah, you noticed our construction projects?" asked Prince Mamemon. "We hoped to find a space to live where we wouldn't bother anyone with our comings and goings - these Thunderballmon are such energetic little things, you know. So I thought, why not set up a colony underground? We can have all the space we need, and never get in anyone's way."
"Except when you drill holes in people's floors," said Ruki.
"Oh," said Prince Mamemon. "Did that happen? My apologies. Part of the problem with all this digging is that we have to have someplace to put all the dirt. We were searching for a dumping ground, but there are so many buildings around here. I never realized there were so many..."
"I have a suggestion," said Yamaki. "Why don't you or one of your messengers come to Hypnos - the building just above here - and talk about this issue? I'm sure something can be worked out so everyone is happy."
"Ah, a visit of state!" Prince Mamemon exclaimed. "How grand! I'll be glad to come. Would tomorrow be too soon, or do you need time to prepare?"
"Tomorrow is fine," Yamaki answered, with a small sigh of relief, "as long as you don't mind the hole in the floor."
After a few more polite exchanges, the group bid Prince Mamemon goodbye, and one of his followers escorted them back through the tunnels toward the surface.
"Well, that wasn't so bad," said Takato.
"Compared to what?" Terriermon asked.
"Man, that Prince Mamemon is something else," Hirokazu commented. "Hey, Guardromon, do you think you might be related to him?"
"Most metal Digimon are related somewhere along the line," he answered thoughtfully. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all."
The trip back to the surface was long, but thankfully, well lit. Their Thunderballmon guide sent up a constant stream of electrical sparks to light their way. Even so, by the time they reached the shaft that led back into Hypnos, everyone was tired, muddy, and footsore. After a long and difficult climb up the tunnel, all they wanted to do was collapse on the floor to catch their breath. There, they were met by the staff of Hypnos, who gathered around to hear what had happened in the underground passages.
"Well," said Reika, looking her employer over, "you look like you made it back in one piece, after all." Eying a rip torn into the sleeve of his shirt, she added, "Too bad I can't say the same for your clothes."
"Remind me not to do that again," he said.
Megumi was looking at him with an expression of wide-eyed amazement; she wasn't used to her normally immaculate boss looking so disheveled.
"Gee, Mr. Yamaki, you're a mess," she blurted. She blushed. "No offense."
"You do look kind of rough," someone else said. It was the executive who had spoken to him that morning. "I'll bet you could use a break after all this. Can we get you anything? A drink? A cigarette? If ever you deserved one, it's today. We won't tell."
The man took a cigarette from his pocket and offered it to Yamaki. He studied it for a second. The things might have saved his life, but somehow, he didn't think he'd ever be able to see or smell one again without flashing back to the lightless, claustrophobic tunnels.
"Thank you, but no," he answered. "I'm trying to quit."
Miss Asaji arrived in class early that day, hoping to steal a few quiet minutes at her desk to get her lesson plans squared away before the students arrived. She was surprised, therefore, to open her door and be given an enthusiastic greeting.
"There she is!"someone shouted. The next thing she knew, something collided with her. She looked down to see Hirokazu hugging her for all he was worth.
"I love you, Miss Asaji!" he said fervently.
Kenta tackled her from behind. "Me too! You saved our lives, Miss Asaji!"
"Yeah, thanks, Miss Asaji!" said Takato, as he caught her from the side.
"Gracious!" she said, not sure what to make of this unusual greeting. "What's gotten into you all of a sudden?"
"It was that homework you gave us, Miss Asaji!" said Kenta. "You were right! We really did need to learn it!"
"You're going to have to explain this a little better," she said. After a moment, she added, "And maybe you'd better let go of me, too."
So while the other students filed into the room, the three boys explained to their teacher the strange adventure they had embarked on the previous day. She listened with an expression of bemusement.
"I don't know whether to believe all that or not," she said.
"It's all true!" Takato insisted. "As Mr. Yamaki - he'll tell you!"
The others nodded agreeably. Miss Asaji sighed.
"I think I'll pass on that," she said. "All right, all right. You all did very well. I guess you don't need your brains taxed any more. You're all officially exempt from doing your box project, and you'll all get A's."
"Aw, but we finished ours already!" Kenta protested. He fished in his backpack and pulled out the peculiar object he and Hirokazu had rigged up, and he strapped it to his wrist. "See? It's a hands-free flashlight, so you can't drop it when you get hit by a Thunderballmon!"
Miss Asaji stared a moment. Then she broke out laughing.
"One of these days, you kids are going to drive me batty," she said, "but I love you all anyway. Go on, now. Take your seats."
The boys trotted off to their desks. Takato grinned at his friends.
"Guess you were right, Hirokazu," he said. "We really should have been exempted from all this."
Hirokazu just grinned triumphantly - and blew a bubblegum bubble.