Chapter 1 - Rikka Garden Council
Located in Asterisk's central district, and conjoining the business and administrative districts was the large building known widely as "Hotel Elnath".
Although this building was constantly visited by VIPs and celebrities of every nationality, it was best known for something else, namely the s.p.a.cious dome-shaped hanging gardens which occupied its top floor. The number of people privileged enough to make the pilgrimage here, with its paved, criss-crossing waterways and blooming flowers that paid no heed to the season, was infinitesimally small. Only a small cadre of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation's top bra.s.s were able to make their accommodations at this hotel, and only with express permission.
This garden locale, shockingly, was reserved for the patronage of an even smaller number of individuals, who made monthly visits. Those allowed past the gates of this sacred site numbered but six in the world at any given time ー the six student council presidents of the six Asterisk schools.
"Good day, everyone. I trust you've all been well?"
Atop a small hill in the center of the garden sat a lone pavilion.
Within the pavilion rested a large, hexagonal desk which mirrored the geography of their city, one of six chairs sitting at each of its sides.
The girl who'd gracefully greeted her compatriots ーClaudiaー wore her usual gentle smile, as she met five pairs of eyes.
"Welcome, Miss Enfield; punctual as always."
The person Claudia had greeted with a smile was a young man seated to her left, who had the appearance of n.o.bility. Whether it was his fine facial features or his exquisitely-groomed blond hair, he was a most handsome youth. His cool and steady demeanor and actions spoke of a maturity beyond his years.
He wore a light smile, which seemed gentle, but in truth, was the same as Claudia's ー a smile which hid all emotion behind an unchanging facade.
The distinctive white uniform which set him apart as a student of St. Garrardsworth Academy fit him precisely, as if tailored specifically for him.
"Now that everyone's arrived, let's begin. Everyone's time is most precious, after all."
As the blond youth spoke, he opened a s.p.a.ce window mid-air.
This was the monthly meeting held by the six student council presidents of Asterisk. As the hanging garden locale played host to this meeting, it was more commonly known as the "Rikka Garden Council".
On the surface, the goal of this meeting was to maintain friendly relationships between the six schools, encourage cooperation, and discuss items concerning the Festa. The truth of the matter was that this meeting played center stage for a match of wits and intrigue, as the schools sought to wrestle intel from, and advantage over, their opponents.
By custom, the chair of each session was the student council president of the top ranked school of the last Festa season.
Claudia turned her gaze to the empty seat at her right.
Originally, this was the designated seat of the representative of Queen Veil. It was, however, currently unoccupied.
"If I recall correctly, is she not currently in Europe? Apparently she received some sort of request, as was the case previously."
"I see. She is truly worthy of her reputation as a renowned songstress; she seems most busy."
"Heh. If it's that woman, whether she's here or not doesn't make an ounce of difference."
This mocking, irritated voice came from opposite the blond haired youth.
Its owner was a short, slightly plump fellow with pale red hair. His arms were arrogantly folded, and distaste colored his face. This young man, too, was as ever, though at least on this occasion, his scorn wasn't directed at Claudia.
As if his uniform, which marked him as belonging to Le Wolfe, weren't intimidating enough, he radiated a decidedly unsettling aura.
"Please control yourself, representative of the twin swords. This is not the place for you to insult other schools with your words."
A displeased expression appeared on the face of the blond-haired youth as he sternly rebuked his red-haired peer.
"Insult? What insult? This is simply common knowledge. That Queen Veil s.l.u.t hasn't bothered with a single one of her responsibilities. Since she first took her place as head of the student council there, how many times has she been absent already? Why don't you do your job and supervise her better?"
"Haha... your words are as vulgar as ever. I understand, forgive me this once."
The blond-haired youth sighed heavily.
His answer failed to appease the red-haired young man, who continued unabated.
"Whatever. When it comes to a half-a.s.sed representative who was only chosen for their looks, saying anything a waste of effort."
Suddenly, a pure white sword pressed up against his neck.
"Would you kindly cease your utterances?"
The blond-haired youth forced a smooth smile, one hand holding his sword.
Claudia gave an unconscious gasp of admiration.
He'd drawn his Lux, activated it, and targeted his opponent all in one smooth, graceful motion.
And with such speed!
"...Hoho, now this is interesting. If you've got the guts for it, why don't you go ahead and try, Holy Knight-dono? Go ahead and sign your school's death warrant."
Not only had the red-haired youth not so much as raised an eyebrow, he continued to provoke his opponent further.
To be sure, if he instigated a violent incident of his own accord here, at the Rikka Garden Council, not only the blond-haired young man, but the school he belonged to, would not emerge unscathed.
"It's as you say."
Utterly undaunted, the blond-haired youth gave a bright and unworried laugh, and pressed his sword yet farther forward.
The white blade began to glow with a soft light. It would soon pierce through its target.
"Hmph. A parlor trick."
Completely unaffected, the red-haired young man scoffed.
Looking closely, not a drop of blood tainted the white blade's purity.
"My, such wonderful friends, as always. You guys never do seem to tire of this, do you?"
This new voice came from a young woman seated at the blond-haired youth's left.
That said, perhaps "young girl" was a more appropriate description. Her hair was tied into pigtails with b.u.t.terfly clips, and her face was alight with the smile of youthful innocence. The calm steadiness with which she acted, though, belied her age.
Upon her chest was an object which glittered brilliantly, the "Yellow Dragon" of the World Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute.
"However, would you mind culling the theatrics, you brats? Otherwise, I'd be more than happy to join in on the fun."
As the young girl spoke gleefully, the blond-haired youth sighed a second time, and withdrew his sword ー St. Garrardsworth's prided Ogre Lux "White Refiner", as his red-haired compatriot licked his lips.
"Fufu, well if the princess herself decides to step in, there's nothing else we can do."
Claudia laughed behind her hand as the blond-haired youth shrugged.
The red-haired youth frowned, vexed, taking his legs off the table and turning to face Claudia.
"That reminds me, I recently heard some pretty interesting rumors, Claudia."
In his eyes could be seen a rabid ferocity.
"Apparently Seidoukan and Allekant have announced a joint Ogre Lux research effort. Just how credible are these rumors?"
The blond-haired youth and the young girl turned to Claudia, their curiosity written on their faces.
"Oh my. How should I put this... word sure travels fast."
"In other words, it's true?"
"It's only because you already knew it to be so that you broached the topic, no?"
Claudia narrowed her eyes and covered her mouth.
Of all those seated around the table, this red-haired young man was the most dangerous.
When it came to the blond-haired youth and the young girl who had attained such heights relying solely on their own power, their strength was definitely something to be reckoned with. However, of those present, the one most troublesome to deal with was the red-haired youth.
In all of Le Wolfe's history, he was the first to have ever attained his rank without having partic.i.p.ated in the Festa.
His weapons were his knowledge and the cunning with which he employed it. Strength, charisma, popularity, character; there wasn't a single area where he stood out from among the ma.s.ses but one ー the ability to manipulate others, of which he possessed a degree of talent which seemed a gift from the devil himself.
Every living creature on this Earth possessed a dark sideー what his was like was too terrifying to imagine.
"However, this is strictly between our Seidoukan and Allekant Academies; it is no concern of any other's."
"Not so fast, you vixen. Secret pacts between schools are prohibited by the Stella Carta. Did you really think the other schools would just idly stand by and watch?"
The young man glanced around the table.
"I have to say, this is truly most miraculous. Although I don't know the specifics, and you don't seem inclined to enlighten us, but isn't Allekant's ideology that strength is primary?" the blond-haired youth smiled lightly, and interjected.
When it came to Ogre Lux research, Allekant held the top spot entirely uncontested. Numbers two and three weren't even close.
For other schools to request a cooperative effort was entirely meaningless.
"How should I put this? Allekant's Ogre Lux facilities are the only one in existence among the six schools. Including my own, the other schools must rely on the table sc.r.a.ps fed by our masters, the Integrated Enterprise Foundation."
"That's right, that's why we at Seidoukan are providing skilled individuals to Allekant, thus forming a collaborative undertaking."
These words were shocking. All around the table eyes opened wide.
"Hey, hey. This so-called 'collaborative undertaking' is really one-sided, isn't it?"
"It's not just that; doesn't that completely pave the way for the stealing of relevant technologies?"
"Allekant sure is generous."
Claudia, entirely unruffled, maintained her smile.
"Perhaps it's best that we not listen only to my side of the story. Care to share, Allekant-san?"
All eyes turned to the student seated directly opposite Claudia.
The youth, who had simply sat up straight and hadn't so much as uttered a word prior, cut a sorry figure as he shook his head pitifully.
"I don't know the details either. I just scanned the approval request briefly. That is, when it comes to the specifics..."
Whether it was his average physique, his small eyes or black hair, he was a thoroughly unremarkable individual. He was like a shadow, a being without presence.
Nevertheless, glittering on his chest for all to see was the emblem of wisdom, Allekant's "Dusk Owl".
"You don't know...? Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?"
The small-eyed youth clutched his head in discomfort.
"If this was the decision that Allekant's students made themselves, then you've willingly allowed them to usurp your authority. Is that really alright?"
Although the six schools all boasted their own unique characteristics, Allekant Academy in particular stood out for its many peculiar workings. Like other schools, they offered cla.s.ses which allowed students to research and development weapons for battle, as well as cla.s.ses which offered first-hand experience employing the fruits of such labors. Unlike other schools, however, the former far outnumbered the latter.
Furthermore, the school was split into factions, divided by research area, which were engaged in a vicious power struggle. The relative influence of the various factions waxed and waned in accordance with the results their research produced in the Festa.
In other words, the most powerful individual at Allekant Academy was the leader of the faction with the most influence at the time. The student council president, in contrast, was at most only capable of acting as a go-between for the competing groups.
He was, in essence, nothing more than a figurehead.
"Please don't misunderstand, everyone. Nothing about this is secret. This is an official collaboration between Seidoukan and Allekant Academies built upon a foundation of mutual exchange. Afterwards, at a more appropriate time, I will disclose a more detailed description of our joint effort with everyone."
As Claudia provided a way out, the small-eyed young man gasped in relief.
"At the very least, this is a 'mutual' effort, no?"
"Of course. As part of our agreement, we will be footing 70% of all research costs incurred by Allekant during this undertaking."
At that moment, the young girl cut in in a seemingly innocent tone.
"More importantly, that reminds me. I heard there was some sort of disturbance over there at Seidoukan? Even the Shadow Stars were mobilized; perhaps these two things are related?"
"I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"
Claudia's expression never changed as she gave a vague answer.
It went without saying that these two events were, of course, related.
The reason for the aforementioned joint effort was the result of the event from a few days ago ー the settlement of the incident regarding Cyrus Norman. Manipulating another school's students to attack their fellow schoolmates was a clear and explicit violation of the Stella Carta. Were news of their actions to spread, not only would Allekant suffer an unavoidably harsh punishment, but their reputation would drop.
Such an occurrence would be of no benefit to Seidoukan, however. Instead, Claudia had intentionally kept the matter private, and had demanded the requisite pound of flesh, of far greater value to their school.
"This sly fox sure knows how to play dumb."
Losing interest, the red-haired youth turned away.
According to rumors concerning Asterisk's dark side, Le Wolfe's notorious intelligence organization was second-to-none.
Le Wolfe undoubtedly knew the details of what had occurred. The events, after all, had occurred in their home turf of the redevelopment zone.
Knowing that if given an inch, he'd take a mile, Claudia refused to give him so much as a millimeter.
"If that's all, then let's end things here."
Claudia gave a faint smile, and declared the topic closed for conversation.
"...This is certainly a most fascinating subject, but it seems we're a little late to the game. Perhaps another dayー"
The blond-haired youth seemed intent on changing the topic as well, but he was cut off.
"Uh, just one moment. May I speak?"
"He~h, so now it's this one's turn. What's up?"
Trembling, the small-eyed young man raised his hand and spoke with great trepidation.
"U-u-uh, this isn't that, you know, that urgent, but uh, there's something I'd like to add to the agenda."
"Oh, and what would that be?"
All eyes at once turned to the stunningly mediocre small-eyed youth, who glanced around in a panic before opening his mouth, cowering all the while.
"ーWhat I'd like to bring up is, uh, the artificial intelligence being developed by Asterisk, and all matters deriving therefrom."
The red-haired young man frowned in shock.
"Yes. Because of recent advancements in meteoric engineering, artificial intelligence research has taken great strides. Looking a ways off, it's no longer unreasonable to imagine that the day when self-aware AIs are created will inevitably arrive. When it comes to the laws regarding them, however, no nation has made sufficient preparation. We of the Starpulse Generation, for example, just about fell out of the sky. In order to avoid getting caught unaware, we must decide now how we will deal with them when the time finally comes..."
"In other words, you want to allow these self-aware machines to be students of Asterisk? To hold rights equal to that of humans?"
The blond-haired youth followed with a line of inquiry, his face still half-disbelieving.
"Yes, and if given the opportunity, to enter the Festa as well..."
"Are you an idiot? Like h.e.l.l."
The red-haired youth responded without holding back.
"I have no idea where you've gotten your hands on these machines posing as students, but for them to enter the Festa? You must be joking."
"As my counterpart has said. No matter how you look at it, this is really too much. Even a cursory examination of the problem presents a multiplicity of issues. All of those aside, doesn't the Stella Carta strictly regulate age? With the age of Festa partic.i.p.ants restricted to those between 13 and 22, doesn't that mean that the only machines who would even hypothetically be capable of partic.i.p.ating are those by now obsolete?"
"First of all, how can we even make judgments on the humanity of something so ambiguous? That should be the first step ー making preparations for all those things. I think such provisions are going to prove necessary in the near future."
"What? Everyone's opposed? Bo~ring."
The young girl folded her arms, puffing her cheeks as she glared at everyone.
"Huh? World Dragon's in favor?"
"Of course. Because this way is more interesting."
This representative of the Yellow Dragon would act in accordance with whatever flight of whimsy took her.
Even if she represented her entire school, she placed her own interests as a priority, the interests of her school coming a distant second. The scene falling into disorder, the situation turning to chaos ー these were the kinds of things the young girl enjoyed.
The reason the girl was able to maintain her elevated position despite her personality was due to her overwhelming strength.
Each school employed a different method for selecting their student council president. Seidoukan, for example, opted for a simple election-based system. Le Wolfe selected their top-ranked student. The World Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute, however, chose the simplest and most straightforward method - an elimination tournament.
The strongest of the candidate was given the position of the student council president.
More succinctly, among the students at the World Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute, the largest of the six academies, this girl stood at the top, undefeated.
In short, St. Garrardsworth, Seidoukan, and Le Wolfe were united in opposition.
On the other hand, World Dragon, and the proposing party, Allekant, were in favor.
"As per the instructions of the Queen Veil representative, her vote is cast with the majority. That's four against, and two for. The measure fails."
"Haa... That's really unfortunate."
The small-eyed youth hung his head dejectedly.
This was, however, the expected result.
If such a proposal were to pa.s.s, the only one who to reap the benefit would be Allekant. It never had a chance of pa.s.sing from the beginning.
Moreover, it's not like the Rikka Garden Council had the final say.
Standing above the Rikka Garden Council was a select group of members of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation who, together, comprised a management committee. If a measure pa.s.sed, it would later be reviewed by this committee. Although they endeavored to respect the will of the Garden Council, they were under no obligation to do so. There simply no way this measure wouldn't be sent right on back.
ーWith that said...
"In that case, putting aside the 'humanity' of artificial intelligences, would it still be unacceptable to deploy them as weapons?"
The words uttered by the small-eyed youth, his head bowed, tensed the atmosphere in a single moment.
"And what do you mean by that?"
"Was it not clear? Did we not just decide that artificial intelligences were not to be granted rights equal to other students? Beyond that, didn't we just declare that making judgments in discerning their humanity to be arbitrarily difficult? In other words, even if they appear to be human, a machine is just that ーa machine; a tool, if you would. The Stella Carta has no specific provisions restricting the use of weaponryー no matter what it may resemble."
"...You mean to employ autonomous Replicants as weapons?"
"The Stella Carta certainly does not forbid it."
Such a thing was obvious. Even if remote-controlled Replicants were to be deployed in battle, they stood no chance against the Starpulse Generation. They'd be nothing so much as sc.r.a.p metal to be discarded.
But, were such Replicants capable of independent thought and action, would that not alter the situation drastically?
"I see. So this was your true aim."
Claudia narrowed her eyes.
The first proposal had been a feint; he'd never expected it to pa.s.s. It had been brought up only for the sake of reaching this point.
It looked like this beady-eyed youth wasn't just an ornamental figurehead after all.
"Hmm... I understand now. This is certainly a topic which warrants discussion."
The blond-haired youth sighed for a third time. The small-eyed youth nodded his head deferentially.
"Thank you. Now when I return, they won't just shoot the messenger."
- ψ -
The July sun burned with a searing heat which roasted the skin of those under it. Even as school finished for the day, it gave no sign of letting up.
Ayato, sweating, raced out from within the shaded foliage of the central courtyard.
"This is bad, I don't think I'm going to make it..."
As he thought of Julis, who placed undue emphasis on punctuality, the thought of that oh-so-familiar angry face appeared in his mind.
The reason for his tardiness was unavoidable; their homeroom teacher Kyouko had forced some menial tasks upon him. An explanation would suffice.
After forming a duo with Julis, and registering for the Phoenix, two weeks had pa.s.sed.
They had diligently trained together each day.
As Ayato had not only never before partic.i.p.ated in a tag-team format before, but was also unclear on the various rules of the Festa. The number of things he had to learn had begun to pile high as a mountain.
Truth be told, Julis similarly lacked any team-battle experience, and the two's efforts could only be described as the blind leading the blind.
There was yet a month until the beginning of the Phoenix, though it was hard to claim that this was a sufficient amount of time.
"At the very least, I need to master providing close-combat support. If I can't even do that much, I'll be roasted alive-"
As he exited from the courtyard, intent on pa.s.sing through the hallway which connected the junior high and university buildings, Ayato suddenly felt someone's presence.
A young girl suddenly appeared, who had just so happened to have been hidden behind a pillar, in his blind spot.
He tried to stop himself, but it was too late.
The girl grasped the situation a second too late, and stared in horror.
A head-on collision was unavoidable at this point.
Straining his utmost, Ayato tried to turn.
His body exploded with pain at these actions which far surpa.s.sed normal movement, but he succeeded.
Thinking the moment had pa.s.sed, however, Ayato calmed down-
ーUnfortunately, immediately in front of his new destination appeared a young girl's faceー
This time, there was no avoiding it. Ayato and the girl slammed into each another.
Fortunately, since he'd tried to cut his speed, he hadn't suffered too large an impact. Unfortunately, however, the other party was just a young girl. Ayato rolled and flipped upright, running to the side of the girl who sat flat on her rear in front of him.
"Hey! Are you alright? Anything hurt?"
"Ah, I'm OK. I'm fine."
Replying in a small voice, an embarra.s.sed smile on her face, the young maiden looked up at Ayato.
"I'm very sorry!"
Ayato bowed deeply, again confirming the wellbeing of the girl in front of him. Establishing that she was uninjured, he patted his chest in relief.
ーSuddenly, he noticed something else of note, and tore his gaze away in a hurry.
Because the girl had collapsed with her legs parted, her skirt was askew.
The image of her cute panties was unfortunately burned into his retinas, and he reddened.
The girl suddenly realized what had happened, and frantically adjusted her clothing, her arms covering her body.
Her timid, tear-filled expression was reminiscent of a small animal, although her actions only served to emphasize the full curves of her chest.
This alluring image was hard to bear.
She wore the junior high uniform, and was thus younger than Ayato. Her limpid eyes and strong nose were adorable, and she gave the appearance of a delicate young maiden. She was, in short, a beautiful young girl.
Her timid, tear-filled expression was reminiscent of a small animal....the alluring image was hard to bear.
Her silver hair was tied in twin-tails which gently flowed down her back. Those of the Starpulse Generation with atypical hair colors numbered not a few, she and Saya among them.
Her form-fitting uniform outlined her graceful curves, and a real, sheathed sword hung at her back.
"About that...I'm truly sorry. I was too rushed, and didn't watch where I was going."
Ayato lifted his gaze, and outstretched his hand. The girl stared at it with some hesitation before taking it.
She rose, dusted herself off, bowed her head, and gave an apology of her own.
"N-Not at all. I should be the one apologizing. I've gotten in the habit of silencing my footfalls when I walk. Uncle is always scolding me about that..."
It wasn't until she gave her explanation that Ayato realized.
He certainly had been in a rush, but realistically speaking, there was simply no way he couldn't have noticed someone so close. This was his first time experiencing something like this.
That wasn't all there was to it, either. The reason the two had collided was because they'd both reacted in time, and simultaneously dodged in the same direction. But for her to have such reflexesー
"U-Um, might I ask...?"
Seeing Ayato suddenly go silent, the girl was confused.
"Oh, uh, no, never mind. Actually, wait just a moment, something seems to be stuck rightー"
There was a small twig infringing upon her gorgeous silver hair.
"Eh...? W-What is it?"
She combed her hair with her fingers where Ayato pointed, but because she was unable to see herself, her efforts were fruitless.
The young girl's demure actions were wonderfully cute, and for a moment, he was tempted to simply observe for a bit longer, but he was out of time.
"Here. Don't move."
Ayato gave a wry smile and extended his hand and removed the twig, careful not to damage her hair.
The girl blushed a deep scarlet and gave her thanks. She coyly bowed her head and went silent.
She snuck the occasional quick glance upward, but would immediately glance back down the second she caught Ayato's eyes.
Just as he was about to inquire on the matter, a loud roar sounded from the junior high building.
"Kirin! Why're you wasting time over there?!"
"...R-Right! My apologies, Uncle. I'll be right over!"
The girl gave a start before giving a second, frantic thanks to Ayato.
He watched as the young girl ran off toward the junior high entrance where a middle-aged man stood waiting.
His physique was quite impressive for his age, but he wasn't of the Starpulse Generation for Ayato couldn't feel a whit of Prana emanating from him. Although the girl had called him her uncle, it was difficult even for members of direct family to enter these premises. This implied that this older gentleman had his own relationship with the school.
Ayato pondered what he'd seen for a moment before remembering the situation which had led to this very predicament.
The appointed time had long pa.s.sed.
Ayato felt a chill run down his back. As he prepared to race off once more, the cellphone in his bag began to ring.
A terrifying sense of foreboding ran through him... As he answered the call, to no one's surprise, Julis' furious face appeared.
Jump up↑ Elnath, a.k.a. Beta Tauri
Jump up↑ This is in the original j.a.panese source, but the author made a mistake here. He clearly states that Claudia met five pairs of eyes earlier, which is impossible as Queen Veil's student council president is absent.
Jump up↑ A reference to the owl of Athena, the Greek G.o.ddess of wisdom.