"Good morning, Mr. Tadakichi!"

Chiyo hopped lightly from her bed, ever the incorrigible morning person. She threw her room's blinds open on a beautiful pastel sky. It was the part of the day she loved best; the cool, still air and unusual quiet of these hours made it seem as though the whole world was holding its breath.

Mr. Tadakichi followed her through her routine as she did up her pigtails and started making the day's lunch. She felt a bit like curry, but after the way Tomo bugged out last time… oh, well. If Tomo bugging out was grounds to stop doing something, the world would soon grind to a halt. As usual, her breakfast was made up of filched ingredients.

On her way to get some Sambhar Powder from the spice rack, Chiyo noticed a blueprint lying on the kitchen table. This wasn't unusual; her father often worked late and didn't always remember to put documents away. She glanced it over in passing-then stopped in her tracks, backpedaled slowly and stared at it.

"What on Earth…?" At first she thought it was some kind of joke, but she noticed the Mihama Industries corporate crest in the corner. So the blueprint was genuine… but she didn't think her father's company took commissions like this. Heck, she didn't think any real company would.

So engrossed was she with this strange document that she was almost late in waking her parents. As her father came down the stairs straightening his tie, Chiyo hailed him from the stove. "Father, may I ask you something about work?"

"Sure, anything."

"Does your company ever take jobs from the military?"

"Haven't for years, why?"

"I was just wondering who wanted the tank with the… uh, the laser guns."

"Wh-what?" Mr. Mihama rushed to the table and slapped his forehead. "Oh, shi-crap! I left the-!" He hurriedly collected himself. "Um… nobody. Nobody wants it. It's… it's just a hobby drawing. Just science fiction, you know?"

"What about the crest?"

"Fun little detail. It's nothing."

She turned back and looked at him earnestly. "But you're not supposed to put the crest on things that aren't company business. Couldn't you get in trouble with the board or…?"

Mr. Mihama laughed heartily and ruffled her hair. "Don't you worry about it. We wouldn't want Daddy to have to chloroform you, now would we?"

She blinked, unsure that he was joking. Even unnerved, though, Chiyo was quick on the uptake. "I… I think I just forgot what we were talking about."

"That's the spirit!" her father said approvingly. "Have a great day, sweetie."

"You… you, too." She watched wide-eyed as he rolled the blueprint up, stuffed it in a tube, looked around furtively (in his own kitchen!) and skulked off like a thief in the night. "And he wonders why I never introduce my friends to him…" Chiyo sighed.

The cat stared at her from his wall, daring her, just daring her to reach out and touch him. His ears were smoothed back submissively, eyes innocent and inviting as his tail swished indolently through the cool air. His mouth was closed and small, giving no hint of the satanic grin he usually gave at her approach.

Could today be different? Could it possibly be the day? Sakaki met the feline's gaze with a soft sort of suspicion. Odds were he was merely biding his time like a spider, waiting for his victims to draw near… aw, but who could suspect such a cute face? She reached out slowly, hesitantly, fingers just brushing his soft gray fur—


Sakaki hardly winced. The cat shot her his patented evil smile and bounded away happily, leaving his victim to ponder her misfortune. As he moved, though, for the barest of instants, Sakaki thought she saw something in the near distance behind him. Sunglasses?

The figure vanished before she got a good look at it; all Sakaki was left with was a vague impression of a flat, hard face above a cheap suit. Had it been watching her? Though it was probably just her imagination, her scalp tingled with that awful "eyes-on-the-back-of-your-head" feeling as she continued towards school.

"Hi Ms. Sakaki!" Chiyo piped from right next to her.

Sakaki just about jumped out of her skin, but her poker-face didn't betray the tiniest hint of surprise as she replied softly. "Hi."

"Isn't this a beautiful morning?"

Caught up by Chiyo's infectious good cheer, Sakaki soon forgot about the mysterious stranger. It was just as well that she didn't notice the three other menacing black-suits that cropped up along their route; it would have made her a paranoid wreck.

Osaka was late in joining them. (Well, later than usual.) It had been an odd morning for her as well, though fortunately no glowering yakuza-types were involved. "Ms. Sakaki, Chiyo-chan, look what I found!"

Her friends turned in trepidation. Being subjected to the objects of the Osakan gal's enthusiasm was often similar to a trip through the Twilight Zone, complete with narration by Rod Serling. (And wouldn't you know it? They're even going to get aliens this time!)

It seemed innocent enough; she held a pearly ovoid about twice the size of a marble between her thumb and forefinger, glimmering with tiny swirls of blue and green as it turned in her fingers. "It's really pretty…" Chiyo admired. "What is it, Ms. Osaka? Some kind of stone?"

"Dunno," Osaka pocketed it and they set out again. "I just saw it in the grass and picked it up." It was an unlikely thing for a girl who could walk obliviously through a Mexican Standoff to notice; perhaps fate was involved. "It looked like a fossilized mushroom, but now I think maybe it's an egg."

"Why's that?"

"When I went to pick it up, these two little voices said, 'Please don't take the egg!' But then I looked around an' I didn't see anyone, so maybe they were just in my head."

"Well, you might have imagined them…" Chiyo said doubtfully.

"Thing is, they don't usually sound like that," Osaka said, more to herself than to anyone else. "They must be recruiting."

A sort of surreal feeling followed all three girls into the classroom, but the bustle and clamor of their classmates before school started chased it away. Ms. Yukari seemed to be late, probably because Grand Theft Auto: Tokyo came out that day.

"Yeah, it's nice," Yomi said politely as Osaka showed off her stone/egg/fossilized mushroom. "Better not let Tomo see it, though. You know how she is with shiny things." The smaller girl nodded sagely, completely missing the fact that her friend was joking.

"What about shiny things?" Tomo asked loudly, less than a foot behind her.

"Ack!" Yomi flinched in surprise. "Gahh…! What'd you do that for, you idiot? You almost gave me a heart attack!"

"Better luck next time," Osaka said absently.

"It's my top secret ninja art! I don't want to get out of practice." Tomo dropped an arm across her shoulders. "Y'know, I could have killed you four times before you noticed me just then."

"Why don't we see how many times I can kill you?" Yomi growled, rubbing the bridge of her nose. As with most of her death threats, this one went ignored.

"Where's Kagura? I got GTA Tokyo at midnight and I gotta rub it in her face." This was bad news. Tomo didn't need any more encouragement to go on a murderous rampage, rob a bank, steal a sports car and lead the police on a half-hour chase before careening into Tokyo bay.

"She's in Aomori for a swim-meet," Yomi replied.


"Hey, Tomo," Osaka suddenly asked, "If you're a ninja, you know how to snap people's necks in one move, right?"

Tomo drew herself up. "But of course!"

"Can you teach me?"

"Uh..." Tomo looked at her sideways. "Sorry, it's… secret."

"What about ninja logs, then? If I threw a letter opener at your head, would a log appear to take the hit while you escaped?"

"That depends. Do you have a letter opener?"

Before Osaka could respond that yes, as a matter of fact she did, Yukari threw the door open and stormed into the room. "Sit down and shut up," she ordered tersely. Responding more to her tone than her words, the class did so quickly.

Yukari cast a glance at the seating chart and glowered over the lot of them. "You're all here," she said sullenly.

"The game store was out, wasn't it, Ms. Yukari?" Tomo asked loudly. All she got for her concern was a piece of chalk rifled into her forehead.

Sakaki watched all of this in silent amusement. The whole scene was so natural, so par for the course, and she had so completely forgotten about the morning's oddities, that what happened next caught her completely flat-footed. The principal's voice suddenly crackled over the PA, sounding strangely urgent. "Teachers, please gather your classes and report to the sub-sub basement to… uh… collect your paychecks. Like, right now."

"We have a sub-sub basement?" a student asked softly.

Yukari surged to her feet, mood instantly improved. "All right! Money!" She paused in confusion. "But why do I have to take all of you?"

"Ms. Yukari? I think it might be a code phrase," Chiyo suggested tentatively.

"Oh, yeah. What was that one for again?" Yukari's eyes unfocused for a second or two while she tried to remember, but her thought was interrupted by the noise of Ms. Kurosawa's class filing by outside. "Yo, Nyamo! What was that code for?"

Kurosawa paused outside of the door, cast a concerned glance at the students, then walked swiftly across the room and whispered in Yukari's ear. "Uh huh… oh, is that it? Okay…"

As the other teacher left, Yukari turned back to the class and clapped her hands. "All right, everybody gather your things and…" she suddenly blanched as the realization of what Kurosawa had said finally hit her. Before anybody could ask what was wrong, she suddenly sprinted from the room. "We're all gonna die! Every man for themselves! AUUGHHH!"

The class was left blinking in her wake. Thoroughly unsettled, they filtered after in search of the mysterious sub-sub basement.