I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2017 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The members of the Asami Sato Girls' Academy Light Music Club's self-proclaimed "junior varsity" met at the Sakuragaoka Center Mall that morning, partly to hang out, but mostly—though none of them had said as much when planning the meeting—to make plans.
"OK," said Jun Suzuki pragmatically, pretty much the instant they were all assembled. "If we're really gonna do this band thing, we have to figure out who's gonna do what."
"Hi, Jun-chan, great to see you. How was your weekend? Oh, swell, Manabe-senpai, how about yours?" said Nodoka with gentle sarcasm.
"You are laying it on a little thick for first thing," Ui Hirasawa agreed.
"Well, it's not like we've got a ton of time here," Jun insisted, fists on hips. "Not if we want to have anything to surprise the varsity with when we see them again."
"That was your idea too," Ui protested. "You haven't even bothered to see if the rest of us wanted to do it."
"Pff, of course you do," retorted Jun, rolling her eyes. "Tell me you don't. Go on. Tell me you're perfectly fine with your sister and the others coming down from the mountain and being the only ones who have something to show off, 'cause you know they will."
"She's got a point," Nodoka conceded, smiling.
"What about you, Saitō?" Jun asked, turning to the fourth person at the table. "Are you in or what?"
Sumire Saitō blinked, a touch of color rising in her cheeks. "Well... I'm game, but I won't even be able to join the club properly until the fall term starts."
"Don't worry about that," said Jun confidently. "We've got an in with the student council."
Nodoka gave a convincing impression of a long-suffering sigh. "Fine, I see how it is..."
"Right. That's settled. So let's talk positions. Ui just bought a guitar, I don't see her wanting to do anything else for a while. Manabe-senpai's going to sing."
"I am?" Nodoka inquired, but Jun was already going on,
"I've been playing bass since junior high, and Tainaka-senpai's, uh, 'advice' notwithstanding, I don't care to try and turn myself into a drummer, so I guess finding one of those is step one."
"Would you like to give that a try, Sumire-chan?" Ui wondered.
Sumire brightened. "I already play... a little," she said, hesitating only slightly. "I mean, I haven't in a band or anything, but I have a drum set at home, and I've read some books."
"Well, hey," said Jun with a grin. "That's convenient. Ui, do you think you could call and ask Tainaka-senpai if we can borrow her kit for the day? Since it's already in the club room and all."
"Sure, I can do that," Ui agreed, and suited word to deed. Club president Ritsu Tainaka, as it happened, was in an expansive mood—the others, hearing only Ui's side of the conversation, gathered that the senior club members' retreat was going very well—and cheerfully authorized the use of her kit, with the caveat that if the new kid broke anything, it wasn't coming out of Ritsu's salary.
"Finest kind," said Jun with satisfaction once the call was completed. "What do you say, ladies? Shall we get some lunch and then go jam?"
"I didn't bring my drumsticks with me," Sumire pointed out.
"We can probably steal a set from the regular band room," Jun replied.
"No, no," Sumire said hastily, shaking her head. "The music store is right over there, I'll just buy some."
While Sumire supplied herself, the others browsed the sheet music and miscellaneous items, chatting speculatively about what sort of things they might attempt for their first jam session.
"The lineup we have right now is all right," Jun said, "but it doesn't have a lot of depth. We could really do with another guitarist. Or a keyboard player."
"It's too bad we can't copy Ui-chan," said Nodoka with a wry smile. "She used to play the organ."
"Not very well, though," Ui demurred, blushing.
"Hmm. Maybe we should post an ad," Jun mused, looking over the various notes pinned to the corkboard at the front of the store. "'Keyboard player wanted. Must be willing to transfer to Sato Academy. Experience at Art of Noise covers a plus.'"
Ui was still giggling about that when, from somewhere behind them, they abruptly heard someone lay down the opening riff from a song all three of them had heard played by that very band.
Nodoka, Ui, and Jun made a moment's surprised three-way eye contact, then turned as one and followed the sound deeper into the store.
The three and Sumire, drawn from the drums area, converged toward the back, in the section where the keyboard instruments were displayed. At the end of one of the rows, they found a tall, slim girl with long pale-blonde hair standing over one of the Satotronic ST-8 synthesizers. While the four girls and a couple of store employees watched, she played the keyboard part from "Separate Ways" in its entirety—not altered as a solo performance of the song, but just as if the rest of the band had been there.
With her eyes closed in concentration, she was unaware that she had attracted an audience while she played. Finishing the song, she remained still for a moment, fingers touching the keys, her expression oddly pensive for someone who had just played a rock standard. Not until one of the store employees and Jun started applauding did she open her eyes, jumping slightly in surprise. Then, seeing the small group of people gathered around the keyboard she'd used, she blushed scarlet and stepped back, raising her hands as if caught doing something she shouldn't.
"Uh, I'm sorry," she said. "Got a little carried away..."
"Nothing to apologize for," the employee replied, grinning. "I wish everybody who got a little carried away in here could play as well as that."
"Um... thanks," said the blonde girl, her blush deepening. She backed up another step, mumbling semi-audible thanks for the loan of the equipment, then turned to make her escape. To do that, though, she'd have had to get past Ui, and Jun could already see her warming up her social tractor beam.
"Hi!" said Ui with a bright smile.
The blonde hesitated, checking her withdrawal so as not to crash into Ui, and said, "Um, hi?"
"I'm Ui, Ui Hirasawa," Ui went on, bowing. "It's nice to meet you."
"My name's... uh... Shimakaze," said the blonde with an air of intense bemusement.
"What an interesting name," Sumire observed pleasantly.
"Are you hungry?" Ui asked. "We were just about to get some lunch..."
As the four girls left 10GIÄ with their new acquaintance (still looking rather baffled by the whole business) in tow, they were all too distracted by the business of making friends to notice the person passing by the front of the store from the other direction as they passed her—despite the fact that she had very long hair of an arrestingly uncommon turquoise color, which would normally have been fairly hard to miss.
For her part, the aqua-haired girl didn't take particular notice of them, either, in her case because she was engrossed in a telephone conversation.
"No, I just got to town," she said, then paused in front of the shop and switched hands with her phone. "It seems like a really nice place! I haven't found the school yet, but it wouldn't really matter since they're on summer vacation right now anyway. I'm just going to poke around town for a few days until Kate gets back in, and then we can strategize."
"And you really think it's a good idea to just walk into a strange town without a plan," said the woman's voice at the other end of the call, sounding skeptical.
"Why wouldn't it be?"
"Miku, the last time you just showed up someplace without making any arrangements beforehand, you caused a riot in Mega Tokyo Square."
"Oh, Luka, that was New Japan," said Miku dismissively. "You're right, I should've known better than to do that, but that's because things are always extra-crazy there, you know that. I'm sure it'll be fine! Nobody's going to know who I am here of all—"
"Miku," Luka interrupted, her voice flat.
Miku gave her phone handset a puzzled look. "Why?" she asked, beginning the requested about-face. "Is there a creepy guy or some—"
She trailed off, looking slowly up. What had been behind her was one of the music store's massive front display windows. This particular one was dominated by a selection of vintage synthesizers, a couple of amps, and a gaily arranged profusion of posters, banners, and oversized reproduction album covers, all of them bearing the same cheerfully smiling face—a face which also decorated the distinctively costumed mannequin standing front and center, her arms outstretched in welcome.
The very same face that was now observing all of this from the sidewalk outside, an expression of dawning dismay spreading across it.
All this month! the banner across the top of the window declared, in letters colored a very particular turquoise. Miku Hatsune's World!!
"... Oh," said Miku Hatsune.
A block away, the five girls who had passed by Miku without noticing her waited for the traffic signal at the corner, still chatting amongst themselves.
Having completed introductions to her usual exacting standards, Ui moved on to the key item on the agenda. "So," she said. "What should we do for lunch?"
"I'm good with whatever," said Nodoka.
"I could always put something together at home," Ui suggested, but Jun shook her head.
"I probably need my head examined for turning down an Ui Hirasawa feed," she said, "but if we do that we'll just want to lie around and digest all afternoon. We better eat someplace downtown if we want to do anything else today," she added with a grin and a wink for her mock-pouting friend.
"How about Curry Udon Central?" Sumire suggested, indicating a storefront a bit farther along the boulevard.
"Is that OK with you, Shimakaze-chan?" Ui asked the group's new friend.
"Sure, I guess," said Shimakaze with an agreeable shrug. "I don't really know this town very well. What do they have there?"
There was a pause.
"... Not sure if serious," Jun said, eyeing her dubiously.
Shimakaze gave her a puzzled look, then blinked in consternation before laughing aloud, a sheepish hand behind her head.
"Sorry, that was dumb," she said. "I'm still a little, um..." A moment's hesitation. "... Jet-lagged? Is that the word?"
"You're an odd one," Jun observed, not altogether unkindly, as the light changed and the group crossed the street. "Where are you from, anyway?"
"I, uh... it's kind of complicated," Shimakaze replied. "I guess I'm from Earth. Kind of. At least that's the first place I remember."
"Ah," said Jun, nodding. "Parents moved around a lot, huh? Still, I'm surprised. Not a lot of blondes in the Earth Kingdom..."
"Uh, Jun, I think she meant the planet Earth," Sumire corrected gently. "In the Big Universe."
"Oh. Oh!" Jun said. "Right! Sure. That makes a lot more sense, actually."
"I'd try to reassure you that this crew isn't usually this weird," said Nodoka wryly, "but my mother taught me not to lie to people I just met."
"You're so mean, Manabe-senpai," Jun said.
Shimakaze giggled. "You think she's a mean senpai, I should introduce you to my friend Tatsuta," she said, but then sobered and added as if chiding herself, "Ahh, that isn't fair."
Ui and Jun glanced at each other, then let it pass. "Well, here we are," said Ui, opening the door to the restaurant for the group.
"Order whatever you like, Shimakaze-chan," Ui went on after the five of them had found a table. "Since I dragged you along, it's my treat today."
"Well in that case, I'll have—" Jun began, reaching grandly for the dinner menu.
"For our guest," Ui added firmly.
The others were half-expecting the Usual Dance imposed by custom in this part of the United Republic, wherein the guest would demur and the host would insist, but instead, Shimakaze simply accepted, mumbling thanks through a sudden embarrassed blush.
There were a few points like that during the lunch conversation, which was mostly light, and focused on the kind of polite investigation a socially skillful girl like Ui could pretty much effortlessly make of a new acquaintance. Shimakaze was generally cheerful and friendly, and indeed they all found her quite charming, but she had odd occasional fits of self-consciousness, where she would stumble over some finer point or nicety, draw back, and seem to reproach herself for her failure.
It was as if she had learned how to socialize from books, or was so out-of-practice that she had to relearn... not the social skills themselves, Jun decided, so much as the timing. The result was a peculiarly variable affect, giving the impression of a person who was good-hearted, but had spent the last few years living in a box.
Maybe she just got out of jail, Jun thought, then rolled her eyes inwardly. Right, she was in juvie for rocking a synthesizer without a license.
"You said you didn't know Sakuragaoka very well," Sumire observed when the conversation hit a lull. "Did you just move to town recently?"
"Oh, uh, I don't really live here... as such," said Shimakaze hesitantly, taken a bit off-guard by the question. "I'm just looking around. I've..." She paused for a moment in thought, then seemed to reach an internal conclusion and went on, "I've been through some kind of... stressful... stuff recently. Ad—uh... my guardian... thought it would be good for me to get a chance of scenery for a little while."
Jun tilted her head quizzically. "Your guardian sent you off to a strange city to get your head straight? Alone? Uh, no offense to him or anything, but that is weird, yo."
"He didn't send me, it was my idea," Shimakaze snapped, the first real spark of any sharper emotion flickering in her hazel eyes. "You make it sound like he threw me away because I was damaged."
"Hey, whoa, sorry," said Jun, spreading her hands in surrender. "Seriously, I didn't mean it to sound like that. I was just surprised, is all. I mean, that's an... unusual way for someone to handle something like that. Honest. That's all."
Shimakaze maintained the glare for a moment longer, then seemed to deflate, dropping her forehead into her hand.
"Aauuugh," she groaned, then muttered angrily at herself, "Stupid. Stupid. You're screwing this up. You're not ready. Poi tried to warn you..."
Then, pulling herself together, she took a deep breath and looked up to see the others all looking back at her—not with expressions of fear or disgust, as she had half-expected, but with a mixture of bafflement and concern.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Really. It's not your fault. I'm just... not good with people. At all. I should..." She got to her feet. "I should go, I'm ruining your lunch. I'm sorry. Thank you for the meal," and before anyone could interject, she turned and bolted from the restaurant.
If there was one thing of which former Fleet of Fog high-speed destroyer Shimakaze remained confident, even now, it was that she was the fastest around. Even the speed of the Fog Asiatic Fleet's legendary fast battleships, the Kongō class, paled in comparison to the pace she could maintain on the open sea, and some echo of this could be found in the fleetness of her Mental Model. Even a casual observer could get a sense of it from that Model's build: long and lean, like a greyhound, with no wasted anything to get in the way or make drag.
Now, as she withdrew from the restaurant at flank speed, the last thing she expected to encounter was one of the people she'd just left behind; but as she turned the corner onto the cross street that would take her to the waterfront, she was shocked to see Ui Hirasawa pop out of the alley ahead of her, waving for her to stop. She could've gone around the girl easily enough, but the surprise alone was enough to pull her up short, all but backpedaling to shed momentum and prevent a collision.
"Shimakaze-chan, wait!" Ui cried.
"Wha—?!" Shimakaze blurted as she managed to stop just short of cannoning into Ui. Behind her, she heard running feet; half-turning, she saw Jun, Sumire, and Nodoka catching her up.
Shimakaze turned back to Ui, astonished. "How did you do that?!" she demanded.
Jun slid to a halt alongside her and grinned, even as she leaned over her knees and caught her breath.
"Air Nomad kid—represent," she panted, holding up a fist, which Ui—even in her currently preoccupied state—absently bumped.
Out of seat, three bounds to the back of the curry house, vault the counter, through the kitchen, bang a left and out the fire door. Watch out for the greasy spot by the vent exhaust. Two-hop the dustbins and trapeze the fire escape over the low retaining wall at the end of the lot. Turn the rollout into a right turn and it's a straight shot to the street.
Airbender parkour. As seen on TV! The twenty-foot vertical jumps don't really work without the airbending. The rest: totally doable.
Note to self: apologize to the restaurant staff later. That was pretty rude.
Seeing that Shimakaze's surprise at having been caught was turning into alarm, Ui put up her hands and said, "It's OK! We're not mad or anything. We just... we want to help."
Shimakaze blinked. "Help?" she repeated.
"You seem like something's really bothering you," Sumire said, nodding.
"Yeah, and we couldn't let you go thinking you were ruining our day," Jun added, still grinning. "That's just crazy talk."
"Don't look at me, I'm just the student council president," said Nodoka with a smile as Shimakaze did just that. "But yeah. If you've got a problem, we'd all like to help you."
"Why would you help me?" Shimakaze wondered, her face blank with confusion.
"Because you're our friend," Ui replied simply.
"Your friend? You barely know me."
"You don't get it," said Jun, shaking her head. "Ui here? Making friends with people. It's what she does. It's all she does." Her grin returning, she put an arm around Ui's shoulders and shook her a little, adding, "She's a social typhoon. Resistance is futile."
"You just made it weird, Jun," said Ui through a smile gone slightly wooden.
"I made it weird?" Jun replied. "I'm not the one just Bruce Lee'd out of Curry Udon Central after the fastest girl in the world. Seriously, damn, girl," she added, punching Shimakaze's near shoulder gently. "Whatever they feed you back home, it's working."
Shimakaze stood looking from one to another, completely at a loss. "I... I don't... know what to do," she admitted at length.
"Well, you're a musician, right?" said Ui. "We're starting a band. Why not come to the club room at our school and jam with us for a while?"
"Weren't you just on me for being pushy recruiting Saitō?" Jun wondered rhetorically, causing the girl she'd named to giggle.
"It's just a jam session," Ui insisted. "No strings. What do you say? My big sis says that music can be very therapeutic."
"On a point of order, I refuse to believe that Yui uses the word 'therapeutic' in conversation," Nodoka remarked dryly.
"Um..." Shimakaze hesitated, then cracked a wry smile, the first of any kind she'd managed since bolting from the restaurant. "Well, I can't really deny needing therapy."
"Great! Then it's settled," said Ui cheerfully, taking both of her hands. "Let's get going!"
"Sure, I... OK," said Shimakaze, and she let herself be half-led, half-dragged off toward Sato Academy.
A block away, unnoticed by any of them, a figure in a dark dress and a pillbox hat watched them go, then smiled and raised a hand to her ear, speaking in a quiet voice to the air.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
The Federation Lives Forever!
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Based on K-On! created by
E P U (colour) 2017