Gentle ripples rolled across the classroom window, transforming the view into something like a reflection on a watery surface. Countless homes, clinging like shellbugs to petraderm walls outside, appeared to sway back and forth. Sound waves created the illusion as they beat against the translucent peritoneum stretched across the window frame. Nor was it only the classroom window; an inaudible roar echoing up from the depths was sending vibrations through every window worthy of the name in that funnel-shaped city.
"…the complex endoskeletal structure exists apart from the exoshelleton, and at first glance appears to be entirely without purpose. In fact, I can’t see any use for it myself, and yet…"
Suspended in front of a sallow skinboard that accounted for the entire front wall of the classroom, Professor Shitadami lectured on without a pause, his head one-third the size of his entire body.
He pulled and manipulated the gutlines that hung down from the sliptrack overhead and began sliding from the left side of the skinboard to the right, moving along a spinal column that extended from one side of the ceiling to the other. From either side of his overhanging chin there protruded a hard antenna that quickly and nimbly trailed scratches across the skinboard.
Long welts swelled up along the scratches, presently embossing the skinboard with a skeletal diagram of a momonjia creature particularly in form and mysterious in its ways, even among the countless body plans and innumerable behavioral traits of its fellow petauristas. But for Hanishibe, sitting two rows from the back, everything in the tall, vertical space of the classroom was a blur, pushed from his mind by the vibrations of the silk-white city streets.
Why do I feel so uneasy? Hanishibe mouthed, not quite giving voice to the words. Descents from heaven happened all the time. His sweaty fingers crawled along the spine of his rib-bound textbook, and he took comfort in the familiar peaks and valleys of its vertebrae.
"…if you know this part? Yes, Mr. Karikomo?"
"The round bones are used as wheels or cogs. But even so, Professor, I have to think that from our standpoint, momonji are put together just a little too conveniently."
"That's an important point, but it's also a question that takes us into the realm of metaphysics. If you wish to pursue it, I'd suggest you transfer to the department of theology. Now, next is Mr.…"—Professor Shitadami turned toward the students and gazed across the classroom—"Hanishibe. What is this called, and what function do you think it serves?"
Hanishibe hadn't heard a thing the professor had said, but when twenty-three classmates turned around to look at him all at once, he realized that he had been called upon. A dazzling beam of sunlight was being reflected into his eyes off the hairless, hard, and finely cracked cranium of Yatsuo, who was sitting with perfect posture in a seat in front of him and off to the side.
There were four rows and six columns of seats, and about half of the faces occupying them were far removed from the human baseform. In the case of Monozane the Truncated Dodecahedron, who was bubbling away contentedly in an aquarium on a front-row desk, Hanishibe couldn't even tell what part corresponded to a face.
Grandpa's really amazing, Hanishibe thought, impressed anew by the outstanding work his grandfather did. Although humans came in all shapes and sizes, he could see right away that they were people and took measures to resurrect them.
Hanishibe was fearful that even if he did manage to become a taxonomist, he might misjudge someone and make a mistake he could never atone for. He had long had a feeling that it wouldn’t be terribly unusual if people were found among the raw materials used in the mesenchyme-wrapped bones of the chair he was sitting in or among the ingredients of the broth that today’s rhinoceros meat had been served in at lunchtime. His fear of making such errors was supposed to be why he was studying in this taxonomy department to begin with, but for some time now, Hanishibe had been afflicted by a sense of unease that he couldn't put clearly into words and had become unable to focus on his studies.
Professor Shitadami made a coughing sound.
"Hanishibe, didn't you hear?”
"Zwee, Zu, Zwee”
"He said, 'What's it called and what does it do?’”
"Psst! The prof's calling you!"
Spurred on by his classmates' whispers, he looked up at the scowling face of Professor Shitadami, suspended in midair before the skinboard. The ridges that the blood sedges formed in his forehead were pulsating furiously, as was the swollen tumor in his left cheek.
The professor's right antenna was indicating the outline of an unassuming ossiform folded several times over, buried in the backshell ossiform beneath the momonji's skin. It wasn't yet listed in this year's textbook.
Hanishibe stood up from his seat.
"It's a wingtype ossiform," he said. "During their descent from heaven, they deploy from the backshell ossiform and push the skin outward, forcing it to spread out and tighten, and can exhibit movements similar to those of a bird flapping its wings. It can't fly, of course. Its original purpose, like that of the variable exoshelletons and the other unnecessary interior bones, are unknown, since the researchers are—"
Since he was just parroting what he’d heard from his grandfather, he could keep explaining for as long as anyone would listen, but the professor, with a wave of a shriveled hand that resembled some sortof dried snack, cut him off.
"Precisely. Strange though it may be, they exhibit behavior like that of a flapping wing. All we have to rely on is the Book of the Heritage of the Hereafter, but it's believed that the phylogenetic repetition that takes place up until a human fetus takes shape—changes in form such as the appearance of gills and tails—may contain the key to unraveling this mystery."
With perfect timing, then, a melancholy tone sounded out in the hallway. Hanishibe caught a glimpse of the “bell monitor” as he passed by the open door leading out into the hallway. With a forward-backward motion, he expanded and contracted his rust-colored, box-shaped thorax like an accordion, emitting the tone that marked the end of class.
"Well, that's all for today. To those of you on cleaning duty: don't forget to put ointment on the skinboard, and pay special attention to the spots that are festering. Next week, we'll be dissecting a real momonji, so wear something you won't mind getting dirty."
Someone smarted off at that, asking what those who don't wear clothes should do.
"Come prepared to molt," the professor replied. As his students wryly grinned, Professor Shitadami shook his head from side to side, retracting his antennae. He then slid his school rulebook into his backsac, pulled on a hanging line, and descended silently to the hardbone floor, facing downward. He crawled out of the classroom on all fours like a baby.