"Sum~mer break! Summer breaaaak!" I hummed to myself, cheerfully clutching the supplies in my arms to my chest as I walked beside Kuya-san.
We were on the way up to the roof, with Okaken and Joker-san in the lead, then Yagami and Arata-san behind them, and Kuya-san and I brought up the rear. As usual, the two of us were stuck with carrying the bulk of the equipment, even though the student council had already won back all of its normal authority. I didn't really mind the chore-like tasks that still got dumped on us, and I knew that Kuya-san wasn't bothered by it either.
And besides, we were too caught up in the excitement of what was about to happen to mind much of anything. Not only was it the first day of summer break, but it was also the day that Okaken had scheduled the first test of his newly completed alien communication device. Joker-san had decided to put off his usual summer trip to Russia for a few days to observe the testing, and by sheer luck, the rest of my close friends were either staying for the entire break, or wouldn't be leaving until the weekend. But no matter how much we begged, Takato-san flatly refused to watch 'something so inane' and holed up in his room instead.
"What a shame," I sighed, spirits dampened a bit by the memory.
"Hm? What is it, Yuki?" Kuya-san nudged me with his elbow, since his hands were full.
"I was just thinking that Takato-san should have come along. I mean, I don't really expect anything to happen, but what if it does? He'll be sorry he missed it."
Kuya-san turned toward me with a grin. "Then he'll just have to live with the knowledge that he wasted a great opportunity! But don't worry, he's always like that. It's just his personality." His smile faded a little. "I'm a bit disappointed that Ninosuke didn't want to see, though. He's usually pretty excited about things like this."
"I guess he's still not all that comfortable around me," I said with a frown, pausing for a moment to adjust my grip on the heavy box I was carrying.
"That's not your fault. He's just sore about giving up on the dream of being a great student council president. I'm sure it annoys him that you've already reached legendary status."
"That's not true," I protested, cheeks darkening.
"Don't be too modest, Yuki, of course you are! You saved the entire school, that makes you even more incredible than the legendary student council president from the past! Everyone is grateful, after all, we wouldn't all be here now without you!"
Ahead of us, Arata-san nodded, turning to glance back over his shoulder. "That's right, that's right. Arata's really happy that this place didn't close. It's thanks to you, Ace-kun."
"Not just me," I protested, "Tomo was with me the whole time."
"Tch," Yagami spoke without turning around, "I can't believe you chose that lazy ass as your partner. Everyone thought you were nuts."
I couldn't let my friends say things like that about Tomo, even if it was mostly true. "Tomo can be really serious when it's something important. He cares about this school more than you'd expect. There's no way he would have slacked off."
Well, that wasn't exactly true, but no one else knew the full story of Tomo's involvement. Sure, Kuya-san was one of the people who knew that Tomo was the director, but the whole story of the real reason the board was meddling with the school had to remain a secret. I couldn't begin to imagine how much mayhem it would cause if someone like Joker-san caught wind of the complete tale, a mess of corporate intrigue, long-lost relatives, and data theft. And especially now that Tomo was considering Suzubishi-san's offer of adoption, things had to stay quiet. Well, depending on how that situation developed, that information would come out soon enough, but I wasn't going to spill any secrets. I was the only one who knew what was going on, and I'd never betray Tomo's trust.
"Hyahaha, Tomomo has really changed! Arata even saw him heading to practice the other day."
"I'm surprised that slacker isn't comin' with us," Yagami interrupted. "Or is ten in the morning too early for that bum?"
"Hehe, I'm sure Tomo is still asleep. It is the first day of summer vacation, after all."
Our conversation was cut off by our arrival at the stairs leading up to the rooftop. Kuya-san and I were both carrying too much to chat while climbing up. Instead, we focused on the steps, straining to see them around the large, heavy boxes we carried, and by the time we reached the door at the top, everyone else was waiting impatiently.
"Took you guys long enough!" Okaken huffed. "I told you, we have to hurry!"
"It's cuz you were too lazy to help carry your own crap," Yagami muttered.
"Hmm, but Reo-Reo, I didn't see you offering to help carry anything."
"Damnit, Arata, how many times do I have to tell you?!?!"
Arata-san dodged Yagami's kick, giggling. "Oh noooo, Reo-Reo got angry!"
Maro poked his head out of Arata-san's jacket with a kuku that sounded suspiciously like a taunt.
Joker-san, who was standing outside the open door, sighed dramatically. "Are you two going to continue fighting like an old married couple, or are you going to come outside so we can do something fun?" His eye went to Okaken. "Come on, Oka-chan."
"Right!" Okaken marched out through the door Joker-san was holding for him and onto the roof. The rest of us followed, and luckily Arata-san held the door for me and Kuya-san as we struggled through with our too-wide boxes of heavy metal parts.
It was a beautiful day outside, sunny without a hint of clouds, and not too humid. Kuya-san and I set the boxes down where indicated and stretched our sore arms with sighs of relief. Arata-san let Maro out to play, and Yagami went over to the railing to look out over the school while Okaken sat down to assemble his equipment.
I also sat down on the warm concrete. "So, Okaken, what exactly does this machine do?"
"Didn't I already explain? It's an alien communication device. So obviously--"
Kuya-san interrupted in a bright tone, "But you made it, right? So it can't be an alien communication device, that's what aliens would use to communicate! It's a device for communicating with aliens!"
Okaken opened his mouth to protest, then shut it after a moment with a snort. Joker-san laughed. "Now that I think of it, you're right, Sagimori-sempai. I'm surprised that you were able to figure out something that Oka-chan couldn't."
"Hmph! My genius is meant for practical matters, not trivial tasks like naming things!" Okaken plugged several cords into a metal box that was covered in dials and knobs. "Once I produce the first records of alien communication in human history, it won't matter what the piece of equipment was called. All that matters is capturing the data and proving that we are not alone in the universe! That's what will make my name a household word in the decades to come!"
"Right, right," I nodded, more to placate him than out of any genuine agreement. As he clicked more parts into place, I couldn't help wondering just how such a complicated contraption could work. It seemed like it had started as the metal box and a few cords, then had expanded into a mess of wires and delicate-looking instruments that I didn't recognize at all.
I thought about asking more questions, but I knew that encouraging Okaken would just open a floodgate of information peppered with attitude, so I kept my mouth shut. That didn't stop Kuya-san from asking questions or attempting to help assemble the machine, but even he gave up after being scolded a few times. Despite the complexity of the device, Okaken assembled it quickly once we stopped interrupting him, and before long Joker-san summoned everyone back to the center of the roof.
"Everyone! We're about to witness a historic event. Of some sort." Joker-san was smiling and his tone was warm, but his eye was glittering with mischief. "Please focus your full attention on our resident alien expert and his miraculous communication device."
"Ahem," Okaken adjusted his glasses, then pulled his safety goggles down to cover his eyes and picked up the control box. "Everyone, please stand behind me. This device uses a variety of communication methods, some of which could be harmful to the body. I strongly suggest that you all stay back for your own safety."
We all stood in a half-circle behind and to either side of Okaken. Kuya-san and I were together on his left, and the others were on his right, all making sure to keep behind the invisible line that was marked by the machine parts on the ground. I couldn't tell what parts of the machine did what, but I had to admit that they were pretty impressive, all sleek and glistening in the summer sunlight, and most pieces were covered in small indicator lights and other glowing bits.
"Kinda looks like a sci-fi movie," Kuya-san whispered.
"I almost hope it doesn't work," I whispered back. "What if we contact something unfriendly?"
"Quiet, you two!" Okaken ordered. "I'm about to begin."
He cleared his throat noisily and placed his finger on the main switch. It was, as expected, a large red button, just like you'd see in the movies. We were all so quiet that the click of the switch was clearly audible as Okaken pressed down on it.
But nothing happened.
"Hmmm, that's pretty boring," Joker-san muttered.
"The hell?" Yagami leaned closer, making a face. "Is it busted?"
"Shut up!" Okaken glared at him. "That was just the main power switch! It takes a moment to draw enough current, I told you, this device is powerful!" His fingers went to the smaller metal switches in the corner, and I swore they were trembling a little as he announced, "Savor your last moments of ignorance, people of earth! Everything changes now!"
He flipped one switch, and something began to hum. "First, the recording device. Watch what you say from now on, you don't want a foolish comment to end up in the historical records, do you?"
"Hyahaha, mom, dad, it's Arata! Arata was here for the alien experiment!"
I couldn't see the face that Okaken made as he turned toward Arata-san, but from the way Maro dove back into his jacket, I was pretty sure it was a death glare. Beside me, Kuya-san snorted, both hands pressed to his mouth as he tried not to burst out laughing.
"Please carry on with the experiment," Joker-san said, smiling indulgently at Okaken. That smile turned dangerous as he looked at the rest of us in turn, eye narrowed and hand on his hip, a silent reminder that he carried his gun everywhere.
"Right," Okaken nodded, fingers moving to the next switch. "Now, transferring power to all parts of the device." He flicked it, and there was a mechanical whir of equipment stirring to life. "And finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. The moment all of mankind has been waiting for!"
The click of that final switch being snapped into place seemed louder than the others, maybe because I was holding my breath. The small lights on the different parts of the device began lighting up in sequence, first red, then green, then blue, indicating that something was happening. Not only that, but the soft hum of the machine was steadily growing louder as the electronics worked hard to do whatever it was they were meant to do.
I heard a strange hiss from the right, and I tore my eyes from the strange machine. Maro was on the ground at Arata-san's feet, standing up on his hind legs with his fur sticking straight out, making him look far bigger than usual. Arata-san knelt to pick him back up, but Maro darted away the moment his hand came close, dashing across the rooftop.
"Hey, what's that weasel doing?!" Okaken cried as Maro ran out directly in front of the machine, into the danger zone he'd warned us about.
"Minase," Joker-san's tone was one of warning, "if your pet somehow ruins my fun again, I'm going to turn it into a tiny throw rug."
Arata-san gave him a look that was nothing like his usual cheery expression. "Maro, come back!" he hissed under his breath, motioning sharply with one hand.
"Kukukuuu~" Maro almost sounded like he was growling as he clawed at a spot directly in front of the machine, tiny claws scratching unpleasantly on the concrete.
"I swear," Joker-san grumbled, but Kuya-san cut him off.
"Wait! Don't animals have much better senses than humans? I've heard that they can sense all sorts of things that are beyond our understanding, including the supernatural! Maybe Maro is detecting something that we haven't noticed yet!"
"That sounds like a buncha bullshit."
"No, I've heard that too!" I piped up. "Animals have super sharp senses. I'm sure Maro knows something we don't. Maybe it's working!"
"Of course it's working, Asahina-kun!" Okaken sounded scandalized. "I can't believe you'd come see a demonstration like this with even a shred of doubt in your mind!"
"Umm," Arata-san was leaning forward a bit. "I don't like the looks of this..."
"It seems like the weasel is getting agitated," Joker-san said. "Hey, you, come back here."
Maro ignored everyone and continued scratching at the rooftop, making a strange sound that was a cross between a squeak and a screech. I'd never heard anything like it, and it was clear that Arata-san didn't like it either. "Maro! Come back right now! It's dangerous out there!"
He stepped forward, but Okaken grabbed the sleeve of his track jacket. "I'm telling you, stay behind the machine! There are powerful forces at work here!"
"But Maro..." Arata-san was at a loss, glancing at the machine with suspicion. "Then turn it off!"
"Impossible! Do you know how long it took to get everything prepared for this moment? If I shut it off now, it will take at least a week to get it back into shape for an initial test!"
"Let go!" Arata-san tried to shake him off, but Okaken was incredibly stubborn when it came to anything involving his precious experiments. "What if there's some sort of sound wave or whatever that's harmful? Maro's a lot smaller than us, it'll hurt him!"
I couldn't just stand back and let Maro stay out there. Okaken's machine was starting to make all sorts of odd clicking and whirring noises, and the many small lights along the different parts were flashing in strange, colorful patterns. And Maro was more excited than before, running in a tight circle around the spot he'd been scratching.
"Enough is enough!" I declared, darting out in front of the machine.
"Yuki, no!" I felt Kuya-san's hand on my arm, but I was moving too fast and it slipped off.
Anyway, it would only take a moment. I would just dash across the space and snag Maro as I ran. As I got close and bent to grab the angry ferret, he suddenly let out a terrible sound that could only be described as a scream, and he dashed off toward Arata-san.
My sigh of relief was cut short by the shrill sound of an alarm, then Okaken's shout: "Asahina-kun, I told you not to-- gaaaah!"
Everything around me started getting bright, so bright that I stopped in my tracks and threw one arm over my eyes to protect them from the harsh light. Despite that, the amount of light that leaked in around my arm was still enough to sting my eyes, and they watered in protest. What was happening? Which way should I go? I tried taking a step in the direction I'd been heading, but my body felt heavy and I couldn't move the way I wanted to.
"Oka-chan, what's with this light?!" I'd never heard Joker-san sound so alarmed.
"I... I don't know! Asahina-kun, don't just stand there, hurry toward my voice!"
"Yuki! Come back!"
"Geez, dumbass, don't just stand there, come toward our voices!"
I can't move! I wanted to say, but I couldn't even speak, my body frozen in place. My friends' shouts grew distant, distorted, like time had slowed down somehow, and I couldn't really understand what they were trying to say. Everything was a jumble of senseless sound, drowned out by the frantic beeping of the machine's alarm, the only noise that seemed clear and normal.
Then it exploded.
At least, I thought it exploded. But that sound was suddenly cut off, even though the floor beneath me shook as if rocked by an explosion. The unusual brightness faded, and I was finally able to take my arm from my eyes.
"Huh? Where is everyone?"
I was alone on the rooftop.