Toaru Majutsu no Index:RailgunSS3
If you were looking for well-mannered young ladies, this was the place.
Prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School was one of the world’s greatest hotspots for polite language.
“Perhaps this will answer your question, Shirai-san.”
Was this girl picking a fight?
Shirai Kuroko, a small girl with her long chestnut hair worn in twintails, let her shoulders slump in annoyance within the white school building’s cafeteria. There were some entitled people who would snap at train station workers, nurses, Anti-Skill officers, and other people simply doing their best to serve the city. Shirai’s position in Judgment may have made her the target this time.
…Why was it so hard for the people causing trouble to notice the trouble they were causing? Shirai had just finished spending her precious lunch break to deal with the paperwork she so loathed and finally had some time to enjoy a nice apple tea in peace, so why did this complete stranger think it was appropriate to barge in and sit at the same table as her!? How had this other girl overlooked the fact that Shirai had ignored her usual calorie counting to add some honey to the cup as a pick-me-up after that grueling chore!?
The other girl appeared to be a fellow first year.
She even had twintails like Shirai did. She had thickly tied off her long black hair and curled the tips in something like ringlet curls. The bangs were parted in a somewhat complex fashion, but that was how you dressed up in Tokiwadai where flashy makeup and accessories were verboten. She also wore black kneesocks because socks were checked less strictly than rings or earrings. Shirai had no real reason to think so, but she felt certain this girl wore gothic clothing when away from school. Incidentally, Japan was actually in the top 5 countries for the gothic lolita fashion. That might sound surprising, but black hair was the orthodox look to match a gothic lolita dress. …Basically, it was a strange fusion of cultures born of excessive adoration, similar to the American idea of a ninja or geisha.
“I will get right to the point. This is about the elective exams.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Shirai-san, you chose the same music elective as me. Hwa ha ha! Your only choice is to accept your fate and give up now. But do not blame yourself, Shirai-san. Every star’s shine fades in the light of the massive sun!!”
“Is that so?”
This was reminding Shirai a little too much of what had happened with Kongou Mitsuko. This girl left far too many openings, including the fact that the sun was not all that impressive when compared to all the other stars in the universe.
Was she doomed to have bad experiences with every long black-haired girl in her school?
The girl thudded an instrument case down onto the round table.
When she undid the latch and opened it like a treasure chest, she revealed an amber shine with red silk padding wrapping it more neatly than a diamond.
Shirai Kuroko removed her teacup from the table out of common courtesy. But not because she was afraid it might wobble and spill its tea. In some cases, reflecting sunlight onto the instrument itself could be considered a form of damage.
“This is no ordinary violin! It is the Stativarius Ainsel!! It is the world’s greatest violin that I finally got my hands on using special connections only accessible to a chosen few. It has the finest sound in the world and you can never find a better instrument for bringing pleasure to your ears. This violin brings guaranteed success as a reward for the effort taken to acquire it! I must apologize, but none of your shallow efforts could possibly move this solid foundation. The top spot in our elective is mine!!”
Seeing someone brag about their antique was a rare sight. And the phrase “instrument for bringing pleasure” sent Shirai Kuroko’s mind in a rather inappropriate direction, so she had to stop herself.
Shirai asked a question as gingerly as she had when speaking to the person clinging to the base of a wind turbine claiming they had been given instructions from outer space.
“What is your point?”
“You have to ask? Out of the great kindness of my heart, I am giving you advance warning to soften the later despair. If I surprised you with this in the exam room, you might just pass out from the shock. But now you know your efforts are wasted. You may have some talent, but prepare to have your pitiful values washed away as you experience a life-changing performance! Prepare to praise my glorious victory!!”
Shirai Kuroko began typing into her phone below the table. She was sending an emergency message to fellow Judgment member Uiharu Kazari: “Call me immediately.” She wanted an excuse to claim she had pressing business and needed to leave.
“You are just dying to hear it, aren’t you?”
The pressure was intense.
In fact, the girl’s small face filled Shirai’s vision after moving to just 3cm away. An unexpected sneeze could easily lead to an accidental kiss.
An excited snort hit her in the face.
“This is your chance to hear a real Stativarius! I would not be so cruel as to deprive you of the chance to hear its music!! Now, Shirai-san. Reflect on the fact that you are given the honor of hearing the finest sound in the world. That is the lovely reward I, Sakibasu Yuri, will provide the poor girls who are doomed to fall before me!!”
“Fuck this! Fuck that! And fuck her most of all!!!!!”
Afterschool, Shirai Kuroko was slamming a metal bat against white balls at a District 7 batting cage. In what may have been derived from sushi-making robots, this batting cage used a pitching arm with actual fingers, so it could throw breaking balls.
Saten Ruiko looked exasperated as she calmly watched from behind the safety net.
“Shirai-san sure is acting wild today.”
“Is she? She does so many bizarre things that I’m not sure this is worse than usual.”
“Uiharu-san, I’ve been defending you against rumors that you’re secretly a black-hearted person, so please don’t make me regret standing up for you.”
“Shirai-saaaan! We can see your underweeeear!”
“Wow, the world is a big place. I don’t even know what to call underwear that perverted!!”
They had come here instead of the usual family restaurant because Shirai Kuroko was feeling frustrated. Saten had suggested using this nearby batting cage, but Shirai was swinging the aluminum bat at the baseballs with such ferocity you would think she was trying to slice them in two.
After an angry outburst, the girl in question stomped over with bat in hand.
She had completed the three sets of three balls. The pitching machine stopped and the LCD screen displayed her various results such as batting average. She tended toward right fly balls and she had some trouble with forkballs that flew straight toward the high inside corner before dropping down.
She spun the bat around by twisting her wrist and childishly pouted her lips toward the LCD screen.
“A vintage instrument? The world’s finest sound? Argh, I don’t care!!”
“Wow, Shirai-san’s venting at us without bothering to explain anything.”
“And these are called purple silk butterfly open-back panties! I must always wear the finest lingerie so I am ready for Onee-sama to have her way with me anytime and anywhere!!”
“I didn’t want an explanation of your perversion!! Your mom must be crying, Shirai-san!!”
“I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it. The memory alone is pissing me off. I get enough credit from Judgment activities that I honestly don’t really care how I rank in the elective exam. As long as I get a passing grade. But I can’t stand the thought of that black spiral twintail girl lording it over me with some exaggerated laugh!! What did I ever do to deserve this!? Is dealing with this kind of pain-in-the-ass supposed to be my duty as a public servant or something? Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
She vented for even longer without really explaining.
The other two girls realized they could not get through this just by nodding in agreement, so they looked behind them.
“M-M-Misaka-san. A little help please.”
Misaka Mikoto seemed interested in the kitchen space for the snack area at the very edge of the batting cage facility. She had her hands pressed against the glass divider while intensely focused on the junk food you could not get at their normal family restaurant: yakisoba, okonomiyaki, grilled rice balls, and anything else that could be cooked on a giant grill. The round indentations on one edge were probably for takoyaki. But she did not seem that interested in eating the food. She was instead enjoying the performance the cook put on with the spatula while cooking it all. That meant her back was fully turned on Shirai Kuroko the Lost Lamb.
“(Misaka-san is ultra dry, so wouldn’t that be like pouring oil on the Shirai-san fire?)”
“(I think that’s just how she shows her love.)”
While Saten and Uiharu whispered to each other, Misaka Mikoto finally turned around to respond. She had apparently succumbed to the temptation and bought some takoyaki from the big-sisterly festival-style cook.
“Hm, you know what, Kuroko?”
“Yes? Uh, woof, woof!!”
“You said her violin is a Stativarius, right?”
“Ugeh!? A Stativarius!?” shouted Uiharu while bristling at the thought.
Saten did not seem to recognize the name. She was unlikely to hear about something like that unless it carried a strange legend about each of its owners dying under suspicious circumstances.
“Simply put, it’s a violin that goes for hundreds of millions of yen at auction.”
“Bff!? Hold on, I thought we were talking about a middle schooler here! We are, aren’t we!?”
“Yes, we are, Saten-san. I’m glad you noticed. But this is prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School we’re talking about! I bet they spend stupid amounts of money without batting an eye! They’re the loosest girls in town when it comes to their pocketbooks!!”
Shirai gave those two a look, but they paid her no heed.
Saten kept the whispered conversation going with Uiharu.
“But isn’t it kind of messed up that they can get a good grade by buying a vintage instrument instead of through their hard work or practice?”
“How you go about getting that antique is probably part of the fierce fighting between those rich girls.”
Shirai was growing increasingly worried about what kind of classy space-time was developing in those girls’ minds.
Misaka Mikoto did not bother addressing that as she used a toothpick to pop a takoyaki in her mouth and fiercely fought with it because it was hotter than she expected.
“Hot, hot! So what’s this Stativarius’s name?”
“Munch, munch. I had a feeling.”
She somehow managed to swallow the takoyaki and rubbed her temple with her index finger.
“You said she got it through some special connections, but she probably meant Shokuhou Misaki.”
“She’s the Queen of Tokiwadai’s biggest clique and she’s my biggest enemy. I’ve never heard of this Sakibasu Yuri girl before, but that could mean she’s a new member of the clique. I do know the name Stativarius Ainsel, though. This might be a proxy war between Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki. She’s probably trying to settle things once and for all by pitting our underclassmen against each other.”
The crazed bat-wielding twintail girl (equipped with a see-through butterfly) hung her head and groaned.
“You mean I was targeted because I am your favorite? Heh…heh heh. Ah ha ha ha! I was wrong about you, Sakibasu Yuri!! That I can accept, so how about it, Onee-sama!? It’s time we made our official debut as a couple!!!!!”
“Stop forcing a positive interpretation. This was more like a random attack than anything.”
Mikoto was clearly exasperated, but she did not like the sound of this either. Someone had been targeted for being her friend. Any kind of retaliation could cause things to escalate, but at the same time, Academy City’s #3 Level 5, Railgun, did not have the kind of reserved personality that would let her ignore this.
If they were under attack, she was not about to hold back.
The best option was to thoroughly defang the enemy so they could never try this again.
“Kuroko, this is just about the elective exam, right?”
“What about it?”
“I’ll help you.”
She had learned her lesson last time, so Mikoto blew on the next takoyaki before tossing it into her mouth. Uiharu and Saten widened their eyes at her words.
“Eh? But isn’t this an important exam? Is an upperclassman like you really allowed to help an underclassman like Shirai-san?”
“We’re not talking about the System Scan to measure our powers. We’re allowed to support each other to an extent with our classroom learning. The regulations can differ between subjects, but I doubt it will be an issue for a non-powers elective. Otherwise that girl – Sakibasu-san was it? – wouldn’t be allowed to use a special violin she got from the #5.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
“But, Misaka-san, that Stativarius is a world-famous violin, right? It’s on the level of the Almati and Guarnari violins. No matter how much money you spend in your fancy world, you can’t beat its sound, can you?”
Uiharu knew a bit about this, but Mikoto gave her the look of a mischievous schemer.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“There’s no rule guaranteeing you a sound worthy of the high price you paid. A Stativarius doesn’t sound good because it’s expensive; it’s expensive because it sounds good. Get that backwards and you’re in for a rude awakening. Also…”
“The Stativarius Ainsel could easily fetch hundreds of millions at auction. No one would doubt the superiority brought by that price tag. …So what could be more fun than showing it who’s boss using a commercial or handmade instrument?”
The number of mischievous grins grew to four.
Just as many toothpicks reached into the box of takoyaki Mikoto held.
Uiharu and Saten had never been to a classical instrument store, but it turned out they were not hard to find. Instead of a big-box store, it felt more like a small urban electronics store. It felt stuck in the past, but it also showed no sign of going anywhere. In that sense, it was similar to a light truck selling roast sweet potatoes or bamboo poles.
Instead of playing music over speakers, robot arms played the string instruments and air was blown through the wind instruments so customers could hear how they would sound. Uiharu and Saten walked curiously through the shelves of instruments that their amateur eyes could not tell apart.
Of course, buying the best violin this store had would not be enough to match the Stativarius. There was no point in trying to compete that way.
Mikoto instead picked up the cheapest practice model they had.
They must have had trouble selling it because it was marked down to just 5000 yen.
“Okay, this should be fine as a base.”
She was like an impatient child who popped open the toy box before getting home. She held up the somewhat faded wooden instrument on the side of the road.
As a true Tokiwadai student, she looked perfect with the instrument.
“This is a violin. I should probably start with a simple overview. It looks like the sound is made simply by vibrating the taut strings with this bow, but the inside of the violin itself is actually hollow and it resonates with the vibration of the strings. Some say the sound of a violin changes depending on how the varnish is applied, but that’s because they’re concerned about how it influences the vibration of the resonance chamber.”
“Stativari are so highly prized because of the excellent balance of the resonance chamber’s curves. And on such a subtle level that factory production can’t match it. Anyone can get the strings on straight, so any differences have to be in the holy ground where the craftsman has left their mark.”
“Does that mean the strings can be made of kite string or metal wire for all it matters?”
Saten put forth a bold theory.
“The strings produce the sound and the chamber resonates with it,” said Shirai. “It might be similar to an idol and a concert hall. Even the fanciest acoustic equipment is wasted without a singer.”
Orchestras used violas, cellos, and contrabasses in addition to violins, but the size was the only real difference and the basic structure was the same. The Stativarius name was famous for string instruments as a whole and the same creator made instruments of all those different scales.
“Since this is a cheap violin, the strings are synthetic, just like fishing line, but the more expensive ones use sheep intestines.”
“That is more common than you think. It is used in wieners and sausages as well.”
Even Saten was a little disgusted by the thought, but it did not seem to bother Mikoto at all.
“But to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. The Stativarius is from the 1700s and the same animal intestines wouldn’t have survived for three centuries. The strings will have been replaced at some point, so its vintage value doesn’t come from there.”
Uiharu Kazari was oddly interested in Mikoto’s elegant way of holding the violin than the violin itself, so she viewed the girl from various angles. When Shirai Kuroko noticed, she lightly hit the girl and continued the conversation.
“So it comes back to the resonance chamber? Then is altering the violin itself the quickest route to changing the sound?”
It seemed almost too easy.
Mikoto twisted loose the knob on the head of the violin and used a special tool resembling a flathead screwdriver to pop open the gourd-shaped violin so casually you would think it was a bento box.
Uiharu cried out in surprise, but it was not broken. Mikoto had taken it apart for maintenance in a way only the craftsman was meant to do.
There was nothing inside.
There truly were no special parts there. They only found the blank space of an empty box inside. It was such a simple image that the others began to wonder why this was viewed as a classy instrument that was out of reach for commoners.
As Mikoto continued to dismantle it, she revealed it to be no more than a collection of wooden rods and panels. It almost looked like you could trace the shapes on some plywood as a pattern to cut out the exact same parts for yourself. In reality, the parts were processed with heat and pressure just like a bow (the weapon kind), but it meant a lot that they were starting with accurate parts similar to those used to build a plastic robot model. It was a good starting point.
The rest came down to accurate knowledge.
They had to know how a violin worked.
“Let’s think about the inner structure for a bit. As long as you meet the bare minimum of standards, anyone can get a passing grade when it comes to strings. That means the difference has to come from here. The final sound is created by the vibration of the empty resonance chamber.”
In that case…
“If we modify this resonance chamber, we can adjust the sound however we like, right?”
If you need some help with your plans, just come on down to Seikyu Handz!!
“Saten-san, why are you just standing there in the entranceway?”
“Quiet, Uiharu. When you visit Handz, it’s only polite to spread your arms, stand tall, and let the overwhelming aura wash over you!!”
“You’re in the way.”
They ignored Saten Ruiko and her strange custom.
Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko made their way to the DIY section full of bookcases and TV stands you had to assemble yourself. The section carried standard tools like saws and hammers, but also things like waterproof rubber glue and duct tape. The screwdriver selection included everything from sturdy attachments for electric drills to tiny models meant for use on glasses or phones.
“I want to try out several different things, so we will need sandpaper in at least three different grit sizes. We can just use woodworking tools for carving down the panels, but what if we need to add to them? Wood putty would be the standard option, but we could also use masking tape or wax.”
“What about the varnish? They have standard maintenance sets for musical instruments, but they also have the hard industrial wax used for gym floors.”
“The more options the better, so let’s prepare as many varieties as we can for testing. There’s a supermarket below this, isn’t there? We can buy some things there as well: egg whites, vinegar, soy sauce, mirin…oh, and chili oil might be interesting too.”
They were likely planning to blend ingredients together to find a miracle combination like they were mixing fountain drinks, but the specific options given made it sound like they were trying to cook the perfect gyoza.
“We should also buy a few different wood panels. Even if it’s a practice model, it would be a waste to ruin a real violin. It is only our pattern. The violin we put together and test will be a handmade one made from plywood.”
“If we’re going to be cutting curves in plywood, we’ll need a jigsaw, won’t we?”
“Wow, might as well get this water gun too.”
“Saten-san! Are you a child sneaking candy in the shopping cart!?”
Saten was unfazed by Uiharu snapping at her.
She asked a question while the other girl tugged on her ear.
“Building our own violin sounds fun and all, but how will you know whether or not it sounds even better than that…Stativarius was it?”
Getting a nice sound was not enough. Their extremely practical objective was to “defeat” the Stativarius Ainsel. Without a way of measuring their goal, they would have no way to know if they were getting closer to it.
First of all, what was a “nice sound”?
How was it defined?
What was needed to convince people it was worth spending hundreds of billions in an auction?
“We need an example, don’t we? Kuroko, there’s a way to get the perfect sample to compare to, isn’t there?”
“Ugh… Onee-sama, you don’t mean…?”
“Was her name Sakibasu Yuri? After the trouble she went to to obtain that Stativarius, she must be dying to show it off. Kuroko, you ask her to hear it at school tomorrow. With a recording device hidden in your pocket, of course.”
“Nwo ho ho ho ho!! Oh ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!!!!!!”
It was lunchtime in Tokiwadai Middle School’s courtyard.
The brown twintail girl had a blank expression while forming a small triangle with her mouth. The black twintail girl was leaning so far back it had to be hurting her back.
Sakibasu Yuri, whose black twintails were thick with curly tips, rubbed her cheek against the instrument case she held.
“You want to hear it? Yes, of course you want to hear it! I am so glad you worked up the courage to ask! There are some things in life you just cannot resist no matter how hard you try!! Everyone feels that way sometimes, so it is nothing to be ashamed of. Now – then! Out of respect for how you mustered the courage to be honest with your feelings, I will let you hear the lovely sound of this Stativarius Ainsel!!”
It apparently cost hundreds of millions at auction, but the case was not locked and it was light enough for the girl to easily carry around with her. There might be a GPS tracker or something hidden in the case’s lining, but that could easily be used for criminals to track down where the valuable item was stored. Sakibasu Yuri bent her black kneesocked legs to crouch down, placed the case on the neatly mown grass, and removed the violin and bow. It was possible she was a true high-class girl who held no suspicion of others. Or maybe she falsely assumed that no one in this prestigious school would be a thief.
To a Judgment member who protected Academy City’s law and order, her handling of the vintage item seemed horridly careless. Regardless, she held the violin up between her shoulder and chin and stood up straight. She looked right at home with the instrument, but that may have been because she was a Tokiwadai girl.
“Is there a tune you would like to hear?”
“How about the Sinfonia Intermedio?”
“That’s right! It just has to be Air on the G String, doesn’t it!?”
“Why did you even ask for a request!?”
She was not listening.
Apparently, Sakibasu Yuri did not need any sheet music. In fact, she moved the bow with her eyes shut. Instead of letting others hear the series of notes, she appeared to be enjoying how the vibrations shook the core of her body.
Shirai could not say what exactly it was, but something about the sound drew her in.
During the lunch break at a school like this, it was not uncommon to hear the music of string and wind instruments coming from the rooftop or music room, but this was somehow different. The girls enjoying some after-lunch tea on picnic sheets in the courtyard started to gather around.
It was the same as the flavor of food.
If something used mayonnaise or artificial flavoring, it was obvious how to recreate that flavor yourself. You knew where the hurdle was located, so clearing it was easy. Just think about why it was the rice balls and potato chips at the supermarket were always advertising their “new and improved taste”. Real depth was found in flavors that were good but more difficult to explain. With a clear soup stock, it was unclear just how many dozens of steps went into making it. The Stativarius was on that level.
Shirai had to use this rare opportunity to understand what she could.
She focused her ears.
Sakibasu pressed down with the bow harder than one would expect with a delicate vintage instrument and there was more distortion in the sound than with a normal violin. It was a mischievous sound, like gently touching a half-healed scab. Press just a little too hard and you would start bleeding. The girl’s personal style balanced on the fine line between pleasure and displeasure. She may have naturally developed this style in order to enjoy the vibration that permeated her entire body. It was the same idea as those people who modified their vehicle’s engine. Judgment often had to deal with them.
“This is surprisingly good.”
“Heh heh. Of course it is. This is the world’s finest violin, after all.”
Sakibasu Yuri could even chat during the performance. She kept her eyes shut and basked in the sense of superiority, but that was not what Shirai had meant. She was not using sheet music and she was not using a metronome to keep her rhythm. Even if this was a famous piece of music, it had to have taken a lot of work to reach the point that she could play it as easily as humming. She continued the relaxed yet powerful performance without any pauses like a skipping record needle. She even included some adlibs in the form of subtle distortions that tickled the eardrums.
It was obvious she had done considerable practice.
She did not show any sign of that great effort, but that may have been her aesthetic.
…Also her name was Sakibasu. Shirai Kuroko had honestly known very little about her before this. Surnames held great meaning to high-class girls like them. They all come from different sorts of families. For example, Kongou Mitsuko’s family owned an airline and Shirai Kuroko’s ran a major chain of convenience stores. There were even some descendants from the former Japanese aristocracy or the princess of a kingdom arriving as a transfer student.
This girl was Sakibasu.
That was a minor surname that Shirai had never even heard of before.
“The answer is cards.”
Shirai had said nothing and Sakibasu could not have seen her expression, but she must have sensed the change in the atmosphere. With her eyes still closed, the girl continued to play and gave the answer.
“A trading card game, in fact. Do you not play those often, Shirai-san?”
“Not really. While working for Judgment, I sometimes help children who have lost theirs.”
“I happened to create the game when I was five. I don’t know the details of how it all happened, but it is now translated for and sold in 49 different countries around the world.”
“You designed it…all on your own?”
“I have no real control over it anymore. It has traveled around the globe while going through several different companies. In a few more years, they say it might be more ubiquitous than traditional playing cards.”
That was a surprise.
There were some girls in Tokiwadai who had started a company or research team while attending the school, but that was all something extra after their parents had already provided for their tuition and other expenses. They were all the daughters of rich people, not the ruler or conglomerate president themselves. It was quite rare for a girl in Tokiwadai to be supported by their own efforts alone.
That explained why Shirai had never heard the name.
Not enough time had passed since her initial success for the name to have spread very far.
Sakibasu Yuri practically sang that name while becoming one with the vintage instrument by enjoying the vibrations of the notes she played.
She seemed to be seizing its historical weight and legendary depth for herself.
“This is what I wanted. A supplement. A shortcut to instantly acquire that accumulated time. And now that I have what I lacked, I will lose to no one. This exam is mine, Shirai-san.”
In a third-story hallway overlooking the courtyard, someone rested her elbows on the windowsill as she looked outside.
She was Academy City’s #5 Level 5, Shokuhou Misaki.
That Queen of the largest clique had waist-length blonde hair and model-like proportions.
“I see you’re causing trouble again, Misaka-san☆”
“You’re going to blame me for pouring oil on the fire when you’re the one who dumped the initial sparks on the mountain?”
Mikoto held a chocolate bar in her mouth. Shokuhou avoided all additives, so she stared at Mikoto like the girl was a creepy old guy eating mud dumplings that children had made at the park.
“Your adorable little underclassman could have sidestepped all of this by forfeiting the competition, couldn’t she have?”
“Isn’t that girl from your clique?”
“She just happens to have a convenient power: the ability to precisely measure carbon isotopes. That gives her accurate appraisal ability for the legitimacy of antiques and artwork. It couldn’t hurt to have someone like that around, could it?”
That power was not as obviously useful as Mikoto’s Railgun or Shokuhou’s Mental Out, but it was all in how you used it. A 14C power could be used to appraise antiques and artwork, to search for geological layers and mineral veins, and even to scan the human body. When looking only at physical scans, that power would rival Mikoto’s free control of electromagnetism.
Shokuhou giggled before continuing.
“Her power can even detect spoiled food. I thought it was a neat ability, so I had her join my clique☆”
“It’s called Carbon Search, right? That explains why she was so willing to spend all that money on that violin as soon as it was up for sale. …Although I heard you were the one who got her in touch with the auction house.”
“The Chandelier Auction House, yes. I didn’t expect her to actually win the thing, though. I just wanted her to expand her horizons by experiencing a more mature atmosphere ability, but I should have been more careful. I forgot auctions houses tend to get beginners so worked up they forget how to make smart decisions.”
Shokuhou bent her hips to lean on the windowsill as she looked down to the courtyard outside once more.
Sakibasu Yuri’s performance was at a very high level.
The Tokiwadai girls were used to hearing high-quality music, but even they were drawn in to listen. Their hearts must have been tickled by the adventurous spirit that was like gently touching a half-healed scab. But all of them would give the credit to the Stativarius. They were drawn to the shine of that famous instrument, so none of them would acknowledge Sakibasu Yuri’s own efforts.
Not even the girl herself would.
That would trample on the possibility budding up from the dirt.
It was not uncommon for a Tokiwadai girl to eventually stop trying when the results of her efforts were always chalked up to coasting off her parents’ success. Sakibasu’s situation was similar. The Stativarius was only a tool to be used, but Sakibasu was choosing to let it swallow up her own efforts.
“I really did fail with her,” said Shokuhou. “For once, I really need to make sure I do better next time.”
“What were you even trying to do with her?”
“She is always worried about her parents.” Shokuhou gave a sorrowful look toward the courtyard instead of turning back toward Mikoto. “Both her parents worked so very, very, very hard at their jobs so they could save up enough to raise their child as best they could, but then a mere child’s toy earned far more than that. She says her parents were delighted by her success ability and are proud that she managed to get into Tokiwadai, but it still weighs on her. She worries she broke something irreplaceable at the very core of her parents.”
“They have money now, but none of the tradition ability. They have too much money to return to a normal life, but the upper classes reject them and refuse to protect them because they lack a prestigious family name and the history that brings. She worries they are struggling in that awkward in-between position. You know, like the people who end up unhappy even after winning the lottery.”
Was that why the girl was so fixated on the Stativarius Ainsel?
No, it probably did not have to be a violin. She had wanted something with enough depth and weight that no one could turn her away. She did not have that herself, so she had wanted an outside source for it.
History and tradition.
If she had those, she believed she could give her parents a solid foundation to stand on.
Misaka Mikoto sighed quietly while holding the chocolate bar she was eating for an efficient boost of energy.
It reminded her of a woman going into debt buying handbags and wristwatches to dress herself up for social media photos. She had heard those brand-name items had a community built around them. You had to be wearing specific fancy products to be allowed inside certain shops or to be told about the secret menu or hidden services. Mikoto was satisfied spending time afterschool at a normal family restaurant with her friends or using the punching machine at the arcade, so she did not understand any of this. But to the people who wanted to enjoy the side of the world hidden below three layers of secrecy, it was worth pursuing those special “keys”.
There were regulars who were provided luxury foreign cars not normally available. Whose palms were the latest phones designed for? There were super VIPs whose personal needs the entire world catered to.
Money by itself was useless.
It could be jewelry or a sports car, but the new field was only opened to you once you exchanged the money for a special “key” that unlocked the secrets of the city around you. Like a castle lined with color-coded doors in an RPG.
That side of the world was out there.
Although living a life focused on that and only that was a frightening thought for Mikoto.
“Can I leave this with you?”
“I guess. Really, I’m relieved to learn that someone like you can screw things up sometimes. It’s adorable.”
“Ah, hey! Stop patting my head like that!”
“I know yelling at you would accomplish nothing, so you get the good girl treatment. Being treated like a little girl hurts the most to prideful people like you, doesn’t it?”
Shokuhou Misaki must have legitimacy felt guilty because she could not bring herself to brush off Mikoto’s hand like she normally would. …And she decided to ignore the girls from her clique trembling and breathing heavily while they watched from around the hallway corner.
“I’ll handle it.” Mikoto narrowed her eyes. “I would’ve helped out Kuroko either way.”
“Good, good. Glad to hear it.”
“Y’know, you’d be pretty cute if you were always this honest about what you wanted.”
She finally removed her hand from Shokuhou’s head and waved as she left.
The Queen continued to pout her lips like a small child, but then she realized something: that hand.
Hadn’t Misaka Mikoto been holding a sticky chocolate bar!?
The #5 grew pale and reached up to her head….
“Are you freaking kidding me, Misaka-saaan!?”
No matter how much she shouted, the #3 did not turn around. She did, however, stick out her tongue.
Afterschool, Shirai left the School Garden. The usual gang of four visited a rental studio that was little more than a trunk room. While it was called a studio, it was not for TV cameras. It was an audio studio, so it was mostly frequented by pointy-headed boys carrying electric guitars.
“Wow,” said Uiharu as she stopped in the entrance of the room. “First that batting cage and now this. Saten-san, you’re familiar with a lot of places we don’t visit often in Judgment.”
“Eh? Not really, Uiharu. There are tons of places I can’t get into. You know how you have to take the long way around to get from the platform to the ticket gate at the train station we always use? There’s actually a shortcut that goes straight between them, but rumor has it you can only use it with a special card given to the railway company’s shareholders.”
The room was colored an off-white cream color. It was around 10 meters square and had a single double glazed window and door at the back. Those led to the mixer room where you could adjust the recording equipment. This was a simple space for practicing, so it did not have the best equipment. But since it was for practice, the equipment was set up so you could objectively analyze your own performance.
That was what they needed.
They had not used a normal karaoke box because they wanted to analyze the audio data recorded on the phone Shirai Kuroko pulled from her skirt pocket.
“I wonder how well I recorded the Stativarius Ainsel.”
“Wow. I wish I could have heard that live.”
Saten’s eyes widened. They did not know what Sakibasu Yuri normally did afterschool, but if she had heard that, Shirai was pretty sure the girl would have happily opened the violin case even if they were on the side of the road or in the restroom.
Then Saten frowned.
“But does a phone recording have good enough sound quality?”
“This is Judgment equipment, so it records a wider range of frequencies than normal phones. It will be enough to analyze.”
Shirai Kuroko was confident the music she had heard was of excellent quality, but she could not explain what exactly about the Stativarius had overwhelmed her so much. She could not put it to words, but something about it was different. But unless this was a bizarre placebo effect caused by the Stativarius name, there had to be something there. She wanted to pass the data through specialized equipment, analyze the waveform, and view it as numerical data.
“This is an analog waveform recorded as a digital signal, so there is some unavoidable loss. Will this cable be good enough?”
“Why not transfer it wirelessly?”
“I want to avoid as much noise as possible, so we need to do this the right way from the beginning.”
Unlike a computer or piano, the recording equipment was covered with rows of sliders and knobs that were a bit intimidating to touch, but Uiharu adjusted the settings to play the sound file without any alterations.
Air on the G String.
The unique performance was smooth and flowing but still contained some intentional distortion not found when simply pursuing the series of notes on the sheet music.
The music was reminiscent of a forbidden temptation, like touching a half-healed scab. The performance called out to your instincts instead of your mind and it directly grasped at your soul.
“Yeah, that’s classical music all right.”
Saten Ruiko’s impression was incredibly vague. She probably did not know the name of the song.
This had been recorded with the phone in Shirai’s skirt pocket, so it was a bit muffled and contained the occasional sound of rubbing cloth or blowing wind. Nevertheless, they could sense something clearly different from a practice violin kept in the school music room.
It was different from other violins, but they could not explain how.
That violin was indeed a real Stativarius.
Surpassing that would require using their own senses to reveal the secret ingredient in the three-star chef’s dish.
“Okay, let’s create a new file we can modify to cut out the noise while keeping the source file intact. And now it’s finally time to use all these faders.”
“Wait, Uiharu. You’re going to touch those knobs? I’m scared!”
Shirai was not that interested in machines, but she did occasionally analyze the audio from phone and VoIP calls for Judgment investigations. Still, she was more familiar with an ordinary mouse and keyboard. She was afraid of altering something and not knowing how to get it back to normal, so she understood why Saten was so cautious.
That odd voice did not come from Uiharu who was playing with the faders; it came from Shirai Kuroko who was listening from a step away.
“What’s wrong, Shirai-san?”
“Well, um, this is from the Stativarius, right? Not the practice violin we bought?”
“You recorded the data yourself, didn’t you?”
She must have had trouble gathering her thoughts because she opened the violin case, pulled out the cheap practice model, and used the bow to play a quick song. It was a nursery rhyme commonly used for tuning.
They recorded the quick, 30-second performance and analyzed it in the same way.
“You’re kidding,” said a dazed Uiharu.
Since she started weakly slapping the mixer console with her soft hand, she may have thought it was malfunctioning.
Shirai Kuroko had apparently found proof of her earlier question.
But she still sounded puzzled.
“When you look at the actual readings, the Stativarius Ainsel and the practice violin are even more similar than I expected. The waveforms are nearly identical, aren’t they? They felt so different when listening to them, so was my perception influenced by the brand name?”
“N-no, no. No, no, no, no!! We’re talking about a Stativarius, Shirai-san. A world-renowned legend! There must be some subtle differences that this studio can’t detect!”
Saten’s voice was cracking.
And at this point, it was Mikoto who sounded impressed.
She let out a sigh before speaking.
“The sound of a Stativarius isn’t actually different from a normal violin. Those results made a splash on the online news sites a while back. Although their value didn’t really take a hit though because so many people insisted a crude computer analysis can’t detect the true quality of music.”
“This tells us what there is to know based on the actual audible sound, so let’s widen the scope of our investigation. Let’s take this and go like this.”
Mikoto leaned over seated Uiharu to operate the equipment and then pointed at a spot on the screen.
She made a point of not looking at Shirai Kuroko as the girl bit her handkerchief.
“Look, there’s a weird waveform here. And only with the Stativarius.”
Uiharu had a somewhat ticklish response to Mikoto whispering in her ear, but Mikoto was quick to explain further.
They were not interested in the sound of tearing cloth. That was just Shirai Kuroko ripping her handkerchief with her teeth.
“There’s a slight distortion at the start and end of the notes. It was just hidden by the way Sakibasu-san plays.”
“Hm? What does that matter?”
“It doesn’t really. There’s just a slight lag before it gets up to speed or slows down, just like a train leaving or arriving in the station. You might be able to produce the note you want more easily with a normal violin.” Mikoto smiled bitterly. “That said, I’m betting Sakibasu-san intentionally distorts the sound. Just like bitterness can be considered an adult flavor in cooking, it’s all in how you use it.”
“In music or any sensory information, a numerical representation is not enough to know whether something will be considered pleasant or unpleasant.”
Shirai brought a hand to her skinny jaw and Mikoto nodded in agreement.
Sakibasu Yuri had appeared to enjoy the vibrations in her body in addition to listening to the music with her ears. There were countless ways to enjoy and experience things.
“I don’t know if it was made this way to begin with or if it ended up this way after the varnish was reapplied time and again over the years, but the Stativarius Ainsel has some inaudible magic in its music. We should be able to replicate it now that we know how it works, but I bet it’s going to require a delicate touch. Transforming bitterness into an adult flavor is much easier said than done. Get it just a little wrong and the dish is ruined.”
“But we don’t have to force ourselves to pursue the Stativarius, do we?”
Saten sounded cheerful.
She was probably hoping to motivate the others.
“Our goal is to defeat the Stativarius, not perfectly reproduce its sound. What does that adult flavor matter? Sound is just a vibration of the air. Whether it’s from a car’s engine or the shaking of a train, we just have to produce an even more pleasing vibration, right? We can search the internet for best possible vibration and analyze that wavelength.”
She was not wrong.
The Stativarius had been made centuries ago, so it had been gradually left behind by the changing times.
In the most general sense, they could take inspiration from electric guitars and keyboards, add in some new parts, and produce a sound the Stativarius could never hope to match.
“Saten-san. And the rest of you too. Listen up.”
“What is it?”
“There is one more major hurdle to clear before we can surpass the Stativarius.”
“We will now begin the music elective exam. Are you all ready?”
In the chilly early morning air, the elderly music teacher spoke in a gentle cadence very different from the students. She did not raise her voice much, but it carried across the entire room.
And that was not just because there were so few people in such a large space.
They were gathered in an auditorium.
The building was used for plays, debates, and music. It was said diamonds had 60% of the original stone carved away so they could reflect light in the most effective manner. This auditorium was the same. It rivaled the size of a gym and the angle of every single corner was carefully adjusted so the sound of a pin dropping on the stage would reach every part of the room.
Auditoriums came in a number of different styles. Simply put, the stage and audience seating could be rearranged like a 3D puzzle. The orthodox style was to arrange the seats in tiers facing the stage from a single direction, but there was also the two-sided debate style that placed tiered seating on either side and he circular theatre style that surrounded the rectangular stage on all sides. They were all designed to reflect light and sound in the best way possible for their intended use.
This one was the most orthodox style of all.
Just think of a stereotypical move theater or orchestra hall. The stage was built alongside one wall and the tiered seating was stacked up to provide a view of that stage.
Instead of providing a negative impression, the elegant music teacher’s soft wrinkles added to the beauty of her face. She gently reached for her own instrument.
“Your assignment is to play one of these: a violin. The specific instrument and song is up to you, but you each have three minutes to play. Choosing what song and what section of that song to play is part of your assignment, but I assume you already understand that.”
In the world of classical music, three minutes was an extremely short amount of time. If you played from the beginning, your time would be up before you completed the initial prelude. There was even an unconfirmed urban legend that the CD standard was designed so that Beethoven’s 9th would fit on a single disk.
Just like with the gym exam, this exam had two consecutive class periods to work with, but three minutes per person was still barely enough time. Even just ten people meant over half an hour because there was a time loss while one performer left the stage and the next took their place.
“(Heh hehn. I hope you have been practicing, Shirai-san.)”
The girl with spiraling ends to her black twintails whispered to Shirai, who lightly rubbed the back of her hand. Shirai was wearing white gloves to protect her hands during this important exam.
“(Practicing the perfect words to praise my flawless victory, I mean. You will once more be blessed with the music of the Stativarius Ainsel.)”
“Stop talking. The teacher is glaring at us.”
Sakibasu Yuri quickly straightened up, but the elderly music teacher was apparently only focused on her to have her perform first.
After bending her black kneesocked legs to crouch down and undo the clasps on the violin case, she pulled out the instrument which shined with a deep amber light.
That was enough to gather the other girls’ attention.
Even these sheltered girls were Academy City residents first and Tokiwadai students second. They had not been taught to believe in mystical auras.
It was no more than a 60cm piece of wood with four strings, but it cost enough to buy a house. Sakibasu Yuri held the neck in one hand and spun it around like a baton in what looked like some kind of good luck charm. Then she lightly held the violin between her shoulder and neck as if checking on its position.
“This is the Stativarius Ainsel. I am sure you did your research over the past few days, Shirai-san.”
“Did you rush to the online news and video sites and cling to the sour grapes stories about the surprisingly little difference in the audio waveforms? But that is not enough. That is not the true essence of a Stativarius. Recording numerical values with sensors is not the same thing as listening to music. It is people who listen to music and it is our hearts that appreciate it. If you did not lose sight of that basic fact, then you should have realized there is no way to defeat a Stativarius.”
It was true you could find the occasional article or paper claiming the Stativari were not all they were cracked up to be. But the dates on those things were fairly old. They would appear and be quickly forgotten.
No matter what proof was found in the sensor readings and waveforms, everyone continued to praise the Stativari as the world’s greatest violins. They continued to insist there was no more beautiful sound in the world. Everyone’s opinions reverted to normal. That was why people continued to spend hundreds of millions at auctions.
But why did that happen?
“Allow me to demonstrate the true charm found in the world-renowned Stativarius Ainsel.”
“Sakibasu-san, I will be judging your performance, not the violin’s.”
“Nonsense. I have nothing of my own. Not one thing. And that is perfectly fine with me. I can use an outside source to make up for what I lack. …As long as that allows me to protect my blameless parents.”
Sakibasu Yuri stepped up onto the stage with a nasal laugh.
The Stativarius Ainsel carried great charm.
But her reliance on that instrument prevented her own great skill from being recognized. Any fame she gained would be attributed to the violin. By others and by herself. It was a beautiful tool, but it stole all possibility from its owner. It was like a cursed sword in that way.
“What song will you be using?” softly asked the elderly music teacher.
“Air on the G String. I could never choose anything else.”
The spotlight shined down on the center of the stage.
She took one small step to the left of center.
Even with so many listeners – and rivals – focused on her, her core was not shaken thanks to the external confidence booster she held.
Also, she did not even bother looking back at those listeners. Nor did she prepare any sheet music. She silently shut her eyelids decorated with beautiful lashes and closed herself in her own little world.
She placed the bow on the violin and held down the four strings with her slender fingers.
A moment later, the first note was played.
It was powerful.
The burst of sound could even be called violent.
The note distorted itself to open with some bizarre noise, but that provided a forbidden thrill similar to gently touching a half-healed scab. That divine temptation hovered on the precipice dividing pleasure from displeasure. This could never be reproduced by viewing the sheet music and following the notes written there. This devil’s whisper could only be created by reading the slight idiosyncrasies of the Stativarius Ainsel. If the player was even a little bit off, the scab would tear open and everyone’s ears would be assaulted by an unpleasant noise akin to pain.
Instead of starting in the middle somewhere, Sakibasu Yuri had chosen to play from the very beginning. A mere three minutes was woefully inadequate in the world of classical music. But that did not matter to her. This was only the beginning of the beginning before the song managed to heat up, but each of her intensely distorted notes tightly grasped the souls of the listeners.
You listened to the Stativarius Ainsel with your body, not your ears.
Maybe it had been designed that way and maybe it had gradually changed over the years. Either way, the slight distortion at the beginning and end of the notes introduced an irregularity similar to a bitter flavor, but Sakibasu Yuri managed to transform that into an “adult flavor” to use it as her weapon. When she played, the violin’s music was more powerful than a mermaid’s song. Even if you covered your ears with your hands, the pleasure might still reach you through the vibration of your spine.
Shirai-san and the others already knew this from their analysis of the waveform in the rental studio.
The world’s scientists had likely discovered these same things when they worked to divulge the secrets of the Stativari.
But that had failed to change people’s opinions.
The Stativarius Ainsel was still a world-renowned instrument that went for hundreds of millions of yen at auction.
Its true power was not found in those surface level observations.
Shirai Kuroko heard a few groans and laments from the dimly-lit audience seating. Those came from the other challengers hoping to win the top spot in this exam. The ones voicing true despair may have chosen Air on the G String and worked hard practicing it.
But they knew the truth before making their attempt.
They could not defeat the series of notes they were hearing now.
Shirai slowly narrowed her eyes and observed the girls who were raising the white flag before even trying. This was the prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School, so those girls would be decently skilled themselves. Even if it was not a Stativarius, it was possible some had secured another high-quality violin like an Almati or a Guarnari.
Yet they still concluded they could not win.
Shirai Kuroko had thoroughly studied the Stativarius to fight back against it, but even she was succumbing to its magic. Yes, she only had to look back on what she had thought just now.
Even if it was not a Stativarius.
She recalled what Misaka Mikoto had said:
“You can’t help but use the Stativarius as the baseline.”
There were no fixed answers in art. That was why an artist’s talent could be recognized for a hundred years or more after their death. When comparing two instruments, it should be impossible to determine which one was objectively superior. And yet the Stativari stood at the peak of violins and their position there remained unshaken.
It had not mattered at all when those crass researchers had analyzed the waveforms of recorded performance data and revealed that the sound was not actually all that outstanding.
The legend had remained intact.
“A Stativarius is the ideal form of a violin,” Mikoto had said. “It plays the finest music and performances are judged by how close they come to matching it. People aren’t focused on whether a performance is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than a Stativarius. It’s more like target shooting. The best score is for hitting the Stativarius in the very center. You can approach that, but there is no way of surpassing it. There’s a mental block there.”
Sakibasu Yuri silently removed the bow from the violin.
She had used up the three minutes allotted for her exam.
Had silence ever been so oppressive? It seemed to draw out a desire to listen to that music forever because Shirai and the others felt a powerful craving for what they had lost.
There was no applause.
Applauding would have accepted that the performance really was over. The girls so wanted to hear more that they could not bring themselves to move.
The girl with black twintails had kept her eyes closed this whole time, so she could not have been watching the clock. Even her internal clock was impressive. Her own talents simply paled in comparison to the Stativarius Ainsel she held.
She softly opened her eyes.
A tremor ran down her spine as she enjoyed the lingering silence.
“Thank you for listening.”
She gave an elegant bow and descended the stairs as casually as passing the baton in a relay race. She had gone first, but she was clearly confident that her position at the top was guaranteed no matter who came after her.
And in fact, this was quite cruel to the girl who had to go immediately after her. She shook her head like a puppy wet from the rain and, even when the music teacher grabbed her arm, she only protested that she could not possibly perform after that. She was so worked up and the pressure was so great that she finally passed out.
But maybe it could have been worse.
Everyone felt bad for the girl after that.
“#3: Inori-san. You are amplifying the impression of your music using outside emotions, aren’t you? You are disqualified for using your psychological esper power.”
She collapsed on the spot and began bawling.
Her emotion-manipulating power filled her crying as well, so the music teacher snapped her fingers. The women in charge of security grabbed the disqualified girl by the arms and quickly removed her from the auditorium. The music teacher had not been monitoring the music with any kind of device, so she must have decided the music she was hearing should not have been able to move her to emotion like that.
Normal methods had no hope of reaching the Stativarius Ainsel’s level.
So it was understandable the girl had wanted to use her power.
But this was not that kind of exam.
So after learning not to make the same mistakes as the others, the other students stepped up onto the stage like normal.
However, their performances were all very safe.
They did not have to win. They only had to follow the series of notes on their sheet music without making any catastrophic mistakes. Their bland music was a lot like watching someone drive around a racetrack at a safe 40km/h. They were a lot like the robot arms that mechanically played sample songs on the instruments. They were defanging themselves and offering up their broken fangs without bothering to fight.
It was the music teacher who asked Sakibasu Yuri to go first.
If she could judge all the students fairly after hearing that, then her ears and soul were the real deal.
Sakibasu Yuri whispered to Shirai in the auditorium full of vanquished foes.
Her confidence could be seen in how she stretched her black kneesocked legs to stand tall.
“The true power of the Stativarius Ainsel is the legend it carries. People are powerless against such things. Bags, clocks, dresses, and high-class girls like us all carry similar legends, don’t they? No matter what the scientists say and no matter what results their machines spit out, these legends will never die. That is why the Stativari are immovable. Nothing is judged ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than them. They are the bull’s eye all other violins aim for.”
“Oh? Are you sure about that?”
“Did you think I was challenging you with nothing prepared? I will admit the legend of the Stativari is powerful. After 300 years, it is impossible to ignore. But that passage of time also introduces openings I can take advantage of.”
The old music teacher called a certain name.
It was Shirai Kuroko’s turn.
“Now, it is time for my counterattack.”
“There is no flaw in my Stativarius. Or do you doubt its legitimacy? Unfortunately, my Carbon Search power means there is not even the slightest chance it is a fake.”
“I never suggested it was.”
Shirai used her gloved hands to hoist a large bag onto her shoulder as she casually whispered to the other girl.
“I am saying I will take your Stativarius Ainsel head on and I will crush it along with its legend.”
Something about Shirai’s actions stood out even more than her disrespectful statement.
What was that bag large enough to hold a dismantled racing bike? The students had to provide their own instrument and choose their own song for this exam, but there was one required condition: a violin. They had to use a 60cm collection of wood panels and strings, so what was in that bag?
They had already seen a Stativarius which went for hundreds of millions at auction, but the music teacher gave this a skeptical look.
“Shirai-san, what is in that bag? I believe I told you this exam requires a violin. Did you bring the wrong instrument?”
“No, no. Of course not.”
The chestnut twintail girl laughed.
She pulled her instrument from a standard violin case she had in addition to the large bag.
“I will only be playing this violin here. It is a handmade one I put together based on a commercial practice model, but it meets all of the standards for a violin. If you like, you can take it apart and examine it after my performance.”
“Then what is that?”
The elderly teacher asked the question everyone there was thinking. The other bag was larger and more mysterious than the violin. Sakibasu Yuri had the indisputable greatest violin with her Stativarius Ainsel, but even that immovable aura was somewhat shaken by this. She rubbed her black kneesocked legs together.
Shirai Kuroko, meanwhile, answered the question with a question of her own.
“Sensei, just to be clear, we are to play the violin for this exam, correct?”
“We have three minutes and we are free to choose our song. As long as we play a violin, everything else is for us to decide. Such as using a world-famous violin.”
“Yes, what of it?”
“Then I have one more question.”
Up on the stage, Shirai Kuroko set down the black synthetic bag which she could have fit inside if she curled up. It made a nice thud that did not sound at all like wood.
She lightly tapped on the brightly waxed floor with her foot.
“Only the violin is required and we are free to do what we like with the stage around us, aren’t we? For example, we can play in the center of the stage or on the edge if we like. The sound you all hear is not coming directly from the violin. Especially in an indoor concert hall like this. The sound waves reflect off of all the surfaces in here before finally reaching your ears.”
For one thing, this auditorium could be rearranged. The stage and audience seating could be moved around to create the optimum space for a concert, for a play, or for a debate. The reverberation could not be ignored. Even if you were playing the exact same Stativarius both times, the impressions from an audience would change drastically when playing in a dedicated opera house or in a run-down abandoned house.
“In that case.”
She breathed in and out.
And then she unzipped the bag all at once.
“If there is no rule against it, I am free to create a space around me to set up the reverberation however I like, aren’t I?”
Metal and gears could be heard fitting together.
There were steel legs with a dull shine.
Something like jointed tripods supported rectangular metal films only a little thicker than aluminum foil. They looked like metal easels or canvases that could walk on their own and four of them surrounded Shirai Kuroko on the stage.
Robot products like this were not uncommon in Academy City.
There had been a pitching arm at the batting cage and music robots in the classical instrument store. With some help from Uiharu who knew a lot about this stuff (to the point that she got a sparkle in her eye and began licking her lips), it had not been that difficult to create these autonomous walking machines. In Academy City, you did not even need to visit an electronics district to acquire some simple circuit boards. A visit to a large bookstore was enough to get some generic craft circuit boards in the how-to books for building pet robots or AI speakers.
“You may take this apart and check it over after the performance as well, but I assure you it contains no mechanical microphones, speakers, or anything capable of recording and replaying audio. They are simply sound reflection boards. They are no more than obstacles to reflect my violin’s music in the optimal direction and at the optimal angle.”
She moved her gloved fingers with practiced ease to ready a handmade violin with no tradition behind it. The sound reflection boards must have been monitoring their distance with cameras or lasers because they skillfully used their legs to adjust their position.
“No one can defeat a Stativarius. It has nothing to do with the quality of the sound. People’s ears and minds have already decided whatever sound it makes reigns supreme. Anything outside of that bull’s eye will be considered inferior.”
Sakibasu Yuri had the world’s greatest violin.
So Shirai Kuroko had constructed the world’s greatest concert hall.
There were of course music halls considered to be “holy ground”, but none that had a legend on the level of the Stativari. People would want to play there, but their souls had not been stained by the idea that there was a quality of music they could only play there. The best sound quality was not achieved through the work of ancient craftsmen. That title belonged to the cutting-edge event halls mathematically designed using CAD.
“I will not be challenging the Stativarius with the quality of my violin. The final judgment is made on the sound that reaches your ears, not the sound that leaves my instrument. I will modify the concert hall around me to produce a sound greater than that world-famous instrument. No matter how great an instrument is, the audience’s impression will change depending on where you play it. The Stativarius might be considered the baseline, but I will not be bound by that!!”
Shirai Kuroko grinned.
“Sakibasu-san, you must know how crucial the stage is. Before playing, you took a step to the left of center, didn’t you? But you were still using the existing stage, so you cannot hope to match the stage I have built for myself!!”
Sakibasu’s eyes widened.
Her method was to cling to the weight of the accumulated past, so she turned back toward the music teacher.
“Can…can she do that!? Really!?”
“Shirai-san.” The elderly teacher sighed softly. “My judgment of your music will be provisional. It will take time to dismantle and examine that, but if I do find any mechanical means of recording and replaying audio, your score will be withdrawn. Is that acceptable?”
She was effectively giving approval.
Shirai Kuroko smiled boldly.
The Stativarius had a legend behind it.
Everyone viewed it as the baseline for the best possible sound, so they succumbed to its name without even checking how it actually sounded. That was the weight it had gained over several centuries. Several researchers and musicians had challenged that legend over the years. They had claimed it was not all it was cracked up to be and provided data as proof, but they had failed to tear down the walls of that impregnable fortress.
The masses had pathetically accused them of being crass or jealous.
Overwhelmed by those cries, the challengers had all sunk into the swamp of humiliation and defeat.
Why had they wanted to challenge the Stativari in the first place? They were world-famous instruments from a historical creator. They had to have known what would happen if they spat on that yet were defeated, so why had they suppressed the fear of universal hatred and done it anyway?
The answer was simple.
They knew the Stativari were the greatest. They carried a legend powered by so many people’s wishes that they remained the greatest. An individual’s efforts could never change an entire country or the world. Those instruments had the same absolute weight of a group behind them.
But at the same time, if that legend could be shattered, people would want to see that great feat achieved during their lifetime. They wanted to be charmed by that great upset. The many challengers who had continued to fall defeated over the centuries had built up a legend separate from the Stativari themselves.
It was a paradox.
Just like the Kuchisake Onna and pomade, the rise of one legend would naturally lead to the rise of a counter legend attempting to destroy the first. Humans were indulgent creatures and there was no rule saying they could only carry one wish in their hearts. It was the same as being in the mood for both Chinese and French food at the same time. They were contradictory and cursed creatures who would unwaveringly believe in the Stativari’s status at the top while also hoping to see the moment those instruments were thrown down to earth.
Shirai Kuroko was not making this challenge with only a few days of work.
If Sakibasu Yuri was carrying the legend of the Stativarius Ainsel, then she would wield the paradox that had plagued those instruments for centuries!!
“Now, Shirai-san. What song will you be playing?”
When the music teacher asked that question, everyone there awaited Shirai’s answer while the technological music hall surrounded her. Would it be Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart? Everyone must have assumed she would choose some famous song to challenge Sakibasu’s Air on the G String.
But they assumed wrong.
“This exam is meant to test our skill with the violin, so we are free to choose whatever song we want, correct?”
This was where Shirai Kuroko could best make her stance clear. She lightly held the glove between her teeth to remove it.
The hand below had bandages covering the fingertips.
She had made her preparations.
She had put together a plan.
But who said she had not practiced hard as well?
“Then I will play an original song. It might not be on the level of the classical composers, but please enjoy.”
They say what followed was a three minute miracle.
In Tokiwadai Middle School’s grounds, Misaka Mikoto held one of her right hand’s fingers in her mouth while wearing short-sleeved gym clothes. Specifically, the fingertip where a small injury was covered by a bandage decorated with a frog mascot character.
She had practiced along with Shirai more than she maybe should have.
She did not want to hear any more classical music for quite a while.
(This hurts a fair bit, but not enough to keep me from running around campus.)
“…What is it, Shokuhou?”
While taking a short break and wiping the sweat from her brow with a microfiber towel, Misaka Mikoto turned around with an annoyed look in her eyes. She was in the middle of the exam for her elective. Shokuhou must have finished hers already. For some reason, she wore an apron over her uniform.
“Hold on. Eh? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you chose home ec!”
“I’m not great at it or anything. …I really just wanted the cooking ability to make my own bentos.”
Shokuhou Misaki had called out to Mikoto, but she was not looking that Ace’s way.
The Queen’s eyes were on the auditorium.
“I know I asked for your help ability and I know Sakibasu had to be taken down a peg given the situation, but I didn’t expect you to be so crafty.”
“What, did you use a remote to listen through one of your clique girls? And you of all people have no right to accuse someone else of being crafty.”
“Aren’t you worried how it will turn out?”
“I trust her to pull it off.”
Shokuhou sighed at that.
Shokuhou Misaki was the Queen of Tokiwadai’s largest clique. She had built up an immovable position with her incredible charisma and power. But she had gained a different kind of powerful connection through this strange bond linking her and Misaka Mikoto. And the strength of a bond was not determined by the number of people it linked.
“First of all, it’s ridiculous to have a violin test that only lasts three minutes. That’s just to make it easier on the teacher giving the test, right? I mean, you might be able to make it exciting if you skip straight to the climax and play that, but all songs – not just classical music – are one big drama using every part of the song from beginning to end. Classical music extends that over a longer running time, but none of it is unnecessary. Cobble together a highlights reel like something you’d find on a video site or aggregation site and the real essence of the song will be missing. You might inspire some brief emotion, but it can’t represent the entirety of the drama.”
“Is that why you wrote an original song that can be played from beginning to end in three minutes?”
“I doubt it’s better than Beethoven or Mozart, but that’s kind of the point.” Mikoto grinned. “Did you know that the Parthenon wasn’t originally white? Or that the Statue of Liberty wasn’t originally that greenish color? The flow of time is cruel and the original colors were weathered or rusted away. But it’s strange. There’s a part of us that finds beauty in what’s damaged, broken, or incomplete. Because it’s missing something or is broken, we see room for improvement. Jigsaw puzzles and model ships are the same. You enjoy the time spent fiddling with the countless pieces putting it together, but if they put the finished product up for sale in a shop, no one would consider buying it and hanging it on their wall.”
“That might be fine for gathering listeners in front of the train station, but this performance is being judged by a teacher with a trained ear for music.”
“That’s the point.”
Misaka Mikoto did not hesitate to respond.
This was not enough to defeat her.
“The song she’s playing might not be as ‘complete’, but each note played from the violin is accurate. There is no mistake in her technique, so there is no reason to lower her score. The song might be imperfect, but the performance is perfect. A trained teacher knows not to conflate the two, so I know she can judge the performance accurately. It had to be someone who understood the beauty of the white Parthenon that lost its color.”
No one could defeat the Stativarius Ainsel.
So they had used the combined power of everything other than that to overcome Sakibasu Yuri.
That was Shirai Kuroko’s basic plan. That was why she had analyzed the Stativarius’s sound, built her own handmade violin, constructed the optimum space using the autonomous sound reflection boards, prepared an original song that included a full drama in just three minutes, taken advantage of her own imperfection, and even included the music teacher’s trained ear in her plan.
But after all that, it ultimately came down to how much she had practiced. It was probably Misaka Mikoto’s involvement that had made sure Shirai Kuroko’s own effort was not overlooked.
It was only with that practice that everyone else’s assistance could bear fruit.
The Queen of the largest clique could give any command with a single TV remote, but Misaka Mikoto had a different way of assisting her underclassman. She had literally run around Academy City to gather the necessary theories, data, and materials, she had racked her brain with Shirai to come up with the plan, and she had spent long nights building the necessary tools so their ideas could become a reality.
Her right index finger had a frog mascot character bandage on it.
Assuming she had not attempted some unfamiliar cooking and screwed up, then she must have been doing something behind the scenes. Making the violin and the machines required more than just sending the design data to a 3D printer and pushing a button. Tools more dangerous than a kitchen knife had been necessary.
And that was not all.
She had likely gotten a blister on her finger when accompanying her underclassman during the intense violin practice and writing the original song could not have been easy either. She must have been worn down both physically and mentally, but that had not mattered to her even with the important exam on the horizon.
She was different from Shokuhou who always gave precise instructions from behind the scenes.
This girl chose to stand on the front line so she could shield everyone else.
That was Misaka Mikoto, Ace of Tokiwadai Middle School.
“…Why are you staring at me like that?”
Aproned Shokuhou Misaki brushed up her honey-blonde bangs with a look of partial exasperation.
The Queen spoke as the end-of-class bell rang.
The competition would be over now.
“The final judgment is made on the sound that reaches your ears, not the sound that leaves the instrument, hm? Do you see now why a violin acquired with extreme money ability can’t stand up to that, Sakibasu?”
“Okay, it’s time to celebrate our victory over the Stativarius Ainsel.”
Afterschool, some girls’ voices rang out in the usual family restaurant. At times like this, the 200-yen fountain drink station with 72 varieties and free refills was a powerful ally. Add an order of fries with truffle salt and it was unbeatable. The cost performance was so good that they were a little worried how the place could stay in business. It felt like discovering a taboo combination.
The first to start eating was Uiharu Kazari whose head was decorated with flowers.
Saten Ruiko seemed like more of a fad chaser, but Uiharu had the greater longing to join the high-class world of the Tokiwadai students.
“Hyah. It’s honestly kind of scary. I mean, we’re talking about a Stativarius. That’s a world-famous violin that goes for hundreds of millions at auction!! How far are you going to go, Shirai-san!? Kyah, come back!!”
“Hwah!! Praise me more, humanity! Gaze upon the living sun that I am! A new legend was born today!!”
“Well, I seriously doubt the price of a Stativarius is going to drop because of this.”
“A win is a win, Misaka-san! C’mon!! We want to hear the story straight from you, Shirai-san! Cheers!!”
At Saten’s prompting, the four girls clinked together their cheap glasses, nearly spilling the colorful carbonated contents, and laughed.
However, there was one person there whose face was flushed red and could not stop trembling.
She had twintails, but unlike Shirai Kuroko, hers were black and had curled ends.
She was Sakibasu Yuri.
“I was prepared to be humiliated as is the fate of the vanquished, but I did not expect you to invite me to your victory party… Fine, I admit it! I lost!! So have your fun at my expense and use my shame to sweeten your food! Yes, like you are consuming a meal served on my naked body!!”
The curly black twintail girl shouted, grabbed her phone, and hit the call button on what appeared to be an app for placing an order through the restaurant’s wireless LAN.
“I am not going suffer through this on an empty stomach!! Hello? Manager? Bring out your secret menu listing! …What? Surely you must have one!!”
But Mikoto and the others only gave her puzzled looks.
Shirai tilted her head.
“What is it, my master!? What are your orders for this cardboard girl who has lost all history and tradition!?”
“You are barely making any sense, but all we defeated was the Stativarius Ainsel’s legend. We have no intention of finding fault in your own talents with the violin.”
Sakibasu was shocked into silence with her eyes wide.
“Yeah, that’s right!” Saten leaned forward. “The sample data I heard in the rental studio was incredible!! The data said the Stativarius wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the handmade violin could make similar sounds….but neither Shirai-san nor Misaka-san could perfectly reproduce your performance. And they practiced like crazy!”
“For that matter, Saten-san and I don’t even know how to play the violin at all,” chimed in Uiharu while gnawing on the end of a long fry like a rodent. “I’ve heard Air on the G String on video sites and as a ringtone, but the way it sounds really changes depending on how you play it, doesn’t it?”
Mikoto could only scratch her cheek and smile bitterly.
Playing Air on the G String was not that difficult a challenge for Tokiwadai students.
But Sakibasu Yuri’s performance had shaken people to the core using the slight distortions not found in the sheet music. That was her own secret technique. And the fact remained that Mikoto and Shirai had failed to bring down that stronghold even after working so hard they had bandages on their fingers.
“You have a unique way of applying force. Using enough force to bend the strings normally just pushes back the bow instead.”
Sakibasu Yuri bit her lip and let out a trembling voice.
This may have been an emotion other than anger.
It was more like the confusion of someone driven into a dead end or to the edge of a cliff.
“What good is that!? Everything I have comes from the Stativarius. Praise me all you like, but I can’t move anyone’s hearts without the weight of that world-famous violin behind it!! No one will accept me without that history and I can’t give my parents peace of mind without that tradition! So why bother consoling me like this!?”
Shirai Kuroko quietly called the girl’s name.
She held a perfectly ordinary violin and spun it around by the neck.
This was not a Stativarius or even the handmade one she had put together with Mikoto and the others. It was the practice model they had used for reference. But it was still a musical instrument that would produce the proper notes when played properly.
“Then could I ask for a song? I want to hear your specialty: Air on the G String.”
“How far can you take the sound now that you have lost the legend of the Stativarius? I think your true value can be found there. And let me make one thing clear: I may be able to defeat the Stativarius Ainsel, but I cannot defeat you, Sakibasu Yuri. You lamented the lack of history and tradition, didn’t you? You think your parents must feel ashamed, don’t you? Then isn’t there only one course of action: create a new legend yourself.”
That girl had claimed she had nothing herself.
That was why she had found an outside source to provide what she lacked.
But the very foe who had stripped her of that armor claimed she could not even scratch what was revealed below the armor.
Her fingers were shaking.
She reached for the practice violin that Shirai Kuroko held out, but she hesitated and did not immediately grab it. Slowly and hesitantly, like she was touching a metal rod in the fire, she grabbed the perfectly ordinary violin.
The curse of the Stativarius Ainsel’s reputation was no more.
This performance was the girl’s and the girl’s alone.
The sound may have been subtly different from the Stativarius and its slight distortion at the beginning and ending of each note. No matter how hard she tried, she could not reproduce that sound.
But that was not enough to ruin Sakibasu Yuri’s performance.
Even with the practice violin, the essence of her music – that stroking of the emotional scab – filled the space around her.
It did not matter that she did not have the world-renowned Stativarius.
She only needed the skill she had been using all along to read and adapt to the instrument’s subtle idiosyncrasies.
Normally, there were limits to what you could do even in a family restaurant catering to students after school. If you walked in and started loudly playing an instrument, the staff would run over and tell you to stop. They might even kick you out.
Those emotional thorns never manifested.
From the moment the bow touched the strings, everyone was focused on listening. No ring of people formed around the musician. No one clapped their hands. But everyone leaned back in their seats, let the series of notes wash over them, and enjoyed the performance.
The staff even considerately turned down the music playing over the restaurant’s speakers.
The performance continued in full, to the very last note.
A small noise entered the silence that followed. It was perfectly ordinary applause. It was unclear who clapped first, but eventually everyone was showing their appreciation.
That was the power of music.
It carried a charm greater than a mermaid’s song.
“Do you see now, Sakibasu-san?”
Shirai Kuroko spoke to Sakibasu who was more surprised by what she had done than anyone.
Tricks had only been enough to defeat the tool.
Even with the four girls working together, they could not hope to match that true talent.
“This is a true legend. No matter how high the price, a Stativarius you can buy with money cannot hope to defeat the light that you alone carry. It’s time you realized that you already hold a position no one else can reach. That is your responsibility as the ruler who carries a true legend.”
She said nothing for a while.
But it was obvious to everyone that Sakibasu Yuri was experiencing some kind of emotional response.
All she could manage after her performance was to silently bow.
And no one was crass enough to try and peek at her expression from below.
“The sample set is apparently inside the School Garden’s Tokiwadai Middle School, but we can come up with a different plan for that. For now, Riot, you need to eliminate the individual.”
“We cannot let this stand. The Stativarius legend must not fall.”
“I’m using a shotgun, so I can’t aim very precisely. Before I do this, I want to check the rate for the surrounding civilians.”
“Understood. Attacking the target takes top priority and I will not worry about how many other people I hit.”
“I will only accept good news.”
“I can feel the love.”
Mikoto glimpsed something outside the family restaurant window.
The first oddity she noticed was not a loud noise or bright light. Quite the opposite. Even with the thick glass in the way, it was odd for such a large motorcycle to be so silent. It probably used an electric motor, but the required engine sound effect had been illegally shut off.
It was ridden by a pair of people in black riding suits and full-face helmets.
The one on the back seat was aiming some kind of a long tube their way.
Just as Mikoto felt tension squeeze at her heart, she heard a series of blasts and the restaurant’s windows shattered into a cascade of glass shards.
The boom of bursting gunpowder and the shriek of shattering glass pounded on their ears.
The large, electric motorcycle had its engine sound effect deactivated, so it drove off while hiding within the din its riders had caused.
Misaka Mikoto was one of Academy City’s seven Level 5s and the strongest of the Electromasters. If she had abandoned all else and focused on hijacking the engine, she might have been able to stop the motorcycle before it could escape.
She could still hear the sound of glass shards hitting the floor.
A shotgun had been fired in from outside and it had fired more than once. If Mikoto had not used magnetism to gather the restaurant’s equipment and form a large shield, who knows how many people would have died.
The atmosphere inside the restaurant had entirely changed.
The world Sakibasu Yuri had been gently creating had been erased by a vortex of crude violence. The screams and cries of the other customers and the staff were like someone mercilessly scratching at the invisible scab with their nails. The noise was so brutal it brought to mind the idea of an acoustic weapon. You realized that sound could create something like this when brought in the negative direction.
Shirai Kuroko spoke while carefully brushing the glass shards off of her head.
She attached a distinctive armband while she did so.
“Uiharu, start by checking for any injuries.”
“Preserve the scene at the same time. This is too much for Judgment. Keep your eyes open to make sure no one disturbs the scene before the adults from Anti-Skill can arrive.”
Shirai often took action beyond her authority, but Judgment members like her were technically only meant to mediate trouble between students at their own schools. They were not meant to investigate serious criminal activity occurring in the city.
Another girl in a Tokiwadai Middle School winter uniform was dazed.
That girl was Sakibasu Yuri.
Since she belonged to that prestigious powers development program, she had to be at least Level 3, but despite the common misconception, having a higher level did not necessarily make you stronger in a fight. Her power was Carbon Search, which let her precisely measure carbon isotopes. It would be cruel to ask her to battle a shotgun with that.
Trembling in fear was the correct response.
Uiharu and Saten, on the other hand, did not seem afraid at all, but that was because it was all so sudden that their fear had yet to catch up with them. That was dangerous too. In that sense, Sakibasu Yuri’s neutral and normal emotional response may have put her a step ahead.
Mikoto briefly called her underclassman’s name.
Uiharu and Saten were here, but so were plenty of onlookers both inside and outside the restaurant. She whispered in Shirai’s ear to make sure not to cause any unnecessary waves.
“(Based on what I felt hitting the shield, the shotgun blasts were not targeting everyone in here indiscriminately. They were clearly changing the angle of the shots as they drove past to target a single point. And that point was our table.)”
“(A modified silent bike and a specialist firearm. Did they not use an esper power because they do not have one, or because they were afraid we could work out their identity by doing a mechanical search of the Bank? Either way, they put a lot of effort into this. A shotgun scatters lots of small balls that do not match the gun’s caliber, so it is hard to identify the weapon using rifling marks like you can with a handgun or rifle… I doubt this was something they suddenly decided to do for kicks.)”
“(Let’s list off every reason we can think of why someone would be targeting us. Of course, I can think of countless reasons why someone would go after a Level 5.)”
“(If we’re going there, I’ve earned more than my fair share of grudges with my Judgment work. Although not many of them would have the temerity to pay me a visit with a shotgun in hand.)”
“(Then could it be about the Stativarius? But in that case, it’s odd that they made no attempt to steal the violin from Sakibasu-san. No matter how tough the case, a stray shot could easily break the instrument inside.)”
“(It is also worth noting that this was shortly after I destroyed the violin’s legend.)”
At any rate, it took a bit of time before the volunteer teachers of Anti-Skill arrived. First, some officers out on patrol arrived in a special vehicle made by modifying a sports car, then a group with specialized forensic tools arrived in a large minivan.
Men wearing tough-looking bulletproof jackets approached Shirai. They likely chose her because of the armband on her right upper arm.
“I’m Maeda and this is Inoue. We have taken control of the scene, but we would like your signature on the official records. Use this tablet.”
“Once that is complete, go get yourselves looked over at the hospital. Even if none of the bullets hit you, gunshots can harm your inner ear at close range.”
Did they seem so oppressive because they were adults and teachers? Those distinctions could be more powerful than the people wielding them realized. To Shirai Kuroko, the single-year differences between upperclassman and underclassmen were an impassable expanse, so she was not going to complain to these people who lived in another world altogether.
Something gave her pause just as she moved the stylus toward the thin LCD screen.
“Also, Sakibasu Yuri. We have already received authorization from Tokiwadai Middle School, so please board this car.”
“Again, we already have permission. We have also contacted your dorm. Do I have to spell it out for you? I will fulfill our requirement to provide an explanation to minors, but we believe you to be a material witness. We would like to ask you for some details about this incident.”
“Eh, eh!? Why!? A material witness!? You mean you think I am a criminal!?”
She snapped back at the man, but the helplessness in her body language was impossible to miss. Her black kneesocked legs were pressing together nervously.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Skill officer sounded exasperated.
“We just want to speak with you. If you ask me, refusing just makes you look more suspicious.”
“You’re lying!! You need to actually answer my question!!”
“All we can do is arrest and question suspects. It is the prosecutors who decide whether or not a suspect is indicted and it is the professional and lay judges who hand down a guilty verdict in open court. In other words, I cannot answer your question.”
“That isn’t what I meant!! You keep dodging the issue!! Why, um, would I be…!?”
“The Stativarius Ainsel.”
The black twintail girl’s shoulders jumped when she heard that name.
Her breathing grew erratic and her eyes widened, so the adults continued speaking while carefully observing her.
“We hear you possess a famous violin that goes for hundreds of millions at auction. We have also received several witness accounts saying you have been showing it off wherever you go. And just a few hours ago, you failed to get the result you wanted in an exam using that Stativarius.”
“Why would you be enjoying a meal with the very person who humiliated you like that? If you have enough money to purchase a Stativarius, then you could easily hire some thugs. So why are you here? Was it perhaps to provide accurate information on the target’s location?”
“No! Um, I wasn’t-…!!”
“This is no more than speculation. So how about we go discuss the details in a locked room?”
The Anti-Skill officer’s arm reached out to grab the very same slender arm that had been playing the violin just a moment before. And he moved with enough force that he very well might twist her arm around and handcuff her if she resisted. In fact, it almost looked like he was intentionally treating her roughly so she would fight back and give him the “justification” he wanted.
No, perhaps this was the natural result.
Someone slapped the back of the Anti-Skill officer’s hand.
But it was not Sakibasu Yuri.
It was Shirai Kuroko of Judgment who had been listening in from a step away.
The aura of an adult clearly sharpened in displeasure, but that girl was not cowed. She moved between the adult and the child as if to protect the suspect.
Sakibasu was even more surprised than the Anti-Skill officer.
“Angering her so she makes the first move and you can arrest her for interfering with an official’s duties? What a cheap move. That means you don’t actually have the kind of solid evidence you claim to. Of course you don’t. You rushed here after first hearing of the incident, so you did not have time to do any real questioning. The Stativarius? The exam and reports of her showing it off? I bet all you did was search for likely terms on the social media accounts and blogs for her and those around her. What kind of official investigative agency accuses people based on hearsay from the internet? To be honest, it makes me doubt your character.”
“In Anti-Skill, we gather all relevant information and use that to reach a highly objective conclusion.”
“My, such wonderfully meaningless words. Then do you know the exact price used to purchase the Stativarius Ainsel at the center of this discussion? Everyone keeps saying ‘hundreds of millions’, but if you have actually questioned the auction official, surely you must know the exact amount, including handling and intermediary fees, that would not have been reported in the online news. Oh? What’s the matter? You seem to be sweating an awful lot. Does this mean you do not know the answer?”
“Do you have any idea whose side you are taking here? Besides, Anti-Skill has far greater authority than Judgment. A mere child has no right to criticize our actions.”
“Do not make me laugh. I have not yet electronically signed this tablet. Whatever the custom might be, I have yet to hand over the right to investigate.”
“That will get you nowhere.”
“Judgment’s primary job is to mediate conflicts between students at our own schools. If this really was the result of the Stativarius Ainsel or the elective exam, then Tokiwadai Middle School is at the root of it all. That makes this my jurisdiction! I apologize, but which school do you teach at? I certainly do not recall seeing you around Tokiwadai.”
“You’re seriously going to cover for the suspect in a serious incident involving a shotgun!? When you yourself were nearly shot and killed!?”
“This is my jurisdiction, so I refuse to give it up. Back off, outsider. If you insist on illegally arresting and confining a Tokiwadai student without gathering sufficient evidence first, then the criminal I must fight is standing right before my eyes!!”
A quiet sigh followed.
There had been two Anti-Skill officers. The other one, Inoue, lightly struck the head of Maeda, the one glaring at Shirai Kuroko.
“If that’s how you want to do this, then try solving this without leaving Judgment’s jurisdiction. But no matter how inconvenient the truth you discover, you are obligated to report it to us.”
“And outside of that – by which I mean, outside your school – we will perform our own investigation. The instant we have more solid evidence against Sakibasu Yuri, we will be back to speak with her, so keep that in mind. We will do this Tokiwadai’s way this time, but you can’t reject our request once we discover an inconvenient truth in our outside investigation.”
“There’s nothing you can do.”
Someone cut in with a voice like a starving dog.
This voice was the polar opposite of violin music and it inspired a rough feeling in the ears of those who heard it.
“You’ve already made up your mind about this. You aren’t covering for her because there isn’t proper evidence. You just want to believe your friend is innocent, don’t you? Hah! There’s no way you can perform a fair investigation with that magnet tugging your thoughts in the wrong direction!!”
That was the end of it.
The Anti-Skill pair had said their part, so they left.
…Although Inoue gave them a secret nod while calming Maeda down.
For one thing, the School Garden was protected by its own unique system, so not even Anti-Skill could so easily force an investigation where they pulled out all the desk drawers and tore up all the carpet. There was too much powers development tech that had to be protected.
They had never really expected that to work.
If they were lucky, their accusations would have been enough to get Sakibasu Yuri to go with them. But even if they were not lucky, they could still find a way to arrest and indict her if they found a link to her while investigating the crime scene, the route used to acquire the weapon, or whatever else.
Anti-Skill would trample on people’s hearts and tear them to shreds for nothing more than that. That girl had finally escaped the curse of the Stativarius and was starting to acquire her own sound, but they had rejected all of that.
Shirai Kuroko let out a soft sigh.
“Don’t worry, Sakibasu-san. The adults aren’t actually targeting you as much as it might seem. That was what they call the good cop, bad cop routine. By assigning themselves those roles, they hope to manipulate us into trusting the ‘good cop’ and shake the connection between us. Remember that it is an act and don’t let it get to you.”
The girl with curly-tipped black twintails had no idea what was going on, so Mikoto waved at her too.
“To put it another way, they get nothing as long as you don’t react. They have nothing solid against you. Tokiwadai is impregnable, so Anti-Skill can’t charge in and stuff everything they want into cardboard boxes.”
That said, this still affected Sakibasu Yuri’s situation. Sooner or later, it would get out that she was Anti-Skill’s top suspect. It was even possible the adults would intentionally leak that information online to set things in motion. A suspect was not the same thing as a criminal, but the normal people on the streets and the bored people online tended to overlook that fact. If nothing was done, people would begin digging up every last piece of personal information on her and it would all be listed on message boards and aggregation sites that anyone in the world could read.
And even if the authorities later came out and said “Whoopsie-daisy! We were wrong! Sorry about that!”, the online harassment from all around the world would not go away. Never, ever.
She was in a state of limbo and hanging on by a thread.
…But this also meant she was not protected by the official system meant to protect suspects. If there were any unusual openings or loopholes, there was a chance she would be targeted by the professional media and by amateurs hoping to show off on social media.
The snowball had been placed at the top of the hill.
They had to reveal the truth and remove all suspicion from her before it wobbled and started rolling.
They had to work even faster than the adults.
“We’re going to be busy…” said Mikoto.
“Yes,” agreed Kuroko. “Uiharu, we will need your support from the information end of things.”
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh!!” Saten eagerly raised her hand. “You can rely on me for information too!”
It all came together smoothly, like this was the natural outcome.
No one protested.
A real shotgun had appeared without warning. The difficulty of acquiring specialized tools like the gun and the motorcycle suggested they might be up against more than an individual. It was also possible this was a rational enough criminal to intentionally avoid using their esper power. The risk was quite high. Even now, the slightest opening could get the girls killed with their first move.
Sakibasu Yuri was at the center of it all, but she felt like she was in the eye of the storm. She could not touch the powerful winds blowing around her and she only felt left behind and bewildered.
“Um, uh, why?”
Because Shirai was a Judgment member?
Because Sakibasu was a fellow Tokiwadai student?
No. Shirai Kuroko put her hands on her hips, breathed from her nose, and gave her answer.
“Not one of us needs a reason to do this. Aren’t you the same?”
Now, it was time for the counterattack.
They would accept this challenge. And they would not allow the adults to go back on their agreement after the fact.
They needed to review what information they had.
Shirai and the others wanted to continue discussing the case, but Tokiwadai’s dorms had a strict curfew and they had no desire to remain at the family restaurant where so many Anti-Skill officers were investigating the crime scene. Their first order of business was to secure a location where they could set up camp and exchange information.
Saten raised her hand while walking down the road just before sunset.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!! If we want a secret base, I vote we do it online! That way we can swap ideas anytime and anywhere and we can even talk during class!!”
Sakibasu must have still been shaken after what happened.
She seemed to shrink down as she held her violin case in both hands, rubbed her black kneesocked legs together, and made a hesitant rebuttal.
“I do not know exactly how it works, but aren’t the adults monitoring everything that happens on the internet? I have heard the systems meant to protect personal information have a few exceptions, such as criminal investigations and court cases.”
“Anti-Skill isn’t going to actually destroy evidence, so it should not be much of an issue even if they do spy on our conversations.”
“Fine, fine. Uiharu, you do something about it.”
“Sigh. I just have to build a server that Anti-Skill can’t track us on, right? I’ll have that in no time.”
Rather than creating something new from the ground up, it felt more like she reached into a secret drawer and pulled out something she had made before. Shirai gave her a skeptical look that asked why she had this, but Uiharu was unfazed.
“There’s a bit of a trick to using it, but once you’re used to it, you’ll see it’s more convenient than a normal social media site. For now, I’ll register all our phones on each other’s friends lists.”
Electronic tones played from their pockets. When they checked the screens, they found a new icon, the addition of which none of them had authorized. Uiharu should not have even known Sakibasu’s phone number or email address. Mikoto should have known more about this stuff thanks to her ability to directly manipulate electricity, but not even she was immune.
“It seems wrong to criticize me when all I did was flawlessly carry out the task you gave me, Shirai-san. Oh, and it has an obvious icon now, but you can set that to be hidden. People often spy on your phone’s screen from the side or behind, so I recommend erasing the icon from the menu just in case.”
Sakibasu Yuri was trembling while holding her phone in both hands.
She stared intently at the screen and her cheeks started to grow flushed.
Her heart was racing to the point it looked like she might start hopping around.
“(Wah, wah. Friends… I’m finally internet friends with someone! And…and is this what they call a secret site!? What do I do, mother!? I’m turning into a bad girl! Tremble, tremble, tremble!!)”
“Sigh. So what should we do about this app? If you don’t like it, I can smack Uiharu and have her erase it without a trace. Um, Sakibasu-san?”
“No, leave it!! This is a sweet nectar I can never let my mother know about!!”
Shirai looked puzzled, but that was not the issue.
Mikoto clapped her hands lightly.
“Okay, let’s head home for today. We don’t know who they are, but don’t forget that there is an actual criminal out there. Get back to your dorms before it gets dark to make sure you’re safe. That might sound obvious, but we can’t afford to stumble right out of the gate. Let’s deal with this a step at a time.”
“Got it. Okay, we can meet in the app once we’re back!”
“Hee hee hee. Once I get a taste for this sweet flavor, there is no going back. Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee.”
After seeing Uiharu and Saten back to their dorm, it was time for Mikoto and the others to head to their own dorm. But sticking with Sakibasu 24/7 to protect her was not realistic with their school activities. Instead of protecting her by fighting and defeating the threat, they had to set up a situation where the attacker would have a hard time trying anything again.
Shirai turned back toward Sakibasu.
“Now, how about we get home?”
“Don’t look so surprised. We all live in the same Tokiwadai dorm, so there is no point in splitting up now.”
“(Gulp. You…you mean we will be walking home together? Hanging out with friends after school and wandering around the city? Is the path of the bad girl? Kyah, I can’t believe it, kyah, kyah!!)”
The girl’s strange shaking would not stop. It was so intense you would have thought her back was going to split open and giant wings would burst out.
They chose the most populated route back and discussed things along the way.
“Let’s get to the most fundamental question.”
“Who do you honestly think the target was? The four of us, or Sakibasu-san?”
When Mikoto had blocked the shotgun blasts, it had felt like all of the shots were clearly targeting their table. She was more or less certain of that.
And with that question in mind, Shirai considered a few pieces of information.
Sakibasu Yuri had enough wealth from the trading card game she had created at a young age to win a world-famous violin at auction, but that motive did not explain the timing of the attack. If the girl had been attacked several times already, she would not be living such a carefree life where she walked around alone with the Stativarius in its unlocked case. She seemed ignorant of human malice and hostility.
In that case…
“Does it all come down to the timing?”
Shirai arrived at that conclusion.
Mikoto real question was whether the attack was against the person who had defeated the Stativarius Ainsel or the person who had been protected by its legend. The foundation of that reasoning was the same as Anti-Skill’s, but Shirai could not help but consider the presence of that violin.
“Um.” Sakibasu nervously joined the conversation. “I do think it is incredible that you managed to break the Stativarius legend, but, well, what does that really matter?”
“…That is the question, isn’t it?”
Word of Shirai Kuroko defeating that world-famous instrument would be spreading beyond Tokiwadai and the School Garden via the internet. And in fact, Anti-Skill had learned about it almost immediately. This was about a localized elective exam, but that did not matter if the students posted about it on social media, blogs, or message boards.
And with that in mind…
“I could understand why someone would hold a grudge if those expensive violins had lost all their value from this, but the Stativarius legend has been broken a few times before. Like when research showed the wavelength was not all that different from a normal violin’s. But that was not enough to shake their market value. No matter what is revealed, they still manage to fetch hundreds of millions at auction. So what would it matter that Kuroko defeated this one?”
Or maybe this was not about immediate profit.
For example, maybe there was a group that viewed the Stativarius legend as their faith and they refused to let anything hurt its reputation.
Mikoto continued while walking past the makeshift wall around a construction site.
“Whether or not this comes down to some kind of faith, do the Stativari have some kind of special value beyond money?”
She heard a quiet metallic thud.
She looked back, but there was no one there.
Only the sidewalk alongside the construction site’s thick metal wall and the simple metal door leading inside.
Something must have bothered Mikoto because she walked back the way she had come. The door used a simple number lock like you could buy at a home improvement store, but she was not focused on that.
She was interested in the corner bordering the intersection.
“This really is weird.”
“This should normally be made from a clear material.”
Black-twintailed Sakibasu Yuri and chestnut twintailed Shirai Kuroko tilted their heads in synchronized confusion, so Mikoto pointed and explained.
“It’s worrying when you can’t see what they’re doing inside, right? That’s why they intentionally make a part of the wall transparent so you can see inside. I think they normally do it at the corner. It prevents complaints and unnecessary frustration.”
“But…this is just a normal metal wall, isn’t it?”
Mikoto nodded at Sakibasu’s question.
“And was the person who walked through the door just now really a construction worker? This place has been off limits for quite a while, but the construction never seems to end. And you can’t hear any construction going on right now, can you?”
“Hmm? But why would someone bother sneaking into there?”
“Hold on. There is a subway station here,” cut in Shirai while opening her phone’s map app. Hers was an unlocked Judgment version instead of the normal version. “The line has been shut down, but if the facility is still here, you would have free use of a large underground tunnel connecting stations. It would give you a shortcut around all the lights and buildings and you could avoid getting wet on rainy days.”
That might not sound like much on its own.
It was not like a chauffeured luxury car would come pick you up and you could not send out a GPS signal with an app to have a private helicopter or jet flown to you within five minutes. It was only a small luxury that required walking on your own two feet. For ease of use, buying a beat-up used scooter would be better.
That was not what made it so sweet. Even a linear motor train or sub-orbital spacecraft would be meaningless if everyone had equal access to them.
Monopolizing a service no one else had access to provided a small feeling of superiority.
And the more such things you accumulated, the more you would feel like a special person.
Maybe it was like a local celebrity showing up at a fully-booked restaurant and getting a seat at any time.
Maybe it was like using a private elevator that skipped straight past all the congestion on the other floors.
The excitement might be best compared to the feeling of being accepted into an invite-only social media group for entertainers. And this feeling had existed long before the internet in the form of salons and secret clubs.
Even in Tokiwadai, there were plenty of debates, meetings, and recreational activities you could only attend if you belonged to Shokuhou Misaki’s clique. Students ignorant of that trickster girl’s true nature apparently longed to join. In that case, you had to receive an invitation from an existing member, swear your loyalty to their Queen, pass a background check, and pass a few tests before you were finally given the “key” to attend those exclusive events.
It had nothing to do with how useful the items really were.
It could be a bag, a wristwatch, a ring, a fur coat, a cosmetic product, high heels, an odd-colored credit card, or an old musical instrument. The truly wealthy and luxurious people would show off by secretly possessing certain “keys” that set them apart from other people and allowed them take part in a secret community.
If that idea was common enough…
“Did the Stativarius function as a ‘key’ for this city?”
“But, Onee-sama, that doesn’t explain why someone would attack. No matter the result of the elective exam, a Stativarius is still a Stativarius. The Ainsel belongs to Sakibasu-san and this wouldn’t affect someone who owns a different Stativarius.”
“That depends on how we’re defining these ‘keys’.” Mikoto brought a hand to her slender chin. “If anyone with a Stativarius is given access to special services, then I think you would be right, Kuroko. But what if it’s owning a violin with the world’s greatest music that gives you access?”
Sakibasu Yuri uttered a silly sound in the middle of it all.
Mikoto took that to mean she was right.
“Sakibasu-san. That attack might have killed your appetite, but beforehand, you wanted to see the secret menu so you could eat away your frustrations, right?”
“Y-yes. I often go to that family restaurant on the weekends and the manager always has a special menu to show me. That is what I was asking for, so I wonder why they pretended not to know what I meant. That was not my first time ordering pancakes there.”
She seemed legitimately confused, so she herself may not have understood how the restaurant worked.
There were services only available to those who owned “a violin with the world’s greatest music”. But since Sakibasu Yuri had carried her Stativarius Ainsel around with her everywhere, she had not even noticed she was being given access to something special.
That secret menu had now been taken from her. Mikoto was a little curious about what these special pancakes were, but this girl could no longer order the dishes listed on that menu.
In that case…
“Once the Stativari have been thrown down from their position at the top, the ‘key’ takes on a different form. Even if it was only taken to the #2 spot. That means you can no longer use the ‘key’ you spent hundreds of millions on at auction. So what’s next? An Almati? A Guarnari? Do you have to desperately throw down another mountain of cash at the auction to make your bid???”
Whoever it was would have been shut out.
Like their account had been banned.
The “key” they had gone to such effort to obtain had been made useless by someone else’s actions and they had been shut out of the special stores, famous social media groups, and other secret connections that made them feel special. That was sure to inspire fear and frustration.
It was unclear who this was, but they would never be able to allow the Stativarius’s defeat.
Was it about secret services, the right to buy new products early at a famous store, or an invitation-only social media group? Whatever had been taken from them by the shaking of the Stativarius’s value, they would do whatever it took to recover their position. Especially if they were someone with no other connections who felt they needed that in order to stand out.
So they would want to erase the result of that elective exam.
They would do whatever it took to eliminate anyone even slightly involved in that upset.
Mikoto brushed up her bangs as she stated her conclusion.
“Looks like we need to investigate that violin some more. That might tell us how many people would hold a grudge and how many enemies we might have.”
“Sa10> Then how about you check out the Chandelier Auction House?”
Once they were back in the Tokiwadai dorm, that speech bubble appeared on their phones.
Instead of typing the message into your phone, you spoke into it and a voice recognition program wrote the message for you. Punctuation and even emoji and emoticons were automatically added where appropriate, so Uiharu Kazari’s technical skill was quite something.
This honestly seemed like something she could use for a start-up, but some geniuses only used their skills for fun and stopped before it ever became a job or obligation.
(The Chandelier Auction House?)
Mikoto frowned because she had heard that name from Shokuhou Misaki before.
“Sa10> They’re an office that auctions off a wide range of products in Academy City, although they specialize in artwork and antiques. I believe they offer things like rare old manga manuscripts and the world’s first sewing machine, but also instruments like the Stativari. Yeah, there are a lot of rumors about that place, but I couldn’t possibly step into that fancy world.”
“Sa10> As you’ve probably guessed, they apparently specialize in those fancy ‘keys’ that give you access to that world…although I couldn’t tell you if that’s actually true. Basically, everything sold at Chandelier – be it wine or a famous painting – functions as one of those ‘keys’. If the Stativarius Ainsel has that additional value, then maybe the rumors are true.”
Shirai Kuroko was using the same app, but it was faster to talk to her directly since they were in the same room.
The chestnut twintail girl shrugged.
“They do a lot of advertisement online, but you can never pin them down since the location of the physical auction house changes each time. The corporate registration only leads to a cheap apartment room. That is probably a safety measure to prevent theft and attacks, but Anti-Skill is apparently concerned they might be abusing the system to launder money.”
The giant organization was as intangible as shimmering heat.
The key shop for those secret ‘keys’ was itself a secret club that only a chosen few could reach. It was like a nested doll. How many treasure chests would they have to unlock before they arrived at the truth?
But Mikoto’s group did not need to start at the very beginning.
Just like those feeling so smugly superior from their hidden world within Academy City, they held the ticket to a shortcut.
“Let’s contact Sakibasu-san.”
Mikoto gave the answer right away.
“She already won the Stativarius Ainsel from Chandelier, so she should have a connection to that secret auction house.”
“My, my. If it isn’t Sakibasu-sama. It is wonderful to see you again. How have you enjoyed the violin we helped bring into your life?”
The next day after school, they were greeted by a gray-haired old man in a black suit. His smile and polite behavior gave him the air of a butler.
But his exaggerated speech made Mikoto put a hand on her hip and sigh.
They were in Academy City’s District 6.
The entire district had been made into a giant amusement park.
They sat around a circular table designed to look like a tea party, but that table was located at the center of a large intersection on Main Street, the route for a largescale parade. That area was so constantly crowded that it was said it would only be deserted once the world came to an end.
They were meeting a giant organization which was as intangible as shimmering heat.
It seemed to be true that the organization had no obvious headquarters.
Sakibasu Yuri must have recognized the old man because her shoulders were less tense than Mikoto’s and Shirai’s. The girl scratched her cheek as she responded.
“Yes, well, I lost pretty badly with it. I assume you already know about that.”
“Ha ha. So the rumors were true. I am glad to hear it.”
The old man smiled gently toward the violin case the black twintail girl always carried around with her.
Shirai, however, looked suspicious.
She was the one who had destroyed that legend, but…
“What do you mean? Isn’t it a problem for you if the Stativarius legend collapses? You must have received a significant amount in handling fees while acting as the middleman for the violin’s sale. Was it perhaps 20% on a price in the hundreds of millions? The greater the purchase price, the better for you.”
Saten trembled at the thought of 20% out of hundreds of millions of yen.
Shirai had summed it up as “acting the middleman”, but Mikoto, Sakibasu, and Shirai herself knew that procuring, storing, securing, and transporting such a famous instrument would come with plenty of risk. What if they ended up with a counterfeit? What if it was stolen before the auction? What if it was ruined by humidity or a leaky roof? What if it did not sell for as much as initially thought? Whether it was a jewel or a painting, possessing a pricey item would wear at the nerves. Since this issue had already proven it could place people’s lives at risk, this business could not be an easy way to make money.
But the old man in a suit did not tough on any of those internal issues and only added a hint of bitterness to his smile.
“I cannot deny we have our financial interests to consider.”
This was not enough to shake him.
He was very different from the Anti-Skill officers from the day before.
“However, you must not forget that the products we handle are tools. Whatever they might be and whatever price they might sell for, we appreciate it when they reach the hands of someone who will use them to their fullest. I believe the Stativarius Ainsel itself would want to be used in a serious competition with a chance of losing instead of easily-won competitions where your opponent never stood a chance. You and the violin you hold have accepted each other and become comrades-in-arms bound by genuine trust. I cannot reveal the identity of the former owner as our sellers are guaranteed their anonymity, but I can say that I am proud to have sold it to a benevolent owner such as you.”
“Um…” Saten hesitantly raised a hand. “Excuse me, but we had heard that all the products sold by Chandelier double as secret ‘keys’. Is that part of what you mean by using them as tools?”
If the Stativari were a sort of “key” and another owner refused to accept Shirai Kuroko’s victory since it threatened the value of their “key”, then the Chandelier Auction House might have a list of suspects. Especially if this was the only place someone could obtain a Stativarius. Although it was unlikely Chandelier would reveal any personal information about their wealthy clients since that would bring those clients trouble similar to the people who won big at the lottery.
However, the old man shook his head.
“We have nothing to do with the ‘keys’ you refer to.”
Mikoto asked for clarification, but he did not seem insulted.
In fact, he closed his eyes sadly.
“It is similar to how the game company plays no direct part in the real money trade that has become so prevalent in online games. Those transactions are carried out on message boards and social media communities separate from the game servers. And even if it intrudes on the game servers, it is difficult for a single company to forcibly put a stop to it.”
“You mean Chandelier doesn’t deal in those ‘keys’; someone else has turned your products into them?”
The old man nodded at Uiharu’s carefully worded question.
“In the past year, our sales prices have rapidly grown by more than 50%. We had found it odd since it did not seem the sellers were hiring plants to inflate the prices… You might find this viewpoint odd for someone who makes a living by running an auction, but a tool is no more than a tool. Any value not attached to its functionality will always lead to a distortion. An unnecessary added value acts like a curse and will occasionally harm people. I do not know what unseen person is possessing us, but it saddens me very much.”
Mikoto sighed quietly.
She decided to tentatively view what the old man said as evidence.
If the source of the infection really was elsewhere and Chandelier itself had done nothing wrong, there was nothing they could accomplish poking around here. No amount of prodding or coaxing would get him to do anything beyond his duty. That meant he would never hand over personal information on his clients.
“So we’re back to square one, huh? This is another dead end.”
However, Sakibasu did not seem to have given up.
“You said it was best if your products ended up with people who would use them, correct? Then you would not want a Stativarius to end up with someone who will not use it. Anyone who bought one of the violins as a ‘key’ is using it in a way that violates Chandelier’s values. Don’t you want to flush out that corruption!?”
The old man did not respond.
Their client list might contain some suspicious people who were not worth protecting.
But if they sold off the entire list for that, they could not continue running their auctions. Mikoto, Sakibasu, and the others did not have any material evidence to back up their claims and the clients would all back out if their personal information was divulged based on mere speculation. It was the same as a big winner at the lottery. No one would leave their personal information with someone who did not follow any strict rules and gave out names and addresses on a whim.
“This is your chance. You need not take any risk yourself! We will take care of everything for you!! So please!!”
This had nothing to do with what the old man wanted to do.
He could not agree to this.
“Give it up, Sakibasu-san. Continuing this won’t help anyone.”
“I was so happy when I got the Stativarius Ainsel. I will not let history and tradition bind me any longer, but when I first held this instrument in my hands, my life definitely did change. I felt like I was ascending into heaven. You said you helped bring it into my life, didn’t you? You said you were proud of that. Then you must understand. I cannot be the only person who truly needs a famous Stativarius! I don’t mean as a bizarre ‘key’ and I am not referring to the people who would pull out a shotgun because their cheap pride was threatened! There must be plenty of people whose lives would really and truly change if they could only pick up a Stativarius and play a song on it!! Don’t you want to send those violins to people like that!? Isn’t that the entire reason Chandelier exists!?”
It was all wasted effort.
The old man maintained his perfect smile and remained entirely motionless. Sakibasu bit her lip, but there were some things he could not compromise on. So even if he completely agreed with them, he could not allow these girls to trample on everything Chandelier had built.
Or so they thought.
“I cannot hand over the client list that Chandelier holds in the strictest confidence. That is nonnegotiable. For one thing, Sakibasu-sama, your name is on that list as well.”
Wasn’t that exactly what they had expected him to say?
Then why had he bothered to say it at all?
“However, there might be a seam in that anonymity where another company plays a role. Yes, just as an online game’s real money trade is difficult for the game company to stop because it occurs on a message board hosted by another company.”
“Hm? What do you mean???”
“Pay me no heed. I am merely speaking to myself.” The old man smiled. “Leannán Sí, Titania, Tam Lin, Pixy, Siren… Whichever Stativarius we are talking about, they sell for hundreds of millions. Especially in the last six months when the prices have grown by more than 50% what we predicted. Do you think they are simply thrown in a closet after won at auction? In most cases, wouldn’t the buyer hire various forms of security, hire more private guards, and take out a high-value insurance plan to prepare for the unforeseen?”
Sakibasu placed a hand over her mouth.
The old man looked at her like she was his beloved granddaughter.
“This is truly no more than a senile old man speaking to himself, so please do not take it seriously. That said, there are likely only a few specialist divisions even among the largest national insurance companies that will provide a policy for a violin worth hundreds of millions. Only one or two in Academy City I would imagine.”
“Th-then if we pursue that…!!”
“They are doing their job as well. From what I have heard, they provide such superb service that they will preserve their obligation of secrecy even if it is a blatantly stolen item. They will keep its storage location secret and reject any requests for the return of the stolen item. It is possible that you could find something by searching the division that specializes in antiques and artwork of that nature.”
Night had fallen.
The curfew had long since passed, yet Misaka Mikoto had changed into casual clothes and was retying her shoes in obvious preparation to sneak out of her dorm room.
“Hey, you’re getting dressed too, so don’t treat me like the only bad guy here.”
They wanted to investigate an insurance company’s building.
They were not going through the proper channels for this, so it was illegal even if it was the right thing to do.
Shirai Kuroko of Judgment would normally be the person to put a stop to something like this, but…
“Our lives were targeted, but the company still isn’t responding to my requests. If anything, it seemed like they leaked information to Anti-Skill to keep us from acting… If they remain silent or even get in our way while aware this will lead to harm, they could be charged with willful negligence. Simply put, this is a special case and we need not hold back.”
The old man from the Chandelier Auction House had only provided them with words. He had not taken any real action such as handing over a list of suspects.
But what little he had said must have come with considerable risk. He had set up the pretext of “talking to himself”, but if people decided he had provided a hint to a client’s personal information, he could easily lose all of the trust he had built up over the years. Nevertheless, he had still wanted to help them. He had wanted to give Sakibasu Yuri the push she needed to flush out the corruption that had worked its way into his business.
They had no intention of wasting that.
Mikoto walked to their room’s window instead of the door.
“Okay, it’s time to pay the city’s night a visit.”
“What about Sakibasu-san?”
“You have to ask? We don’t have to worry about her being attacked by a large motorcycle or a shotgun as long as she’s inside this dorm.”
They were used to doing this by now.
The two of them jumped out the window and landed in the liberating night.
A message arrived on their phones.
“GK> Your destination is National General Life’s Academy City HQ building.”
“Who is GK?” asked Mikoto. “Whose initials are those?”
“It stands for Goalkeeper,” explained Shirai. “That is Uiharu.”
They decided to ignore the heated message from Uiharu insisting they were going to make her cry.
“GK> That appears to be the only place in the city that specializes in high-value insurance policies for string instruments. Violins are made of wood, so they are easily damaged by humidity and finger oils if not properly maintained. That can easily distort the sound, so they are difficult for companies to handle.”
That would be more difficult than a pure gold statue that would remain nice and shiny even after 100 years.
There was a lot of variety in the insurance industry, but high-value policies on items generally made their money when nothing happened. In other words, it was best for them if the customer paid for a policy, the end of the policy period ended without incident, and the company did not have to pay out anything. If an instrument like a Stativarius was lost, the company would have to pay out its full value. And if they ended up having to cough up that kind of dough, whoever was in charge of the policy would never move up in the company. Banks, insurance companies, and securities companies tended to judge people with a demerit system.
“Can’t you get in from outside with your hacking skills?”
“GK> If they were that easy to hack into, they could never survive in the insurance industry. The fact that they are still in business essentially proves the strength of their servers.”
So they had to do it the old-fashioned way.
It would be best to physically enter the building, find the server, and attach a small device with a wireless antenna.
“They already refused to reveal their information when you went through the proper Judgment channels, right? I hope they haven’t beefed up their security because of that.”
But she was the Railgun, so the thought of being unable to get in did not cross her mind.
The building in question was in District 3, which contained primarily administrative offices and corporate headquarters.
Academy City’s trains shut down early, so Shirai Kuroko’s teleportation was extremely useful at times like this.
In this case, that meant holding onto her from the front.
“Eh heh heh. Geh heh heh heh heh.”
“(Hmm, maybe I should build my own flying device.)”
“Wait, um, Onee-sama? Isn’t it polite to react more strongly when I cling to you and rub up against you? At the very least, please avoid coming up with ideas that render me entirely useless!!”
The fact that responding would only cause things to escalate was a well-known piece of child psychology.
For better or for worse, District 7 felt like a mixture of so many things, but District 3 was unified in its sense of being an adult city. And not in the sense of being a cluttered shopping district. There was no desire in the scene before them. The scenery seemed to demonstrate the ideal vision of a city that wanted to protect the dignity of adulthood.
This office district was a collection of glass-covered skyscrapers that had been designed with help from famous architects and may not have been entirely logical. That distinctive but somehow cold impression may have represented the image of adulthood they wanted to show off to the children. Simply put, the cityscape had no sense of raw desire.
They understood that there was nothing as distressing as seeing your parent’s sexual desire, but by middle school, they understood that no human was truly cut off from all such desires.
There were no real lights on in the area.
Top-level corporations focused only on completing their projects in the allotted time, so they apparently did not need to work overtime. That seemed like it would cause problems elsewhere, but at the very least, the people working here were probably happy in both their work and family lives.
“GK> National General Life is Block 4 Building 3. It is a very orderly district, so you shouldn’t get lost as long as you keep an eye on the sign numbers.”
Mikoto looked up at the skyscraper in question.
It looked about 40-stories tall. Its shape…was difficult to explain. Overall, it looked like a glass-covered smart building, but the issue was the number of walls. At ground level, it was a square, but if you looked a little higher, it had five walls. As you continued to raise your head, the number of walls grew to six, seven, eight, and more. At the top floor, it had so many walls it looked more like a circle than anything.
More than a thousand employees could work inside there, but middle schoolers like Mikoto and Shirai were not really sure if an insurance company needed that many operators.
“Okay, I can teleport us inside. …Although I would prefer you did not get a taste for this kind of irregular activity.”
“Kuroko, we don’t want to make it look like only someone who could teleport could have gotten inside. Use your head. That would be like leaving your calling card behind. You’re in Judgment, so you need to be more careful.”
“Onee-sama, why do you sound so familiar with this subject!?”
Instead of answering her protesting underclassman, Mikoto pointed at a floor not far from the ground.
Specifically, the fourth floor.
National General Life’s HQ building looked like a famous architect’s nightmarish ideas made real and all of its surfaces were made of glass. However, there was one spot on that floor with an upside-down red triangle sticker on it.
“No matter how crazy the design, it still has to obey the laws and regulations,” said Mikoto. “With large harbor warehouses or factories alongside the highway, you sometimes see a metal door high up on the wall. There’s no stairway or balcony there, so it looks like someone could carelessly open it and fall. What do you think those strange doors are for?”
“They’re emergency entrances. They’re specifically designed for firefighters to climb in using their truck’s ladder. It’s not always that obvious, though. Look at the average department store and electronics store and you should see an upside-down triangle window above the third floor. Those windows are made to open for the firefighters to get inside.”
“Oh. Can’t they just break their way in with an axe or a hammer?”
“From that high up? Land is limited and buildings tend to be overcrowded in Academy City. A crowd is going to gather when there is a fire, so you can’t send a shower of glass shards onto their heads.”
Mikoto looked up at the high-rise structure and breathed an exasperated sigh.
It looked like a continuous surface of glass, but it was actually an orderly arrangement of panes. And the ones designed for emergency personnel were made to open like a door.
“The locks for those things are surprisingly simple since they’re not meant for people to directly access from the ground or emergency staircase. And if they had them locked up tight, then the firefighters wouldn’t be able to get in during and emergency.”
Whether or not they could get in through there was not what mattered.
If they opened that emergency entrance on the fourth floor, it would prevent anyone from concluding that only someone who could teleport could have gotten inside. They only had to create the great taboo of mystery stories: a crime with multiple plausible methods.
“Let’s split up our efforts. I’ll use magnetism to cling to the wall and open the fourth floor emergency entrance, so you teleport in and-…”
Mikoto trailed off.
There was no obvious light or sound.
But what other gadget had the attackers used when firing that shotgun into the family restaurant?
Two people were riding an electric motorcycle made all the more dangerous by having its engine sound effect deactivated.
Mikoto let out a short breath when she sensed its approach.
She did not even need to frantically jump back.
In this case, moving without thinking would be the more dangerous option.
She sent out an invisible force across the 180 degrees in front of her. That was enough for the 200kg or more mass of metal to lose control, miss her and Kuroko, and slide violently across the asphalt. Orange sparks trailed after it like a shooting star.
A direct hit might have killed them.
And this was not over yet. With a straining sound, a black figure stood up from the toppled motorcycle. They wore a full-face helmet and a riding suit. Thick gloves covered even their fingertips. Not a bit of bare skin was left exposed, so it was impossible to judge their general build or even sex.
Mikoto only knew one thing: This was one of the riders and the person in the back seat had clearly been holding a shotgun.
“Oh, no you don’t!!”
Just before the deafening blast, Mikoto and Shirai jumped to the left and right respectively. They did not cower down or go weak in the knees. In fact, Mikoto gave an instruction through their phones just as the gunshot drowned out her voice.
“Kuroko, you continue on into the building! Get Uiharu-san’s help to extract the data while I keep them busy!!”
She did not have time for an argument, so she closed the app.
They were only after National General Life’s server room. They wanted to know what clients had a high-value insurance policy on a Stativarius. In other words, they wanted a list of suspects. They could not achieve that goal if they only fought back against the attackers in riding suits. That loud gunshot would lead to a much bigger commotion and it might be much more difficult to get inside the skyscraper after that.
A short distance away, the shotgun casually aimed Mikoto’s way.
But she held up her open hand before it could fire.
There was a quiet metallic sound, but nothing left the barrel. When she knew the gunshot was coming, messing with the gun’s internal structure was not difficult.
And she went further than that.
Just as bluish-white light burst from her bangs, a billion-volt current was released all at once.
This was one of her lightning spears.
The boom was like a large tree being split down the middle.
The shotgun held by the riding suit figure burst from within and the flash of light stabbed straight through the center of the person. It did not matter that they were wearing thick leather. That level of insulation could not cut off an attack that rivalled a real lightning strike.
The clothing gave off a stench similar to burnt animal flesh, but the riding suit figure did not collapse. Their shoulders were lopsided, but they still took a step toward her.
Her eyes widened in surprise, but she still unleashed another high-voltage current.
Could her opponent not dodge it, or did they not even bother trying?
Even after a second and third direct hit, they still did not collapse. The shotgun had fallen apart and its pieces littered the ground, but they still had some extra shotgun shells. The shells alone should have been useless, but they held them in their hand regardless.
There was a loud boom.
They had used Mikoto’s high-voltage current to activate the shell’s detonator and countless tiny lead beads scattered in her direction.
She knew what had happened.
She really did…but what was that?
If a shotgun shell went off while you were holding it, shouldn’t it blow off your entire hand!?
And this was not the time to focus on that oddity.
Two people had been riding the motorcycle.
The gunner with the shotgun had been in the back seat, so what about the one driving?
Where had the other person gone!?”
“Argh, it’s always something, isn’t it!?”
Mikoto felt the pressure of someone ducking low and rushing toward her from the side. She did not have time to hold back. Her surroundings seemed to distort and then a bunch of iron sand rose up from the ground. This was her iron sand sword that could freely change shape and gained a cutting edge by rapidly vibrating. That weapon could slice through a metal pillar as thick as her torso in a single slash and she immediately jabbed it into the second person’s right shoulder as they attempted to tackle her.
But it did not manage to stab them.
With a dry sound, the iron sand sword was deflected to the side.
(Telekinesis!? And high level at that!!)
She gasped, but then her breathing stopped altogether.
She had failed to stop the fierce tackle, so the riding suit figure jammed their shoulder into her side and wrapped their arms solidly around her torso. Their momentum continued, so Mikoto’s feet left the ground.
Primitive fear lifted her stomach.
She was not in a martial arts ring or on judo mats.
She did not even need to form it into a spear. She sent the billion-volt current out from her in all 360 degrees, but it changed nothing. She even stabbed the tip of her iron sand sword into the riding suit figure’s back several times.
It accomplished nothing.
After a brief floating sensation, Mikoto slammed back-first into the hard ground.
The shock that ran through her entire body was not much different from a judo slam.
Her vision flashed in and out. She had trouble breathing and her mind started blanking out, but what thoughts she did have were only filled with confusion.
And to reiterate yet again, there were two riding suit figures.
While the one put themselves in danger to pin Mikoto down, the other slowly approached. The full-face helmet silently peered down at the girl’s face. They did not seem to be confirming their victory or cruelly mocking her. They simply held out their right hand contained in black leather.
The fingers held an unused shotgun shell.
If the detonator activated at this close range, it might blow Mikoto’s head clean off.
While she was still pinned to the ground, a metallic sound came from near her stomach.
She held an arcade coin in her right hand.
Academy City’s #3 was known as the Railgun. Should she fire that signature attack through the second figure pinning her down to hit the first figure aiming the shotgun shell her way?
But just as she began to consider that…
“Take this!! If you don’t mind!!!”
While the riding suit figure stood there, a heavy blow struck their helmet from the side.
The swinging of the newcomer’s body caused their long black twintails to sway.
Was that a concrete block she was swinging in both hands?
There was a dull thud, but it was not the sound of the impact. The full-force swing of the blunt object hit the full-face helmet from the side, knocking it right off the riding suit’s neck. The thud was the helmet hitting the asphalt.
There was nothing inside.
The helmet’s removal did not reveal a male face, a female face, or any other kind of face. There was only empty space there. Sakibasu looked taken aback by the result of her own attack.
Everything seemed to click into place for Mikoto.
She now understood the failure of her lightning spear and iron sand sword and why the enemy would fire those shotgun shells in what seemed like self-destruction. This explained why the riding suit duo had been so unconcerned with any damage they took.
Plus, Mikoto’s iron sand sword had been deflected by high-level Telekinesis.
“They were no more than leather manipulated by Telekinesis!?”
If they were not even alive, she had no reason at all to hold back.
She pressed her right fist against the second figure’s stomach and focused on her thumb. She unleashed the Lorentz force like she was flicking the arcade coin sitting on her thumbnail.
This was her Railgun.
With a deafening boom, a fearsome beam of light punched through the second figure’s gut, stabbed into the first figure, who lacked a helmet thanks to Sakibasu’s attack, and caused them to burst from within. The orange beam shot up into the night sky before being eliminated by the friction of the air.
All that remained were the scorched remains of the leather and some embers.
Mikoto heard a heavy noise and realized Sakibasu had let go of the concrete block. No, she had released all the tension in her body. She slumped down onto the asphalt and clung to the violin case next to her like a child who could not sleep without their favorite stuffed animal. Even now, she kept her legs below her in an elegant and alluring way, which may have been a testament to Tokiwadai’s education. However, she must have been worried about her skirt because she kept her butt a bit up off the ground. Then again, that made the hem flutter dangerously.
Sakibasu Yuri wiped the sweat from her brow and spoke up in a trembling voice.
“I would like an explanation. I was wondering why you were sneaking out of the dorm and then this happens…”
“You really saved me there.”
Mikoto meant that.
Misaka Mikoto was worried and refused to let her guard down, but nothing more happened.
The riding suits were only a decoration.
The real attack had been made by Telekinesis powerful enough to deflect her iron sand sword head-on. And since the esper was not here, she could guess their power had precise control even from a remote location. After all, they had indirectly driven the motorcycle and fired the shotgun by controlling the riding suits with their power.
Mikoto could gather scrap metal and create a humanoid figure from it if she tried. She could probably move its arms and legs too. But could she use that figure to accurately play a guitar or violin? This esper’s precision had reached that level.
They could have chosen to continue fighting.
After all, it did not harm them to have the riding suit duo(?) destroyed.
The exact conditions for their power were unknown, but it was possible they could pick a car off the ground and fling it at her or grab Sakibasu’s limbs and forcibly control her like the riding suits.
In fact, it was harder to come up with reasons why they would withdraw here.
Mikoto was left with a few questions:
- It had seemed like they were waiting in front of National General Life’s HQ building, but how had they detected Mikoto and Shirai’s actions?
- Their goal appeared to be preventing Mikoto and Shirai from acquiring the list of suspects – that is, who owned a Stativarius. So why had they given up and withdrawn?
- Who was this Telekinesis user?
Shirai Kuroko would have made it inside the National General Life building to access the list of suspects, but would that really be enough to arrive at the truth? Mikoto was starting to have her doubts since such a powerful esper had been so willing to withdraw.
And just then, Sakibasu Yuri swung her right hand and nimbly snatched something between her index and middle fingers. It was a scrap of black leather fluttering through the air with some embers.
“Well, whatever the case, we just have to keep working. And I am glad my own power will finally come in handy.”
“My power is Carbon Search. It allows me to precisely measure carbon isotopes.”
In the moonlight, the girl softly pressed her lips to this new hint and gave a bewitching smile.
“Misaka-san, did you know that can also be used to appraise leather products?”
It was 10 PM.
Tokiwadai Middle School had a strict curfew, so this girl should not have been out in the city this late.
“Hokaze, Kobayashi. Wait for me here as promised, okay?☆”
Shokuhou Misaki was Queen of the school’s largest clique.
However, she was not out on the cold, dark streets.
“My, my. If it isn’t, Shokuhou-sama. If you had let me know you wished to do business with us, I would have sent someone to you.”
A slender man in a suit that looked stuck in the past greeted her with a bright smile.
They were inside a shop filled with gentle indirect lighting and soft music. The space was smaller than a convenience store, but it was filled with items valuable enough to buy up dozens of convenience stores, land included.
Glass cases lined the walls and waist-height tables and counters formed more showcases in the center.
This was a pawnshop.
But instead of providing desperate people with money to live off of in exchange for their household belongings, it was more like a pachinko prize exchange where mistresses and hostesses could sell the rings and fur coats they were given or a corporate president’s secretary could get cash for the car keys and golf sets their boss had given them under mysterious circumstances.
With a soft sound, Shokuhou Misaki placed a small leather bag on the glass counter. The girls in her clique who knew her well (and sort of worshiped her) would have known this was not her usual bag. Bags like this were supposedly designed with style in mind rather than functionality, but anyone who actually used them instead of keeping them around for decoration would know immediately that this bag’s style was not all that great. It was only given the illusion of style by the world-famous brand name attached to it.
Of course, Shokuhou was not here to sell or to buy.
The white-gloved man did not even need to pull out the loupe he used for his job.
“Very good, Shokuhou-sama. You have presented your key, so please follow me to the back room.”
“Your followers are welcome as well. You are a regular client, so anyone you vouch for is free to accompany you.”
Shokuhou Misaki possessed one of the “keys” which allowed a limited few to use special services and enter restricted areas in Academy City. She already knew about this pawnshop’s back room. It connected to the back room of the beauty salon next door and it provided a truly exclusive selection that no one could ever gain access to by spending money at the front counter.
Just as the man in a suit turned around, Shokuhou casually reached into the leather bag.
He may have noticed in the reflections off all the glass cases, but before he could turn back around, she aimed a TV remote toward his back and toyed with the button.
She was Academy City’s #5 Level 5.
Metal Out was the strongest of the purely psychological powers.
“Well, I do frequent this shop, so I will give you some leeway ability before I mess with your head☆ But I will make sure you tell me everything even if you refuse to obey. So wouldn’t it be nicer for you if you just came clean on your own?”
There was no smile in the Queen’s eyes and her voice was icy.
In fact, there was a dreadfully bewitching look to her eyes that could only be found in the extraordinarily beautiful.
“Have we made some sort of mistake? I believe we have helped you acquire several different keys.”
“That’s the thing.”
Her voice was flat.
No, her emotion had passed the upper limits that ordinary people could detect, similar to how ultrasonic waves surpassed the audible range of the human ear.
“That privileged class is a service allowing people to enjoy a pleasant ‘high’, isn’t it? Special privileges are best when you do not actually use them. Then it is the ultimate game of make believe. But if people actually open that lid and discover how toxic it all is on the inside, don’t you think you will lose all that trust ability you have built up? To be blunt, I am sick of it. Riding around the city on a motorcycle and firing a shotgun? All I want to do is lug this bag around and enjoy life at the top, so I certainly do not want people seeing me as part of some silly gang of criminals.”
The slender man did not turn around.
And that may not have been due to the TV remote or her Level 5 powers.
How could he possibly gather the courage to directly face the look in the Queen’s eyes?
“We work day in and day out to bring our clients to a higher level. That bag would have gone to someone else, but we held onto it especially for you!! I cannot sit here and have you criticizing us for that. You were Cinderella asking for a dress! So…so how can you treat us like a wicked witch!?”
With those piercing words, her voice grew even deeper.
Something different from killer intent erupted from her.
That had to be something only the Queen of Tokiwadai could produce. After all, she did not view things on a level of kill or be killed. She was familiar with plenty of fates worse than death.
She had the strongest psychological power.
Just a bit more strength entered the finger on the TV remote’s button.
The time for mercy had ended.
“You dare speak to me that way after directly targeting one of my girls?”
Sakibasu Yuri, whose black twintails had curled ends, felt a tremor down her spine.
She placed her hands on her cheeks and shut her eyes.
“(It’s ten o’clock. Ten o’clock at night… Kwahh!! The curfew. The curfew. I’m completely breaking the curfew. Ohh, I can’t believe I’m walking around the city at this hour!! Should I really be doing this? No, of course not. And I’m not alone! I’m out at night with a friend! Ahh, mother, I’m sorry! What will become of me now!?)”
The violin girl gasped and came back to her senses.
Misaka Mikoto, the girl who had called out to her, was holding her phone sideways and snapping photos of the large electric motorcycle from a variety of angles. But this was not about getting content for social media.
“Uiharu-san, is there anything else you need?”
“GK> Okay, you have the license plate, the lights, the electric motor, the battery, the tires, the frame, the seat, and the model numbers for them all. That should be enough for now.”
Car accident investigations tended to come down to running searches. You gathered as much miniscule information as you could from the road (e.g. tire tracks, flecks of paint, and shards of a broken light) and then checked to see what shops sold those and which companies manufactured them. You wanted to figure out who had a car containing all of Parts A, B, C, and D. Then you checked to see which of those people could have been at the scene of the accident or crime. By narrowing down the suspects like that, you would eventually have just the one person remaining.
“Of course, you can’t find the culprit that way if it was a stolen car.”
“GK> The location and method of the theft can act as an indirect hint, so it can’t hurt to gather this information. The more data I have to analyze, the better.”
“If only we could have directly searched for their esper power.”
“GK> Telekinesis is as common a power as fire and electricity based ones. There are differences in level of strength and control, but we would have a hard time searching the Bank with the information we have. Plus, there are occasionally people who hold back during the System Scan so their power is reported as weaker than it actually is. It would help if we had some other way of narrowing it down. And we need as many ways of doing that we can get.”
Sakibasu Yuri tilted her head at that.
And she hesitantly spoke up.
“Um, these are only photos. If the motorcycle is that big a hint, why not bring it back to a Judgment station?”
“That would be difficult.” Mikoto smiled bitterly. “Anti-Skill and Judgment have different jurisdictions and authority levels. Like in all things, an adult organization like Anti-Skill generally has more authority. Someone must have heard the gunshots and the motorcycle crash, so we’re going to hear some sirens approaching before long. If we removed such obvious evidence from the scene before they had time for an official investigation, who knows what they would accuse us of. Not to mention that we can’t tell them we’re here to sneak into the insurance company. Just having them ask why we’re here wouldn’t end well.”
The black twintails girl shrank down a bit. She rubbed her black kneesocked legs together as a sign of unease.
It was possible what had happened afterschool was just an act to take control of the situation, but Sakibasu must not have gotten over that oppressive view of the adults.
“Kuroko, did you get into the insurance company’s server?”
“True T-Tails> I got the files out the way Uiharu told me, but I imagine they’re at least encrypted. The rest is up to that geek’s skill.”
They apparently did not have access to everything right away. But at least this was better than finding out it was a quantum signal and they had destroyed the files by trying to mess with them.
“Then I guess we can’t bring this back either. Ugh, and just when I thought I could show off my power…”
Sakibasu Yuri was referring to the scrap of black leather held between her index and middle fingers. It was from the remnants of the riding suits Mikoto had blown away.
But Mikoto’s eyes widened when she saw it.
“Sakibasu-san… You touched that with your bare hands?”
“Um, let’s see…what do we do now? We have to worry about fingerprints, skin flakes, the oils in sweat, and…what else???”
Wiping it off with a handkerchief and setting it down was not enough.
That would not fool a forensic investigation and it would count as altering evidence even if it did. Leaving it here would only further confuse matters.
“We can’t just make it go away, so I guess we’ll have to leave it with Judgment for the time being. Uiharu-san, did you hear that?”
“GK> You want me to fight the grownups? Bring it on. …But can I order some energy drinks and caffeine gum to keep my energy level up? Using a 24-hour drone delivery service, of course.”
“If you are going to buy those, I recommend skipping the convenience store and using a discount store that sells imported goods with who-knows-what language on the packaging. The foreign version of the same product is often a lot stronger.”
They heard a needlessly loud siren approaching.
Staying here would be a bad idea.
“Did you see that message, Kuroko? Once you have what we need, escape the building. Sakibasu-san and I are getting out of here, so we can meet up later.”
“True T-Tails> Why do I feel like more and more of the cute twintails underclassman pie is being taken from me? But anyway, understood.”
Mikoto slipped her phone into her pocket and had Sakibasu store the leather evidence in a clear bag.
“B-but how are we supposed to escape? Anti-Skill specializes in arresting criminals, don’t they!?”
“We aren’t criminals, so don’t worry about it too much. By the way, Sakibasu-san, are you afraid of heights?”
“What? No, not really.”
“What about fast vehicles?”
“I have a 1-year pass to the District 6 amusement park. I make sure to check out all the new roller coasters.”
“Then you’ll be fine.”
With that casual response, Mikoto swept Sakibasu’s legs out from under her and supported her by her back and the back of her knees.
This position was commonly known as “princess carrying” someone.
“Excuse me a moment. We’re going to be airborne, so hold onto your violin case.”
Sakibasu’s mind went blank, but that only made this easier.
Misaka Mikoto magnetically clung to a skyscraper’s wall, jumped over the arriving vehicle with flashing lights on top, and continued jumping from building to building.
A rhythmic beat shook the air.
Karaoke boxes could be found anywhere in Academy City. It was currently past 10:30 at night, so it was too late for middle schoolers to be renting out a room there. However, Mikoto and Sakibasu did not seem concerned about that.
“I used this unlimited black card for the violin auction, but I never expected it to come in handy at a place like this.”
“That’s one of Academy City’s ‘keys’, huh?”
Mikoto still sounded skeptical as she leaned back in the sofa and sipped at some cider.
The Stativarius Ainsel would have lost its effectiveness as a “key”, but it turned out the girl had another one. When Sakibasu had pulled out her wallet and phone trying to figure out how to buy a drink at a vending machine, the people around her had seen the card and made a complete 180 in attitude.
A black card was not something you could buy at an auction, so the Chandelier Auction House must not have been the only victim having their products turned into “keys”.
At any rate, they could not use the usual family restaurant so soon after the shooting, so they had been looking for somewhere else to have a meeting. That was when a young karaoke box employee had noticed the black card. This was a loophole open only to those with the right “key”. Academy City apparently had several different secret maps laid out on top of it like different pieces of colored cellophane.
Shirai Kuroko had arrived a while later.
As someone meant to protect the city’s peace, she had not been happy about hanging out in a karaoke box at night, but she must have known that the situation called for it.
Uiharu Kazari joined them via her own social media site.
“GK> Oh, no. Sorry. It looks like I can’t meet up with you. I can’t think of any ninja skills I could use to sneak out of the dorm at this hour, so I’ll join you remotely.”
“Ehh? Uiharu, all you have to do is go up to the third floor and climb down the drain spout just below the hallway window. The second floor window is covered up, so you have to use the third floor. That lets you climb down the back of the building.”
“GK> Wait, what are you doing there, Saten-san!? When did you sneak out!?”
“Heh. Child, do not underestimate Big Sis Saten Ruiko. I am like a butterfly of the night chasing down the urban legends lurking in the shadows of Academy City. If you aren’t brave enough to head out at night for some fun, then grab your pillow and get some sleep.”
At any rate, their evidence sat on the room’s glass table.
A clear plastic bag contained a scrap of black leather.
It had originally belonged to one of the telekinetically-controlled riding suits.
Sakibasu Yuri slowly exhaled while gently holding out her soft-looking right palm. She apparently did not need to remove the leather from the bag. She held her palm just short of touching the plastic and then shut her eyes.
That power let her precisely measure the carbon isotopes inside an object.
That appraisal power let her instantly determine the authenticity of a world-famous instrument like a Stativarius.
“It is made of water buffalo.”
Her lovely lips parted and she spoke like a shrine maiden receiving a divine oracle.
“It was processed within 90 days and the leather was tanned using formaldehyde.”
“Yes, the same substance used to preserve specimens. Also, the oil used for maintenance was different than normal. …Goat fat was used. There is no sign of human skin, hair, or oils…well, except for mine. What does that mean? Was a brand-new factory-produced product remade into a telekinetic weapon?”
“Hm? Wait just a moment.” Saten frowned. “You said goat fat was used to maintain it, right? If it was brand new from the factory, why bother doing maintenance?”
“Yes, that’s right… It appears to have originally been all water buffalo products, but that was washed off with water and redone with goat fat. It would seem someone did intentionally alter it.”
The treatment of leather products was quite unique.
In fact, people often likened it to the leather being alive, needing to breathe, and needing nutrients.
If it was simply left in storage, it would grow damaged, cracked, and moldy all on its own. You could not sell it if that happened, so stores had to maintain their inventory themselves. There were countless ways of doing that, so even the same product from the same manufacturer could have a different shine or shade depending on how it was stored.
There were all sorts of creams used to maintain leather. They were made from the fats or oils of cows, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, rapeseed, and sunflowers. Some even used synthetic petroleum oils.
The riding suit itself was made from water buffalo leather using formaldehyde and it was maintained using a goat cream. If they could find a store that fit both conditions, they might be able to find who had bought and controlled the riding suits.
At the very least, it was unusual for the leather to contain no fingerprints, dust, or other traces despite being removed from the bag for maintenance.
The following morning, Uiharu Kazari sent a message to all of their phones.
“GK> I have identified the riding suit’s manufacturer. Not many factories in Academy City use formaldehyde when tanning leather and only one place uses goat cream for treating their products.”
Misaka Mikoto snapped shut her phone and sighed.
It was currently the break after second period, so the day was far from over.
She glanced out the hallway window and muttered to herself.
“I really want to just leave.”
“Oh, dear. We seem to have a dangerous delinquent in our school.”
“I don’t have time to deal with a delinquent right now, so let’s leave it at that. Ugh, keeping up with social media is such a pain. Maybe I should have kept my friend list a lot shorter.”
A blob of fat walked by while using her phone. She would have been running into people if she were not holding onto the uniform of her clique’s CQC ringlet curl girl so that girl could lead her around. She tried picking a fight with Mikoto, but that was normal.
After patiently waiting until school had let out for the day, Misaka Mikoto left the School Garden with Shirai Kuroko and Sakibasu Yuri. Uiharu Kazari and Saten Ruiko were already waiting near the gate.
“Hey, Misaka-san. It’s so hard waiting until classes are over, isn’t it? We lost so much time!”
Uiharu chided Saten like a rule-abiding student, but Mikoto honestly agreed with Saten. They were short on time. Not that she could say anything about it with Shirai around.
Sakibasu Yuri remained the top suspect for planning the shooting.
If nothing was done, the bored people online might decide she was a criminal based on no real evidence and spread her personal information around. And if the trail went cold, it was even possible Anti-Skill would leak her information to get things moving again.
That was part of the reason they had no time, but…
“(Hmm, based on the trends online, any tendency in that direction is being stifled by some powerful force. It’s like someone with an incredible amount of social media influence is working behind the scenes.)”
Uiharu’s assessment aside, their first order of business was using the riding suit’s purchase route to find the Telekinesis user.
“What is Anti-Skill doing?”
“They seem to have finished their investigation of the scene, but there was no one there for them to find, right? With only a fallen motorcycle and two shredded riding suits, they need to start their investigation by determining whether this was an accident or a crime. That said, they aren’t dumb enough to miss the connection between that and the attack on the family restaurant. It looks like their plan is to investigate the remains of the shotgun and the shotgun shells to see if they can figure out what this is all about.”
“Yeah, those are the most illegal looking parts of it all,” casually responded Shirai.
Come to think of it, she had worked with Uiharu to pull data from the insurance company’s server. They should have a list of clients with insurance policies on a Stativarius like Sakibasu’s – and thus a list of people who would hold a grudge over Sakibasu losing the violin competition. Were they making progress on decrypting that file?
Since that was what came to Mikoto’s mind, she must not have expected the gun to be much of a lead.
A shotgun was a special weapon with limited routes to acquire one, so it might seem easier to determine where it came from than with a knife or metal bat that could be found anywhere in the city.
However, this city’s darkness was deep.
Guns were almost entirely banned in this country, yet Mikoto knew of people who would pull one out like it was perfectly normal. If whoever was behind this had sunk to that level, then Anti-Skill would never reach those stagnant depths while searching the shallows. Checking the gun shops that followed all the rules would turn up nothing.
With normal products like the riding suits and electric motorcycle, they might have bought them normally. But when a risk was involved in simply acquiring them, they would have been cautious. It seemed unlikely they would have carelessly left a trail behind there.
Mikoto decided to let Anti-Skill try their method.
As long as they would not get in the way, she was willing to ignore them.
She decided to focus on pursuing the origin of the riding suits they had found.
Uiharu had done the preliminary research, so she led them to a surprising location.
Mikoto had expected an auto parts store or a sporting goods store, but…
“Wh-what is this place?”
There was a bear.
The giant bear was standing on its hind legs with its arms raised in a threatening pose. The real carnivore was far taller than Mikoto’s group, but it was frozen in that pose. Its colors were a little faded after being left out in the open.
The store’s sign said it was a model shop.
But when they peered in through the glass window, they saw deer, pheasants, and other animals frozen in time.
The entire area looked rundown. Academy City had a highly concentrated population due to its limited land, but this area was inefficiently crammed full of multi-tenant buildings three or four stories tall and a lot of the small shops on the street had their entrances covered by rusty metal shutters. There was barely anyone around. The only people in evidence were some workers loading industrial bags of expired flour and cornstarch into a truck parked on the side of the road.
Had this happened naturally, or was it the result of some kind of social construction experiment?
Uiharu Kazari had located the store in question, but even she sounded somewhat surprised by it.
“Taxidermy, formaldehyde, and transparent specimens… This appears to be a specialist in creating models made from what were once living animals. The riding suits were apparently patched together from extra materials.”
Shirai sounded hesitant, so Uiharu made sure to clarify.
“I said few factories use formaldehyde, remember? For example, when getting a deer stuffed, people who want to mount the head on the wall will just get the head done instead of the entire animal. The taxidermist will give the customer what they want, but that sometimes leaves them with part of the animal to throw out. So they will remove the skin from those parts and make bags, belts, or even riding suits from it.”
When making her analysis, Sakibasu had said formaldehyde was used to tan the leather. Was that simply because the store had that chemical on hand?
Doing that so as not to waste any part of the animal may have been a way of showing respect. …But did you really feel the need to show that kind of respect when it was a product being sold as an ornament instead of a trophy you had killed yourself?
Saten and Uiharu thought of taxidermy as a pastime for the rich, but Mikoto, Shirai, and Sakibasu seemed just as hesitant. It was possible real live high-class girls were not actually surrounded by suits of armor and giant paintings at all times.
But when they tried entering the front door…
A low voice escaped Saten’s mouth. She may have been more surprised than impressed.
There were so many of them.
The store was not all that large, so it felt crowded. The shelves were decorated with frogs or snakes inside glass cylinders and animals were frozen in time while carelessly lined up where the sunlight would not reach them. Shallow, frame-like boxes contained butterflies and beetles pinned in place and there was even a hornet nest larger than a basketball.
A small counter seemed almost buried by the shelves along the wall.
The old man there was covered in wrinkles like an animal that had not been preserved properly. He wore a plain track suit and a large mask over his mouth. He seemed more worried about staining his clothes than about looking nice for customers. Mikoto was worried he might actually walk back and forth between the counter and his workplace without washing his hands.
He spoke to them in a barely understandable voice mumbled from behind the white mask. They could not see his lips, so it was even harder to make out what he was saying.
“What is it, young ladies? This isn’t the time of year for a summer project and I doubt you’re here for insect specimens.”
Some cheaters apparently came here for their bug-catching project instead of setting foot in the forest. Was that better or worse than the people who used Q&A sites or auction sites to do their homework?
Sakibasu began waving her hands side to side.
“Um, that is not why we are here.”
“Then what is it? Looking for a model skeleton made from real human bones?”
Shirai Kuroko and Uiharu Kazari of Judgment both did a spit take at that.
But they were not the first to lean forward in interest. They were beaten to it by Saten Ruiko, that black hole for any suspicious rumors.
“D-do you have one of those legendary items made from a real human!?”
“Those things aren’t as exciting as the old stories make them sound. In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for executed prisoners to have the flesh chemically stripped from their bones to be used as a teaching tool. It’s little different from putting real human hair onto a doll’s head. It’s nothing too strange.”
At this rate, they were going to get badly sidetracked.
Mikoto grabbed excited Saten’s shoulder and pulled her back.
“We’re here to ask about some riding suits made here.”
“Hm? You don’t look old enough to be bikers.”
“Onee-sama, let me handle this. Excuse me, but I am from Judgment. Could we speak for a moment?”
The old man behind the counter responded to Shirai by mumbling something through the mask.
He was hard to make out, so Shirai leaned forward without even thinking.
A moment later, a pump-action shotgun popped up from below the counter.
The close-range blast reverberated in the gut more than the ears.
In a way, the solid and invisible wall of sound was even more of a weapon than the metal balls rushing toward them at blinding speed. Uiharu and Saten screamed and fell back onto the floor.
In this case, that was the correct response.
Sakibasu Yuri was in more danger since she mostly just stood there. Her black kneesocked legs turned inward and she only cowered down a little.
Separate from that, some bluish-white sparks flew through the air.
The scattershot should have flown straight toward them from less than a meter away, but it veered off course and instead shattered the cylindrical bottles of formaldehyde specimens behind them.
The mere mention of that name was enough to cause this.
The old man in a track suit and mask rose from his small chair and pulled the trigger again.
More and more gunshots rang out, but none of them hit. Now, did he realize what was happening? Mikoto was not actually using magnetism or the Lorentz force to manipulate the bullets tearing through the air. She was instead using an invisible hand to grab and move the sight on top of the pump-action shotgun itself.
It was the same as a flashlight’s beam.
Since the scatter shot spread out as it traveled, it was actually safer to be at point-blank range than further away. Shards from liquid-filled bottles and pieces of who-knows-what from broken stuffed animals scattered all around Mikoto.
“He’s getting away.”
She grimaced even after producing such a superhuman result. That small old man had not cared whether or not he hit them. He had only needed to break as many of his own products as possible to buy enough time to slip out the back of the store.
This battle had begun unexpectedly.
Mikoto belatedly regretted coming here in their uniforms. They could not have predicted this, but they might have exposed their identities. They were already being targeted from all over the city, but this was unfortunate all the same.
“Kuroko, teleport behind the store! Uiharu-san, you look after Saten-san and Sakibasu-san. I don’t think they were actually hit, but it’s easy to overlook the pain when you’re full of adrenaline. Check with your eyes and hands to see if they were struck or cut anywhere!!”
The only response was a groan from the floor.
Mikoto assumed someone was suffering from a headache due to the blood rushing to their head in a state of extreme tension and excitement, but she was wrong. A moment later, a unique chemical odor reached her nose as well. Her loafers were standing in some sort of puddle.
She could tell that was enough to remove the shine from those leather products.
Mikoto quickly covered her nose with a handkerchief.
“Kuroko, change of plans!! Get those girls out of here immediately!!”
Formaldehyde was sealed inside bottles for a reason: it was highly volatile. And it was also highly toxic. It prevented decomposition because it killed all the microbes. If someone was exposed to it, it would take out their breathing and eyes first. They could not leave Uiharu and Saten collapsed on the floor here.
A metallic sound came from the back of the store.
Mikoto was afraid of another shotgun blast, but nothing happened.
The old man had apparently escaped out the back door.
“Kuroko, Sakibasu-san, take care of those two. I can’t let him get away!!”
“Onee-sama! It’s too dangerous to go without any support!!”
He had already disappeared from view, so if she was delayed any longer, he might really get away. She jumped over the narrow counter, burst out the opened metal door, and found herself in the back alley.
She was immediately greeted by a gunshot from the side, but she blocked it with a metal bucket packed full of kitchen garbage that she swung around with magnetism. A solid shield was not the only defense.
She heard some light footsteps.
She did not run directly after the man.
She leaped straight up, used magnetism to press the soles of her shoes against the building’s wall, and ran up to the multi-tenant building’s roof. The best strategy for a game of tag was to look down from above the maze.
(He’s gone? Where did Old Mr. Shotgun get off to!?)
No matter how swift-footed he might be, Mikoto doubted he could have escaped her elevated field of vision while running through the complex array of roads on an old man’s legs. Had he escaped into a building with a roof or hidden below one of the cars parked on the roadside? Had he made that choice by chance, or had he predicted this? Mikoto started to grow a little confused.
At the moment, she needed information.
She noticed something while leaning over to view the area below.
She immediately jumped from the roof, once more used magnetism to stand perpendicular to the wall, and ran down the wall to reach the ground.
She made her way to an area with a few plastic beer cases stacked up in what could not be the proper way.
Something like dirty brown bandages were balled up and stuffed inside there. She found they were a plain track suit, a large mask, running shoes, and so on. Formaldehyde had splashed across everything in that small store, so Mikoto made sure not to touch the discolored brown sash with her bare hands. And while she viewed it from a distance…
She seriously hoped it was not human skin. Although it was still creepy if it belonged to an animal.
This had likely been done with a chemical and not an esper power. After a bit, it started to smoke and then it suddenly burst into flames. Mikoto quickly pulled a thick cloth from nearby and flapped it over the top to put out the small fire.
(In the two previous attacks, they controlled riding suits with Telekinesis to make it look like a living human. And this time, the target disappeared while moving too quickly for an old man. Could it be…?)
“Was that old man the telekinetic assassin himself? No, an adult wouldn’t be using an esper power… Then are they not an old man at all? Was an esper wearing that skin to enhance their own movements like with a powered suit!?”
Yes, she had found the track suit, the creepy skin, and such, but she had not found the most shocking item: the shotgun.
If it was not here, did that mean the attacker still had it?
Mikoto quickly pulled her phone from her skirt pocket, started up their shared social media app, and spoke into it.
Why had that old man suddenly disappeared? He should still have been in view, so had she lost sight of him because he removed that skin to change his appearance?
And had he really continued to run away afterwards?
Because he feared the word “Judgment”?
Sakibasu Yuri was his assassination target and she was right here while he was armed with a shotgun. For that matter, was this situation even an accident for him?
Could he have been waiting here for Sakibasu to eventually track down the model shop and pay it a visit?
In other words, could he be traveling in a circle through the labyrinthine back alleys to return to the store?
“Kuroko! Look after Sakibasu-san and the others!! The telekinetic assassin might be headed-…”
She heard the bursting of gunpowder directly from the vibrations of the air instead of through her phone.
The distinct odor of formaldehyde seemed to hit them in the head more than the nose, so Uiharu and Saten choked and suppressed some nausea similar to light motion sickness while they scrambled out of the store. Shirai Kuroko was one thing, but it was ironic that an amateur like Sakibasu Yuri had to carry a Judgment member like Uiharu.
“Shirai-san, can you carry us all to safety if he comes back?”
“That would be difficult. My Teleportation has a limit of around 130kg and that includes my own weight. So carrying four people at once would probably push it over the limit.”
“Then can you use your power offensively to defeat him in a preemptive strike?”
“I will do my best.”
That meant there was no guarantee.
When Shirai teleported objects, they could be embedded in things while ignoring how hard or tough the original material was. And she did indeed have a belt around each thigh to carry dart-like metal spikes. If she wanted to, she could break open a bank vault door protected by tungsten steel rods.
But on the other hand, her power was difficult to use in defense. She generally fought by combining projectile attacks with quick evasions. She did not even consider stopping any attacks head on. A single hit would end it. With a shotgun being fired repeatedly, she would have a hard time fighting safely while also covering for Uiharu, Saten, and Sakibasu.
The girl with the curly black twintails spoke up while holding her violin case.
“Then I suppose I cannot let myself be carried around this time.”
“You there! Those are being disposed of, aren’t they? I will buy them all. And it is dangerous here, so leave immediately!!”
The young men in work jumpsuits blinked in confusion, but when Sakibasu held her phone up to their mobile device to complete the electronic payment, she began inspecting the large bags loaded onto the back of the parked truck. She must have felt the violin case was in the way because…
“Excuse me, but could you hold onto this for a moment?”
“Hwuh? Um, the Stativarius!?”
Uiharu had been sitting limply on the road, but she immediately tensed up. Meanwhile, Sakibasu began pulling out the truck’s contents.
“Let’s see. Flour is the most common version seen in movies and dramas, but cornstarch actually works better. …There!!”
This was not a case of opening the bag too hard and having its contents scatter everywhere like often happened with chips.
She split open the bag on the road and intentionally scattered its contents around.
The white powder spread out in the air like a miniature cumulonimbus cloud. The Tokiwadai uniform was made of the finest quality materials while remaining tasteful, yet she did seem to care when this fine powder got all over her uniform.
Shirai Kuroko looked puzzled.
“S-Sakibasu-san? What are you doing!?”
Instead of answering the Judgment girl, Sakibasu calmly pointed her palm straight ahead and spoke that term.
That power let her precisely measure the carbon isotopes inside an object.
She could use that to accurately read the movements of the corn starch powder distributed thinly through the air. That meant she could read the movement of the air. Sakibasu Yuri was one of the girls who studied at Tokiwadai Middle School, so her power was bound to be above the norm.
While essentially performing a three-dimensional scan of the space around her, the curly black twintails girl looked around and stopped her gaze on a single point.
“Found you!! I know you are hiding there!!”
With a click of the tongue, a small figure ran out of an alleyway entrance with a pump-action shotgun in hand. Was that…the old man from before? The semi-long blonde hair belonged to a small girl in a bright blue leotard whose youthful skin was nothing like the old man from before. She(?) wore delicate pointe shoes that did not look like they were meant for outdoor use. She looked even younger than first year middle schoolers like Shirai and Sakibasu, but the way she carried herself was oddly similar to that old man. It was like seeing a 3D model running on his motion capture data.
But the most important fact now was the shotgun she held.
“Sakibasu-san, get away from- !!”
Shirai started to shout at Sakibasu, but…
“I can use the motion of the powder to read the air currents created by the gun’s movement. That isn’t going to hit me!!”
The supposed protection target was exactly right.
In fact, Sakibasu shoved Shirai out of the way. A deafening blast rang out a moment later, but the horizontal swarm of metal balls did not produce a single drop of blood. The curly black twintails girl easily avoided the very real gun.
A light bursting sound followed.
But this was not the firing of a gun. It was more like the sound of a paper bag popping. Sakibasu had pulled a finely embroidered handkerchief from somewhere.
Instead of letting it flutter, she beat the air with it.
By pushing on the air, she subtly altered the density of the cornstarch and made sure it enveloped the shotgun-wielding assassin. The static electricity built up in the synthetic leotard may have acted as the final ignition.
“Watch and be amazed. I am not some helpless little girl.”
A scarlet explosion erupted out.
It was a dust explosion.
That was the moment when Carbon Search, a passive sensory power, was used as an offensive physical power.
Finally, a panicked voice came from beyond the explosive flames. That may have been a sign that the leotard girl had finally taken a step off the rails she had set up.
Sakibasu Yuri’s short skirt fluttered dangerously while she winked and waved her handkerchief as if taunting her opponent.
“I like to go the eco-friendly and non-wasteful route, but do you see what I can accomplish doing that? This truck is full of expired cornstarch. Or should I go with flour next? Or maybe you would prefer some potato starch or pancake mix. The size and weight of the powder affects the quality of the explosion, so feel free to make your request. Now, how many more times can I intentionally trigger a dust explosion? And is an ordinary shotgun really a greater threat than that? Work your clever little head to figure out the answers!!”
It did not matter whether the leotard girl moved forward and tried to ready her shotgun or fell back and tried to escape.
Sakibasu would not let up until the girl set down her weapon and put her hands up.
A few more explosions thoroughly assaulted the tiny attacker.
It was a lot like fire magic in a classic RPG. The theory behind it was simple, so there was no fear of catching herself or her friends in the blasts and it provided a powerful and highly stable attack. Even an esper with actual Pyrokinesis might have been jealous of the incredible precision of these explosions.
Then Sakibasu Yuri brought the handkerchief to her mouth.
“That was a hit…but it felt like she got away.”
“Geh. What is that!?”
Shirai Kuroko groaned because a large swarm of small winged insects burst out of a back alley. They were the type to swarm around streetlights at night. The flashy explosions had apparently awoken those sleeping nocturnal beasts.
Meanwhile, they heard a sound like scrap metal being thrown.
They found the shotgun abandoned by the alley entrance with a bent barrel, but that was all. The leotard girl must have fled into the alley because there was no sign of her.
“She escaped outside the cornstarch? Shirai-san, please pursue her! But don’t forget that she might have another gun hidden somewhere!!”
“Seriously!? I have to run right into that swarm of bugs!?”
“You can take a shortcut using your teleportation!!”
Shirai Kuroko was in serious trouble if she was being bossed around by this girl. She was at risk of falling behind on the path of the twintails.
But just then, they heard a dull sound.
It was the sound of Mikoto “landing” on a multi-tenant building wall and joining the others from overhead.
“Are you okay!?”
When she called to them from the wall, Uiharu and Saten weakly waved up at her from where they sat on the ground. They seemed to be showing off that they were not injured.
After seeing that, Mikoto breathed a sigh of relief. Sakibasu’s previous intensity seemed to evaporate as she waved her hands side to side and opened her mouth.
“Misaka-san, I don’t know what happened, but it seems that old man was actually a girl in a leotard.”
“Anyway, that’s what happened! If you see a small girl with a flat chest and semi-long blonde hair who is wearing a light blue leotard and pointe shoes, that’s, um, the same person who attacked us!!”
Watching her try to explain with strange hand gestures only made it more confusing, but Mikoto had seen the stripped-off track suit and something like a strange skin. Some kind of chemical had caused it to burst into flames, so it was definitely something the enemy had not wanted anyone to find.
(Come to think of it, there was no innerwear there. Did they strip off what they were wearing along with the skin? As much as they could without hindering their movements, anyway.)
“Kuroko, let’s trade positions. I’ll stay on the surface while you teleport between rooftops. We need to track down that attacker!!”
“Onee-sama, I am with Judgment!!”
“Your power really only lets you evade quickly, so can you really respond to a surprise attack from a bullet? Oh, is that their shotgun there? But they might have some other gun and Telekinesis doesn’t require any kind of motion to activate. Not to mention we’re talking about narrow alleyways. I can approach them more easily since I can use a thick metal panel as a shield. So hurry!!”
Mikoto did not wait for an answer.
After jumping down from the wall, she ran into the alley. Bugs and rats were flying or running around in a panic after the explosions, but that did not slow her down any. Now Shirai had no choice but to follow Mikoto’s plan. She gave a quick nod of thanks toward Sakibasu for earlier and then teleported on up to the multi-purpose building’s roof.
Mikoto thought to herself while continuing down the alley.
(I won’t let them get away this time. They were apparently boosting their athletic ability by using their power on the skin wrapped around them for their old man disguise, but they don’t have that anymore. They can’t have gotten far with just their legs to carry them, so I can catch up and settle this!!)
She caught sight of a bright color fluttering around a corner down the alleyway.
It was semi-long blonde hair.
And was that the long, skintight sleeve of a light blue leotard?
“Kuroko, after her. Don’t lose track of her!!”
“True T-Tails> I can see her from above. Turning that corner was a bluff. She ran inside the back entrance of a nearby shop!!”
Mikoto turned the corner, forcibly unlocked the metal door’s electronic lock using her powers, and more or less kicked it open.
With a loud bang, she saw a pair of fearful eyes inside.
However, it did not seem like the female staff member in the dimly-lit back room had just now screamed and fallen onto her butt. It looked more like she had already been cowering down and simply looked over when Mikoto ran in.
“Excuse me, but a girl ran in here a moment ago. Do you know which way she went?”
“She had a gun. It was a weird shape, but it was definitely real. I’ve seen them on video sites before.”
“Just tell me which way!”
Mikoto ran in the direction indicated by a trembling finger and flung open another door.
The light inside dazzled her.
Her eyes must have grown too accustomed to the dim back room.
She found an area filled with soft lighting and jazz music. It appeared to be a women’s boutique. It was meant for women in their early twenties and the scattering of customers looked college aged.
“She’s not here?”
According to Sakibasu and the others, the real attacker hidden below that strange skin was a small girl who might be as young as elementary school age. Plus, a light blue leotard and pointe shoes was not the best outfit for walking out on the streets. She would definitely stick out like a sore thumb in this space full of grownups. Nevertheless, there was no sign of her here. Mikoto could not find her.
Was there another exit somewhere?
She had been small enough to dress up as that old man, so Mikoto remained cautious and peeked between the rows of clothing on hangars as she slowly looked around the boutique. Then she noticed something strange.
(What’s with the windows?)
Hadn’t this area been a shopping district with rusted metal shutters covering everything? The sign for a fancy boutique like this would have stood out. And when she looked closer, she could indeed see metal shutters covering the glass windows and door.
From outside, there would be nothing to tell you the boutique was open.
The shutter-filled shopping district was a bluff.
Did that mean all of the customers and staff used the back entrance?
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
A young woman had approached without making a noise.
She was like someone who would be featured in a magazine or on TV. She was on another level entirely from the self-styled charismatic staff members who did not even know the proper words to use.
“I deeply apologize, but may I see your key?”
Mikoto ignored the question and took another quick look around the boutique. The only people there were a scattering of college-aged “elite customers” and two or three staff members who were a little older. But she was focused on their eyes. They were of course mostly glancing toward Mikoto since she was an outsider, but they also occasionally looked elsewhere.
Mikoto did not overlook that.
The woman who seemed to be the manager raised her voice as Mikoto ran toward the fitting rooms lined up by one wall. Just one of them had the curtain unnaturally closed. Needless to say, that was the other location the people here were focused on. She did not bother saying anything before grabbing the curtain and throwing it open.
There was nothing inside.
It was so empty that the emptiness felt abnormal.
Simply tracing her fingers along the edge of the large mirror on the wall was not enough to reveal the existence of a hidden door. For one thing, it might be on the floor instead of the wall. Regardless, the leotard attacker had vanished after entering this fitting room. She likely gone underground and left the boutique.
Keys, keys, and more keys.
It felt like wandering through an RPG castle with color-coded doors. Academy City’s secret VIPs apparently enjoyed these games of make believe. This was on a larger scale, but it was a similar form of catharsis to small children gathering scrap materials to build a secret fort where the adults were not in charge.
Mikoto spoke into her phone.
“Uiharu-san, search the Bank for a map of the urban development plans for this area! They won’t be using the facilities and underground pathways on that map. They’ll have constructed their own ant colony that weaves through the gaps! What safe routes would there be for digging an underground route leading away from this boutique? Check the plumbing, gas lines, power lines, fiber optic lines, subway tunnels, and utility tunnels. Academy City is packed full of things underground, so there can’t have been much space for them to dig!”
Things were not going as smoothly for the villains as Mikoto assumed.
Evenly-spaced fluorescent lights shined on cold concrete. Semi-long blonde hair swayed side to side as a small girl walked down a long, long straight corridor that looked like part of a secret lab or evacuation tunnel. She was about elementary school aged and she wore a light blue leotard and pointe shoes. That outfit had been part of the disguise needed to lie in wait, but it was not exactly suited for combat. She was currently focused on the modern convenience of a smartphone.
The person on the other end sounded exasperated.
“Riot… How did you screw up your job this badly? Not only did your initial target survive, but you failed to protect the insurance company’s server. If I hadn’t used a shell company for the Stativarius’s insurance policy, they would have found my identity there.”
“But that isn’t so bad. The insurance company only gave us somewhere to ambush them and they can’t reach me that way. That is not the real problem here. Care to explain why you are escaping using a Generic Rank 4 underground passage?”
“…It was an emergency.”
“To think you of all people would break our compliance rules. Where is your key? You were not even authorized to enter that Ring Rank 3 boutique. Did you win the lottery and buy the key at auction?”
“If I was captured back there, Judgment or Anti-Skill would have forced me to tell them everything! Then this entire system would be revealed. It would all fall apart. I mean, you ordered to have them secretly eliminated because you don’t want this getting out!!”
“I believe I told you I will only accept good news, Riot.”
“I am still working on the job, so give me time to recover! I can still pull this off!!”
Her fierce words were the polar opposite of her slender form.
A short silence followed.
Would the other person stick with her, or would they throw her out and try elsewhere?
This unpleasant silence made it seem like they were seriously unsure which to choose. For the girl walking down the underground passageway, it felt like being trapped inside a stopped elevator while someone approached the thick wire with a giant pair of cutters. Their decision could send her tumbling down to her doom.
“Where are you trying to go?”
“The railroad technology museum,” said the girl.
“That museum is Railroad Model Rank 5. Are you kidding me?”
“Then give me some other option. If there isn’t one, then I’m forcing my way in there! No matter who’s after me!!”
“Go to Club Psychedelic Beach. It is Wallet Rank 4. You can use the troops and weapons there, so make sure you eliminate all pursuit. Then get back to work, Riot. Piss me off any more and I really will hire someone else. And their job will be to kill you, not your targets. So hurry up!”
“This place here,” said Saten over the social media app.
“Sa10> A while back, everyone was talking about how the subway tunnel makes a weird turn here. The rumor was they built it that way to avoid an underground power spot because there were so many accidents during construction.”
“GK> A power spot? But there is a reference to it in the Judgment records. That was where a so-called Mr. Inertia used the sharp curve to lean up against high school girls on the packed train.”
Most of the information was just plain awful, but Mikoto was thankful to at least know the right location.
She Railgunned a big hole in the road and hopped down through there.
“Onee-sama, we need to have a family meeting once this is all over.”
“Are you checking to see if I’m calm enough to take issue with the ‘family’ part?”
It was a narrow passageway made from plain concrete. It was like the secret exit from a lab. They had cut in somewhere in the middle, so it extended far ahead of them and behind them. Mikoto and Shirai nodded before setting off in opposite directions.
By this point, Mikoto felt incredibly dumb for having started all this in their uniforms, but they did not have time to go change right now.
“Can you not predict where they’re headed?”
“GK> That would be difficult. I can predict the path of the underground passageway using the areas that slip through the gaps of the other underground structures, but I can’t tell you what surface buildings it connects to.”
Mikoto turned around in surprise when someone called her name from behind.
For some reason, Sakibasu Yuri was catching up to her with violin case in hand. Unlike a certain unathletic Queen, this black kneesocks girl was surprisingly active.
“Sakibasu-san? How did you find your way here?”
“Your footprints. Since you stepped on all that cornstarch I scattered around earlier, I can use my Carbon Search to track the invisible footprints you left behind. …Although I was trying to follow the ones the leotard girl left.”
“Oh, the cornstarch was of course expired and about to be disposed of. I like to go the eco-friendly and non-wasteful route.”
With powers, it was all in how you used them.
Mikoto could see why Shokuhou Misaki found this girl interesting enough to accept her into her clique.
Sakibasu may not have been aware of her own value, though.
“Oh I know. Misaka-san, you and Shirai-san wear the same school-designated loafers as I do, so the soles should all have the same general design. I should have ignored those and tracked just the pointe shoe prints.”
“Um, Sakibasu-san? Can you still do that? I’m pretty sure she went this way.”
“Yes, of course.”
From there, the curly black twintails girl took the lead.
It did not take long once she found the footprints in that straight passageway. The passageway made a few 90-degree turns along the way and there were some three-way and four-way intersections, but Sakibasu never hesitated when choosing the route. She continued onward and eventually arrived at a metal door.
“Uiharu-san, check the map at my phone’s GPS location. What’s above me?”
GK> Um, a club? I think???”
Uiharu’s response was full of question marks, but that may not have been a problem with the map data. She may have just been unfamiliar with clubs in general.
A lot of time had passed since they met up after school, so it would be late evening or early night up on the surface. But if this was another place where no one used the front entrance, they could cover up all the windows 24/7 like a movie theater or planetarium and play loud dance music whenever they wanted.
“The door has an electronic lock, so I can open it at any time.”
“GK> Even if you use your power, any method you’ve used once will be registered.”
“GK> An AI server called Zero-Day Link will tag the method based on risk level and send it straight to the virus storage center. So keep in mind you can’t use the same method twice.”
“What will you do, Shirai-san?” asked Sakibasu.
“True T-Tails> I will meet up with you two of course! I will be right there, so wait just a moment!!”
“No. Uiharu-san, the club has a public-facing side too, right? I don’t care if it’s incomplete. Pull up the layout and send it to Kuroko’s phone. Kuroko, you head to the surface and watch the front exit. You’ve seen what that leotard girl looks like, right?”
“True T-Tails> Onee-sama!”
“I can’t leave this job to Uiharu-san or Saten-san. This is meaningless if the attacker can just escape the club, so we have to catch her here. We’re going to end this ridiculous incident and bring safety back to our lives. Got that?”
“True T-Tails> …My position is being threatened by an invasive species…”
“True T-Tails> Fine, fine. I get it!”
Mikoto then glanced over at Sakibasu.
“If the attacker specifically chose this as a destination, she must hope to accomplish something here. That means the odds are good she has a plan to fight back. I don’t know if it will be with a gun or with her powers or if she will be on her own or with a group. You wait here. I’ll crush the threat on my own.”
“I get that.” Sakibasu showed her impatience and nerves by rubbing her black kneesocked thighs together. “But this underground passageway is also a secret area someone doesn’t want found, isn’t it? It seems to branch off all over the place, so if it connects to other locations, I might run into someone arriving from a different building. The risk inside the club doesn’t seem any greater than in the tunnel.”
“Plus, you haven’t seen what she looks like, have you? The leotard stands out, but that’s why she will probably change out of it to escape. It would be safer for both of us if I went with you.”
“…Okay. Watch my back.”
The metal door had an electronic lock, so Mikoto’s powers could easily open it.
But opening it was bound to cause something to happen.
It was Mikoto’s group against the attacker. One side would win and the other would lose.
That was like the door to hell.
But if they did not cross that threshold, they would be forced to continue living in fear of attack from assassins sent by an unseen villain. Not even Mikoto could look after Shirai, Uiharu, Saten, and Sakibasu 24-hours a day.
She had to accept this challenge to reclaim peace in their lives.
Mikoto held her palm toward the electronic lock panel and made an announcement.
“Let’s do this, Sakibasu-san!!”
As soon as they stepped through the metal door, a muffled bass beat reverberated more in their gut than their ears. They were not even in a dimly-lit backroom. All they saw were stairs leading up to the surface. Some dance music was playing in the distance and only the bass notes made it this far and rudely rubbed at Misaka Mikoto and Sakibasu Yuri’s lower stomachs.
The violin-loving girl with curly-tipped black twintails frowned and started rubbing a finger against her temple.
“Th-this is more than I can bear. I do not understand how anyone can give their body over to music like this.”
“Yeah, it is like scratching hard at the scab.”
Mikoto agreed for politeness’s sake, but her tastes in music were not that biased. Still, she did find reason to criticize what she heard. A playlist like this required a theme or drama. For example, when putting together a playlist of love songs, they would start with a first love, move on to some trouble, continue with a ballad of heartbreak, and finish it off with a song yearning for a second chance. That gave the entire playlist an overall story arc. Mikoto sensed none of that continuity from the bass notes she could hear. This was just some Western music lover playing down the hit chart without even understanding the lyrics. You did not even need a human DJ for this. Just ask your phone to “play some upbeat songs, hits only” and you could get the same thing.
This was not somewhere they should be visiting in their Tokiwadai uniforms, but they had to pass through here or the attacker would escape.
After climbing the stairs and reaching the ground floor, they found large double doors in front of them.
Either for the appearance or for soundproofing purposes, the door was twice as tall as Mikoto. And standing in front of it were two men in black carrying a black device that combined a metal detector and a stun baton. This place was not made to be entered through the main entrance either. It may have been connected to an emergency exit or backroom.
One of the men, who were 2m tall, made a blunt demand.
“What do we do? My Stativarius Ainsel doesn’t work anymore. Should I try that unlimited black card that worked weirdly well at the karaoke box?”
“Don’t bother. We don’t know if the same keys work everywhere and everyone here’s an enemy anyway. These men are armed and working here, so they must be the rich villain’s soldiers.”
Mikoto breathed an exasperated sigh and snapped her fingers.
“Good evening. I’ve got your key right here, morons.”
With a popping sound louder than firecrackers, the combination metal detector and stun batons burst from within. The two large men screamed and writhed on the ground. One of them tried to pull a different weapon from his hip, but Mikoto ruptured his radio’s battery to silence him.
The other one weakly raised his hands while curled up on the floor. But he had clearly not given up hope since he kept glancing up at a corner of the ceiling.
Mikoto responded by putting a hand on her hip.
“I wouldn’t place my hopes on the security camera if I were you. How do you think I got through the electric lock into here?”
“Looks like you understand now. Sweet dreams.”
Bluish-white sparks burst from the bangs of her short chestnut hair to physically silence the man in black who still intended to resist.
Sakibasu was concerned enough by the men’s low angle view to hold her short skirt down with a hand and she looked alternately between the men and the door.
“I-I’m surprised no one heard that. The explosions were pretty loud.”
“Well, the area inside has got to be a vortex of sound. Still, this won’t last forever. These men are probably meant to make periodic reports. If we don’t get in there soon, we’ll lose the element of surprise. Come with me, Sakibasu-san.”
The door was more than twice their height, but when they grabbed the knob and turned it, it was surprisingly light. It had motors built in just like an electrically assisted bicycle. …Although that introduced the fundamental question of why they did not just use an automatic door.
And as soon as the door opened just a crack…
“Yeahhhh!! You wannabe gourmet sommeliers might not know the difference between ethyl and methyl, but don’t let this 40 proof stuff get you all tipsy! You don’t need any cheap drinks around here! I’ll use the invisible hand of music to reach into your head and puree your brains!! Woo!!”
It was like a flood.
The chaotic deluge of sound felt like it would scorch their chests in an instant.
In what seemed like a failed attempt at using indirect lighting, the nearly pitch black space had blinding red and green beams of laser art flying around. And for some unfathomable reason, special lights attached to the pillars were flashing intermittently but not to take photographs. The objects glowing in the dark must have been coated in a substance that reacted to black lights.
The place stank of a mixture of sweat, perfume, alcohol, and other more unmentionable things.
Were the dresses supposed to look like that or had those people been mugged? The women here wore what might have been underwear or a swimsuit with only a skirt or shorts over it.
The dance floor was larger than a tennis court and it was packed full of people. The side wall appeared to have been made into a bar, but the elevated space in the back was the DJ booth. And the curved stairs on either side of that booth led to the VIP rooms on the second floor. Some small rooms were enclosed in thick glass. The door to the backroom could not be seen from here, but it would either be behind the DJ booth or on the second floor with the VIP rooms.
Sakibasu Yuri looked a little nauseated just from seeing the dance floor packed as full of people as a train during rush hour. Her legs contained in black kneesocks and loafers moved hesitantly back and forth like she was preparing to step into a sticky bog.
“Urp… Wh-what is this post-apocalyptic nightmare?”
“Where do the corn starch footprints lead?”
“Ugh, this way…”
“Good. We won’t be here for long.”
Mikoto fired a lightning spear at the tall ceiling as a warning shot. When the deep popping sound burst across the dance floor, the half-naked women who had been swaying like heads of wheat instead screamed and curled up like pill bugs. With Sakibasu following her, Mikoto shoved the people aside to cut across the polished glass-like floor.
Of course, the club was not going to just let this happen.
Bouncers in black moved from the corners of the dance floor and the second floor, but Mikoto detonated the batteries of the radios or phones in their pockets instead of worrying about their fancy (ha) guns or knives. That was a quick way to incapacitate anyone who did not realize their convenient modern marvels could also be used as bombs. The ones with good instincts or just good luck quickly threw their communication devices away, but that gave them one extra thing to do. The enemy essentially had to sit one turn out, so Mikoto only had to zap each one in turn using lightning spears.
“Sakibasu-san, where’s the corn starch!?”
“It has been trampled on a fair bit, but the footprints climb the left stairway to the second floor!”
By the way, the awful dance music continued playing even as all this went down. But the DJ’s fingers had frozen over, so there was no link from one song to the next. The same song kept playing over and over.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait!!” shouted the DJ. “I surrender, I surrender! What did I ever do to you!?”
“That machine you’re using to control all those awful disks! Is it the club’s, or did you bring it with you!?”
“Please no! I took out a bigger loan for this than for a car! Please don’t destroy it!! Heavy Round stopped producing this analog audio equipment ages ago, so the only way to get one is to snatch up one of the ones rotating between secondhand stores like conveyer belt sushi. There’s only so many to go around, so losing it would be a loss for the whole world!!”
Mikoto elegantly flipped him off like a proper lady as she climbed the stairs to the VIP rooms. A man in black stepped out from behind a pillar wielding a black leather blackjack full of countless metal balls, but she zapped him with a high-voltage current and shoved him down the hard glass stairs.
(Is this all? That model shop was more dangerous than this.)
Sakibasu Yuri frantically moved to the side of the stairs while following Mikoto up. She held her short skirt down while holding her violin case. Pressing her black kneesocked legs together so nervously made her seem all the more feminine. Misaka Mikoto decided maybe she should not have run up the stairs so boldly even if she was wearing shorts below her skirt.
“Don’t get hit when they fall down. Here we go, Sakibasu-san.”
The second floor VIP rooms appeared to come in different grades. Some of the thick glass booths were no larger than the waiting rooms on a train station platform and others were larger than a school classroom. When Mikoto aimed her palm toward the glass, she saw grown adults and hostesses cowering down while in each other’s arms. …You needed a key just to get inside the club, yet it was divided up even further inside. What was this nesting doll of an organization thinking? The people using them may have been delighted to pay the high prices needed to obtain their own private space, but Mikoto could only see it like a zoo with strange animals stuffed inside their cages.
“Th-those pancakes look awfully thin for such a fancy place.” Curly-tipped twintailed Sakibasu clung to Mikoto’s back as she nervously looked around. “Everyone on the dance floor and in these VIP rooms was an adult. I don’t see that attacker in a leotard.”
“Where do the corn starch footprints lead?”
“The pointe shoes continue further back.”
“Oh, there’s a door on the wall.”
The door had a heavy-duty biometric scanner, but an electric lock was an electric lock.
What Mikoto did might look the same, but she messed with the internal circuitry differently each time. She did not even let it report there had been an error. Zero-Day Link and the virus storage center were no concern of hers.
She held her palm toward the panel and forced open the door.
“Time to head backstage.”
The attacker was a girl with semi-long blonde hair and a light blue leotard. She looked elementary school aged and she clicked her tongue and slammed her small fist against the wall when she nearly tripped over a small bump in the floor. The dim lighting here pissed her off.
(I know I lured them in some, but this was too quick. How did they find their way straight here through that crowd? …Wait, are they using something to track me!?)
She belatedly realized what was happening and removed her pointe shoes. She then rummaged through the cardboard boxes placed directly on the floor of the narrow hallway.
She needed a tool for her esper power.
She had a very powerful form of Telekinesis, but for some reason, her power did not work on living cells. That meant she could not affect a flower growing in the ground or even one cut from its roots and kept in a vase. Her power only started working after it was made into a pressed flower.
That meant she could not directly crush a target’s heart from 10km away and she could not throw them 10km into the air so the fall would kill them. She had to attack using some kind of inorganic tool, such as a knife or a hammer.
Using the leather riding suits to mimic living creatures may have been her way of protesting that insurmountable hurdle. …That said, the Personal Reality forming the foundation of her power could not be analyzed with simple psychology.
The leotard girl did not think of her power as “useful”.
She had a different set of values than those emptyheaded Level 5s who liked to show off their flashy powers.
A rare method of attack made it easier to determine the culprit. She was already growing more reliant on her power after the shotgun was destroyed, but the more she used that impressive power, the more she was cornering herself.
Her small hands dug through the cardboard boxes stacked up on the floor and she pulled out an ordinary screwdriver set that could be found in any discount store.
(This would be a lot simpler if I could alter the trajectory of my own bullets, but I won’t have time to focus that hard.)
She did have a self-defense handgun shaped like a stationery stapler that was small enough to hide in her skintight leotard’s sleeve, but she could not use it directly. She could have the gun itself hover in midair to target the enemy from a blind spot, but that was no different from a dangerous toy made by strapping a gun to a drone. She was not about to entrust her life to something that could be acquired for less than 30,000 yen in some countries.
She could not afford to be captured here.
But not because she was afraid of being arrested and thrown into juvenile hall. Nor was she afraid of being thrown out and purged by the organization that managed the keys.
This was all the small girl had.
This was the only place where she could use every form of violence she possessed without simply relying on her power. She could never reach Level 5 no matter how hard she worked, but she had this one utopia that provided the conditions and possibility needed to overwhelm the Level 5s.
“I will crush you.”
She uttered a low, resentful growl that sounded out of place coming from her small form. The entire dimly lit back area seemed to creak ominously.
“I will crush anyone who would take my utopia from me.”
Something happened just as Mikoto’s foot kicked open the door to the back area.
Misaka Mikoto and Sakibasu Yuri’s pleated skirts suddenly fell down to their ankles.
They paused for a bit.
This was an esper power.
It was a truly ridiculous application of Telekinesis.
But the damage must have been greater for Sakibasu who was not wearing shorts like Mikoto.
Her black kneesocks were no defense at all.
One detail in particular will be omitted to preserve the maiden’s honor, but let’s just say the black twintails girl blushed bright red and screamed while frantically waving her hands holding the violin case to hide the area below her navel.
“Sakibasu-san, do you not believe in wearing underwear or something? Otherwise, I really recommend wearing it from now on.”
Now was not the time to be considerate.
Mikoto gave that somewhat exasperated comment, but on the inside, her tension had only increased. She did not relax because she highly doubted this was a simple prank. Comedic events were more effective than serious ones at preventing people from thinking straight. And with pants or a skirt around the ankles, it was just as difficult to move as with rope tied around the legs.
Also, you could not help but have your eyes pulled downward.
That was like shutting your eyes in front of the enemy.
This had to have been the Telekinesis of the leotard-wearing attacker who had been willing to use a shotgun. Mikoto could guess what would happen next.
“Get down, Sakibasu-san!!”
Mikoto did not bother pulling her skirt back up. The zipper was bound to be broken after it was pulled down while fastened. She freed her legs with the sound of tearing cloth and tripped the black twintail girl who remained flustered. Sakibasu Yuri had no way to resist with her ankles bound and the violin case in both hands, so she fell straight to the floor.
The girl groaned while kissing the floor.
“Ubfh!? …Carbon Search. Be careful, Misaka-san. This floor is a hotbed of tiny mites and fleas.”
A moment later, the cardboard boxes stacked up on the dark back area floor were shredded from within. The tools used to anchor speakers, amps, and lights shot out like bullets. Sharp screwdrivers, thick wrenches, and more attacked them from all directions.
(Telekinesis. She’s not holding back anymore!!)
A dull and heavy thud rang out. Even if they were being controlled by some other esper, Mikoto’s power was stronger when it came to manipulating metal. She forcibly held the screwdrivers and wire cutters in place as they tried to soar toward her, but…
“Crap, I have to control the stainless steel ones differently!”
A small stepladder and a wrench heavier than a hammer continued forward despite the magnetic net, so Mikoto had to swing around a screwdriver she had already taken control of to knock them down physically. More and more orange sparks flew through the dark back area. The exact conditions were unclear, but it seemed that leotard girl could use more than just metal items as a weapon. Nor was she limited to leather products. This backstage area was overflowing with practical tools, so it was perfect for her.
And the attacker was still freely walking around on her own two legs.
She would get away if Mikoto continued playing this one by ear.
Worse, the leotard girl had already proven she could control their clothes. If Mikoto let her guard down, she could be strangled by her own collar or have her shoes slip to create an opening. Mikoto and Sakibasu were both human. It was all over if a crowbar, icepick, or other pointed metal object struck them between the eyes.
And that was why Mikoto took a calculated view of the situation.
(She only sends weapons flying in from three places at once. It all looks random at first, but she’s set up a safe zone where no stray shots can possibly reach her.)
“Sakibasu-san, use your Carbon Search to the south-southwest! Scatter whatever kind of powder you can find!!”
The bare-butt girl was still lying face down (because she was too embarrassed to show her face), but she used just her one arm to throw something. Was it a powdered anti-itch medicine or cough suppressant? Either way, it was made of sugar or carbohydrates…which meant it was organic.
But that did not actually matter.
Mikoto heard a gasp from the darkness.
She fired multiple lighting spears down the straight hallway with enough force to tear through the stacks of boxes being used as cover. They briefly lit up the area like camera flashes. She doubted this would end the battle, so they were only meant to stop the leotard girl’s attacks. She wanted to get close while the girl was held in place.
(You won’t get away. I need to capture you to bring back our safety.)
The edge of the shredded boxes had ignited as Mikoto rushed around that large obstacle.
“Now, I’ve got-…”
But on the other side, she found that the gasping presence and any sign of movement had vanished.
For an instant.
Truly just an instant, Mikoto lost sight of reality. Her mind could not process the sight before her eyes. The girl had vanished, but where to? Had she teleported? Wasn’t her power a telekinetic one that allowed her to move objects without touching them??? Had she used that power to lift herself up the ceiling or throw herself backwards? Mikoto glanced every which way, but that was not what had happened.
The girl in a blue leotard could convert any object into a weapon.
She did so by grabbing and throwing it with her Telekinesis.
It was likely accurate enough to control more than one riding suit from a distance of several kilometers, make them look like actual people, and even indirectly control an electric motorcycle and a shotgun through them.
Mikoto’s ears picked up an odd sound like the air being twisted.
What if she could grab the air itself? If she could change the density of the gasses to bend light and sound like a mirage, she could create illusions wherever she wanted. And Mikoto’s electromagnetism was no exception there.
The girl excelled at using Telekinesis to make people think inanimate objects were people.
And compressed air alone made for an effective weapon.
She had come out on top in this game of mutual deception.
The maximum instantaneous wind speeds of a Category 5 could shatter a car’s bulletproof glass. That was the identity of the invisible attack that was aimed at Mikoto’s skull.
The girl in a light blue leotard felt an unpleasant sweat on her brow as she leaned against the wall from the side. Throwing around all those projectiles had already been well outside the normal usage of her power. It was difficult to picture how you “grabbed” a gas, so forcibly bringing the air under her control was a major task for her. It took time to gather it all up and she was overcome with exhaustion even when it worked. That exhaustion came from psychological stress.
Her bare legs were trembling.
If she could do that anytime she wanted, she could have prevented those dust explosions earlier.
(I did it…)
She straightened her spine as if stretching out the moisture captured between her damp leotard and the wall.
She walked through a door in the dimly lit back hallway and entered a kitchen space full of silver stainless steel. The ordinary fluorescent lights were just about enough to blind her. This was where the drinks and set meals for the bar were prepared.
The door in the back was the second floor’s emergency exit.
But instead of simply opening the door and descending the emergency stairs on the outside of the building, she wanted to use the small food trolley elevator to reach the first floor bar and head out that way. She expected that would do a better job of escaping the enemy’s expectations and tracking ability. A fully grown adult could not ride that down, but her small and slender body came in handy here.
The only cooking done here was heating up a packaged dish in hot water or microwaving something from the freezer and adding some finishing touches in a frying pan with some extra spices, so the only workers were a few part-timers. It may have been praiseworthy that they did not leave it all up to a single person. They seemed a little surprised by the leotard girl’s appearance, but even when she brandished her stapler-like self-defense handgun, they did not seem to realize it was a gun. The looks on their faces said they wanted her to hurry away so they could avoid any trouble here.
It only had two rounds inside, but a gun was a gun.
At this point, it was more of a protective charm than a useful weapon, so she returned it to her sleeve.
(It doesn’t matter if that defeated them or not. I don’t need to settle this here. What matters is that they can’t follow me. It looked like there was more than one of them, but they should all panic now that I’ve taken out the one. I need to use this chance to slip out the emergency exit. …Once I shake them, I reclaim my ability to kill them whenever I like. I can bide my time and finish this later.)
She had used her Telekinesis in front of the enemy often enough that they must know about it by now. If that witness information made its way to Anti-Skill or Judgment, they might begin a search using the Bank. That would be bad. She needed to end this before that happened. She doubted they could identify her that easily since telekinetic powers were common, but she still could not wait around too long. She claimed she could bide her time, but she would much rather end this immediately. Mikoto was not the only one hoping for safety.
(First, I need to get out of here.)
The blue leotard girl placed her small hand on the silver countertop as she walked through the kitchen. The sweat on her skin irritated her, but…
(I need to make my move immediately after losing them. I can aim for the moment they run out of Club Psychedelic Beach and aren’t sure what to do next. …I need a riding suit, a shotgun, and a small collapsible electric motorcycle. Okay, good. Everything I need is at a nearby coin locker. I’m glad I distributed my supplies all across the city. I can inflate the suit to look human and attack them from a safe distance.)
She reached for the elevator button while making her plans, but her slender fingertip stopped at the last second.
The blonde girl in a light blue leotard grabbed a fruit knife from the countertop and lightly tossed it toward the elevator button.
A high-voltage current burst from it.
The door to the kitchen flew open just as the sparks erupted out. The leotard-wearing attacker did not hesitate. As the frightened part-time workers tried to run away, she kicked one of them in the back of the knee to bring him down, reached an arm around his neck from behind, and forcibly lifted him up as a shield.
That silhouette stepped into the light to reveal not a scratch on her.
What had happened to that projectile made of solidified air!?
“I’m starting to figure it out.”
Bluish-white sparks scattered from her bangs as she gave a cruel smile while wearing her shorts without a skirt to cover them.
“It looks like your Telekinesis has trouble affecting living things. And this place is pretty gross. Maybe you can’t blame them since the guests are never meant to see this back area, but I think your control of the air failed because the floor and boxes in that hallway are a hotbed for fleas and mites. So keeping you from controlling the air was simple enough. I only had to alter the air’s composition similar to remaking oxygen into ozone.”
“There were a lot of small bugs flying around in that back alley when Sakibasu-san fought you off before, weren’t there? You can freely grab objects and the air, but your accuracy drops considerably if you accidentally grab a small living creature instead. Is that the flaw in your power?”
“Go to hell!”
Despite her enraged shout, she continued working to predict what happened next.
She had the stapler-like gun hidden in her skintight sleeve, but Mikoto could easily control and deflect that metal weapon. That girl singlehandedly possessed enough firepower to rival a heavy cruiser or fortress. You could not hope to take the title of Level 5 by force unless you did.
There were knives, frying pans, portable stovetops, portable burners, meat tenderizers, a juicer, and even an industrial microwave and refrigerator.
Just as the leotard girl swept her eyes around to list up everything she could possibly use, she heard an exasperated voice.
“You really want to fight over the products on these shelves? If it comes down to a clash of our powers, do you really think you can come out on top?”
“Then just try it,” roared the leotard girl. “Is your control really that precise? Can you fight with me over the weapons while also slipping your attack past the hostage to hit me and only me!?”
“I don’t even need an iron sand sword or Railgun for this.”
Mikoto ignored that and pointed at her.
No, she pointed at the part-timer worker being used as a human shield.
“Lighting spears are so convenient. Having just one nonlethal option gives you so much more freedom.”
She must have decided holding onto the hostage barehanded would only allow the high-voltage current to reach her through him. She cursed and tossed the hostage aside to regain her freedom of movement.
Meanwhile, Mikoto pointed somewhere other than the girl or the hostage.
Most of the food was premade and bagged or frozen, but there was a decent selection of fruit that only had to be cut up with a knife to be used for desserts or for smoothie ingredients.
Bluish-white sparks exploded out and a large watermelon burst on the cutting board.
The chunks and juice splattered all over the countertop, sink, oven, microwave, large refrigerator, floor, wall, and ceiling.
“You can’t control anything that’s alive.”
The leotard girl frantically looked around after hearing that, but it was too late.
“And since you worked at that shop that specialized in models and taxidermy, I’m sure you understand that living cells can remain active for a surprisingly long time after being removed. There are obvious examples like a lizard’s tail or a planarian, but most any cell can maintain its cycle of division as long as it has moisture, nutrients, and oxygen.”
“Also, the cells of a plant remain active even after being cut away from their branch, stem, or vine. In fact, the fruit surrounding the seeds is meant to provide the seeds with the nutrients and moisture they need to grow in that state. So a fruit with plenty of moisture is just like a flower in a vase. Now, that fruit has been splattered across this room, so what can you still control here? Anything at all?”
A long silence followed.
Did the blue leotard girl’s vision blur because of tension or because her tear ducts had raised the white flag?
She could grab and throw all inorganic objects and the air itself was no exception. A hit would be painful, but it was essentially meaningless without the element of surprise.
Misaka Mikoto was Academy City’s #3 and she was known as the Railgun. In terms of simple firepower, she could force back a cruiser in a direct shootout, so how could this girl ever stand up to her?
She heard the crackling of sparks from directly ahead.
“If you have nothing, then why not end this here?”
“I’m not doing this because I want to…”
This was no longer a battle between esper powers.
The leotard girl could not even control her own tear ducts as she shouted at Mikoto in fits and starts.
“It was all this power’s fault. This power let me pull in anything I wanted, so I wasn’t given any chance to move my body. Without stimulation, the human body is easily distorted. Did you think I wanted to do all this? I had no choice!!”
And she secretly reached a hand behind her back as she did so.
“My joints were too soft. I couldn’t run without damaging my knees and I couldn’t even lift a heavy cardboard box. I had no choice. It was all necessary. They were supposed to introduce me to a good doctor if I did what they said. I was supposed to get back everything I used to have!! That’s all it was supposed to be! And yet…!!”
Someone else peered into the kitchen from behind Mikoto.
She carried a violin case and she had mostly managed to get her skirt to stay up at her hips despite the broken zipper.
“Don’t you do it!!”
“Biological scan of target complete. No abnormality in cellular activity. All tendons and cartilage are healthy. So it was all a lie! She is up to something!!”
“You piece of shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!”
The leotard girl moved her hand back to the front while yelling.
She had pulled a stapler-like tool from her long sleeve. It was operated similar to a fire extinguisher, so she only had to squeeze the shallow V-shaped grip. She took aim with that self-defense handgun.
But it was no use.
She had known that to begin with, which was why she had tried to create an opening by making up a sob story to trigger an emotional response.
The dreadful zap of a high-voltage current erased all other sounds.
By the time Mikoto made it back outside, night had fully fallen.
This road was always brightly lit up, but it was now illuminated even more garishly by plenty of red flashing lights. Several Anti-Skill vehicles were parked outside of the front facing part of Club Psychedelic Beach.
They had finally done it.
They had captured that girl with semi-long blonde hair and a light blue leotard.
They still did not know her name or exact esper power name, but the immediate threat was gone. They had not dealt with the actual villain belonging to the organization managing those keys, but they had a solid lead now. Once that leotard girl was questioned in the interrogation room, they were sure to get more details. Then they could find the name of whoever was at the top.
“It’s true we pushed you in that direction, but I’m impressed you pulled it off.”
That exasperated comment came from the adult Anti-Skill officer watching as the stretcher carrying the limp leotard girl was loaded into an ambulance.
Mikoto was pretty sure his name was Inoue.
Mikoto responded while making sure to deal with all the phones aimed their way by the onlookers standing behind the Anti-Skill tape.
“To be clear, we were only saving our friend. This wasn’t some weird form of thrill seeking. The rest is your job, so make sure you settle this.”
“We much prefer you leaving it with us. C’mon, Maeda, speak up.”
“Maeda, they were right. Since we’ve caught a new suspect red-handed, it’s pretty obvious whether or not Sakibasu Yuri was guilty.”
Maeda could not bring himself to bow in apology and Mikoto started quietly laughing at his behavior. He had not realized the onlookers’ cameras were not working. She would have felt bad forcing him through any more of this exchange.
Inoue gave a small bow in his colleague’s stead and changed the subject.
“So where is, um, Sakibasu-san? Also, your skirt looks kind of odd.”
“I don’t need your concern. Did you think you had some kind of winning hand with a night club, a middle school girl, and a broken zipper? I don’t know what kind of gross things you were imagining, but we weren’t attacked in that way. The only reason Sakibasu-san isn’t coming out yet is, well, let’s just call it her personal fashion sense. …I need to make sure she’s properly dressed when she goes outside from now on.”
Inoue tilted his head in confusion, but this was a difficult thing to explain tactfully.
Mikoto shrugged with her torn skirt held together by pins.
“I have an underclassman in Judgment, so can she handle the investigation of Sakibasu-san?”
“Oh, it isn’t about that. I just wanted to apologize to her in person. Maeda feels the same way. He just won’t say it.”
The ambulance gave a quick honk of its horn.
They looked over to see the EMTs gesturing over from the pop-up back door where the luggage would be loaded in a normal van.
“I’ll accompany the suspect there. Sorry about all this, miss. We’ll give you a proper apology later.”
“You were just doing your job, right? Sakibasu-san understands that too.”
“Maeda, you stay here.”
“No, I’ll go too. Please don’t leave me here. I don’t think I could bear it.”
Inoue laughed quietly, bowed for his partner again, and then climbed into the ambulance carrying the attacker in a leotard. He and Maeda closed the back door and then the ambulance drove off with its siren blaring.
Mikoto did not know how this would end, but this was a clear dividing line.
Mikoto’s phone started ringing.
“Misaka-saaan, this is urgent! It’s a bit of an emergency!!”
“Wait, why do you have my number, Shokuhou?”
“What a dumb girl you are. Do not underestimate my clique ability. For one thing, Sakibasu is not yours. She is one of my girls.”
She then forced the conversation back on track.
“But more importantly, I have been investigating things from a different angle than you☆ But it’s just awful. The grownup world is such a filthy and horrid place.”
“What is your point?”
“The group managing those keys seems to have some members inside Anti-Skill. Some of the privileges and special services that the keys provide require that they have a presence there. And the problem is that the stereotypical example is to cover up the key holder’s crimes. You can imagine how much a black-hearted VIP would want that, can’t you? So to put it simply, they have a vanguard among those meant to protect the peace of this city.”
That alone was not enough to know anything for certain. Anti-Skill was a large organization. But for some reason, a very bad feeling raced through the back of Mikoto’s mind.
What if that ambulance simply disappeared on the way to the hospital? What would happen then?
They had captured that attacker, but they still did not know her name or esper power name!!
“Hold on. You aren’t talking about a man named Maeda, are you!?”
She breathed a sigh of relief when that suspicion was denied.
Then she felt guilty for doubting the man based on her impression of him instead of actual evidence. That made her the same as him when he attacked Sakibasu based on a first impression.
But then Shokuhou gave the answer.
“That is the one name I have managed to uncover. So don’t allow Anti-Skill near anything important here. Sakibasu, any important witnesses, and any evidence should be left in the care of a Judgment branch you trust. Make sure of that no matter what. …Wait, Misaka-san? Um, are you even listening?”
And somewhere else, an encrypted transmission was sent out.
“Take care of this, Reversible.”
It arrived at the small device in a certain Anti-Skill officer’s ear.
An icy female voice spoke from it.
“Make sure you kill Riot for me. To avoid future complications.”
The ambulance drove toward a District 7 hospital.
But this was different from using a phone and bicycle to deliver food. There was a lot they had to do before arriving.
An EMT and the two Anti-Skill officers looked down at the small girl belted to the stretcher. It was the EMT who took the central role here. He attached a transparent oxygen mask to the limp girl’s mouth. Then he placed a sensor shaped like a fluorescent light on the leotard and slowly slid it across her smooth curves from neck to hips.
“The suspect’s age is estimated to be 10 to 12, her sex is female, and I guess I should mention she is showing the early signs of secondary sex characteristics. Her connection to a crime is confirmed. She does not possess any identifying items or documents. Based on the tag and logo, her leotard is a standard product of a sporting goods company, so we can’t use that to determine her school. The only other noteworthy fact is her lack of shoes. Her weight is estimated to be 34kg and her blood type is B Rh+. The simple test kit shows slight allergies to shrimp and cedar pollen, but nothing else. Okay, we can use whatever drugs we need. Moving on to her injuries, she was knocked unconscious and lightly burned by a high-voltage current and, although the medical sensor can’t get a good reading with the leotard covering her entire body, she also has some contusions. …They are located on the front and back of her body, so it does not look like she simply fell during the arrest. The bruises on her right palm and shoulder are likely from restraining the recoil of a firearm…but there are some others I am unsure how to explain. She may have been in a fight before arriving at the club.”
The EMT recorded his voice while finishing his scan of the leotard girl belted to the stretcher and then he used a pair of scissors to cut through the thin material covering her flat chest and left arm. The fact that she was a girl did not matter here. He attached electrodes to her smooth chest and her temple, rubbed alcohol inside her elbow to disinfect the area around the vein, and slowly inserted an IV needle while the ambulance rocked around them.
He groaned slightly when he checked the monitor.
“Ugh, there’s a significant disturbance in her brainwaves and heartrate. I didn’t notice any broken bones or serious internal bleeding, but did I overlook something?”
“No. She was shocked by electricity until she could no longer move and then arrested as the suspect in a major crime, so it would be odd if she was not extremely stressed. This proves she’s still conscious. Excuse me, but my name is Inoue. Have you treated criminal suspects before?”
“Only some people to blame for traffic accidents, but, um, this girl used a real gun, didn’t she? That’s not something you come across every day.”
Did they think they were safe as long as she was strapped to the stretcher?
The girl called Riot still had a chance until they injected her with a tranquilizer that would mess with her thoughts. While checking the faces of each of the adults looking down at her, she directed her focus beyond them. She sent her Telekinesis behind the Anti-Skill officers’ heads. She chose a sharp scalpel from among the medical tools affixed to the wall and had it slowly float up. Instead of actual surgery, it was a first-aid tool meant to remove crushed bullets or jagged shrapnel from the body. This clean ambulance smelled of alcohol, so she did not need to worry about biological impurities like mites or fleas. If she was willing to make a surprise attack, she could quickly kill everyone else here and cut the stretcher’s belts. And after doing that, the driver would have to do what she said.
(This isn’t over yet. They took my blood, but they haven’t looked it up in the Bank yet. If I destroy their local devices, I can still escape this.)
“So we’re finally making some progress. Right, Inoue?”
“Yes. Sorry about shoving all the worst parts onto you.”
“It’s fine. I know my appearance has a way of scaring kids. At school, I’m the ‘scary gym teacher’. It’s a thankless job, but I felt like the world had opened up before me when I realized that actually prevents a lot of trouble before it starts. You could say it’s the role I was born to play.”
The casually chatting adults thought it was already over.
They were oblivious to the sharp blade dancing behind their backs.
“This was a strange case, but we don’t need to pursue every little thing. If we get her to talk, we can learn everything that way.”
“How about we take some time off after this is over, Inoue?”
“Oh, do you have a bunch of leave left? I’ve used mine up.”
“Really? You’re no fun. I was hoping to head to the racetrack and use your intuition to win some money.”
The strapped-down leotard girl saw something out of the corner of her eye.
One of the Anti-Skill officers – Inoue was it? – was surreptitiously moving his hand. He turned the valve on the spare tank not hooked up to Riot’s mask. A colorless gas silently leaked out.
Hyperventilation is the most obvious example, but oxygen could be harmful when its concentration was too high. And it was a necessary substance, so it would not show up in an autopsy or poison test.
The person increasing the concentration only had to be careful about how much they breathed in and restrict it to one half or one third of the usual amount. It was a definite toxin, but no special masks or suits were needed to avoid its effects.
Once the preparations were complete, he only had to wait. The oxygen’s effects would work their way deep into the minds of those who continued breathing normally.
The first to feel faint was the EMT who was performing a precise task.
Maeda tried to support the woozy EMT’s shoulders, but then he realized he could not move the way he wanted to. And once the symptoms were this evident, it was already too late.
“Ino…ue? Are you…okay?”
Inoue leaned back against the ambulance’s wall and shut his eyes. Although he may have been sticking out his tongue in his heart.
Maeda did not have it in him to give this anymore thought.
They had all collapsed to the floor, but modern ambulances used a camera instead of a rearview mirror. And since the treatment space was separated from the driver’s seat by a white curtain to make sure the drive recorders of oncoming traffic could not peek inside, the driver would not have noticed anything was wrong.
Only the leotard girl who was breathing the oxygen supplied by her mask was safe.
And after making sure the other adults in the treatment space had fallen unconscious, Inoue pressed an index finger against his lips, switched off the recorder the EMT had been using, and made contact.
“(I will deal with the driver. An ambulance is a single box, so even with the thick curtain slowing the flow of oxygen, he will not last long. But we can’t have him passing out.)”
“Who are you?”
“(I am Reversible. I believe this is our first time meeting face to face, but I know you quite well, Riot.)”
The leotard girl breathed a sigh of relief when she heard that.
Luck was apparently still on her side. No, this may have shown just how thoroughly her employer had infiltrated this city.
But then she heard a clicking sound.
And a groan.
She looked over to see supposedly-unconscious Maeda had reached a hand toward something hanging at his hip. But instead of his weapon, it was his radio.
He had hit the emergency button to inform the rest of Anti-Skill that something was wrong.
Inoue clicked his tongue and twisted an oxygen tank’s valve. But instead of the spare tank, this was the one hooked up to the leotard girl’s mask.
Her mind immediately faded and her thoughts scattered. Now she could not use her power. Her powerful Telekinesis could grab gasses if she tried, but it was too late once she was having trouble thinking straight. Riot’s eyes widened in confusion.
“I thought you might not use your power if I earned your trust, but now sealing it off by force seems safer. As much of a pain as it is.”
“Sorry. You’re on the same side as me, so I was hoping to give you a quick death free of pain and fear, but that’s no longer an option. Thanks to him.”
Inoue kicked sluggish Maeda in the face.
“And on that note…Maeda, you shouldn’t have done that. I could’ve passed it off as a malfunctioning tank knocking everyone unconscious. Then I could have set everything up so only the girl there got a lethal dose. Well, the tank’s manufacturer might have had a bad time of it what with all the recalls, but only the one criminal would have died. Was that so wrong?”
Maeda seemed to be struggling to even stay conscious.
But that may have been why his unfiltered thoughts made it through.
“I am an Anti-Skill officer… The lives of criminals aren’t mine to take…”
“Oh, is that so?”
Inoue barely seemed to care.
There was not even any malice in his voice. He did not view the other man as an equal.
“But you should have given some thought to what would happen once you ruined my plans. I want to stay in Anti-Skill after this, you know? So I can’t leave behind anything that would risk that. Do you get what that means? More than just the one person has to die. Now everyone here has to die. The entire ambulance full of people needs to lose their lives in a natural fashion. That way the Anti-Skill backup won’t be suspicious when they find me as the sole survivor.”
A confused comment of “What? Eh? What’s going on?” came from beyond the white curtain. The driver had apparently finally sensed the ominous atmosphere from the back.
Inoue held a finger to his lips.
“Watch carefully, Maeda. What is about to happen is your fault. I wonder if he’s married? He might have a wife and kids waiting for him back home. If it’s a two-generation home, his parents might be there too. But now it all falls apart thanks to some complete stranger’s foolish decision. He isn’t to blame. He did nothing wrong. But now a dark shadow is going to fall on the lives of his beloved family. They may never find their smiles again.”
Maeda desperately tried to reach out a hand, but it was no use. Inoue’s ankle passed by just a few centimeters out of reach as the man walked by and pushed the white curtain aside. He reached an arm around from behind the driver’s seat and Maeda did not even have time to shout a warning.
“It’s no use, Maeda. You killed him.”
After a dull crack, the ambulance swerved to the side.
Inoue tossed something heavy onto the passenger seat and then climbed into the driver’s seat himself.
Maeda clenched his teeth and used the vehicle’s swerving motion to place himself on top of the restrained suspect.
“I’ve already…reported this. That unnatural oxygen poisoning won’t explain a broken neck. You’ve left traces of your crimes everywhere, Inoue…”
“It’s all in how you do it. I just have to dispose of the entire ambulance in a way that makes a broken neck look natural. And my target will of course be killed in the process.”
Inoue waved back from the driver’s seat.
No, was that a phone in his hand?
“I thought they stopped allowing this after that incident with a vehicle packed full of hydrazine, but I suppose the caution wears off with time. Products like these are apparently pretty common these days. Not that unmanned control tech is all that impressive in a city full of autonomous cleaning robots.”
“I am talking about driverless vehicles. The Zero-Day Link AI server gathers more than 8000 vulnerabilities, virus varieties, and other online risks on a daily basis and sends them to the virus storage center, so making such a large truck driverless seems incredibly dangerous to me.”
There was a straining sound as the leotard girl tried to move her seemingly paralyzed limbs since the excessive oxygen supply kept her from using her esper power. But the belts firmly strapping them down kept her from leaving the stretcher.
Maeda also seemed unable to do anything. It was too late to do anything after the effects were noticeable, so he could not even stand on his own two legs. His right hand was touching something where it had landed, but he would have trouble grabbing something and throwing it. He only had enough power to crush a rotten tomato in his grip.
Only Inoue could act.
And he actually looked excited by what he was about to do.
“Okay, it’s time for an exciting car stunt. Where’s a good location for a head-on collision?”
“GK> Anti-Skill has sent out an emergency alert along with coordinate data. The device that sent the signal is registered to…Maeda-san? But the signal from the ambulance’s car navigation system has vanished. It apparently has not arrived at the hospital it was headed for!”
Uiharu’s confusion was palpable even in the social media message.
The enemy had even infiltrated Anti-Skill, the city’s peace keepers. Just as they thought they had found a solid lead to this elusive target, the ambulance carrying the leotard girl had vanished. Whether the enemy was sheltering the girl or silencing her, their clue was as good as gone at this rate. Mikoto and the others would be forced to live in fear of assassins being sent their way from some unreachable position.
They had no time.
If they were going to take back that girl, how could they do it?
Mikoto thought for a moment on the nighttime street.
“Uiharu-san, where was the ambulance’s signal last seen? We can start searching from there!”
“GK> Um, quite close by. It’s about a kilometer south from that club. I’ll send you a map!!”
“Misaka-saaaan,” called a weak voice.
Sakibasu Yuri was ducked down and hiding behind Shirai Kuroko’s back while holding her violin case. Her skirt’s broken zipper had apparently been temporarily fixed with some pins. …She apparently did not wear underwear due to some kind of personal belief, so she had to be intensely worried that the skirt would fall down on the side of the road here.
“I have heard most everything and I will not let that girl be spirited away or whatever. Let’s search for that ambulance before the trail goes completely cold!”
“Thanks. Kuroko, you send Sakibasu-san there ahead of me! She might be able to find some kind of hint with her power!!
“Sure, sure. Your old twintail girl will help out too.”
Shirai was sulking a bit as she placed a hand on Sakibasu’s shoulder and caused them both to disappear together. Mikoto then used magnetism to cling to a building wall and jump between buildings to take various shortcuts to her destination.
(Anti-Skill, huh? If the enemy has people there, we can’t rely on any normal organizations or agencies. Are we supposed to suspect even the pizza delivery worker and door-to-door newspaper salespeople!?)
After using the map on her phone to cut across the nighttime city, she found Shirai and Sakibasu standing at a perfectly ordinary intersection.
Saten and Uiharu were also there.
“Hah hah hah. You can never underestimate a rentacycle, Misaka-san!”
“It hardly matters at this point, but we’re completely breaking curfew, aren’t we? Ohhhh, what are we going to do!?”
The whole gang was there.
The Judgment pair of Uiharu and Shirai were crouching down and doing something.
They were focused on a small stain on the asphalt. It almost looked like someone had dropped their ink during calligraphy class.
Except it was not black.
It was a much brighter and more sinister red.
“That’s…blood, isn’t it?”
Uiharu did mostly data analysis work, so she must not have seen it in person all that often. She seemed nervous, but then Sakibasu cut in from the side.
“It is B Rh+, but it appears to be a mixture of different people’s. It is likely the preserved blood used for transfusions.”
“Y-you can tell all that?”
“Ho ho ho. Do not take my Carbon Search lightly. Heh heh heh hah hah!”
Yes, esper powers were all about application. At the very least, hers was worth the laughing she was doing while bending so far back her spine strained. And the backwards leaning pulled the front of her short skirt dangerously high, but she did not seem to notice.
Mikoto cut in from the side.
“That may have been a sign from the ambulance. The back door opens upwards just like with a normal van, so there’s a gap at the bottom even when closed tight. Any liquid spilled on the floor will drip out onto the road. Someone might have secretly crushed a blood pack behind their back to tell us where they are.”
“Hm, in that case!”
“In that case, we can follow the trail of blood without using Carbon Search.”
Shirai Kuroko’s whispered comment caused Sakibasu Yuri to blush and start cutely hitting her. …Except those cute blows had to be painful with that violin case still in her hands.
Uiharu continued the conversation while rudely staring at her mobile device.
“For now, I’ll send the information to the Anti-Skill and Judgment networks. …Let’s see, searching for a missing ambulance. Watch out for Inoue Kasha.”
However, that name had been supplied by Shokuhou Misaki of all people.
It was unclear where she had gotten it from and was testimony she acquired from someone using her mental manipulation power even admissible in court? Plus, the adults would probably want to cover for someone in their organization.
“Uiharu, what’s in the direction the blood trail leads? Like, is there a giant airport or a next generation weapon armory?”
“Saten-san, if you’re hoping this incident escalates, we might need to have a chat in that alley over there. There is nothing that exciting in that direction. There’s only…let’s see, the most notable landmarks are an aquarium, a concert hall, and an online broadcast studio.”
Shirai frowned at that.
“Those don’t sound like the destination of choice for a runaway criminal.”
“I mean, Academy City as a whole is surrounded by giant walls, so it’s not a great place to lose pursuit in a car chase. Ta ha ha.” Uiharu laughed before adding more. “There is also a large tunnel, but they would never go there. With a single long path, they’d be trapped like rats if we sealed off both exits.”
“I want speed, so a long straightaway would probably be better. I’ll need to have the driverless truck go down it the wrong way, though.”
Inoue spoke his plan out loud, but that may have been because he thought no one was left to resist him. Or maybe he was feeling the pressure himself as he drove the ambulance toward a head-on collision with a large truck.
A curse-like voice arrived from the treatment space.
But this complaint did not come from leotard-wearing Riot who had some idea what was happening. Funnily enough, it was the ignorant Anti-Skill officer named Maeda.
“Why did you side with these criminals? Academy City is surrounded by walls and full of security cameras. You must have known this was risky.”
“Did you know net shooters can actually kill people pretty easily?”
He spoke casually.
It was almost like he was asking what Maeda had eaten for dinner the night before.
“Even though they’re supposed to be tools to safely capture a suspect just by pulling the trigger and launching a net. But when I did it, the compressed gas cylinder ruptured and the fragments shot out like a shotgun blast. That kid kicked the bucket so easily. But when they advertise them as nonlethal suppression weapons, why wouldn’t we believe them? A company made that product, so I really think I’m allowed to be mad about it.”
“I warned him like I was supposed to and I responded appropriately when he tried to resist arrest.”
The ambulance must have appeared normal enough from the outside.
They passed by quite a few cars, but there was no sign of anything happening in the outside world.
“That was all it was. It wasn’t my fault, but who’s going to believe me? That’s when it happened. Just when I was trying to figure out what to do, someone showed up to dispose of the body for me. When one door closes, another opens. There really were people who understood my situation.”
Maeda was at a loss for words, so Inoue continued while driving.
His tone remained unchanged.
There was no emotion in his voice.
“I want to stay in Anti-Skill. I honestly do want to crack down on crime and save people in need. I swear it. That’s why I’ve been working so hard, Maeda. I’ve been getting information on criminals you don’t even know about so I can keep Academy City safe. I’ve taken down brutal criminals who never would have shown up on our radar in a hundred years using the normal methods. To be clear, I did everything by the book and acted appropriately back then. So wouldn’t it be wrong to let that one punk take it all away? I can save so many more people this way. So what happens to those people if this path is taken form me? This is no longer my problem alone. If I’m arrested here, who’s going to protect this city?”
He was not doing it for money or because he was fed up with his job.
Inoue Kasha was a proper Anti-Skill officer.
…Except some gear had worked loose at the very core.
Unable to get up and simply lying on top of the suspect girl to protect her, Maeda spoke up with a groan.
“I don’t really expect you to understand. But if you ask me, Maeda, you aren’t saving anyone. Everything you do is no better than the way you’re lying on top of that girl. It might look visually similar to protecting someone and you might be satisfied with that, but you aren’t solving any of the actual problems affecting the victims. You aren’t worthy of respect because you don’t understand what it means to truly protect the peace.”
A roaring sound could be heard from outside the ambulance.
Everything was dyed in the distinctive orange color of the lights.
This was a bypass added later to relieve traffic. A tunnel of about 3km cut right past the area that got congested in the morning and evening.
If Inoue was to be believed, a large driverless truck had entered from the other side.
Even though it was driving the wrong way.
The Zero-Day Link AI server collected and tagged a massive number of vulnerabilities and viruses every day, but it was no use here. In fact, its mechanical way of working was the very problem there.
“I promise you I’ll work even harder once I get out of this. Maeda, I’ll work enough for your share too. I’ll take care of the perpetrators of those horrific crimes and bring peace back to the city. So it’ll be okay. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Our job…is to arrest criminals…and bring them back…to the straight and narrow. So they never need to resort to crime again…”
“Idealistic hogwash. How can you say that after seeing true crime? And I mean the indescribably vivid crimes lurking on the underside of this city.”
“If you can’t say it…then quit your job this instant, Inoue. You aren’t worthy…of the Anti-Skill name.”
Inoue only scoffed.
Maeda did not bother arguing further. He gathered his last strength to hold the girl protectively below him just a little tighter.
And so Inoue would not notice, he used his trembling fingers to undo the stretcher’s belts and slip the oxygen mask from her mouth.
The leotard girl looked shocked.
“(Hold your breath and use the carbon dioxide produced by your own body. You should gradually be able to move your limbs again. …I’ll do what I can to cushion the impact of the crash with my body, but it’s still unlikely you’ll survive. The entire ambulance is going to be crushed after all.)”
“(But if you do survive, do whatever you can to escae from Inoue and survive. Then please turn yourself in at the nearest Anti-Skill station. You need to be punished for your crimes, but you still deserve to live. I’m sorry, but this is all I can do for you.)”
Maeda could not move his own body.
So when the shaking of the ambulance shook his right arm, the leotard girl saw something there.
She saw it on his wrist.
And on his neck just below the collar.
He had several permanent scars visible on the skin between his Anti-Skill equipment. As someone who worked on the underside of the city, she knew those were all places with thick blood vessels. Even if your opponent was wielding a blade, you could not let yourself be slashed there.
He had gained these scars in his intense daily duties.
This was proof that he had arrived on the verge of death countless times while fighting to protect complete strangers.
And that was not all. She was only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
He was not an idealist who knew nothing of reality’s cruelty and he was not actively trying to show off these signs of his hard work.
It was possible.
Someone could face the great darkness out there and still choose to silently protect Academy City. If you used the city’s deep darkness as an excuse, you could justify anything, but it was only the weakness in the leotard girl’s own heart that had let her do that.
But this meant Riot might have been able to do what he had done.
She might have been able to escape the darkness. The back alleys still would have been the only place for her, but she could have faced the darkness in a different way. For example, when she heard a scream, she could have rushed recklessly to the scene and used her Telekinesis as a shield.
That might have been an option.
If she had not eliminated the possibility herself.
(He isn’t all talk.)
But it was too late to realize this now.
This was all meant to end her life.
She had caused this.
This man had what she did not and she had put him in mortal danger.
(There really were adults in Academy City capable of giving things real thought and acting on that thought? Then what have I been doing all this time!?)
When Inoue operated his phone in the driver’s seat, he heard a few deep honks from up ahead in the same rhythm as his tapping finger. Something large was approaching based on his phone’s commands. Zero-Day Link gathered online risks daily and the virus storage center created antivirus programs based on the level of risk, but neither of them noticed this danger. The truck had no bright headlights on because the driverless vehicle primarily used map data and radar scans, so light was not all that necessary. After confirming something, Inoue unlocked the driver’s side door. He opened the door a crack while calling back into the treatment space.
This was different from fanaticism.
Inoue remained cheerful to the very end.
He was not even aware that he saw things so differently from the rest of the world.
“You are naïve and not worthy of respect, but your determination wasn’t bad. The scary gym teacher, was it? I was honestly jealous of that. Really. If I could scare the kids into obeying without having to even raise a hand, that net shooter accident might never have happened. That’s something I lack. At any rate, don’t worry about what happens next. The peace of Academy City is safe in my hands!!”
“Shut up, you freak.”
With a sound of blowing wind, the criminal vanished from the ambulance.
With that, it was over.
They would soon experience a nightmarish head-on collision that crushed the steel ambulance like an empty drink can.
Several bodies would be found in the burning ambulance, but they would have been badly crushed by the crash and then burned in the explosion. No distinctive blades or poisons had been used, so an autopsy would not find much of anything.
Some formal suspicion would fall on Inoue as the sole survivor, but he would eventually be back to his normal routine. Rumors and caution faded with time. The sole survivor would seem suspicious, but there was nothing anyone could do without definitive proof.
Maeda hated his inability to accomplish anything here.
But more than the truth of his death going undiscovered, it pained him that he could not protect this small life in front of him here.
The time came.
The ambulance and the 20-ton truck approached in the long, long tunnel.
And they sped right past each other!!
The pressure was so great he thought his heart would stop, but the Anti-Skill officer realized something while using his life to protect a criminal.
The truck had passed them by.
There was no head-on collision.
By the time he asked the question, the change was already underway.
A continuous grinding sound came from the concrete wall.
Meanwhile, Misaka Mikoto scattered sparks from her bangs while clinging to the ceiling of the exhaust-filled tunnel.
“Drat, simple jamming wasn’t enough to stop it! Kuroko, you take care of the ambulance. I don’t know what’s going on inside, so be careful!!”
“I’m relieved to finally have a job other than taxiing people around.”
With that casual comment, Shirai Kuroko vanished into thin air. She intended to teleport inside the speeding ambulance and work the steering wheel and brakes.
It helped a lot that Uiharu had noticed a report of the stolen truck and linked it to this incident. By combining the direction of the blood trail with witness reports about the truck, they had realized the two intersected at this long tunnel. Dead men tell no tales. If Inoue’s plan was to kill his target and any possible witnesses, his best bet was to crush the entire ambulance and make it look like an accident.
“GK> Since they’ve started teaching programming in elementary schools, anyone can make a virus these days. Humans can’t keep up with all the problems, so we have AIs tag things based on risk. So if something isn’t tagged high priority, it won’t be sent to humans to create an antivirus. And the standards for tagging aren’t all that great…”
Of course, it was unlikely the criminal would stay on the ambulance to the end.
He was a professional criminal, so he would not choose a one-way ticket out of desperation.
(Where did that Inoue guy go?)
She heard the sound of a metal door slamming shut.
“Sa10> Misaka-san, tunnels like this have emergency exits at set intervals. He can escape outside even partway through!”
“GK> Why do you know that, Saten-san?”
“Sa10> It was key to an urban legend about people disappearing after their car broke down in a tunnel. A group was apparently capturing them for some kind of weird ritual.”
At any rate, Mikoto only needed to know where her target was.
She moved from the ceiling to the emergency walkway positioned a step up from the road. Then she used magnetism to tear the emergency exit door off its hinges. She was up against a corrupt Anti-Skill officer, so he was probably armed with a gun. She decided to keep the metal door with her as a shield.
“GK> Inoue Kasha has the code list and infiltration skills of an Anti-Skill officer, so he might take control of any electronics or net-connected cameras in the area. Be careful.”
“GK> Really, if only the Zero-Day Link online risk management AI was more reliable. Reality is crawling with digital criminals who can slip through the huge gaps it leaves.”
This was her first time inside one, but the emergency exit turned out to be like a small tunnel running parallel to the large tunnel. The single long pathway continued on ahead of her, but there were also stairs leading up at set intervals. You never knew where a fire would start or where the tunnel would collapse, so they prepared as many exits as possible and installed plenty of doors leading there in case of an emergency.
(Now there’s no way to know which exit he used.)
“Uiharu-san, can you access some satellite footage? Or grab all the security camera footage from around the emergency exits! I need to know where Inoue escaped to!”
That was when some strange static crackled from her phone’s speaker.
She held it away from her ear on reflex.
After shouting, she felt an unpleasant sensation down her spine.
Just like people reflexively looked up during an earthquake, certain things could trigger certain responses in people. For example, if something odd happened with their phone, their gaze would be drawn to that small screen.
It came from right behind her. A merciless blow struck her in the back of the head.
The metal door fell to the floor despite supposedly being supported by magnetism.
Misaka Mikoto could emit microwaves in all directions to accurately detect and intercept an explosive’s shrapnel as it tore through the air, so it was shocking for an attacker to sneak up on her like this.
Still, she had been careless.
Even a hit from the side of a notebook would daze someone if it was to the back of the head. That was not a spot you could afford to let someone attack you. She was lucky that she had not lost consciousness…no, that she had not been killed.
(Are you kidding me!? What happened!?)
Bluish-white sparks crackled out.
She forcibly jumped forward and planted her feet on the wall of the narrow emergency passageway, but her eyes were still shaky and refusing to focus.
“You can use your power on your own nerves? Is there anything you can’t do?”
An unpleasant sound caught up to her, but she sensed it more through her bones than from her ears.
(I dislocated…my thigh!!)
This was a trick she had learned from the Queen of Tokiwadai Middle School’s right-hand girl who handled most of the physical work since the Queen herself was so hopelessly unathletic, but just being able to control electricity was not enough to pull it off. Mikoto’s power was strong enough that she had to be very careful to avoid frying her own nerves or breaking her own bones.
She had no choice but to bite down on a handkerchief.
She suppressed the pain and used both hands as if shoving in a large hook.
She jammed the dislocated hip joint back into place!!
Clear drops fell from her tear glands regardless of her emotions.
Of course, her opponent would not have just waited while she did this.
She forced her eyes forward again.
She used her tear-blurred vision to focus on the identity of the threat.
“What is shouting my name supposed to accomplish? Silly girl.”
That keeper of the peace spun a dark and skinny object in his hand. It looked like a bored student spinning a pen, but this was no idle task.
He was calculating the distance between them so he knew how many times to let it spin when he threw it.
She saw it.
The throw came from directly ahead.
(No reading…on my microwave…scan!?)
That shock was immediately followed by a scorching pain in her right shoulder.
It had stabbed into her.
She had been stabbed.
It did not feel like metal, so it was probably some kind of aerospace material. It seemed to be the kind of hard plastic used in riot suppression shields and police batons. But whether it was metal or not, it should not have vanished from her microwave radar.
People instinctually feared lightning, but one theory said that was not just due to the bright light and loud noise. After all, lightning was different from a boiling tea kettle. Because so very few people knew what it was like to be struck by lightning, it was best to assume that fear came from something other than knowledge of the pain. The sound arrived after the light. The aforementioned theory said people feared the strange sensation of experiencing a single phenomenon through different senses at different times.
What had happened to Mikoto was similar.
She could not shake the odd feeling of her mind and body being separated. Like when dozing off, she felt like she would come down with sleep paralysis if she let her guard down.
“Oh, too bad. I was aiming between your eyes. And with it sticking in your shoulder, I guess you’ll figure out the trick before long.”
If she had used her eyes and ears instead of relying on her power, she might have been able to dodge it. At times, having too many data sources could be a problem.
She heard something swishing through the air.
This time, it was a black whip about a meter in length. Unlike in manga and video games, real whips were useless if they were too long. Try swinging around a jump rope or garden hose and that becomes readily apparent. A weapon with a similar feel to a belt was not as hard as a sword or a spear, so it could not stop enemy attacks very well. But it could produce great destructive force with just a snap of the wrist and it could lash someone from a variety of angles while moving along irregular trajectories. Its power was clear when you remembered it was used in circuses to tame ferocious beasts like bears or tigers that could shrug off a 9mm bullet.
Of course, this was not standard Anti-Skill equipment.
And Inoue did not hesitate to target Mikoto’s right shoulder where the throwing shaft was still stabbing into her.
(Is he some kind of security goods freak!?)
It was less of a surprise this time when the microwaves emitted from Mikoto’s body detected nothing there. She covered her wound by essentially shoving her left shoulder in the path of the whip.
He prepared another throwing shaft in his other hand. At this close range, it was more like a single-use spear than a throwing weapon.
She could no longer swing her body to either side.
She clenched her teeth and took a powerful step forward.
That might seem reckless at first, but it was a split-second decision. A whip carried the force of the snapping wrist to the optimal location. To put it another way, the attack would fail if the target moved closer than expected. It would hit, but it would not be a clean hit.
The whip hit her left shoulder with a dull snap, but it was knocked back and hit the throwing shaft that was meant to slip through the gaps.
She had narrowly escaped.
And once he was in grabbing range, it was Mikoto’s turn. She could bring down most adults by grabbing onto them and releasing a high-voltage current.
“Not gonna work.”
A rusty flavor and smell exploded at the tip of her nose.
It felt like she had run face-first into a concrete wall. Inoue had easily lifted his knee to stop Mikoto’s attempt to tackle him at the hips. Her vision faded while the broken Anti-Skill officer stepped back to adjust the distance between them.
He was up against the Railgun, yet he chose to fight at a distance.
The fact that this was not pure foolishness may have been enough to prove Inoue Kasha’s skill.
(Damn, I can’t read his movements. He’s right there, but I can’t even grab at his clothes!!)
Mikoto had experience with back-alley fights.
But that was only while using her powers. If she had to fight a pure martial arts match in a square ring with weight and all other factors made equal, she would be unable to rise very far in the ranks.
She was so used to having that microwave radar scan that she could barely function when it was unexpectedly taken from her.
“You don’t need to feel bad about this. Really, the fact that an amateur girl has lasted this long against a professional fighter is impressive.”
“Don’t talk down to me…”
“Also, I’m sorry to say that these unnatural injuries mean your corpse can never be discovered. I’ll process it and then bury it in the mountains or something. You’ll be treated as a missing person. I really would have preferred to have your corpse found to give your friends and family closure, but it is what it is.”
“How many times have you done this!? You monster!!”
There was a heavy thud.
Inoue had released another throwing shaft in the middle of their conversation and it hit her in the center of the chest, but it bounced off.
This was not thanks to her powers.
Instead of dodging to either side or below, Mikoto had stepped back. That was reckless against a projectile flying straight toward her, but she had given this the appropriate thought.
“So you’ve given up on the microwaves, have you? But doing everything with brute force is so ugly, don’t you think?”
The throwing shafts were not thrown in a straight line like a paper airplane or dart. They were spun end over end for a more stable trajectory. They were more like a tomahawk in that respect.
Since it made a full rotation every n meters, changing the distance between them would prevent the sharp end from hitting her and she could survive a hit to a vital point.
Mikoto brought her empty hand to her right shoulder and forcibly dislodged the throwing shaft there.
The pen-sized weapon was entirely black, had a rough texture, and had a burnt smell to it.
Only one possibility came to mind.
“Carbon materials? I’m honestly impressed.”
“I really would have preferred a ferrite coating over these cheap carbon things, but have you seen the price of those US boomerangs? Even with all the wealth in that rich country, they only sold 21 of them. There was no way a civil servant’s pay was enough for that kind of quality material.”
“So you were using EM absorbing materials.”
Those materials were used in a surprising number of fields, including spacesuits and anechoic chambers. By absorbing EM waves instead of reflecting them, there were no reflected waves to detect. They instead vanished silently. With origami-looking stealth fighters and bombers, the angles of the body would also be adjusted to redirect the waves it could not absorb, so the waves would at least not make a U-turn right back to the radar.
…Her mistake had been meeting him a few times beforehand. An Anti-Skill officer could get all the data on their powers from the Bank. Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, and Sakibasu Yuri. He would have come up with a plan for dealing with those high-level Tokiwadai students who were connected to the case.
“Now, my tricks using a housewife’s handy tools aren’t going to surprise you anymore.”
There was a flapping sound.
It came from Inoue.
“So no point in holding back. Since I can’t hide it any longer, I might as well use it openly.”
He was dressed in ordinary black bulletproof clothing, but he also held a thick, dark gray sheet similar to a matador. It was somehow reminiscent of a stealth fighter’s surface and it negated Mikoto’s radar scan, but it also easily covered Inoue’s upper body, which kept her from using his eye and finger movements to predict his next move. Things that struck or stabbed were not the only threats. Even without any direct destructive power, this tool was more frightening than an obvious blade or bullet.
Mikoto sent sparks from her bangs while sharply swinging a hand from right to left.
She magnetically sent the metal door toward Inoue in sync with her hand’s motion, but he easily ducked below it.
But she had not expected that attack to defeat him.
“It’s too late to clench your teeth now,” she warned him.
“This isn’t like those throwing shafts and riot suppression whip. This kind of handheld shield was used with microwave power transmission from a space station. You can’t force your way through it with a high-voltage current or mimicking a microwave oven.”
She launched a lightning spear anyway.
The trail of bluish-white sparks was diverted away with a matador-like swish of the thick gray sheet, but she ignored that. While he was busy doing that, she jumped from wall to wall to slip into his blind spot while forming an iron sand sword as her real attack.
“Oh? You went to the trouble of bringing iron sand into the concrete tunnel for yourself?”
(Can he see the EM waves and flow of magnetic energy? It’s like he can see through everything I do!!)
She fought in the air while using even the walls and ceiling as a foothold and her weapon was an iron sand sword that could freely change shape like a whip.
But it was she who gasped.
A sharp high kick slipped through the gaps left by her curving blade. This was a narrow emergency exit tunnel and she was in midair, so she could not dodge it.
“Telekinesis, pyrokinesis, telepathy, precognition, and electrical control. This city is crawling with espers who have all sorts of powers, but those of us in Anti-Skill need to take control of the crime scene without relying on any of that.”
She just barely managed to connect her magnetism to the rebar in the floor to make a half spin out of the way before falling onto her back. She was Academy City’s #3, but he seemed to be saying the power rankings were a child’s status symbol and meant nothing in the adult world.
“You espers were developed to be managed, so why would you ever be able to defeat the technology of those managing you? The city would collapse otherwise.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the technology. The problem is when people like you use it.”
“Believe it or not, I am a pacifist.”
“You are the ones who keep forcing me to kill more people. All these extra victims could have been saved if you hadn’t gotten some half-baked ideas in your head and decided to get involved in a case you couldn’t hope to solve. If you had just let me silence my one colleague here, it would have been over.”
“Your name has already been sent to the Anti-Skill and Judgment networks.”
“Yes, and that’s why I have to really put my back into this job. I need to eliminate every last witness to prevent any conclusive evidence. They’ll be suspicious and they’ll probably have me monitored for a while, but that won’t last forever. Still, this is tragic. How many innocent people do you think have to die before I can regain my life now?”
He beat the air with the large sheet.
He covered his body with the EM-absorbing sheet and charged straight toward her.
Would the next attack be with his well-trained arm or leg?
Or would it be another security good like tear gas or a tonfa?
(My lightning spear and iron sand sword don’t work. In the worst case, he might even be able to predict and handle a Railgun shot. So what do I do!?)
Mikoto gave a roar as she ducked low and charged toward Inoue herself.
She stopped using her powers entirely.
For the first time, Inoue was shaken by doubt.
Without her powers as the #3 Level 5, Misaka Mikoto was only a normal middle school girl. She was not trained in martial arts such as karate or aikido.
It came down to a knee blow.
The dull blow hit the girl in the center of her body.
She had of course been unable to avoid it.
“You’re still going!?”
This was different from before.
The pain had not stopped her.
She forced down that instinct. Humans were not bears or tigers. They would not necessarily obey just because you hit them with a whip.
Mikoto instead clenched her teeth and wrapped her arms around him. She held onto Inoue’s torso.
“Nhh, you might be able to predict how I use my power. I imagine you’re using some kind of device to read the faint changes in the EM waves and magnetic energy. But I can cancel all that out by not using my powers. I just have to stop relying on electricity!!”
In both boxing and karate, you could not hit your opponent properly if they were close enough to embrace you. Blows made by rotating the body required you to swing your arm or leg, so the centrifugal force was directly linked to the force of the hit.
That was why Inoue Kasha had always stayed a certain distance away from her.
He had actually challenged the Railgun from a distance, but that had been necessary for him while he used the killing techniques listed in Anti-Skill suppression tactics textbooks in the “never do this” category.
A straight punch converted the rotation into a straight line like a metal crank. A hook or an uppercut directly used the rotation to throw the fist. But in either case, he could not put his weight behind the blow when his movements were obstructed by the girl clinging to him. His only remaining option was to act like a child throwing a tantrum and hit her in the sides with just the movement of his hands.
This would not reduce the damage to zero.
Mikoto clenched her teeth even harder and gave a roar.
“Now, what if I release my full power at point-blank range like this? How about we find out? I have no reason to hold back now!!”
He was clearly panicking now.
That squirming was enough for her.
He could not claim he had not known. This had to be what Inoue Kasha had most feared.
An unavoidable high-voltage current pierced the corrupt Anti-Skill officer’s entire body.
This had all occurred in a long tunnel, so their biggest fear had been another car being caught off guard and crashing into it all. After managing to stop the ambulance, Shirai Kuroko’s next job had been to assemble a triangle of reflective panels found in the vehicle and place it behind the ambulance to inform any approaching cars of the danger.
“Uiharu, has the tunnel still not been blocked off!? The truck scraped along the wall, so pieces larger than concrete blocks are scattered everywhere!!”
“GK> There’s nothing we can do until Anti-Skill arrives! …There won’t be more like Inoue Kasha mixed in with them, will there?”
Just as Uiharu suggested that frightening possibility, Saten rode up on a bicycle after apparently using the emergency walkway located a step higher than the road. Sakibasu was standing on the back (while looking horribly bothered by the fluttering of her skirt).
“Shirai-san, is there anything we can do to help?”
“Why did you come here when there is a possibly-armed Anti-Skill officer on the loose!?”
Shirai snapped at them while opening the ambulance’s driver’s side door, passenger side door, and back door.
Saten tilted her head while kneesock girl Sakibasu nervously got off the back of the bicycle.
“It seems that Inoue guy manipulated the oxygen level to knock out everyone else in the ambulance. It would be best to let in some fresh air.”
Shirai sounded exasperated, but some of her breaths were unusually deep. There was also a cold sweat on her brow. She looked a lot like someone trying to suppress their motion sickness. She had only activated the emergency break, but she might have been in trouble if she had stayed inside the ambulance just a little longer.
Someone was squirming within the back door.
It was the leotard girl who had somehow managed to undo the stretcher’s belts. The effects of the high oxygen level meant drool was dripping from the corner of her mouth and her leotard had been cut open with scissors for first-aid, so her appearance was nowhere near as sinister as before.
She was a powerful Telekinesis user and an expert criminal.
Shirai held out a hand to stop Saten and Sakibasu and she pulled a metal dart from the belt on her thigh.
“I will hear no excuses about the oxygen even temporarily dulling your mind. If you resist, I will attack.”
But escape was apparently not the leotard girl’s plan.
She seemed to be holding onto the Anti-Skill officer who was lying on top of her.
“There’s something wrong with him. He isn’t waking up like I did. Please, can you check to see what happened?”
“Be very careful.”
Shirai gave that quick warning, but Sakibasu pushed her out of the way to step forward. She and Saten dragged the limp Anti-Skill officer out of the ambulance.
The EMT was apparently still conscious. He weakly waved at them while slumped back against the ambulance’s wall. Was he saying he could take care of himself?
The EMT must have thought he could not do the job himself with his fingertips trembling so much, so he instead forced out a warning.
“The effects…of oxygen vary a lot from person to person. He’s in a dangerous state…”
Even after laying the adult Anti-Skill officer on the exhaust-covered asphalt, he did not even groan.
Saten looked disturbed.
“He isn’t…dead, is he?”
The girl with the rolled black twintails crouched down and whispered.
Then she grimaced.
“He is still breathing, but there is something wrong with the hemoglobin in his blood. It might be because he is a smoker, but the amount of oxygen his blood can transport was already reduced before all that excess oxygen was sent in.”
“I am aware of that!!” The slashed leotard girl could not even stand up, but she managed force out her voice. “Please, do something about it! I was the target, so these other people were uninvolved… And when we were going to crash into the truck, he said he would lie on top of me to absorb the impact. He asked me to escape from Inoue and turn myself in at the nearest Anti-Skill station. That verbal promise has no real power, but he clearly risked his life for a criminal. I don’t want him to die, so please!!”
“Wah, wah! Wh-what do we do, Shirai-san!?”
After some thought, Shirai Kuroko grabbed a convenience store bag that had blown in from somewhere.
“It might seem simple, but if the issue is with the balance of oxygen in his blood, we should be able to reduce the symptoms by having him breathe in the carbon dioxide produced by his own body.”
“No, Shirai-san. This Anti-Skill officer…Maeda-san was it? His breathing is extremely shallow. Covering his head with that bag won’t work!!”
Sakibasu was right.
Excessive oxygen in the blood was enough to harm the entire body. If breathing in their own carbon dioxide was not an option, it could also be solved with artificial dialysis that replaced all the body’s blood with fresh blood, but the ambulance was not equipped for anything on that level.
They knew a way to solve this, but it was not enough.
They could only wait as his breathing grew ever shallower and eventually stopped altogether.
“Please… I’ll tell you everything. If you save him, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!!”
The leotard girl was too weak to get up, but she still clung to him with what little strength her arms had. Shirai’s group had no way of knowing what had happened to her, but the way she was sobbing with tears and snot on her face made her finally look more her age. At the same time, if the world betrayed her here, that soft part of her would be forever sealed below thick ice, never to emerge again.
There was a loud slapping sound. Sakibasu Yuri had let go of her violin case and struck her cheeks between her hands.
And she started speaking to herself.
“You know what you have to do, Sakibasu Yuri. Yes, there is no time for any other method. You just have to provide him with more carbon dioxide than his normal breathing will provide. In that case, there is one method we haven’t tried!!”
“Wh-what method is that?”
Sakibasu muttered those two words in lieu of answering.
But what was she using her power on in this case? She had already finished scanning the Anti-Skill Officer, so it would not be him. Redoing it was not going to reveal some convenient new fact.
Shirai’s eyebrows twitched up.
“Wait, are you using the carbon dioxide in the air itself!?”
“You will only distract me, so be quiet. …And you must never tell anyone what I am about to do.”
What was she asking them to keep secret?
For some reason, she blushed and took a deep breath before stopping moving all together. She just sat there for a bit. She did not want oxygen, so she had to take in the air and “consume” it herself first. Then her slender hand grabbed Maeda’s jaw as he lay motionless before her. Once she tilted back the Anti-Skill’s head to open his windpipe, the preparations were complete.
The time had come to show her resolve.
She placed her lips on his and breathed out with enough force to fill Maeda’s lungs like a balloon.
A few long seconds passed.
After removing her lips from the Anti-Skill officer’s, Sakibasu took another deep breath, stopped, shut her eyes, and did it again.
This was different from artificial respiration meant to send oxygen into someone. She had to consume it in her own body before providing him just the right amount of carbon dioxide.
It did not feel like she was working with another human being. It felt disturbingly strange, like she was blowing up a leather bag. There was no response. A great hopelessness started to fill her heart, but not yet.
She could not give up.
This choice and this method could not have been wrong!!
She did it again.
Sakibasu Yuri was not Misaka Mikoto or Shokuhou Misaki. She could not solve everything in some clever way and there was only so much she could do.
But so what?
Everyone had the right to save people and everyone should have the right to be saved. She might just be one of the masses, but she was not going to let her efforts go to waste. She did not care if it was ugly and unsightly. If she did everything she could to make it work out, she could catch up from behind. She might feel out of place and not up to the task, but she could be one of those who reaches out a helping hand!!
She persistently repeated the process.
“He moved,” muttered the leotard girl. “His fingers just moved!!”
“Pant, pant… O-of course they did. I am not just randomly breathing into his lungs. I am constantly using Carbon Search to monitor the amount of oxygen in his body’s blood and the optimal density of the gas. I know exactly how much carbon dioxide is needed to treat him.”
She had blown all her air out over and over, so Sakibasu herself had to be feeling a little dizzy. The curly black twintail girl could not support herself and ended up pressing her forehead against Maeda’s chest while she smiled weakly.
The Anti-Skill officer was still sprawled out limply on the ground, but his breathing was gradually growing less shallow.
It was growing deeper and more stable.
He would be fine now.
Sakibasu must not have had it in her to pull out a handkerchief because she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, sat flatly down, and then lifted her butt back up out of concern for the inside of her skirt.
Shirai Kuroko spoke up in surprise.
“Gwaaaahh!! Please do not say anything!! And I must reiterate that you are not to tell anyone about this!! This was my first time doing that, but it was an emergency and I had no choice! Anyway, I want to wash off my lips and eat lots of sweet things to overwrite the memory. Yes, like a thick pancake dripping with lots of honey!!”
“No, um, I hate to ask this, Sakibasu-san, but did you never take the disaster response class run by Judgment? Artificial respiration normally is not quite so romantic. You place a handkerchief or something between them and you. Um, to protect against infectious disease…”
Something fluttered in the air.
It was a specially-designed resuscitation tool that Shirai Kuroko had pulled from her skirt pocket. It was something like a square handkerchief made of transparent plastic. It had a hole with a special fold in the center so air could be blown through without direct contact being made.
“So, um, uh, if you had asked, I could have lent you this…”
This time, Sakibasu Yuri turned to stone in the middle of this city of science and technology.
At the same time, Misaka Mikoto appeared through the broken emergency exit door with the corrupt Anti-Skill officer draped unconscious over her shoulder.
“Hey, I’m all done. Huh, what’s with all of you?”
“You must not tell anyone what happened!! This is all the more reason why this must be a secret!! Ahh, ahh, gwaaahhhh!!!!!!”
The next morning, the leotard girl let out a soft breath in the District 7 hospital she had been safely taken to.
She gave a small smile of resignation toward Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko.
She looked them straight in the eye and made an announcement.
“I will tell you everything. Everything that I know, anyway.”
Tokiwadai Middle School had a café.
It generally functioned as a hangout for the girls to enjoy elegant tea and small snacks that looked more like bird food than anything, but the girl whose long black twintails were curled at the end, Sakibasu Yuri, was different.
Her tower of thick pancakes with plenty of butter and honey on top was quickly becoming a landmark within Tokiwadai. In this high-class space, it was unusual for the tea to not be the main focus.
It was enough food for Shokuhou Misaki to grow a little pale as she watched on.
“Y-you sure can eat. Especially for someone your size.”
“Pancakes don’t count. And I prefer eating something thick like this. It barely feels like I’ve eaten anything at all if I haven’t stuffed my mouth with food.”
This might seem like an unusual combination, but Sakibasu Yuri had been a new member of Shokuhou’s clique from the beginning. She might not be able to meet the Queen herself very often, but she would have more opportunities than a student outside the clique.
Sakibasu worked at the tower of pancakes while occasionally fidgeting her butt in her seat. It was hard to tell at a glance, but a close look would show that her uniform’s skirt was brand new.
And Misaka Mikoto was another student who had needed a new skirt.
Sakibasu seemed to have her own issues to deal with, but Shokuhou Misaki did not touch on them.
“As a first year, are you starting to get used to your life ability here in Tokiwadai?”
“Yes. And the Stativarius I was able to acquire through your connections has been a godsend!”
A violin case was casually sitting on the ground near her black-kneesocked legs below the table. And it had no lock.
“I have even made some friends outside the school: Saten-san and Uiharu-san. No more am I a sheltered girl who only takes the bus between the dorm and school. I am now a proper lady who can hang around town with friends afterschool!”
“I see,” replied Shokuhou Misaki while resting her head in her hand and laughing.
Sakibasu tilted her head curiously with knife and fork in hand.
Shokuhou had come to the café, yet she had not ordered anything.
“Um. Come to think of it, what brings you to me, Queen?”
“Oh? Do I need a reason ability to visit with you? Now that you are in my clique, you belong to me.”
“Queen,” said a ringlet curls girl before leaning over and whispering something into the honey blonde girl’s ear. As the clique’s #2, this girl had the troublesome job of managing the organization, but she was also a confidant who the Queen trusted enough to give that job. As a newcomer to the world of ringlet curls(?), Sakibasu saw her as a goal still far out of reach.
Shokuhou Misaki sighed quietly and stood up.
“I am glad I had this chance to see you, Sakibasu. Especially because of that natural smile on your face. After all, I hold some responsibility as the one who introduced you to Chandelier.”
Sakibasu responded with a look that suggested she did not quite understand.
Although it looked like Shokuhou quite liked the girl’s imperfect behavior.
Before leaving, she asked one last question.
“Sakibasu, are you enjoying your school life?”
“Yes, very much!!”
Afterschool, Sakibasu Yuri first met up with Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko in their school building and then they joined Uiharu Kazari and Saten Ruiko outside the school.
“Riot, was it? I heard she was taken to a hospital instead of an Anti-Skill station.”
Shirai shrugged at Saten’s simple comment.
“Well, she was injured. And after that scandal within Anti-Skill, they probably can’t push very hard if she refuses to be questioned at a station.”
Mikoto casually cut in.
“Are visiting hours still going? I feel like those end pretty early.”
“We are not normal visitors, so I doubt we have to worry about that.”
Shirai Kuroko and Uiharu Kazari were both in Judgment, but the former was the type to talk about her “detective’s instincts” and the latter was more data oriented. When the girl covered in flower decorations said it would be okay, it was a lot more persuasive.
They walked to a large hospital in District 7 and they spotted a few Anti-Skill officers before even walking through the outpatient entrance.
Mikoto breathed an exasperated sigh.
“That’s a pretty strict guard.”
“Well, Onee-sama, they have no idea who will be fired if there are any further scandals.”
“I wonder if Maeda-san is here. Ugh, it would be super awkward if we met him.”
Sakibasu’s comment suggested there was little chance of an immoral love blossoming there, but since that awkwardness was not based on fear, she had taken this in a positive direction.
They all entered the hospital together.
Shirai and Uiharu showed off their Judgment armbands and school IDs while going through some kind of special procedure, but that took a surprising amount of time. There was apparently some jurisdictional friction between Anti-Skill and Judgment.
Saten leaned back in a lobby bench and spoke.
“Uhee, having to sit still is like torture for a middle school girl, don’t you think? If we have to wait, why not go explore the cafeteria? They might have a bunch of tasty stuff like the rice porridge you eat when you have a cold! …Wait, what’s with you two?”
“Well, um, the clock.”
“Oh, noooo. The curfew. Not the curfew. What do we do? I’ve snuck out multiple nights in a row already, so the dorm manager is probably on the lookout now.”
In true prestigious Tokiwadai fashion, their dorms were quite strict. An obedient student like Uiharu had been quite worried about the curfew, but Saten had learned something after sneaking out at night quite frequently. Sakugawa Middle School’s security was so lax that someone who collapsed in their room would become mummified before anyone noticed, so she was kind of jealous.
Mikoto and Sakibasu anxiously watched the clock, but after a certain point had passed, their shoulders slumped and they stared out the window where the sun was setting. Saten was forced to drag the two of them to the cafeteria installed in the hospital. Instead of serving a specific type of cuisine, it was more like a highway service area. They had a wide selection of meals in bowls that were not all Western and not all Japanese, but it did not look like they had worked to specialize in any one thing.
Sakibasu casually moved her knife and fork.
“Munch, munch. We missed dinner at the dorm, so if we don’t eat something here, we’ll have to go to bed hungry!!”
“Eh? That’s your dinner!? But it’s only a huge stack of pancakes!!”
“Just like with crepes, pancakes can be a meal or a snack depending on the toppings used. Hm, but these are not quite what I wanted. They are not good enough to surpass the best pancakes I have ever had.”
By the time Sakibasu had polished off the giant tower of carbs, Shirai and Uiharu finally arrived in the cafeteria. They both looked exhausted.
“W-we explained the situation to them. Honestly, is the adult world built from nothing but entrenched inefficiencies and wastes of time?”
“After all that work, we definitely need some sugar to fuel our brains.”
Those two led them to the suspect known as Riot. Mikoto had expected a special room with metal bars, but they ended up somewhere else entirely.
Sakibasu (who was still carrying her violin case around) tilted her head.
“A pediatric rehabilitation room?”
“Given the suspect’s age, isn’t it only natural to take her to the pediatric department? Besides, Anti-Skill has officers posted around her room. Although that was partially at Riot’s request.”
After Shirai’s explanation, data-focused Uiharu gave further information.
“The rehabilitation rooms are only used during the day. No one comes here after hours, so it is the perfect place for a private chat.”
Once inside, they found a large room the size of two school classrooms. To be more child-friendly, it was painted with bright primary colors. It felt like being thrown into a giant kid’s meal. The equipment inside could be divided into two categories: playground equipment like swings and a slide and training equipment like a bench press and a treadmill.
“Oh, they even have Witch & Psychic cards. Wow, this is the 15th wave booster pack! I thought that hadn’t been released in Japan yet!!”
Sakibasu Yuri quietly glanced over at innocently-excited Saten and gave her a somehow complicated look. Mikoto recalled how she had worried that the trading card game she had created when she was 5 might have caused her family to suffer.
But that was not the focus here.
The blonde girl had apparently been given baggy pajamas to wear. That made her look very different from when she wore the leotard. Instead of sharpening her slender body into something professional looking, she actually looked her age.
Sakibasu leaned forward and spoke.
“So you said you would tell us what we wanted to know.”
When she saw their faces, she gave a sigh of resignation.
No, it was when she saw Sakibasu Yuri who had saved Maeda of Anti-Skill for nothing in return.
The girl was sitting on a training machine.
She apparently did not want to touch the playground equipment.
“I will tell you everything. Everything that I know, anyway. You can call me Riot.”
That of course did not sound like a real name.
Going by a pseudonym may have been a sign of how deep in Academy City’s darkness she had sunk.
Shirai Kuroko glanced at a document displayed on her phone before asking a question.
“You are Hanakawa Hinadori-san, correct?”
Her hair was blonde and it did not appear to be dyed or bleached.
But the girl herself reacted to something else.
“I told you to call me Riot. I don’t like that name. It doesn’t fit who I am.”
“But it’s so cute.”
Sakibasu’s overly honest response only increased the exasperation in little Riot’s voice.
“For now. But who wants a name that means ‘baby bird’ when they’re in their 40s or 50s? Maybe forcing your hopes on your child is a privilege of being a parent, but I really wish they had thought this through.”
That might not seem that weird to most people, but these things could still end up being powerful complexes. Everyone had their own reason for falling to a life of crime. This may have been one of many contributing factors.
Then Riot, or Hanakawa Hinadori, got started.
“I think it developed all on its own to begin with.” The girl sighed in the simple pajamas she had put on in place of her light blue leotard. “You know how you might be able to get an expensive bag in a unique color or invited to try out new menu items at a fancy hotel restaurant? There are those things that only a chosen few get to enjoy. And then a weird reversal sets in where the people who receive those services feel like they have been chosen. …But then the people that felt that way gathered up those small rewards, drew lines connecting them, and built up a giant network.”
Hanakawa, the girl sitting on the training equipment, nodded.
“They developed a shared set of values. Or maybe you could call it a currency only they could use: Bag Rank 3, Ring Rank 2, Foreign Car Rank 4, Violin Rank 5, and so on. They developed and spread a culture that explained how to become one of those chosen few and what you had to present to receive what services. That’s what rarity is all about, right? There are regions of the world that use seashells or whale teeth as money.”
“Violin…” muttered black-twintailed Sakibasu Yuri while glancing down at her violin case.
The small girl smiled cynically.
The Riot name may have come from this side of her.
“Exactly. When some kids messing around caused the value of all Stativari to crash, the higher ups were less than pleased. Those were supposed to be Violin Rank 5, but a loss at a simple school exam, stripped them of their effectiveness as a key. Would Almati be next? Or maybe Guarnari? Either way, they needed to head to the Chandelier Auction House and spend a small fortune winning one. You can see why someone easily could have ended up dead.”
“Then you really were ordered to kill the violin’s owner?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
Mikoto asked, but the girl on the training equipment shook her head.
“I mentioned a shared set of values, didn’t I? It wasn’t the Stativari that mattered. It was the giant organization – the network. They were afraid of the entire situation that had shaken trust in one of their keys. That key could be a ring, some fur, or land – it didn’t matter. Once one was destroyed, concerns would spread that something could happen to your key. And once everyone loses trust in the keys, the network falls apart. Oh, I know. Let’s say an online bank is hit by a cyber-attack and someone’s account is cleaned out. It doesn’t matter if they’re a friend or not; do you really think anyone is going to leave their money in that bank?”
“So they had to take measures to stop that,” quietly cut in Uiharu.
Hanakawa gave a snort of laughter.
“You’ve got that right. The ones feeling the pressure weren’t the Stativarius owners. It was the hosts who had attached the special label to the Stativari and said what services they were worth.”
“The hosts? You mean the people at the center or core of the network you mentioned!?”
“Yes, of course,” whispered Hanakawa Hinadori with a grin. “Blue Blood. They’re a group of complete nutjobs with delusions about their bloodlines.”
“Can’t we get him to talk?”
“Inoue Kasha has worked as a front line Anti-Skill officer for a while, so he knows all the ways we gather data and try to rattle people. That was his specialty, after all.”
Two adults were discussing that.
Of course, their voices did not reach the other side of the thick glass.
The actual questioning was being held in the adjacent room. The people in there could not see the people here. Through the glass, two men were seated on opposite sides of a table. The chairs and table would be bolted to the floor. As an interrogation room, they could not leave anything there the suspect could use as a weapon.
A honey blonde girl cut by behind the Anti-Skill Officers observing the adjacent room with stern looks on their faces. Except she could have strutted by in front of them and neither of them would have noticed her.
She tilted her head in front of the machinery, placed a white-gloved finger on her slender chin, and finally flicked off a few switches with a pause between each one to check what she was doing.
She had switched off all the audio and visual recording.
With her preparations complete, she reached for the knob to the adjacent room.
She used Mental Out, strongest of the purely psychological powers.
When she opened the door, the voice within reached her directly.
“Inoue, this is the end for you. Stalling in hopes of a plea deal will only leave a bad impression on the lay judges. Do you want to cause trouble for your innocent family?”
“Hi, Mr. Suspect☆ Can you see me?”
Of the two men seated across each other at the bolted-down table, the girl stood behind the Anti-Skill officer who looked close to tears.
And she looked past that proper officer’s head to face the suspect.
The organization’s hitman finally showed some abnormalities in his perspiration and heartrate.
He quickly tried to stand up from his chair, but it was too late.
He was not strapped down, but he could not move. Not his hands, not his legs, not anything.
It only took the click of TV remote.
The #5 Queen brought her empty hand’s finger to her lips.
“He reacted to that. Try using his family to shake him further. But going too far could make him regain his cool, so keep a proper distance.”
An off-base instruction reached the Anti-Skill officer’s ear via short-range radio, but Shokuhou did not care.
She laughed and pulled another TV remote from the bag hanging over her shoulder.
“Tell – me – eeeeverything. You get no secret-keeping ability here. Nothing remains hidden.”
The diligent Anti-Skill officer did not look back her way.
He did not even notice her.
Only Inoue Kasha trembled while unable to get up from his seat.
“Just to be clear, I am not in the mood to play nice today.”
“Delusions about their bloodlines?”
Sakibasu Yuri shook her curly-tipped twintails by tilting her head at that unfamiliar concept.
Saten also looked confused.
“That refers to noble blood, doesn’t it?”
Uiharu’s knowledge here may have come from her adoration of that high-class world.
The pajama girl seated on the training equipment, Hanakawa Hinadori, nodded.
“By delusions about their bloodlines, I mean people who baselessly think they have Napoleon’s blood or are a direct descendent of Nostradamus. They assume someone as noble as them could never be a simple office worker’s child. It’s a similar delusion to the people who think they’re the reincarnation of someone or other. Most of the time, they abandon the idea after everyone stares at them like they’re crazy, but sometimes there are people who build up so much detail in their head that they convince the people around them too. Once that happens, there’s no stopping them. In some cases, they themselves couldn’t back out even if they wanted to.”
“So you’re saying none of it is true?”
Mikoto sounded exasperated, but Hanakawa found the question even more ridiculous than that.
“It doesn’t matter either way. Bloodline? Noble descent? We live in a city of science, so surely you know none of that gets you anywhere.”
The twintail duo of Sakibasu and Shirai exchanged a troubled look.
Hanakawa Hinadori gave a snort of laughter.
“But it turns out those bloodline-obsessed freaks see Academy City as some kind of utopia. You understand why that is, don’t you?”
“Because your DNA determines your inborn talent. It determines the type of your esper power and its potential for growth.”
Mikoto understood this because of what happened when she supplied her own cells.
The military clones known as the Sisters.
Many factors had been complexly intertwined there, but none of it would have happened without her excellent esper power.
“Heh heh. But sometimes, promising seeds and buds are stifled by a poor teaching environment.” Hanakawa waved a hand dismissively. “Now, if you think you come from some noble lineage, what could be more attractive than the idea that people from a chosen bloodline can achieve the strongest esper power? After all, cutting edge science is proving their ridiculous discriminatory logic that someone’s status is determined by their birth. No theory of research could be more convenient for them.”
That was wrong on a fundamental level.
If Oda Nobunaga had used Pyrokinesis to fire the matchlock guns or Tokugawa Ieyasu had used Psychometry to predict and prevent the treason of his retainers, there might be something to it, but there were no records suggesting that. Pursuing Einstein or Da Vinci’s DNA would not lead to an excellent esper power.
There was no connection between someone’s historical success and their Level as an esper.
And more than that.
On an even more fundamental level, it was not that great people accomplished great things. A lot of it came down to choosing a path in life that played to your strengths. No one was destined to accomplish great things from the moment they were born. That was why second-generation celebrities and athletes had so much difficulty. They were placed into a set framework before anyone knew where their strengths lay. And if a great person was not blessed with the opportunity to accomplish great things, their greatness would never be recognized. Plus, success did not come solely from individual skill; a great many factors were complexly intertwined to create that result. For example, if Napoleon were to relive his exact same life, there was no guarantee he could repeat his impressive string of military victories. If the world around him developed differently or the people around him did not cooperate, there was nothing he could do. Even the difference between sunny and rainy weather during a decisive battle could change the result. That was how random and hard-to-predict success was. Mere DNA was not a perfect roadmap to success.
Even though the idea was so fundamentally flawed…
“That’s why they’ve gone completely nuts.”
Hanakawa continued on while sitting on the training equipment and letting her dangling legs sway a bit.
That unnecessary action may have been a sign of nerves not evident in her voice.
“They believe that a noble bloodline means a noble power. They know it to be true. They never even considered any other possibility, so when the research comes back and says their bloodline is worthless, they throw it out because ‘it must be mistaken’. In the end, they’ve already made up their minds. You can call it a delusion if you want. They aren’t focusing on their bloodlines because science says it’s right. They already value their bloodline and they’re just focusing on any scientific theories that say what they want to hear. They’re like people who insist the earth isn’t rotating and will praise any heretical scientist that backs them up. Crazy, right?”
They could only fall silent.
Tokiwadai Middle School was a prestigious school for high-class girls. The students there carried a variety of titles, but that was no excuse. Belonging to a special family or corporation did not give you the right to look down on others.
Or so Mikoto and Shirai had been taught.
Finally, Sakibasu Yuri spoke up.
She was a rare kind of Tokiwadai student who had earned her own way into everything required to be a “high-class girl”.
“We might have those ruthless cliques we created, but that isn’t something the adults gave us, right? Even if we relied on adult connections, no one would gather around us if were only doing it because the adults told us to.”
Riot only shrugged.
The look on her face said not everything in the world ran on logic.
“So…Blue Blood, was it? Is there anything they’re actually trying to accomplish in reality? Are they happy as long as they have those Academy City keys that let them feel special?”
It was a pain either way.
But they could not put together a plan to fight back if they did not know what that group hoped to accomplish.
Hanakawa Hinadori put on a troubled look.
“Your bloodline is pretty pointless all on its own, right? Maybe it would give you something during the Warring States period, but what about in the modern age where we strive for equality between all sexes, languages, races, religions, and classes?”
“Well…um, that’s a problem for them, isn’t it?”
Saten was weirdly hesitant to speak, but that may have been because she was in front of “real high-class girls” like Mikoto and the others.
Hanakawa breathed an exasperated sigh.
“The more they insist on their view, the more they’re ostracized. They end up discriminated against for their discrimination. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about what’s right or wrong here. There are plenty of people I can’t stand for no logical reason. But even an idiot knows that whatever you might think about them, the wise choice is to keep your mouth shut. Because once the accusations of discrimination start flying, it almost never ends well for you. It’s a small world out there, so no one wants to be oppressed by the emperor in his new clothes. We live in an age of majority rule. Three cheers for democracy and all that. Does that match up with your understanding?”
Now it was Mikoto’s turn to be exasperated.
“There were some unpleasant barbs hidden in your words there, but, well, I can agree that life’s easier without discrimination than with it.”
“However, they could not keep their mouths shut.”
The series of noises stopped there.
Silence fell for a brief moment.
And then Hanakawa resumed speaking.
“They had to force their ideas through, logic be damned. Arguing their case normally would only get them drowned out by the majority of reasonable people, so they had to rely on less normal methods. Academy City’s keys? Those are no more than a distraction. They’re placebos that only temporarily hold back the symptoms. They’ve managed to fool themselves this long with words like ‘socialite’ and ‘rarity’, but it seems they can’t restrain themselves any longer. I mean, we’re talking about morons who get angry when they have to breathe the same air and eat the same food as normal people. They’re an even stranger lifeform than those plastic-eating larvae. There’s no way for them to establish a livable everyday life. Their frustrations have built up for so long that they’re about ready to blow. In other words, they need some way to let off some steam. They won’t be satisfied until they’ve taken some kind of concrete action.”
“It’s a virus.”
In the interrogation room, Inoue produced a trembling voice while still sitting in his chair.
“But it’s designed to destroy instead of hijack control. It will be sent from Academy City and randomly disable networked devices all over the world when their OS, security, firmware, or whatever else is updated.”
“A computer virus???”
“Academy City’s tech is about 30 years ahead of the outside world, so if it can pose a threat in this small city, it can be plenty effective on the rest of the planet.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the well-behaved Anti-Skill officer. “Hey, Inoue. Are you trying to confuse us with disinformation!?”
Directly behind him, Shokuhou Misaki rubbed her slender chin with her fingertips.
Her other hand toyed with a TV remote and she whispered in a voice only the suspect could hear.
“What does that global prank have to do with the bloodline delusions?”
“The belief that birth and social status determine one’s quality as a person is only hated because the modern age rejects it. But sometimes people are more willing to accept something when you change the wording. Just like the fortunetellers giving advice based on their own experience and their observations of the customer have been resurrected in the form of AI speakers supported by big data. Basically, the higher ups needed a trigger.”
“So they want to spread a virus around the world and eliminate the internet and computers?”
When Shokuhou said that, Inoue continued.
He was not bragging. He simply could not even roll out of his chair anymore.
“They bring back the respect their bloodlines deserve. Noblesse oblige. The value of noble blood is found in how much they can support the commoners in their time of need.”
“So they’ve decided for themselves how much they’re worth and started a global game of chicken?”
If that computer virus really did spread, it would end up destroying more than just digital data: pharmaceutical factories, power plants, industrial complexes, dams, airports, etc. Even the people with no interest in anything new would be quite interested in bringing back what they already had.
“In the West, your social status is apparently determined by how much money you give to charity. So if our representative pays out far more than the real noble families and socialites, it will place us even higher than them, won’t it? After all, the people in our organization think simply having money is not enough. If they can pay to gain a position in an old and established family, they will pull out all the stops.”
It was hard to tell whether he was really answering her questions or not.
Although she was using her power to ensure he could not lie, so this had to be what Inoue really believed.
“The thing about all this is, if you build too large a charitable foundation and hand out money from a position of superiority, people will view you with hostility. Even in these largescale things, the grassroots are important. That’s how it is with Santa Claus and the Kasa Jizo, right? Everyone knows who they are, but they never identify themselves. Bring it far enough and the charity becomes a legend. And this is not some logic of the past. Do you remember when everyone was talking about the backpack gifted by an anonymous person a while back?”
…As someone who specialized in manipulating people’s minds, that seemed overly hopeful and optimistic to her, but she was not about to argue over the validity of the man’s views. Someone who truly understood the human mind would not even begin that kind of discussion.
And more importantly…
“Let’s say they do create an age with the hierarchy of power they want. What proof do they have it would be them who rises to the level of nobility? Nothing says they will be the only ones trying to take advantage of the risky opportunity they created. Aren’t there plenty of other people who would want to stand at the top if they had the chance?”
“There is no guarantee, of course. However. Their chances will be much better in that game of musical chairs than in the current age where everyone is stuck in the chair they already have. Creating a chance and a possibility is what matters. For one thing, this is their Plan B because the current method of using brand bags and violins to reduce everyone’s frustrations was not enough and they need to take some major step to prevent the entire organization from falling apart. Giving up and doing nothing is simply not an option.”
“Also, it is a noble bloodline that the higher ups want. They want to be nobility, not royalty. I called it a game of musical chairs, remember? If there are empty chairs left over, there is room for others to interfere. It is not quite like an auction. If all you want to do is enjoy evening parties and sip at the sweet nectar of your position, then being at the very top is actually a major inconvenience. Those executive positions require so much paperwork and you are publicly executed if you screw up, so those can be given to someone else. The best place to hide a tree is the forest and near the top is the best place to position yourself. There you have plenty of rivals who will hide your indulgences and ugliness with their own.”
They had no way of knowing if it would turn out that well.
Would the computer virus actually work, could they really manipulate so many people to do what they wanted, and would they really be chosen as the nobility of the new age? They had a general path laid out for themselves, but it felt like there were a lot of hurdles they would have to adlib their way past along the way. And if they had to place themselves at the mercy of some high-risk, high-return calculations, it was hard to think of it as a sure thing.
“They might be motivated by utter nonsense, but they can still cause real harm. And that includes how far the virus’s damage will spread.”
Shokuhou did not sound happy, but her words of course did not reach the Anti-Skill officer seated right in front of her.
She did not know much about phenomena outside the human mind.
The situation made her think of the #3 who she was constantly squabbling with.
An undeniable catastrophe might occur, or it might fizzle out. Financial deals might grind to a halt, starting a great depression, or a single country or continent’s digital systems might shut down, triggering an invasion by some other country.
In other words, she had no idea what would happen.
In a way, this was even more of a pain than being presented with a plan meant to slaughter the 7.5 billion people on the planet.
At the very least, it seemed impossible to keep the number of deaths at 0 if this was allowed to happen. But she knew nothing for certain since she did not have all the security information on the many power plants and factories around the world. It was possible there were some crucial facilities out there with outdated or sloppy designs and everyone just stuck with it because ‘it hasn’t blown up yet’.
“You said it would target the OS and security updates, didn’t you?”
“A few different companies and organizations are in charge of that, but they’re all effectively the same. Their engineers have already given up on manually identifying and working out countermeasures for the massive amount of viruses and hacking methods produced on a daily basis. An average of 8000 malicious scripts are discovered every day and the quantity and quality are gradually rising as times passes. The puzzles they must solve have far surpassed what they can handle.”
The IT classes taught in schools these days had their downside. When even elementary school kids could write their own apps, even elementary school kids could create and upload their own malware.
“The antivirus software is supposedly manually created in a special facility known as the virus storage center…but even that isn’t enough. Most of the process is automated for the same reason as destination sorting for online store packages. They have machines handle as much as possible and the humans handle the irregular parts left over. More than 80% of vulnerability patches are entirely done by the machines.”
“You understand, don’t you? The virus storage center is supposed to be a museum of malicious data, but it barely functions in that role at all. For the same reason that a small team of elite commandos can’t handle every war across the globe.”
There was no hesitation in Inoue’s voice.
He was not being arrogant either. He had simply fallen into a state where he was listing off everything he could think of until something worked and he could reverse his fortunes here.
“Corporations and universities that specialize in security will receive a great number of error reports from users and they use an AI system similar to a complex search engine to gather and analyze that data. They do receive an answer, but not even the programmers that designed the system can explain how that answer was reached. And in fact, more than 80% of patches are the same. …So if a few drops of poison are manually snuck in, those in charge will never notice the trouble. We live in a crazy age, don’t we?”
“Yes. The different groups like to talk about how they share data on viruses and vulnerabilities, but that’s really just them linking their representative computers together to steal each other’s methods of solving the puzzles. So as long as you can reach one of those computers, anyone can add the poison. And it will be a deadly and untraceable poison.”
That network would of course be closed to normal users.
It was only AIs exchanging data, so allowing normal users access would accomplish nothing.
To access it, there would have to be a spy within the management of Zero-Day Link or that field would have to have one of those “keys” set up, be it a piano or a violin.
Blue Blood wanted to make themselves into something special.
To do that, they would spread a computer virus across the world from Academy City to destroy everything from personal mobile devices to public infrastructure. All so they could prove they were better than the VIPs sitting on whatever thrones they currently had.
They had no way of knowing if it would turn out that well, but they believed it would.
“Zero-Day Link is composed of four AI servers. One with a university, one with a company, one with an organization, and one with the government. Which one is it? Where does Blue Blood intend to insert their poison!?”
Inoue Kasha slowly inhaled.
He could not resist even if he wanted to.
“That’s ridiculous!!” shouted Sakibasu Yuri, completely forgetting she was in a hospital at night. “That’s…that’s like selling wax food samples to starving children!”
“We’re talking about a criminal organization, remember? And they aren’t after money or revenge; they’re a bunch of nutjobs who truly believe in their bloodline nonsense. Did you think 1+1=2 or the rules of story progression would apply here?”
Uiharu and Saten groaned, but Hanakawa Hinadori continued in an annoyed voice.
“Only they know what the world looks like to them. I’m not convinced they think an apple would fall when they let go.”
If Mikoto gave up because they seemed incomprehensible, she would lose this lead.
Even if they were monsters, she had to forcibly reach for this opportunity.
“Zero-Day Link, huh?”
“It’ll be the corporate server,” stated Hanakawa Hinadori. And then, “If there’s one thing Blue Blood has, it’s money, so that’s he easiest one for them to mess with. A lot of universities outside Academy City are constantly whining about their lack of funding, but the ones inside Academy City are thoroughly supported. Blue Blood will work their way into the corporation with a Zero-Day Link computer and insert their poison there.”
“Have we wandered into a wormhole? This started with my Stativarius Ainsel, so how did we end up here?”
“Hey. That violin is to blame for all this in the first place.”
“I said their objective was to let off some steam, didn’t I? They had managed to settle down a fair amount using the illusion of specialness given by controlling Academy City’s keys. They felt like they had a monopoly on those wonderful antiques and they were given a lifelong pass to a special social circle just by showing them off. But your Stativarius’s loss shook the very foundation of that system. They realized they could not maintain their delusions just by holding onto those keys. So what happens once paying a small fortune isn’t enough to rid them of their anxieties?” The small girl laughed cruelly before continuing. “They all have bloodline delusions, but some have stronger delusions than others. When the waves of reality crash into them, some of them will come to their senses. Blue Blood is a network tying together many different brands of everything from wristwatches to bags. They provide special services for the chosen few, but just like the coupons in a gourmet guide, it only works when enough shops play along. So they needed to shift to Plan B before things unraveled further and the entire organization fell apart. They need to cause a major event to keep their existing members with them. Blue Blood’s representative had no choice but to start on the over-the-top plan they had kept as a hypothetical until now.”
“Their representative?” Mikoto frowned. “Do you know who that is? You were that deep in the organization!?”
“I am an outsider tied to them by profit. Why do you think they didn’t use insider soldiers for this? I was meant to quietly handle the dirty work that would snap their members out of their delusions if they found out.”
“Of course, it turns out I was some worthless pawn they were willing to throw out at any time. Reversible and I were in the same position. If our situations had been reversed and he was captured, I would probably have been tasked with killing him.”
“Who is their representative? They’re the one behind all this, right!?”
“She’s a filthy adult.”
“Do you know her actual name!?”
Hanakawa stopped speaking for just a moment.
She had said she would tell them everything, yet she showed some slight hesitation here.
“Just so you know, the initial job I was given was to attack the four who destroyed the Stativarius Ainsel’s legend.”
“Eh? You weren’t targeting me for losing?”
“No. The representative must have been panicking because she said not to worry about who else I might hit. You just so happened to be in a position where you would have been hit if the attack had worked.”
Why had she made this digression now of all times?
Mikoto looked suspicious, but this was about something else.
“You were the one who asked, so don’t blame me if you regret it.”
In the interrogation room, Inoue Kasha was again forced to speak.
Shokuhou Misaki frowned.
“What did you say?”
“A woman named Sakibasu Ryouu is Blue Blood’s representative.”
The girl with long black twintails went limp, her black kneesocked legs gave way, and she slumped down to the rehabilitation room’s floor.
There had to be a connection.
Why had her family name made an appearance here?
“That’s mother’s name. But why…? No!! It can’t be true!!!!”
Uiharu hurriedly tried to take her hand, but Sakibasu was too shaken to listen.
This went beyond simply being family.
Sakibasu Yuri may not have even known her mother was living inside Academy City. When a student’s parents lived outside the city, they would only see them two or three times a year at best. Her mother would only have to be there to greet her at the “family home” on those few days she could travel outside the city. She would have no way of knowing what her mother was doing normally.
Why had Sakibasu Yuri been so obsessed with the Stativarius Ainsel?
She had created a trading card game at the age of five.
She had built up a massive fortune in a single generation, but she had feared that doing so had damaged her parents’ pride as they worked the old-fashioned way. They could no longer remain normal people, but they did not have the history and tradition for the upper-class world to protect them.
Just like the people who won the lottery and ended up worse off.
So was that why?
“She only needed to belong to a superior bloodline. That would solve all the problems plaguing her.”
Was that why Hanakawa Hinadori had stayed away from the playground equipment? Witch & Psychic was the trading card game Sakibasu Yuri had innocently created as a small child, but it had since become the funding source for the villain used to send hitmen after people. She could not have wanted to see something like that after having her own life targeted in that way.
“Everyone in Blue Blood has some kind of troubled life, but the representative is the most prominent example. Her obsession with history and tradition goes beyond the norm. There are some huge taboos when speaking with her, so avoiding those landmines was not easy. I’m not sure how she ended up like that, but it looks like you do.”
“Ahh, ahhhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!???”
“Shirai-san, help me restrain her!”
“Yes, she might harm herself at this rate!”
“It’s my…ahhh…it’s my…it’s all my fault!! It’s all because I left them dangling in that in-between state!!”
“No!! Sakibasu-san, you did nothing wrong!!”
The pancake-loving girl curled up on the floor, held her head in her hands, and shook her head wildly. Her violin case sat abandoned nearby. That did nothing to protect her at this point.
“I brought misfortune to my own family…”
“If only I had never made that toy…if only I hadn’t made all that money, none of this would have happened!! And no one would have gone astray!! You said they can do this because they have lots of money, didn’t you? Ahhh, does that mean I was the one propping them up!? I caused all this!? I paid for those bullets!? How…ahhh…how could this happen!?”
At the time, Sakibasu Yuri may not have been thinking about money at all.
As a young child, she had probably only been giving shape to the images in her head, just like any child coloring with crayons so the adults would praise them.
But it had resonated with far too many people.
An unstoppable current had formed and the girl had unknowingly built up a great fortune.
The next thing she knew, her life had run off the rails.
“I just wanted them to praise me…”
The gears and path of her life had become hopelessly broken and twisted.
“I just wanted to smile while mother rubbed my head. That was all. That was all I wanted!!!!!!”
“Don’t bother saying anything to her,” said Hanakawa Hinadori from the training equipment. There was a hint of pity in her voice. “Everyone faces their sins in their own way. And at their own speed too. Just because something helps you get over something doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.”
“Do you have no heart? This girl believed in her innocence and worked hard not to cause anyone any trouble and this was the answer she found. But do you feel nothing!?”
“Hey, I said not to blame me if you regret it. And what, would she have been happier if the truth was hidden from her and she kept fighting against some unseen monster? Then she’d just be a dancing fool.”
“We’ve reached the next stage. Thanks to your decision. This is the same as that fortune she created: what’s done is done. The question is what you’re gonna do about it. So how about I throw your questions right back at you: Do you have no heart? This girl believed in her innocence and worked hard not to cause anyone any trouble and this was the answer she found. But do you feel nothing?”
Mikoto spoke in a low voice as she tightly held Sakibasu and her shaking head in her arms.
That girl could not be forced to fight any longer.
That would be too cruel.
But that did not mean they could put off solving this problem. No matter how harsh the truth might be, they needed to settle this.
“Sakibasu-san, what do you want to do?”
“If you want to protect your mother, that’s fine. If that is the path you choose. But if you instead want to correct the path she has chosen, then I think I can help you out. And if not, then sorry. You can resent me then.”
After all that, Shirai Kuroko slowly sighed.
“Things have finally settled down for the time being. We have Uiharu and Saten-san with us now, but I do not think we are ready to fundamentally solve this.”
Mikoto looked back into the hospital just once before leaving the building.
And she found someone else just outside the automatic door.
“Shokuhou. What are you doing here?”
“You have to ask? I am only lending you Sakibasu. Do not forget that she belongs to me☆”
She sounded like she was joking, but she was not at all.
The look on her face made that clear.
Mikoto did not know how Shokuhou Misaki had done it, but she felt certain that other girl had arrived at the same conclusion as her.
Sakibasu Yuri’s mother was behind all of this.
Another figure gently bowed behind the Queen. That girl with gorgeous ringlet curls was one of the most powerful espers within Shokuhou’s clique.
Shokuhou had a confidant just like Mikoto did.
She had brought her here because she knew there was going to be fighting in the near future.
“How is Sakibasu doing?”
“She keeps calling out for her mother and saying she wants to eat her mother’s pancakes. With your #5 Mental Out power, you could make an appearance and help her calm down some, couldn’t you?”
“You say that, but we both know you would be livid if I actually used my full power ability to intrude on someone’s mind.”
Shokuhou Misaki spun her TV remote around, but she did nothing more than speak in a singsong voice.
She seemed to be saying the remote’s target lay elsewhere.
And unfortunately, Misaka Mikoto could not come up with any words to stop her.
Even if they were talking about a friend’s family.
Even if they were talking about something as precious as someone’s one-and-only mother.
“Don’t mess with us, you piece of shit.”
“Don’t mess with us, you piece of shit.”
Two fists bumped together.
Tokiwadai Middle School’s Level 5s departed for the final battle.
It was dark out.
First, they deactivated the electronic security and then they raised the metal shutter and unlocked the analog lock meant as a countermeasure for cyber-attacks. The whole process took less than 3 minutes.
After having a subordinate open the glass door, someone calmly walked in.
“Where is the guard on duty?”
“We acquired the necessary personal information in advance and bribed him into silence. He agreed to smell some knock-out gas around back. Night-duty security is one job where the pay far outweighs the actual work involved. The people who choose the job for that reason tend to have a need for a quick reward.”
The woman stepped into the darkness while glancing over at her face reflected in the glass door.
She looked far too young to be a mother.
She wore a black silk party dress and her long black hair was even silkier than that. It was mostly straight, but there were curls by her ears.
That lady shined from head to toe and she had a curvy figure, yet the light of her skin and eyes was even more youthful than that of an undeveloped girl who had only just started puberty. That would have seemed imbalanced if not for the thorough care given to her by professionals. Makeup, health foods, aesthetic salons, fitness gyms, aromatherapy, face washing products, sleep products, beauty parlors, detoxing, oxygen therapy, stress reduction, etc. There was an endless list of ways in which she had polished her body inside and out.
It was all the magic of money.
The one flaw was her inability to claim she had earned that money herself.
She had no esper power or next-generation weapons. Her beauty came from a different sort of power and she now walked down the dark hallway with her sharp heels clacking. The only lights were the reds of the fire alarms and greens of the emergency exits, but there was no hesitation in her step. People could walk to the bathroom in their own home in the dead of night without ever bumping into a wall or the stairs. This was proof of how thoroughly she had investigated this place and memorized its layout.
Sakibasu Ryouu held a silver-shining duralumin case.
It was narrower and longer than the ones a businessman would carry.
The case alone was enough to give people an ominous impression.
And her other hand was softly massaging the base of her finger. Specifically, her left ring finger. She had not been careless enough to wear her ring now, but there was still a mark there.
(You really can’t escape it, can you? I really wish I could hide it while at work.)
“This is the necessary program.”
A figure held out a USB memory stick smaller than lipstick while respectfully following her around.
The label said Blue_Blood.
That was the name of their organization and of the memory device carrying the data that represented their ideals.
That nightmarish virus would spread from Academy City and bring down all the computers in the world simultaneously. The damage would affect everything from personal mobile devices to public dams and power stations.
“The computer used to write and compile the script has already been destroyed. This is the one and only copy. Once it infects the AI server, please destroy the flash memory according to the necessary procedure. Then no one can analyze the source to discover a way to directly eliminate the virus.”
After that businesslike response, a smile formed around the lady’s eyes.
This was a human side to her beyond the charismatic leader.
“I know creating this and destroying the data was a lot of work, Engineer.”
“Think nothing of it. I will soon fry the necessary portion of my brain cells to physically eliminate the last trace. I will take responsibility and eliminate all possibility of an analysis being done from the developer’s side. If I do not contact you according to schedule, please assume I overdid it and died. I hate to ask this of you, but if that happens, please order one of your people to remove my corpse from my room and dump it somewhere so I do not decompose all alone in there. As a bit player in your grand plan, I am praying for Blue Blood’s success. Now, if you will excuse me.”
The beautiful woman placed the small device in the chest of her dress using fingers given a thorough manicure by a professional. She then brushed back her long black hair and called two other names.
The response came from either side of her.
Twin girls who looked completely identical approached her. They were short girls with their silver hair in ponytails, but that was no reason to let your guard down in Academy City. Just like Riot and Reversible, they were trump cards given codenames.
They were not at home, but they only wore baggy dress shirts and leather boots.
These two were the best bodyguards out of all the trump cards in the organization.
The beautiful leader holding the narrow duralumin case asked a question without even looking toward those silver-haired girls showing off their bright bare legs.
“I will now infect Zero-Day Link. Normal communications will not work once I am on the upper levels of the building. I will not be able to give you further instructions, so use your best judgment to eliminate any threats. Since you are a part of Blue Blood, you want to bring glory to your bloodline, don’t you? I will not ask why, but do know that I will make that dream of yours a reality.”
The black party dress woman smiled at that immediate response.
“You can call me ma’am. I am not so childish that I would insist I look that young.”
“Is that an order, lady?”
“Please, Acid. And Counselor too. Do not make a mother feel any more ridiculous than she already does. This is as painful as being dragged out onto the beauty pageant stage and asked to wear a swimsuit among all the young girls.”
For some reason, the silver-haired twins both pouted their lips.
They apparently did not like their beautiful leader’s humility. They really did not like it.
But however they felt on the inside, they were obedient on the outside.
“My apologies. Ma’am, do you expect someone to try and stop us?”
“Counselor, I know you can read my thoughts, so do you really need me to say it out loud? I know my daughter, so I know someone is coming. The boundary between amateur and expert is meaningless to her. She can produce results completely outside the usual social structures and hierarchies. Riot and Reversible were both defeated. We have seen more than one upset that cannot be explained by simply comparing the strength of both sides. Do not let your guard down.”
“Yes, Sakibasu Yuri always had it. She has the invisible power to make the impossible possible. The power I have now was only made by increasing what I had with the IP rights. It all began with the toy that girl made. So I will never underestimate her. My daughter has something that could destroy the world.”
“Lady, I do not think-…”
“Call me ma’am. If you are going to do it, be thorough.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am aware this is forward of me, but not everyone can do what you do either. The fact that you can do all of that and claim you were simply ‘increasing what you had’ is proof enough of your incredible talent.”
Acid was speaking her heart there.
But the black party dress lady only smiled a little.
“You will know what I mean once you see someone who really does have it. What I have done is no more than some petty tricks in comparison.”
That was extremely reassuring as an ally, but equally as troublesome as an enemy.
If someone found a 1000-yen bill on the side of the road and simply picked it up and pocketed it, that was all they would have. A 1000-yen profit was logically the maximum they could earn there. But the people who had it were different. If they selflessly took it to the closest police box and received plenty of praise for their good deed, they would create connections to the people around them. If the president of an entertainment production company or a global investor happened to be in that group, they would have created a truly valuable connection. That 1000 yen would produce a result worth far more than that. And that was what actually happened with those people. It might seem ridiculous, but that was who Sakibasu Yuri was.
After all, who could have ever imagined it?
Who could have imagined a card game made at the age of 5 would continue to produce a vast fortune to this day, like an oil field that never ran dry? In fact, even Sakibasu Yuri would have failed if she had tried to do that. That had been the result of her innocently working at it without trying to cause anything at all.
The more logically people looked at the battles fought by those who had it, the more they were drawn in.
Tokiwadai Middle School’s Level 5s and Judgment were not the threat here. The black-haired lady had heard about the elective exam. Those other students had been her daughter’s enemy to begin with, yet they had eventually ended up as allies. Everything had worked out for the better. Ordinary cause and effect would have said that could not happen, yet it had.
Sakibasu Yuri really was the greatest threat she did not want to run up against.
As long as that girl was acting out of benevolence and not out of self-interest, everything on the field – both enemy and ally – would work to her benefit.
Trying to do any of it on purpose would cause that miraculous balance to collapse, but if she innocently tried to do good deeds, then all phenomena would work toward giving her strength. Just like a snowball rolling down the hill.
What had convinced the old man who managed the Chandelier Auction House?
Why had a faithful servant like Riot spilled the beans?
Why had those two girls, who could never get along, joined forces to end this?
None of it had been the flashy Railgun or the Teleportation that left 3D space.
So whose actions had brought about all those results?
…Yes, a lot had happened that Sakibasu Ryouu was not even aware of.
Even if she did not know everything about the people pursuing her, she was vaguely aware that they had followed a single solid path that was not going to branch off. Something would arrive along that path. They were only a group of middle school girls and they should have reached a point where the trail went cold several times already. So how had they managed to find a new clue every single time? It had not been about money or esper powers. No, it had been the result of so many good deeds.
It did not matter if someone was an enemy or an ally.
It was different from manipulating or controlling someone’s mind.
As long as it was pure benevolence that drove her and she did not include any self-interest in the equation, then everything on the field would bring power to Sakibasu Yuri.
Sakibasu Ryouu only had the information available to her to work with, but that was enough.
(They will be coming. The insurance company’s server is not a problem since there was a dummy corporation in between, but either Riot or Reversible must have talked. That means they will know my name and that girl is bound to have her thoughts upon learning what I am doing. Sakibasu Yuri’s benevolence is sure to rear its head and lock onto me.)
That mother had only been able to build herself up on the foundation built by her daughter, so that was the only conclusion she could reach.
She squeezed the duralumin case’s handle a little tighter as she spoke.
“Logic and statistics are worthless. Even experience is of no use here. Act on your immediate senses. That is the only way to stand in the same field as her. This is far more than a hackneyed clash between Academy City espers. Be aware of that.”
“You only need to make it through tonight. Zero-Day Link will overwrite the world. If this works, it will prove that those of us with the proper bloodlines are those who have it. We can rewrite the world in that way and then we truly will have blue blood.”
They were in the center of District 15, Academy City’s largest shopping district.
“This is the polar opposite of District 3, isn’t it?”
“I’ve heard this district alone uses 40% of Academy City’s power.”
Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko spoke in annoyance while viewing the flood of neon and electronic signs. It was not Halloween or Christmas, so what was with all those LEDs wrapped around the roadside trees?
There were a lot of broadcast and mass media facilities here, so outside broadcasting vans covered in antennae and location shooting busses covered in smoked glass were all over the roads. Were all the taxis and other hired vehicles meant to transport people in the entertainment business?
It was approaching late night, yet the place was still crowded. Mikoto looked around suspiciously while weaving between some youths carrying energy drinks who looked like they would start cheering each other on at any moment.
“We’re talking about the headquarters of a security software company, so I was imagining some kind of glass-covered secret base deep in the mountains or in the middle of the desert. Y’know, with a domed or donut shape.”
“A child like you might not understand, but a company can increase their reputation by having their HQ in an expensive part of the city☆ Even outside of Academy City, aren’t there a lot of corporate HQs in Roppongi or Akasaka? Really, it’s all about keeping up appearances and showing off. Think of it like the corporate billboards in a stadium or the ‘so-and-so presents’ in the name of a musical or orchestra.”
That may have also explained the TV and online ads that only gave the name of a corporate group without giving any actual product names. It was not for the ordinary customers who would see the product on the store shelves; it was an appeal to the people who bought stocks.
They received a message that would not show up on Sakibasu Yuri’s phone now that Uiharu had changed the settings.
“Sa10> I really didn’t tell Sakibasu-san anything, but are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“I am. We can’t force her to do anything more.”
The building in question was a 20-story one on a road one over from the main street. Simply listing it as “in District 15” must have been enough for them. When they actually viewed it from a distance, they found it in a crowded area which did not seem to get much sunlight.
The girl with gorgeous ringlet curls raised one eyebrow.
“Queen, there is someone waiting in front of the main entrance.”
“Oh, dear. I have such trouble telling apart old men above a certain age.”
“My, my, Hokaze. You have very accepting tastes, don’t you?”
The Queen laughed in an exasperated and impressed fashion, but at what age did a man become “old” in her eyes?
At any rate, Mikoto had something to say too.
“I have no interest in filthy men of any age.”
“I’m not talking about that nonsense. I need your opinion as a Judgment member.”
“If he was really a night guard, would he be wearing shiny new equipment like that? I swear I can smell the insect repellant from here. And look carefully near his cuffs and collar. The tanlines are not quite in the right place. This appears to be his first time wearing that uniform.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m sure they have someone around back too, but check the security camera directly above the entrance. Why isn’t the lens moving?”
“GK> Geh, I tried to hack in but was forced out. And not just because this is a security company. Someone else has already taken over the system.”
The four girls exchanged a glance.
They all had the same opinion:
“They’re guilty as can be. Let’s take them out.”
An explosive boom burst out.
A high-voltage current coursed through the grunt disguised as a security guard to keep people away before he crashed right through the glass door and rolled along the lobby floor.
Nevertheless, no alarm went off.
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki crunched the small glass shards underfoot as they entered the building.
The darkness inside seemed to waver.
No, blatant killer intent reached them from the elevator hall, the emergency stairs, and all the corridors leading away from the main lobby. A threatening group was surrounding them. It was unclear how many followers Blue Blood had, but there were apparently a fair number of people who wanted to be special.
They had expected this.
They were here to pick a fight in the first place.
“Kuroko, coordinate with Uiharu-san and clear a path to the server room!!”
“Hokaze, take care of all the fools trying to attack us. I will use this to silence the ignorant onlookers that try to gather outside, so do not bother hiding any of your power☆”
The hunters gave their instructions and the hounds were released.
The men were dressed like night guards, but their weapons were an exception. Instead of police batons and flashlights, they appeared to be wielding suppressor-equipped handguns and flamethrowers with several portable gas cylinders inserted like a revolver, but what did that matter? You must not underestimate this special deck composed entirely of Level 4s and Level 5s from Tokiwadai Middle School.
They were from a prestigious powers development school.
It was said the students would be powerful enough to take over the White House if they worked together.
The ringlet curls girl strengthened her muscles and neurotransmission by controlling her bioelectricity, so she slipped through the gaps between the bullets flying her way and broke the plate in a bulletproof vest with a single punch. Metal darts sent out via teleportation accurately pierced the flamethrower cylinders, detonating the weapons. And the Level 5s did not just stand and watch. One used powerful magnetism to tear a drink vending machine from the floor so it could block the bullets the girls could not dodge with martial arts alone and the other spun a TV remote around to make the men in night guard uniforms start grappling with each other.
Mikoto magnetically pulled a fire extinguisher into her hands and then clobbered a nearby man in the head with it.
“They’re weak! Way too weak!! Dealing with them is a waste of time!!”
“GK> I found a map of the HQ’s interior from the documents submitted to the closet fire station. The server room is on the 20th floor. That is where you will likely find the AI that makes up a quarter of Zero-Day Link.”
“The top floor?” asked Kuroko. “They placed a computer higher than the president’s office?”
“GK> They can’t place it underground in case of an earthquake or water damage. And to prevent intentional sabotage or hacking, they wouldn’t want to place it somewhere ordinary employees, visitors, and cleaning staff can go. So their best bet was to place it on the isolated floor above the president’s office on the 19th floor. The elevator only goes up to the 19th floor, so the only way to the top floor is by passing right in front of the president. …You can tell the president is something of a control freak who does not trust their employees or business partners.”
“Is that how it works?”
“GK> It makes sense from a security standpoint. The state of the president’s social interactions is another matter, though. In case of an emergency, the crucial blades can be physically removed from the servers and carried away by helicopter. This is a security software developer, after all. They must know how valuable intellectual property like computers and programs can be.”
“Sa10> Oh, I’ve heard that urban legend! The human life seed rights!! There’s a rumor of a list of items like priceless art and fancy cars that are considered more valuable than human lives, so rescue teams will work to protect them instead of actual people during a disaster or major incident! So if your rent is unusually low, it probably means everyone in your area will be left to die!!”
Shokuhou took a peek at Mikoto’s phone and quickly grew pale.
Thus spoke the extremely unathletic girl:
“20th… M-M-Misaka-saaan? As civilized human beings, we will of course, of course, of courrrrrse be taking the elevator, right?”
“Do you want to get trapped inside it 20 stories up? C’mon, the emergency stairs are this way!!”
“Ahh, I had a feeling!”
Mikoto ignored her complaints and kicked open the metal door.
She first sent a high-voltage lightning spear straight up and a few (men dressed as) night guards rolled down.
“This won’t be all they have. Not when we had to deal with people like Riot and Reversible already.”
They cautiously climbed the emergency stairs.
Mikoto heard the “hee hee hoo” breathing of a young wife with a large stomach coming from behind her. She looked back curiously to see Shokuhou Misaki clinging to the metal railing with both hands and trembling partway up the stairs with sweat soaking her body.
“We’re only at the third floor, so I hope you’re only doing that for laughs.”
“My civilized ability is on another level from yours, Misaka-san. Not everyone trained themselves by running around in the monkey enclosure at the zoo.”
“Breathing doesn’t lie, unathletic girl. Or are you wearing such thick makeup you can’t manage cutaneous respiration?”
“H-h-how am I even supposed to communicate with a low intelligence ability girl who acts like cutaneous respiration has any bearing on keeping humans alive? Misaka-san, are you a mysterious creature that suffocates to death if you soak up to the shoulders in the bath? Phew…”
“(She feels unnecessarily soft, so while she looks skinny, I bet you would find she is an incarnation of visceral fat if you checked with an MRI. Yeah, no girl wants to have a beer belly or dad bod. I need to watch myself to make sure it doesn’t happen to me.)”
“You certainly have a disturbingly active imagination! What part of this perfect, radiant, and sweet-smelling body could possibly make you think of a dad!?”
Shokuhou Misaki had tears in the corners of her eyes now, but the Queen lacked her usual intensity since she really was weak in the knees. It was unclear what kind of unbalanced life she lived to end up so physically weak when she was so careful about eating healthy foods.
And then the gorgeous ringlet curls girl stepped forward because she was used to babysitting that girl.
“Queen, if you are tired, I could carry you like a princess.”
“Really!? My love ability for you knows no bounds, Hokaze!!!!!”
“Stop it, you burden! Don’t waste a valuable frontline fighter by making her carry your fat ass around!!”
“I never even considered it! I can totally walk!! …And why did you suddenly start talking about my butt there? Y-y-y-y-you’re just stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the wonderful size of my chest, aren’t you!?”
“Oh? Gravity doesn’t discriminate, Shokuhou. If this is too hard for you, just tell us. Those of us who are nice and light can support you before you topple backwards and your giant ass crashes into the floor. With three of us, not even that lump of fat can crush us.”
“I said I can walk!! Look, I can easily outpace you!!”
In some kind of miracle, the Queen of Tokiwadai actively used her muscles for once to walk up the stairs. While her clique members thoroughly spoiled her, Misaka Mikoto had apparently found a different way to hold her reins.
“Ah, ahhh… You may have been trying to help there, Onee-sama, but you stole a valuable opportunity from Hokaze-san. …Don’t let it get to you, Hokaze-san.”
The ringlet curls girl had frozen in place with her arms spread in a welcoming pose, so Shirai Kuroko placed a hand on her shoulder and held a finger to the corner of her own eye. The normal Level 4s were overshadowed by the bickering of the crazy Level 5s. This was one bitter truth of Academy City that Shirai herself was often burned by.
But something else happened just as Shokuhou Misaki reached the fourth floor using her psychological rocket boosters.
They heard a creaking sound, but it did not come from the floor or door. It came from the emergency stairway’s wall. Specifically, the one on the outside of the building.
That was confusing.
But as an esper living in Academy City, Misaka Mikoto was extremely wary of any phenomenon she could not immediately explain.
“Be careful, everyone!! Something is coming!!”
“Oh? You’re sensitive. Is that a sign of your experience?”
“Oh? You’re sensitive. Is that a sign of your experience?”
Was that compressed air that rushed in from outside?
Sparks scattered from Misaka Mikoto’s bangs and she controlled magnetism with all her might. The emergency stairs were nothing more than blocks similar to stair cars stacked on top of each other. Every twelve steps were a single block with another block in between for the landing. So with enough strength to tear away one of those blocks, it could be used as a shield.
She only managed to come up with the idea and act on it so quickly because she had seen the leotard girl known as Riot use air as a weapon in the club battle.
“Misaka-san, you idiot!! The sparks are going to trigger a-…!?”
Shokuhou Misaki was suddenly cut off.
Riot had been involved in another incident as well. The man known as Reversible had altered the concentration of oxygen in the air to knock out his target.
This was not just air. It was pure oxygen.
Crimson flames erupted from Misaka Mikoto’s forehead.
When the Queen cried out, the ringlet curls girl removed her blazer and forcefully placed it over Misaka Mikoto’s head. Fortunately, oxygen did not have the explosive energy to accelerate a blaze. If this had been hydrogen, Mikoto’s head might have been blown off. This was the same as swinging your palm horizontally to slice through a candle’s flame. If it was extinguished for even a moment, the propagation of heat could be stopped.
A silver-haired girl peered down at them while clinging to the 3m hole in the wall. She only wore a baggy dress shirt. She must have been crawling along the outside wall like a gecko.
She held what appeared to be a stick of lip balm in her mouth.
“Hee hee hee hee hee. Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee.”
Shirai Kuroko teleported several metal darts at her, but the silver-ponytailed girl had already ducked back into the large hole.
The ringlet curls girl who excelled at physical brawls held Mikoto’s head in her arms while speaking in a low voice.
“The location of the glass, walls, columns, and steel beams did not even matter. …With power like that, she can target us from any direction. Climbing the direct path of the emergency stairs would be too dangerous!”
“Let’s head into the building proper. Is this the 4th floor? We need that wider space if we’re going to escape her or defeat her.”
They pushed open the metal door to reach the 4th floor.
“I – read – that☆”
The sound did not come from any direction.
It only left behind the unpleasant sensation of someone directly toying with their minds.
“Now, how do you think I did that? That Queen there can produce any psychological phenomenon since she is the strongest of that sort of esper, so surely she should be able to figure it out. Ah ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
“They lured us in here.”
Misaka Mikoto removed the blazer from her head like it was a nuisance.
She slowly exhaled.
“You guard dogs intend to finish this here, don’t you!?”
She heard two footsteps.
The way they blended into a single set must have been their special skill.
Apparently not even a security software developer had nothing but offices full of computers. Was this a relaxation room or a daycare? Colorful tables and chairs were lined up in a large space and there was even indoor playground equipment like a slide and a jungle gym. Although it was unclear if that was meant to be used or just for decoration.
It was somewhat reminiscent of the hospital pediatric rehabilitation room where they had spoken with Hanakawa Hinadori. Perhaps it was designed based on the same relaxation principles.
In addition to a deck of Witch & Psychic cards, there were a few cards separated out and framed on the table. Perhaps they were actually worth something.
And in that psychedelic world where primary color toys littered the middle of the grownup world, two silver-ponytailed girls stood side by side with identical cheeks pressed together.
“I am Acid.”
“And I am Counselor.”
Between each statement, they used their lips to pass each other the lip balm they held in their mouths. It was like passing each other a single microphone to share it. The act brought their lips dangerously close to touching and they actually seemed to be enjoying that possibility as they continued.
“Were you having fun bullying the weak?”
“But how about we switch up the genre a bit now?”
With dual giggles, they made an announcement while close enough to kiss each other.
“It is time for some cruel and gory horror where an immortal monster chases you around.”
“It is time for some cruel and gory horror where an immortal monster chases you around.”
A powerful wind whirled around the twins.
Their already short dress shirts fluttered even more risquély.
The one with the lip balm in the corner of her mouth, and thus the one in control, was Acid.
“Hokaze can’t save your skin every single time, Misaka-san. If you don’t want to end up with a scorched afro, think carefully about what kind of attacks you use!!”
Shokuhou Misaki pulled a TV remote from her bag and pointed it at the twins, but then she clicked her tongue.
“My power doesn’t work?”
(No, that isn’t it. Since I have to see them and press the remote’s button, my power cannot completely ignore the laws of physics.)
“They’re doing something with the air! Something like a mirage that bends the light and throws off our aim!!”
“Hee Hee. Hee hee hee hee.”
“Hee Hee. Hee hee hee hee.”
But things were different from before.
There was an odd noise.
The strange sound was like a thin piece of rubber or plastic bubbling as it was held over a fire.
Like before, Misaka Mikoto was wary of any phenomenon she could not immediately explain.
This time, her thoughts managed to catch up.
“It has to start with oxygen… So is she combining it with hydrogen ions so it joins with the moisture in the air? Everyone, hide!! A powerful acid is coming!!”
Drops of water scattered in every direction like in the middle of a windy storm. Mikoto tackled Shirai’s slender hips and the ringlet curls girl picked up Shokuhou before they both dove behind reinforced plastic playground equipment.
The representative example of an oxyacid was sulfuric acid, so the risk was plain to see.
The frightening sound that followed was like a hot brand being pressed against bare flesh.
Mikoto recalled what Riot had said about old skeletal models while she was disguised as an old man. If they had stayed standing where they were, all their flesh would have been stripped from their bones.
The lip-to-lip handover happened again.
Now it was Counselor who held the lip balm in her mouth.
“And I ‘read’ where you would flee to. Here.”
There was a small sound.
The girl going by the name of Counselor had flicked up a pen she had heated with a lighter. There had been no strange pillar of fire. It had only been heated by a flickering flame no larger than a candle’s. This was a tiny phenomenon compared to before, but it was enough to change things.
It activated the sprinkler.
But the resultant artificial downpour did not make the normal sound. Once the raindrops hit the floor, they bubbled up with white smoke expanding.
Now, a question.
Sulfuric acid is the representative example of an oxyacid. It is stable as a liquid even at high concentrations, but what happens when a lot of water is suddenly poured onto it?
Mikoto’s back stiffened and her fears were confirmed by the ringlet curls girl hiding behind a different piece of playground equipment.
“If you breathe in that chemical smoke, it will damage your lungs! And watch your footing. The concentration should have fallen from contact with the water, but touching those puddles should still injure you quite badly!!”
“I get that, but where are we supposed to escape to!?”
Shirai could teleport past the expanding puddles, but there was no safe ground as far as the eye could see. The contaminated water spread across the floor like amoebas and the white chemical smoke would fill the entire space before long.
“Hee hee hee hee.”
Only the laughter of the silver-haired twins in dress shirts reached them from beyond that white veil.
Which one had the lip balm in her mouth?
They had to have been soaked by the water themselves, but one of the twins making cheek-to-cheek contact had free control over oxygen. From the look of things, she could neutralize the harm in their immediate vicinity.
The Queen of Tokiwadai spoke from behind the other piece of playground equipment.
She saw that other girl as an enemy, so she knew exactly what possibilities that girl’s power held.
“Do not let the existing pathways constrain your thoughts. What is your esper name again!?”
A life-saving boom sounded from overhead.
Just by flicking an arcade coin, she had stirred up the air and blown through the 4th floor ceiling. The white chemical smoke scattered, the artificial rain from the sprinklers was cut off, and a new escape route was opened overhead.
Shirai Kuroko wrapped her arms around Mikoto’s hips, the ringlet curls girl picked up Shokuhou, and they both escaped up to the 5th floor in their own ways.
The giggling silver-haired twins did not pursue them.
After all, the one known as Counselor spoke as she took the stick from the girl whose soft cheek was pressed against her own.
“I ‘read’ all of that☆ …Is this all you have, chosen girls?”
Apparently, the damage was not isolated to the ceiling (or floor?) between the 4th and 5th floors. A few floors above that had been broken through as well.
Shirai glanced down at her phone.
“They seem to be using a jamming signal and signal-blocking materials to prevent everything from giving us a hint regarding their powers. These were probably part of the company’s security to begin with.”
That said, being cut off from Uiharu and Saten’s advice was a painful loss. If they could have had a search of the Bank run, they might have found details on Acid or Counselor’s powers.
The 5th floor seemed to be made up of a few conference rooms. The smaller ones would only hold a few people and the larger ones had enough space for more than 20. It seemed the building kept all its facilities for normal people and guests on the lower floors so those people would not have to enter the office space on the higher floors. That may have been necessary for security reasons, but it gave a cold and exclusive impression once you noticed.
(For now, I need to check on the locations of all metal objects, especially steel ones. Fire extinguishers are crucial since you can find them anywhere and you can use them for so much. Is there any aluminum or magnesium around here? Oh, there’s an industrial-sized wax can. It’s not the most explosive thing in the world, but it is flammable.)
Mikoto’s eyes scanned the scene and noted the locations of possible weapons because she recognized how dangerous an enemy this was.
The brief magic seemed to have worn off for the unathletic honey-blonde girl.
“Hee hee hoo… We just have to prevent that weird virus from being injected into the system, right?”
“Breathing doesn’t lie, Shokuhou. Did you put out too many pheromones and nearly give yourself a false pregnancy?”
“W-we don’t even need to defend Zero-Day Link, do we? Wouldn’t it be faster to give up on reaching the 20th floor and skewer the server room from down here!?”
“They don’t have to protect the servers either. They only need to get the virus out there. I don’t know if it uses wireless or fiber optic, but as long as they have that internal connection, they can contact the other Zero-Day Link computers. Breaking the signal-blocking walls would only increase the risk.”
There was still Acid who controlled oxygen and Counselor who read minds.
They could not focus on the server room unless they did something about those silver-haired twins first. They could see why those two had been held in reserve until now. They were bad enough individually, but finding a blind spot was difficult when they worked together. Blindly charging in at them would only wear Mikoto’s group down. It really did feel like being chased by an immortal monster in a horror movie.
Mikoto leaned back against one of the walls between conference rooms and was surprised to find it was only a flimsy partition.
“Shokuhou. Acid seems to be controlling oxygen, but can you tell what Counselor is doing? Can you use that remote to mess with our heads to reject her power?”
“I haven’t the foggiest…”
“Isn’t your power Mental Out? I thought you could do anything psychological. So surely you can reproduce what that Counselor girl is doing! Right!?”
“I can read minds like that, but there are several different ways of doing so, like reading the chemical compounds in the brain or reading the differences in electrical potential. All I can tell you is that her power ‘reads minds’, but I can’t tell you what path she uses to reach that. Plus, wouldn’t your head reject any command I tried to give you? That plan wouldn’t work.”
“If you’re so great, then do something about Acid! Or is nearly blowing yourself up with your forehead fireworks the only thing you can do!?”
“Try to remember who it was that got us up to this floor!”
“You mean me and my perfect advice ability!?”
The ringlet curls girl grabbed the bickering Level 5s by the head and pressed their foreheads together.
The two of them blinked in confusion as they nearly kissed on accident.
“Enough!! We need to work together and escape this crisis, so why are you wasting this chance we won with your arguing!?”
“Yes, but, Hokaze, you are supposed to be my right-hand girl, so you should be taking my side in-…”
“I – said – e – nough!!”
“Ow, ow, yikes, yikes!! Stop rubbing our foreheads together, Hokaze-san! Oh, no! They’re going to touch! Our lips are going to touch!!”
“Heh, heh heh, eh heh heh. Don’t worry, Hokaze. Look how good friends we are!! S-s-s-so let go! Please let go! Ahhh, why with Misaka-san of all people!? Anything but that!!”
The Ace and Queen were in the very unusual situation of being forced to take each other’s temperature with their foreheads, so they tearfully trembled in place. They were close enough for their tears to join together, they could feel each other’s warm breaths, and it felt like their generally-unnoticed cutaneous respiration was going to sync up. If their lips touched as well, it was all over.
Shirai Kuroko could not just watch anymore.
This floor was filled with conference rooms that would normally be filled with men in business suits, so the twintailed girl reflexively grabbed a large glass ashtray. But…
(This angle won’t work. Nor will that one. Th-this isn’t easy… Where can I hit them to ensure Onee-sama’s first isn’t taken from me!?)
“Dah, bah, wait, Hokaze-san. Hokaze-san!?”
“Be quiet, Shirai-san!! We must not go easy on them here! I am willing to lose the Queen’s love over this because it is in their best interests that someone tells them this!!”
“But, um, this is not about that! This is a more immediate issue where my Onee-sama’s lips will be taken from me! Ahhh, but I can’t act carelessly here! Anything I do could cause them to close those last few millimeters!!”
They could not expect any reinforcements, so Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki were plunged into an unexpected crisis.
The gorgeous ringlet curls girl smiled thinly while rubbing the two girls’ foreheads together.
“Have you two learned your lesson?”
“Or shall I continue the forehead rubbing for another minute? I can keep going for 10 minutes or even an hour if necessary. …Surely you are not naïve enough to think you can escape my grip when I can bench press a full ton.”
“I’m sorry! I can’t keep doing this! I’m trembling so much a horrific accident is almost guaranteed at this point!!”
At long last, they were released from that hell, but only after setting a new record of 5mm in that game of chicken.
They could not stop the tears from flowing.
Yes, tears were not something you could control of your own free will. Humans did not have complete control of their bodies.
“Ah, ahhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
“Gasp, pant. I-I survived. I escaped with my life intact.”
The Level 5s fell to the floor and breathed heavy sighs.
Their breathing truly did not lie. It made their unnaturally elevated heartrate readily apparent.
That person who people would fight over if she appeared in a fighting game (because her exceptional dashing meant her combos were nigh inescapable) smiled and spoke.
“Now that you two have made up, how about we have a more constructive conversation? …And, um, why do you all keep talking about lips and accidents when I was only rubbing their foreheads together???”
“(Eh? What’s going on? Do we live in a world where no one can beat overly strong airheads?)”
“(Just you watch, Hokaze. Your nickname is going to be Musclebound Mama in the very near future.)”
“…Did you say something?”
“No, nothing at all!! Look how good friends we are!!!!!”
“No, nothing at all!! Look how good friends we are!!!!!”
The two of them put their arms around each other’s shoulders and put on their biggest smiles.
Each of Mikoto and Shokuhou’s attacks were much more powerful, but someone who actually knew how to string her attacks together into a combo had managed to get close enough to reach out and grab them. They could still win if they played their cards right, but talking back to her at this close range would be suicide.
The two BFFS were still unable to get up from the floor and Mikoto wiped sweat from her brow. Sweat was another thing people could not consciously control.
“Let’s go over what we know. Let’s start with Acid. She almost certainly controls oxygen. Nothing she did felt like she’s using a different power in some way to trick us into thinking that.”
“There is still a lot we do not know, like how much she can do with that power. For one thing, we don’t even know if she has the production ability to make new oxygen or if she is only moving around what already exists around her☆”
Then the stormbringer of a ringlet curls girl tilted her head.
“Um, does anyone here have any siblings?”
“Well, you see.” She gave a small smile. “Esper powers seem to be somewhat influenced by genetics, so I was wondering how strict that really is. I have no way of looking into it myself since I am an only child. …Come to think of it, there were two sisters in that lab, but how was it with them?”
It was a thoughtless action.
Shokuhou Misaki glanced over at Misaka Mikoto. It had long been said that the eyes were as eloquent as the mouth, but that belief was backed up by how fortunetellers and psychologists would observe the eyes first and foremost.
The ringlet curls girl seemed to somewhat misinterpret what that glance meant.
“Oh, do you have any siblings, Misaka-san?”
“That would be news to me.”
Her roommate, Shirai Kuroko, looked dubious, but that was not the main point here.
She did have some people she could call her sisters.
Except they were actually mass-produced military clones.
At the very least, the genetic factor was not an absolute. If it were that simple, Academy City would be overrun with more than ten thousand Railguns. But at the same time, genetics did seem to supply some guidelines. She had never heard of a Sister with a non-electrical power. And that was after more than 20,000 had been produced. Acid and Counselor.
Assuming they had not used plastic surgery to match their appearances, they had to be identical twins.
The bond would not be as strong between ordinary siblings. It was possible fraternal twins would have completely different powers. But if they shared the exact same genetic makeup, that would probably change.
“In that case…?”
Those girls had definite power.
But it had gone unrecognized.
Theirs had been a pitiful life and one they were not allowed to escape.
Weren’t they supposed to have risen to a higher stage if they had more power? But in the end, the riffraff were just the riffraff if they did not have the title of a prestigious school.
“You are letting this get to you, Acid.”
“You can still read me, Counselor?”
“What else am I good for?”
“Yes. …What do we have left if our powers are taken from us?”
Esper powers were not necessarily convenient.
They passed the stick of lip balm from lips to lips as if passing back and forth a microphone they were sharing.
“Shall we double check?”
“Is that really necessary?”
“My oxyacid cannot be set to stun.”
The identical twins discussed their situation while reaching for the buttons of the baggy dress shirts they wore. This was a necessary ritual. The oxyacid created by combining oxygen with plenty of hydrogen ions was powerful, but that meant even a small drop could spell disaster. They would immediately notice if any got on their skin, so they had to worry about it getting on their clothes and eating a hole in those. But in those cases, it was not always too late.
Once they had stripped down to their underwear, the girls checked both sides of their shirts in turn.
“I do not see any holes or scorch marks.”
“No problem here either.”
“Oh? Counselor, whose shirt is this one again?”
“I can ‘read’ you, Acid, so I can tell you truly do not know. And to be honest, I am not sure either.”
Their bodies were exactly the same size, so it did not really matter. After checking their shirts, they put them back on. With the ritual complete, it was time for their next move.
“Acid, you can have this.”
They held hands and looked overhead.
Highly-concentrated oxygen whirled around them and then the ceiling collapsed, sending construction materials crashing down to the floor nearby like a waterfall or avalanche.
The two of them whispered to each other as if none of that were happening.
“It really is, Counselor. Although I am afraid of some of the oxyacid dripping down when I use it overhead like that.”
The bottoms of their baggy dress shirts fluttered dangerously.
The ceiling had collapsed, but they did not actually need to dissolve the entire thing. No high-rise buildings were actually made of nothing but reinforced concrete these days. That would be too weak to impacts and vibrations and it would have terrible insulation, reducing the efficiency of the air conditioning. So if they damaged the joints connecting the various materials, the rest would collapse under its own weight.
They did not fly through the sky or anything like that. Acid did not control the wind or the air which were a mixture of different gasses. She only controlled pure oxygen. That meant producing a gust of wind was an inefficient use of her powers.
She excelled at chemical reactions. Specifically, she produced boxy coffin-like blocks out of the empty air and stacked them up.
That muddy-colored staircase was of course a collection of various oxides.
Acid had created a powerful oxyacid by combining oxygen with hydrogen ions and then the moisture in the air, but that was not her only specialty. She could also create solid blocks by combining the nitrogen and carbon in the air.
The silver-haired twin girls held hands and readily climbed those disconcerting steps that would cause untold harm if you licked them. They showed no concern at all for how exposed their bright thighs were.
“They are from Tokiwadai, aren’t they?”
“Yes, a prestigious girl’s school.”
“A status we could never hope to achieve.”
“If a delinquent school produces high-level espers, they don’t even know what to do with them, do they?”
That was their story.
Their school had had a bottom-level ranking and never should have produced a single Level 4, much less two, but they had not wanted to let that prize transfer away. When the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella suddenly shined through the riffraff around them, would they really find happiness? No. If their family or sisters were truly unkind, would they just watch as the star of the show left home?
The school had gotten in their way.
“Our school has the technology to produce fantastic esper powers such as this.”
They needed those twin girls attending their school if they were to make that claim. They also wanted the record of the twins graduating from their school. …So the teachers had written falsehoods into their permanent records and doomed them to forever remain in that bottom-level delinquent school. Endless possibilities should have opened up to them, but no one had grabbed ahold of their outstretched hands. On paper, they had supposedly hit their teachers countless times and aborted an untold number of nonexistent children. The teachers had only sneered and told the twins to sue them if they had a problem with it. They were supposed to prove their innocence, but how? Were they supposed to spread their legs and say “take a look” every time some false accusation was leveled against them? People snickered when they walked around town, their photos were posted on social media like mugshots, and they had even had raw eggs thrown at them in front of the train station. When their parents called, they only ever heard shrill shouting these days. They were stuck there until graduation. And with the nonsense accusations written up about them, they could not hope for much better at the next level of their education either. They would be stuck in bottom-level delinquent schools forevermore.
But then someone had spoken to them.
“Then why not destroy that school yourselves?”
It had been a revelation.
If the school was gone, nothing would remain to hold them back.
They might not be able to clean up the poor reputation that had already been established, but they could at least crush the source of that trouble and break free of the vicious cycle. They could not change the present, but they would stop things from getting any worse in the future.
And to top it all off, the twin known as Acid could accomplish some useful things with her power to control oxygen.
That oppressive mass of reinforced concrete had burned like a campfire at midnight. That was all it had taken to rob the school’s 300 students and its teachers of their stagnant territory. They had banded together as the lowest of the low and mocked those twins, but the girls had no idea what had become of them once they were split up and sent to separate schools that worked differently. The students had probably failed to keep up with the classes and powers development and the teachers had probably been labeled as idiot factories that could not even write on the blackboard properly. Either way, the mockers would have become the mocked. But the twins were honestly not interested enough in those people to keep track of their lives after they had their revenge. For them, it had ended with that one act. They did not see how they could ever make any progress if they continued carrying that with them.
What they had needed was liberation.
It had felt like the world was opening up before their eyes.
Once they had done it, they had tilted their heads and wondered why the thought had never occurred to them before, but it had been that person who had told them what to do. That adult woman had been the first person to ever reach out a helping hand to them and her lessons had changed how they viewed the world like a piece of trick art.
Of course they were going to follow her.
She had told those twin girls that all their troubles had been caused by a problem with their birth. If they had been born into a family with history and style behind it, money would have come to them as a matter of course. If they had attended a prestigious school from the beginning, none of that trouble would have ever happened.
And she told them it was not too late.
Their current environment was a mistake. If they were lifted up to the position they rightfully belonged in, they would have attended a prestigious school like it was normal and developed their powers even further like it was normal.
So that was what they would do.
No matter what it took.
This was not like robbing a bank for money or making threatening phone calls to a rich kid. They were only taking back what was rightfully theirs. So why should they show any restraint?
“There they are.”
“Indeed they are.”
The silver ponytail twins giggled, passed the lip balm with their lips, and pressed their cheeks together.
They had known this from the beginning.
“The one in the hallway straight ahead is Misaka Mikoto.”
That was enough for the Electromaster to frown, but…
“The one behind that thin partition wall is Shirai Kuroko.”
The frown turned into a full-on grimace.
But Counselor was not done yet.
“The one behind the vending machine is Shokuhou Misaki.”
With a click of their tongues, the Teleporter and Mental Out had to move out into the open. Using cover was only useful when it acted as a shield or hid your presence, but neither use applied here if Acid concentrated her attacks on them. And if the wall or hiding place ended up trapping them, it would only work against them. Once their presence was known, they had to move out.
It was of course Counselor who had read all this.
There was a deviation in the tempo of their laughter. Acid opened her mouth a bit, but the lip balm never arrived.
Mikoto casually scattered electricity from her palm in front of them.
And as soon as it hit the floor, the entire surface of the floor burst into flames.
“I really do not approve of abusing the Judgment fire-prevention manual to open up all the valves,” said Shirai.
That explained why the sprinklers were not functioning, but that was not Acid’s main focus. Counselor was acting weird, so she worked to organize what information she had even though that was not usually her job.
This was a first.
She had to half-steal the stick from her twin’s lips instead of having it passed to her.
“Is this some kind of oil? No, is it wax?”
Acid had taken control now, but her confusion was not just about Mikoto’s actions.
Counselor could “read” everything, so why had she not given advance warning? That confused her much more.
But before she could correct this mistaken situation, Arsonist Mikoto opened her mouth.
“Acid, you are an oxygen-controlling esper. That much I’m quite sure of.”
There was a low roar.
At that point, Acid finally realized why their enemies had spread this fire around.
“Fire consumes oxygen,” said Mikoto. “It is normally too small a difference to notice, but the flickering and intensity of the flames should reveal how much oxygen is left.”
“Wax fires burn at a lower temperature than you would think,” added Shirai. “At the very least, they are not as hot as kerosene or gasoline.”
“So don’t you think they can act as our canary in the coal mine?☆”
Shokuhou’s bewitching smile elicited an outburst of anger from Acid.
“You!! Counselor, get ready. We don’t need to worry about unnatural-looking injuries. We can dispose of their bodies in the very fire they set!!”
Counselor still did not respond.
Acid poked her lips with the stick of lip balm held between her own lips, but her twin did not grab it.
This was a first. Acid was always cheek-to-cheek with her twin, but something seemed off about that identical girl now. The silver-haired twins in dress shirts were no longer in sync. Acid’s partner was soaked with a disturbed sweat like it was a giant frog’s belly rubbing against her cheek.
Finally, she broke the rules. Counselor opened her mouth to speak without holding the stick between her lips.
“Yes, we have a pretty good guess about your power as well.” Mikoto glanced down at the sea of flames surrounding her. “Acid controls oxygen, but where does it come from? At the very least, she doesn’t seem to gather it from her surroundings. It seems she produces oxygen in her lungs and breaths it out into the air to control it. The flames are obviously growing stronger around you two. …Then what about Counselor? As identical twins with the same genetic makeup, you should have similar powers. That means you do not read people’s minds by scanning the electrical signals or chemical compounds in their heads. You are only taking readings centered on oxygen, just like with Acid’s power.”
In a way, that was the answer.
How was oxygen linked to people’s emotions and thoughts? Counselor herself had given it away.
“There are plenty of actions you have no control over, like trembling in fear or shedding tears,” said Mikoto.
“Like if you walk up the stairs long enough, you can’t help but start gasping for breath. And that gives away your inner thoughts.” The Queen smiled with a TV remote in hand. “Breathing. …Just like perspiration, it accurately reflects one’s tension and emotions. Come to think of it, they monitor that in Anti-Skill interrogation rooms, don’t they?”
“What a curious thing to know,” commented Shirai. “But if that was all it was, it could be fooled by consciously regulating your breathing. And you could hold your breath to refuse to give a reading, no matter how unnatural it looked. So it has to be more than that. Would it be best to assume you read a form of breathing that cannot be consciously controlled?”
That girl could read minds through oxygen.
They could not just think of it as an absurdly useful power and stop thinking there. For example, their friend Sakibasu Yuri could use her carbon-based power to do everything from appraising antiques to accurately reading the flow of the air. It would hardly be surprising to find other espers who could use other elements like oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen.
Mikoto wagged her finger a bit.
“For example, what about cutaneous respiration? Covering yourself in gold dust does not suffocate you and taking a bath does not drown you, so it might not seem all that important and there are a number of exaggerated stories related to it, but at the very least, I’ve never heard of someone who could freely control it. If you can read it, then there really is no way for a normal person to avoid it. We can’t hide our thoughts from you unless we wear an airtight spacesuit or something.”
Counselor had initially spoken directly in Mikoto and the others’ minds, so she must have been able to write information into that minute amount of oxygen instead of just reading it.
Counselor had not lost control of herself because her power had been revealed.
In the most extreme examples, there were battles that could not be won even if the esper’s power was discovered. If this group had only done that, Acid and Councilor could have used their teamwork to crush them.
But that would not work here.
Counselor had noticed a fundamental problem before Acid did.
She had given the positions of Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, and even Shokuhou Misaki who reigned supreme at the top of Counselor’s own field of psychological powers.
And because she could “read” all that…
Her thoughts were a complete mess. Counselor had been left behind by her confusion. She should have had the stronger psyche, yet she had trampled on the twins’ rules and completely overlooked the distrust she was creating in her partner.
“The other one. There was another one with you!! That girl with the unrealistic ringlet curls. Where is she hiding!?”
“Why not control the oxygen to read our minds? Isn’t that your specialty?”
The Ace answered her with a cruel smirk.
And that smile spread to the Queen as well.
“Rampage Dress. …She is a Level 4 who controls her own bioelectricity to place every part of her body – including her organs and blood vessels – under her conscious control. My clique’s right-hand girl is an exception who can actually control her cutaneous respiration. Once she understood how it worked, escaping your grasp was not difficult for her☆”
“Then…then where is that monstrously strong girl!?”
“I really don’t think reading any of our minds is going to tell you. I mean, she never told us where she was going. Silly girl. Reading someone’s mind is useless when that person doesn’t know the information you want. Hokaze Junko has gone into hiding to act independently of us. Invading our minds will not tell you what she is thinking. …And I would recommend not underestimating my right-hand girl. When boosting herself, she has the muscular strength to bench press more than a ton. You can control oxygen? Then use those mental abilities you’re so proud of to work out a way of using that to defend yourself. But if even a single blow takes you by surprise, a flesh-and-blood human like you will be pulverized.”
“We have no way of finding out where Hokaze-san is or what she is doing.” Misaka Mikoto spread her arms within the sea of flames. “But we can still take our own individual guesses and provide thorough support for that option. But only Hokaze-san herself can know if we are correct.”
Counselor clenched her teeth and let her fear control her as she shouted to the partner standing right next to her.
That obvious attempt to relieve her tension was ineffective.
Because a moment later, she heard a sound like a plastic bottle’s cap being twisted off, but much more ominous.
It came from right by her ear, as if whispering softly.
Counselor may not have been able to see it because they were close enough for their cheeks to touch.
A raging wind had approached from behind and landed a karate chop in the center of Acid’s back, causing that twin to arch her back from intense pain similar to a hernia exploding. And the very next moment, the other arm wrapped around her neck.
It was over far too quickly.
And since Acid was the only one capable of directly fighting, her defat left Counselor defenseless since she could “only” read minds. The twins could have tried for a cross-counter against Mikoto or Shokuhou, but the raging ringlet curls wind prevented that by hiding the thoughts that leaked out through cutaneous respiration.
There was nothing she could do now.
Or there shouldn’t have been.
Counselor’s shout was like a vocal slap to the face.
And that was enough to force life back into Acid’s eyes.
Mikoto just barely managed to grasp the situation through the flickering flames.
It was the oxygen.
Enough oxygen to cause hyperventilation under normal circumstances had just been swallowed into Acid’s lips!?
“Be careful, Hokaze-san!! She can still move!!”
This was somewhat similar to how the ringlet curls girl strengthened her body using bioelectricity. By controlling the flow of oxygen in her body down to the cellular level, Acid placed her body under her full control.
There was a dull sound similar to a metal bat swinging around.
It was followed by a heavy sound as Acid’s slender hand grabbed the ringlet curl girl’s neck. She was going to lift her up with one hand at this rate.
It must have been a subconscious action.
But that was why she showed no mercy or restraint. The ringlet curls girl used both hands to grab Acid’s wrist with all her might.
This girl could bench press more than a ton and she could strip away a concrete wall with just her grip strength. But after boosting herself in a way similar to Rampage Dress, Acid’s slender arm showed no sign of the bones or muscles snapping.
Counselor practically stole the stick of lip balm from Acid’s lips.
She was fighting back and she resumed her footwork at the same time.
“Acid, use her as a shield.”
Shokuhou Misaki immediately hit her TV remote’s switch, but the one twin swung the ringlet curls girl around while literally suspending her above the floor. Mental Out was such a wide-ranging power that she could only activate it when controlling herself via a TV remote. That meant she had to see her target and indicate them with her finger movement. With that physical curtain blocking her view, her attempt ended in failure.
“Do not worry. I will tell you exactly what to do. We can turn this around together, Acid.”
Counselor was “reading” the contents of Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, and Shokuhou Misaki’s minds. That could not be prevented on the fly after revealing the true nature of her power. Even if they surrounded the twins, their every attack would have a cross-counter waiting.
While being used as a shield with her neck in the one twin’s grasp, the ringlet curls girl tried to force out her voice.
Her warning did not arrive in time.
A dull sound exploded out as something hit the twintailed girl in the forehead. It was a solid compact containing a new autumn-exclusive color of foundation. While holding the girl up with one arm, Acid had blocked the enemy’s view like a bullfighter and used her strengthened arm to throw the cosmetic item she had pulled from her uniform’s pocket. Mikoto and Shirai used coins and darts as weapons, so they knew such things could be very destructive when used well.
The blow must have shaken Shirai’s head because she collapsed to the floor.
(We can’t make any careless attacks, but we can’t just stand here either.)
“I can ‘read’ that.”
They could not hope for a long-term battle.
If they did not figure out something soon, the ringlet curls girl would not last.
Her slender neck was being squeezed. With her control of her muscles, she might be able to reduce her oxygen consumption in a state similar to suspended animation, but not even that would last forever.
The silver-haired twins let the hems of their dress shirts flutter as the flames whirled around them.
They were back in top form. Counselor could read the enemy’s thoughts and Acid could control the oxygen.
They had climbed back to the top.
Misaka Mikoto clenched her teeth in that moment.
What did she need to bring an end to this negative turn of events?
(Something those twins don’t expect. A situation not even Counselor can read properly.)
She thought about it and found only one answer.
For one thing, it was unrealistic to expect any help from unconscious Shirai Kuroko or the ringlet curls girl who was being suspended by an arm.
But even with the one logical choice, it was unclear if a makeshift team would work here. Not to mention that Counselor could discover anything they were hiding using their cutaneous respiration.
How effective would this be?
She could only go for it.
The shoulders of the silver-ponytailed twin known as Counselor must have shaken before the girl being addressed.
She had indeed read Misaka Mikoto’s thoughts.
The long blonde-haired girl’s remote aimed in an odd direction. Acid and Counselor could defend against that if it was aimed at them, but their methods did not have a long enough range to prevent their enemies from using it on each other.
(What are they doing?)
Counselor gulped and focused on reading the Railgun’s thoughts.
I’ll use a lightning spear from straight ahead. As long as it’s non-lethal, I can take out that ringlet curls girl named Hokaze Junko along with the twins.
(But no. Misaka Mikoto is being controlled, so her own thoughts don’t matter. It’s Shokuhou Misaki’s thoughts that matter. She’s the one deciding what Misaka Mikoto will do!!)
Counselor looked to the side.
That girl with the TV remote was a Level 5 psychological esper, but that did not mean she could prevent Counselor from reading her thoughts. Cutaneous respiration could not be consciously controlled, so carefully scanning the balance there would reveal her emotions and thoughts.
I will have her use an iron sand sword. Rescuing my right-hand girl Hokaze Junko takes top priority. The sword’s edge is sharp enough that Acid’s severed hand can be reattached if she receives prompt medical care.
The scariest part was how the girl boiled with anger on the inside despite appearing so calm on the outside.
But now Counselor knew the truth. She only had to focus on Shokuhou Misaki to get through this. Acid could take them by surprise any number of times with the physical abilities given by controlling her oxygen intake on a cellular level. She could even wield Hokaze Junko as a club to attack the other girls.
They had a plan.
They could definitely win like this.
“Acid!! Focus your attacks on Misaka Mikoto! We can finish this while their teamwork is still-….” Counselor trailed off.
She could read people’s emotions and thoughts based on the target’s cutaneous respiration. They could not prevent her from doing so without wearing an airtight spacesuit.
Which was why she noticed what Misaka Mikoto was really planning beneath her surface thoughts.
For some reason, Shokuhou’s Mental Out doesn’t work on me. So no matter what she tries to have me do, it will be the lightning spear that hits them.
“Wait, no! Misaka Mikoto really is in control!?”
We don’t really know why my control doesn’t work on her. I might be able to take control if I pour all my strength into it. If that works, then the iron sand sword will slice right through that girl’s wrist. I mean, why should I hold back for her sake?
She understood now.
She had read it all.
Counselor had managed to dodge everything with perfect accuracy because every person could only plan to do one thing and could only do one thing. With just the one option, she could predict it and dodge it. No one could escape their own thoughts, so with Counselor’s support, they could achieve victory without taking so much as a scratch.
What if there were two options?
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki. Whichever one ended up being in control, one of the #3’s powerful attacks would be coming. A slight delay in reacting would prevent her from dodging it. Blocking those attacks by force was out of the question. It would be like being hit head-on by a large dump truck.
So predicting the coming attack and dodging it would no longer work.
Not even Mikoto and Shokuhou knew how this would turn out. And either option would allow them to defeat Acid and Counselor.
Counselor’s power was meaningless at this point.
A fighting amateur would have to rely only on her ordinary senses to predict which attack was coming!!
The stick of lip balm slipped from her mouth and fell to the floor.
Two voices were in perfect harmony within her mind.
Those girls were normally polar opposites, but they were a perfect match in this moment.
You really wanna do this? Then it’s time we taught you who you picked a fight with here!!!!!
For a while afterwards, a scorched smell lingered in the 5th floor air.
And not just because of the fire that had finally been put out using a foaming chemical fire extinguisher.
Shokuhou brushed back her honey-blonde hair and pouted her lips.
“The iron sand sword would’ve been cooler.”
“You can only say that because you wouldn’t have been the one dirtying your hands.”
The silver-haired twins, Acid and Counselor, were collapsed on the floor along with the ringlet curls girl who had been taken hostage. It had been an emergency, but Mikoto had zapped the hostage while Acid held her. She was not going to escape that unharmed.
“Kuroko, are you okay?”
“You put me through a lot of trouble, you know that!?”
Mikoto and Shokuhou lifted up the unconscious girls.
“(Onee-sama is so close!!)”
“(I-I feel like I am being corrupted by some kind of wicked passion…)”
The ringlet curls girl felt it would be awkward to announce she had come to and Shirai Kuroko was simply enjoying the situation as they cracked their eyes open and made eye contact with each other.
Meanwhile, Shokuhou Misaki sighed.
That Machiavellian girl had made the ringlet curls girl her right-hand girl. Even if the attack had come from their own side, she may still have been quite worried.
“Hey, Shokuhou. Is your girl okay?”
But the Machiavellianism was still there.
She must have decided showing weakness was never a good idea because the Queen of Tokiwadai brushed back her long blonde hair when she noticed Mikoto’s eyes on her.
“Of course she is. I chose Hokaze as my right-hand girl. You really think something as minor as this would take her out of the fight?”
“Heh hehn. My Hokaze is incredible. She would run right into a sea of flames if I was in trouble, she acts as my clique’s representative to keep the heat off of me, and she stays by my side even when I’m not in trouble☆ I could never find anyone to replace her. Not that I could say any of this to her.”
(Wow, there is no way Hokaze-san can open her eyes now. I mean, she’s starting to tremble and blush, so she’s obviously already awake.)
“Wait! Does that mean Kuroko is too!?”
“Gwagh!! D-don’t ruin my fun!”
Shirai Kuroko cried out in a way very unlike a middle school girl.
But she seemed happy even as she was thrown to the floor.
They bound and gagged Acid and Counselor before stuffing them in random lockers. How to fully restrain such versatile espers was a tricky question, but Acid, the source of the physical phenomena, created oxygen with her own breathing. Unlike hydrogen, oxygen was not explosive and her own skin was vulnerable to the powerful oxyacid. They decided trapping her in a narrow space where the walls reached her skin would be surprisingly effective.
Things had calmed down, but they could not relax yet.
Acid and Counselor were only the guard dogs. Their real target was still here. They were after the server room on the 20th floor. If Sakibasu Yuri’s mother, Ryouu, managed to infect the Zero-Day Link computer with her virus, everything they had accomplished would be for naught.
The ringlet curls girl hesitantly stretched her arms up to see how her body was doing.
“Nhh, I’m all charged up.”
“So do the people without selfish desires get more in the end?” wondered Shirai. “But I already decided I would live true to my feelings.”
They wanted to be part of a famous bloodline that left its name in history.
So they would destroy the entire world to make people see their blood as special. Noblesse oblige. If they readily provided more funding than the nobles in a time of need, the masses would accept them. They wanted to become a legend similar to Santa Claus or the Kasa Jizo. It was all for that.
“Okay, how about we get going? It’s time for the final hunt.”
“Yeah, that’s a pain, so it would be faster to launch myself up there with magnetism.”
“M-Misaka-san? I only have my legs to carry me and no matter how inhumanly beautiful they might be, lactic acid still builds up in them. Are you even listening!?”
“Glad I’m not you.”
“Oh, no. She isn’t even considering how I’ll get up there, is she!? Heh. Eh heh heh. Now, I have an idea. How about you lend me that underclassman of yours? I can climb those stairs with ease with some help from a power as convenient as teleportation!!”
“Hokaze-san is standing right behind you after recovering so calmly. Infidelity really is a bad idea, isn’t it? I mean, who would try to seduce some other girl when the one is lying there right next to you? Anyway, you can go to hell.”
Mikoto ignored the screams of “Hgh, wait, no, it’s not like that, Hokazeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!?”
After reaching the 19th floor where the president’s office was, they cut across there to reach the stairs leading directly to the 20th floor. Fortunately, there were no tripwires or other traps. Did Sakibasu Ryouu not have that kind of technical skill, or had she feared tripping one of her own traps in the dark?
“It’s cold in here!”
“My, my. Look at this child. You need to be able to resist the cold if you want to keep up with middle school fashion.”
“Says the person clinging to Hokaze-san for warmth.”
When they opened the large door, they were greeted by a refrigerator-like chill.
The darkness inside was of a different sort from before.
This was a blatantly “artificial” darkness, like in a planetarium or movie theater. There must not have been any windows. It felt like a vast graveyard made of plastic. A space larger than Tokiwadai’s lecture halls was lined with boxy computers the size of refrigerators and they all had green and yellow pilot lights blinking irregularly.
The center must have doubled as a maintenance access corridor.
The rows of gravestones were pushed to the left and right, leaving a long straight path in the center. That was the large server room’s main street. The letters and numbers labeling sections of the room like an old apartment complex’s building numbers were arranged to be viewed from that central line.
And in the center of that path, someone exhaled a white breath.
“This must mean…yes, Acid and Counselor were defeated. They may have been Academy City espers, but I suppose they were only children.”
The woman wore a gorgeous party dress made from a glossy black silk. She looked a lot like someone the girls knew. Her long black hair was curled only at her ears and her white skin made her age impossible to judge. The bodylines pushing out her dress from within, the sex appeal coming from her nape, and the shine of the colored nails at the end of her slender fingers were all very different from the girls of Tokiwadai Middle School. None of this was an internal light. It was all applied externally.
It was possible this woman was more “artificial” than the solemn, planetarium-like darkness in here.
“You’re the one too immature to understand what ‘children’ do.”
Mikoto focused on the object in Sakibasu Ryouu’s hand.
It was a silver-shining duralumin case with a longer and narrower shape than usual.
“What does the difference in income matter? It doesn’t change a thing if the child surpasses her parents! Sakibasu-san said she just wanted your praise. She held her head and sobbed while saying that was all she had wanted!! Yet you-…!!”
“Money is not everything. There are some things money cannot buy.”
The woman spoke in a singsong voice.
Yet it contained something far too thick to easily swallow.
It carried a pressure that made you forget all about the artificial chill of the server room.
“If you can say that, it is proof that you already have it. I protected that tiny house, cooked pancakes, and kept tabs on all the sales to stick to our budget…but what good are those motherly acts in the face of all that money!? Those words only shine when they come from the winners! If the failures speak them from poverty, they only sound like sour grapes!! You can only accept throwing out money when you already have it and are so flush with cash you can throw it in the ditch for all you care. Only then can you say there’s more to life than that! You haven’t felt this pain or experienced this suffering. You can set fire to a stack of cash and throw it into the wind without batting an eye, so you can never understand. You true rich girls don’t know how it feels!!”
After that rant, the black party dress woman smiled a little.
She exhaled a white breath and shook her head.
She let her body sway unsteadily to refocus her mind.
“But the thing is, having money really is meaningless.”
“Give the poor money and they will still be poor. They will only be mocked as swine with their pearls. In the end, it is predetermined who can reach a higher level. It comes in many forms: bloodline, family, history, and tradition. The people with those privileges are not even aware of it. Meanwhile, the flightless birds are doomed to be devoured by the insects on the ground. They will not die immediately, but it will gradually spread through them like pus.”
She snapped open some clasps.
She opened the oddly long and narrow duralumin case.
“I do not resent my daughter.”
Yes. According to Riot, aka Hanakawa Hinadori, Sakibasu Ryouu’s target in the initial attack had not been Sakibasu for losing the violin contest. She had ordered the shotgun fired on Mikoto’s group for winning.
On top of that.
“I am not so old and infirm that I will accept charity from the very daughter I birthed.”
She tossed the opened duralumin case to the side. In the planetarium-like darkness, Mikoto glared at the black silk party dress woman who now held the case’s contents.
“Kuroko or Hokaze-san would be too powerful. Shokuhou!! Let’s attack simultaneously!!”
“I can handle this all on my own.”
Academy City’s #5 spun the TV remote in her hand and aimed it while pressing the button with her thumb.
Mental Out was the strongest psychological power.
This woman could not avoid it like Acid and Counselor could. She was no more than an adult, so she would have her mind controlled and forced to simply stand there.
So they thought.
“Did you do something?”
“!? She can still move!!”
Shokuhou Misaki was so confident in her own powers that her eyes widened past the limit.
But freezing up was a bad idea.
“Argh, I’m supposed to be working for Onee-sama!!”
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl moved forward to protect defenseless Shokuhou.
Meanwhile, the clock was still ticking.
Sakibasu Ryouu held the violin's chinrest between her shoulder and chin and placed the bow across it with her other hand. And she directed the neck toward the girls almost like she was taking aim with a rifle.
A note followed.
Mikoto visualized it like a sharp knife slicing through the artificial chill and flying toward the center of her chest.
She had launched a lightning spear at the same time, but it veered off course partway through.
Mikoto took a blow to the heart and was thrown backwards.
“What!? That was Onee-sama’s…Academy City’s #3’s lightning spear!”
Everyone could tell this was not at all normal.
For one thing, how could she wield a violin like a deadly weapon!?
(It’s the scab. While Sakibasu-san stroked it, has this woman developed a sound that intentionally rips away that psychological scab!?)
“This chilly air really is not good for the instrument, so I will end this quickly.”
This was not just an unpleasant sound like nails on the chalkboard.
Sakibasu Ryouu’s sound came with a physical blow.
Mikoto knew a single violin could not actually produce a shockwave like a fighter jet, but she still found it hard to breath. Frankly, she was amazed she was not bleeding from the corners of her eyes.
“Stativarius Tam Lin.”
The bow stopped moving for just a moment.
The beautiful mother in a black party dress sighed a white breath and spoke while rubbing her cheek against the demonic violin.
“All art carries creation and destruction as two sides of the same coin. The Stativari are famous for the creative side of their music, so it only stands to reason they would carry just as much power when used for destruction instead.”
“So it’s a next-generation weapon!?”
“Do not overwrite this with that silly word. This is quite the opposite of that. Esper powers have only existed for a few decades. A new academic field like that cannot hope to surpass the historical weight carried by this instrument.”
“Onee-sama!! Our top priority is Zero-Day Link. You can stop her by destroying all the servers in-…”
With a forceful tug of the bow, another “invisible blade” flew out. There was nothing in the air, yet Shirai Kuroko saw blades stabbing into her arms, legs, chest, and forehead. She had actual weight, yet those imagined visuals sent her spinning backwards through the air.
Sakibasu Ryouu spoke while elegantly holding the violin in the center of the darkness.
Her white breath carried a sweet heat as she took aim at Shokuhou Misaki who was ill suited for direct combat.
“It is no use.”
The Queen’s right-hand girl gave a shout and charged forward. Her power allowed her to consciously control even her cutaneous respiration, so she may have been able to block out her sense of hearing. But…
“That is not how this works.”
The crashing noise that followed came from the ringlet curls girl rolling along the floor.
The black party dress woman smiled thinly while using the sharp toe of her high heels to push aside the girl lying at her feet and holding her gut.
“Do be careful. You do not want to see what happens if your skin sticks to the cold floor.”
“The Stativari provide their users with the ‘weight’ they lack. Talent? Genetic traits? If this is about effort, well, it was not easy acquiring this. I am not about to be defeated by some cheap esper powers development program.”
(It isn’t just the sound. Is it shaking all the bones in our bodies!?)
Even if all four of them worked separately to destroy the computers lined up like gravestones, would Sakibasu Ryouu allow it? As large as this room was, it was still a single enclosed space. There was a lot about how her attack worked they still did not understand, but if it could be sent out in all directions from her, it was possible the destructive effect could reach them even while behind the refrigerator-like objects.
“Now, let us bring this to an end.”
“Crawl helplessly on the floor and give up. As rich girls who have it, you may have been able to trample on the world’s logic this far into your lives. You may have been given a predetermined path of success that sidestepped all pain. But this is what happens to children who turn on the adults.”
It was coming.
She placed the bow on the strings and slowly gathered strength.
The frightening tone of death and destruction would accurately attack Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki!!
It was distorted
Mikoto imagined a nonexistent sword flying straight toward the center of her chest.
However, there was another.
A violin note was played from a new source and it passed by Mikoto’s group to collide with the auditory attack launched by Sakibasu Ryouu’s Stativarius Tam Lin. That was what had distorted it so badly. The image seen in Mikoto’s mind’s eye scattered like a small tornado of directionless noise.
She felt no pain.
She felt no impact.
She could only think of one possibility. What could possibly compete with a Stativarius’s sound without relying on tricks? And what performer had the skill to match that world-famous instrument?
That person casually tossed something onto the floor. That plastic box smaller than a pencil case was a mobile router. It must have been modified in some way because Mikoto’s group’s phones all beeped despite being in the heavily shielded server room.
“GK> I have a connection! My homemade device worked!!”
“Sa10> That must mean she arrived!!”
This was a level that not even Misaka Mikoto’s tricks and Shirai Kuroko’s intense practice could match.
They had managed to succeed in Tokiwadai’s elective exam, but no one had been able to reproduce that performance that stroked the scab with enough pressure to be just short of causing pain.
There had been no guarantee she would come.
They could not have blamed her if she had not. No matter how many crimes Sakibasu Ryouu had committed and even if she had repeatedly made dangerous actions that put her daughter’s life at risk, she was still this girl’s mother. She was an irreplaceable family member. Who could have complained if the girl had overturned the world’s logic and insisted she would save her mother or if she could bear it no longer and fled? Mikoto thought that complexity was what it meant to be human.
She had come to this dangerous place. Revealing her family member’s crimes might cast a dark shadow on her own life as well. Even if this was the right thing to do as far as the rules were concerned, it might leave her family bonds in tatters. She knew that – she had to know that – but she had still risked her life to rush here and do something that would not benefit her in any way.
“I had no idea a Stativarius could be used like that, mother.”
She wore her long black hair in twintails with just the ends curled.
And that short girl shared the same facial features as the black party dress woman holding the demonic violin.
In other words…
“But that means my Stativarius Ainsel can be used in the same way!!”
Both violins released abnormal sounds that were launched like crossbow bolts. The Ainsel accurately shot down Tam Lin’s auditory spear, like a Gatling gun protecting a warship from a missile.
“Sa10> Uiharu, can’t you use your computer skills to shut off the server room’s power!?”
“GK> If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be a very good center of security! But at the very least, it does not appear to be behaving oddly. The virus still has not been applied along with a patch or firmware update!”
In the end, taking control of the room through combat was the only option.
But this was no time to be celebrating Sakibasu Yuri’s arrival.
What was this?
After sensing a look from Shirai Kuroko, who had already defeated that world-famous instrument, Sakibasu Yuri responded while holding her violin at the ready.
“Do not worry. I will not be swallowed up by the weight of history again. But I will use everything available to me if it gives me the power I need to face the world’s injustices!!”
While holding their violins like mirror images, they softly removed the bow from the strings.
The mother glared at and whispered to her daughter.
“You appear in the nick of time, you have made these allies, and you have that Stativarius. You really do have it, Yuri. As long as you are acting entirely out of benevolence, everything here will take your side.”
“Sakibasu-san, why are you here?”
“I don’t have a good reason.”
Sakibasu Yuri answered Mikoto’s question with a white sigh and by moving her black-kneesocked legs to stand alongside the other girls with her Stativarius Ainsel at the ready.
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki.
With a Level 5 on either side, she was no longer afraid. She already stood there as her own person.
The Stativarius Ainsel was only a tool.
She was in control and the world-famous instrument obeyed.
“She is family! She is my mother!! So I must be the one to stop her. My poor mother, your greatest misfortune was not taking this wicked path. It was gathering so much power, surrounding yourself with so many people, and executing such a largescale plan yet not having anyone with the guts to stop you!!”
“So I will stop you. I will not politely support you or watch from a distance, looking for a chance to benefit!! Mother, I will not let you be alone. If you fear your crimes and the punishment that is sure to follow, then we can carry the blame together as a family!! I do not need money, fame, social status, or even Tokiwadai!! I do not care if I am family to a criminal. Why should I be ashamed to take your hand and name myself your daughter!?”
This may have been the birth of a new legend.
What did Oda matter? Why should anyone care about Tokugawa?
A great family and bloodline might find its beginnings in a vow to feel no shame, stand strong, and never give in when it came to protecting those who shared your blood, no matter how many stones were thrown and how strong the winds of adversity blew.
That girl was already flying the flag of Sakibasu. If it would allow her to fight the wicked temptation dragging her mother into the depths of the earth, she would engage Einstein in a battle of wits or challenge Benkei to a fistfight. That was how she had completed herself.
She would not allow her mother to be alone.
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl got up once more.
Rather than a violin, the sound of clenched teeth reached them from a short distance away.
It came from the beautiful mother.
“The fact that you can so easily throw it away is the very proof that you have it!! You will never understand my pain!!!!!”
“You never needed to experience that pain. All people have blood and history simply by being people. You need to realize that no one must look up at anyone else if we all shine equally bright! Mother, your complex is no more than an illusion of your own making!!”
“How can you say that when you were the one that ruined my life by forcing that massive fortune onto me?”
“What I made at the age of 5 was a child’s toy drawn on construction paper. It was you adults who gathered up the designs, released them to the world at large, and attached an obvious price tag to them, mother! I did not make that fortune all on my own! That success was something we earned together!! You could have found pride in that!!”
A loud boom followed.
Both Stativari had released full-power destructive notes.
Ainsel and Tam Lin.
The two world-famous instruments created by the same person may have been evenly matched.
Except there was a difference.
“Sakibasu will not lose. She might be your child, but she is also a member of my clique.”
Shokuhou Misaki managed to get that out even as her visible breaths took an irregular pattern.
The girl supported by the Queen faced her mother again.
“I understand. I too was drawn to a tool like that. You might think you can do anything with Stativarius Tam Lin and you might think the quality of your tool is all that matters.”
She did not hesitate.
She did not step back.
Sakibasu Yuri moved her black kneesocked legs to step out in front of the Railgun and Mental Out who were known as Ace and Queen of Tokiwadai. A white breath escaped the corner of her mouth as she stood on the front line.
She stood there to protect everyone else.
And that did not just mean the girls in Tokiwadai uniforms. She would save everyone, including her mother!
“But there were people who said they enjoyed my performance. They said the Stativarius was a curse and that relying on it would only rob me of my own possibilities! I have my own skill with the violin that I developed through practice. I am hesitant to use that for destruction, but I am willing to do so if it will open your eyes. And if we are both using violins of equal quality, then it is the other factors that will decide this! Now, mother, it is time to stop hiding behind that Stativarius like a small child. It is time to reveal who you really are!!”
“I promise I will not laugh, so it does not matter how embarrassing, unsightly, pathetic, ugly, painful, pitiful, and agonizing it is! Open up and show me what is in your heart!!”
An especially loud boom followed.
This time, the mass of noise was not distorted.
In a direct collision, the equal strikes might have canceled each other out.
But that was not what happened.
The powers were different.
This was not just Sakibasu Yuri’s skill as a performer.
But it was something she had obtained by being herself.
“GK> I’m glad that conversation took so long.”
“Sa10> Formations are a bit like a group dance, right? You can leave the specifics to Big Sis Saten here!!”
“Kuroko, Shokuhou!! We have our instructions on our phones, so let’s do this!!”
Mikoto and the others removed the foil sheets used to protect the cables from frost in the intense cold and they spread them out while enduring the numbing of their hands.
“Make sure this unathletic girl over here does it right!!”
“Aren’t we supposed to be working together here!?”
This idea had come from Shirai Kuroko’s victory over the Stativarius Ainsel.
Mikoto and Shokuhou took up positions close to Sakibasu Yuri’s sides. Shirai and the ringlet curls girl used the excellent mobility provided by their powers to move a bit further out on either side. They formed a hemisphere around the violin girl, as if they were forming a parabolic antenna.
The mother with a Stativarius widened her eyes.
“It is time, mother. Time to taste the defeat we have prepared for you as a group!! Then you can escape your isolation! As someone who was once manipulated by a Stativarius in the same way, I know how effective this is!!”
The quality of an instrument could not be determined with just the instrument itself.
The performer and the many people who prepared the stage were also necessary.
The two sounds collided head-on, but Tam Lin’s was torn through and the remaining one rushed toward the beautiful mother like a gust of wind.
Sakibasu Ryouu arched her back as it pierced her.
Her mouth hung open, but no white breath left it.
She moved her body forward to avoid collapsing backwards, but then she lost her balance. She overcorrected and fell to her knees. Leaning forward to face the floor may have been the final stubborn act of a parent in front of her daughter.
That lady had decorated herself with a black silk party dress and lost sight of her actual age by altering her hair and skin. But just before she collapsed face-first to the floor, her lips moved. She may have already lost consciousness, but she definitely spoke these words.
“I only wanted to be…someone who could protect you.”
Sakibasu Ryouu finally collapsed and stopped moving altogether.
For a while, the twintailed girl could not move either. She kept the bow hovering above the strings and bit her lovely lip to bear with something.
That woman must have been exposed to a great many pressures, both internal and external.
Unlike a middle school child like Yuri, she must have had plenty of negative feelings about unintentionally receiving so much money as an adult. So she had tried to change things. All so her daughter would not suffer through the same things when she grew up.
She had fought.
She had fought and fought and fought.
And at some point, she had strayed and lost her way.
How could she bring her family peace if it had to be bought with people’s lives? At some point, she had lost sight of that. Even though her initial motives had been entirely admirable.
“She would make pancakes a lot,” said the girl while looking down at her mother. “She seemed to know she was not a very good cook, so that must have been the one thing she knew how to make. Because just like store-bought curry roux, you only have to stir eggs and milk into the pre-mixed powder and pour it into the frying pan. …But I still haven’t found something I would rather eat.”
“Not even the finest Japanese cook or the chef of a 5-star Western restaurant could cook something better than that. There was no one above her holding her back. We were already the best we could possibly be. That flavor was all I wanted.”
She wiped away the clear drops in her eyes before they could freeze.
Sakibasu Yuri’s white breaths carried her voice.
“Let’s end this. Zero-Day Link is still running, isn’t it? I do not know what mother was trying to infect it with, but if we search her clothing and take her smartphone and whatever other storage devices we find, this will all be over.”
“Sa10> But where should you search?”
“GK> There are models smaller than a pill out there. Shirai-san, use your phone to scan her entire body. It might be woven into her clothing like a theft-prevention tag.”
This incident was never going to have a completely happy ending.
Sakibasu Yuri had cleared her name in the attack on the family restaurant, but they had instead revealed it to be her mother’s crime. That meant she would be criticized regardless. In the end, all of Mikoto’s efforts had failed to achieve her original goal. She had failed to protect Sakibasu Yuri.
But that girl had still said they would end this.
Did Mikoto have any reason not to honor that wish?
Shokuhou Misaki brushed back her long blonde hair.
“No matter what happens, you belong to me. My clique will never discriminate against someone who had the courage to see through what was right. You will always have a place here. Never forget that.”
“Yes. Thank you very much, Queen.”
The black-twintailed girl smiled and bowed.
Now they could end this entire incident.
Sakibasu Yuri crouched down and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. The woman lay face down on the ice-cold floor, but her skin had not stuck to it. Her daughter rolled her onto her back.
After setting up her phone according to Uiharu’s instructions, Shirai moved it along the surface of the black party dress with a troubled look. Finally, she gestured at a certain point with her slender chin. She was instructing Sakibasu.
The mother’s black party dress did not seem to have any pockets. After some hesitation and worrying, the daughter reached her fingers into her mother’s cleavage.
And just then.
It sounded a bit like static electricity.
It may have been a miniscule thing compared to the barrage of noise from before, but she was stopped by some strange and unexplainable phenomenon.
“Wait, Sakibasu-san, stand back!! There’s still something here!?”
Just as Mikoto shouted a shocked warning, something like an explosion occurred.
Their white breaths caught in their throats. The defenseless girls were struck and thrown away from collapsed Sakibasu Ryouu. Misaka Mikoto was fairly accustomed to getting into fights, but even she had the wind knocked out of her. This was too much to simply ignore the damage.
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl’s eyes widened.
“An esper power!?”
“It can’t be. She might live in Academy City, but she’s an adult!”
(What…? What in the world happened!?)
This was not right. The beautiful mother’s arms and legs were moving. She was clearly unconscious, yet she was moving with the awkwardness of a marionette. This unexplained phenomenon all expanded from a single point. It was like a small open seam tearing wide open.
The white breaths escaping from the corners of her mouth seemed like a mystical energy or phosphorescence.
The eerie image added a frightening edge to her beauty.
“Come to think of it, there is one question we never answered.”
Shokuhou Misaki clenched her teeth while holding out her TV remote.
No, she was pressing the button with her thumb.
Yet the woman did not stop. She stood up within her black silk party dress. The movements were all weirdly limp, like she was nothing but human skin stuffed full of mud.
“Why didn’t my Mental Out work on her? She isn’t a four-legged beast or an unmanned weapon. An ordinary human should not escape my control like that!!”
“Then is there something else getting in the way?”
Mikoto looked confused, but then she realized what it had to be.
The situation was utterly insane, but there was something Sakibasu Ryouu seemed to keep in her grasp at all times.
“The Stativarius Tam Lin?”
The woman held up the violin and softly placed the bow across the strings.
Assuming that deadly mass of sound was coming again, Sakibasu Yuri readied her Ainsel, but then the world seemed to change around them. Something entirely unexpected happened.
The vibration of the strings unmistakably spoke.
“Ee hee hee!! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!! Ahh, ahh, ahh, this is so much fun! Quite the tear-jerker there, you two!! I only intended to consume her tears and suffering, but it looks like today is my lucky day!! Now I get to enjoy the mother and daughter both!!!!!”
It was a voice.
There was no other interpretation.
“Sa10> Wait, that’s the violin? But the voice recognition is giving us actual text! What is going on over there!?”
Mikoto was there and not even she could answer that one.
The vibration of the strings was chatting with them instead of making music?
“Oh, don’t act so surprised. Sakibasu Yuri, you chose the Ainsel yourself, if I recall. The Stativari are so strongly desired because they give people whatever they lack. I’m here because I was needed! I’m doing this because I was asked to!! Do you get the picture now!?”
“Her personality has changed?” asked Shokuhou with astonishment in her white breath.
To reiterate, Sakibasu Ryouu had made a mistake at some point and lost her way. She had become someone who could harm others without feeling any pangs of guilt. But when had that happened? What had changed her from a mother who cooked pancakes to delight her young daughter even though she could not cook?
Had the cause really come from within?
What if some external factor had corrupted her?
“Was it the feel of the violin, its music, the varnish on the surface, or its weight?” asked Mikoto. “Whatever the case, did acquiring that external attachment create another mind within her!?”
“The Stativari were created more than 300 years ago,” pointed out Shokuhou. “That’s more than 100 years before the era of Freud and Jung! Neuroscience and psychology were little different from the occult back then, so there is no way they could have designed such a precise psychological input device.”
“Then what is that!?”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s been lurking in the underside of the world for at least 300 years!!”
They heard a dull sound.
It came from…was that a shadow extending from the beautiful mother’s feet? Giant black arms dropped down to her left and right. A giant upper body appeared as if covering her entire back. Was it a weapon, or was it trying to embrace the defenseless dress woman from behind?
“What in the world?”
“We can…explain all of this…with Academy City textbooks…can’t we?”
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl stared in disbelief.
The phenomenon was finally taking a turn toward the supernatural.
Sakibasu Ryouu had used several powerful espers as her arms and legs or as her eyes and ears, but wasn’t that because she was not an esper herself?
Something spoke with the crude voice produced by the vibrating strings of the demonic violin she held.
“Looks like she lost pretty easily, but I did give her what she lacks. Just in a way you all aren’t aware of. So how’s it gonna be, ma’am!? Are you gonna give up here? I thought you wanted a noble bloodline and family no matter what it took!”
“You mustn’t, mother.”
Sakibasu Yuri did not understand the exact situation or logic behind it, but she grasped the gist of it.
That thing was bad news. It easily entered people’s hearts, manipulated them as it saw fit, and corrupted them.
It was that sort of being.
Since they specialized in projectiles, Mikoto and Shirai started shifting their footing, but each time, the black party dress lady’s body swayed. She moved as if to protect the violin from their line of fire. They could not find an opening to attack like this.
“Don’t listen to it! Let’s end this already!! No, that isn’t right. It’s already over. All of it!! You don’t need to dig it all back up!!”
“Your adorable little daughter is watching.”
She had managed to muster some small amount of courage.
She had gathered the determination to protect her family.
But the malicious words of a third party transformed both those things into the trigger for the exact opposite result.
“Your sense of justice was just as pure before you fell into the mud. Sad, ain’t it? Once you fall, all those lovely things are so easily defiled. You saw how ugly adults can be when they swarmed to all that cash you found yourself with, didn’t you? The light in your eyes has dulled and will never shine again. But do as you wish. You can run away if you’d like. Of course, then you’ll just have to watch as your adorable little daughter ends up viewing the world through eyes as dark and dull as your own.”
“Pathetic, ain’t it!? You know that’s what lies in store for her, but you’re powerless to stop it!! It must be agonizing! You can see the gears of the world all set up to dump your only child into tragedy, but you can’t stop them from turning!! …Do you want to see your adorable little daughter devoured? Do you want to see the hyenas swarm around her naïve justice and tear her to pieces? If not, then call out to me and leave your body in my control!! You might be pathetic, foolish, and powerless, but that honest heart of yours is your true weapon!! I will supply everything you lack. You just have to make the wish. I am Stativarius Tam Lin and I exist to fulfill everything you lack!!”
Some slight strength entered Sakibasu Ryouu’s limp body.
Shokuhou Misaki held out her TV remote, but pressing the button still had no result. A different logic was mixed into the human mind there.
Meanwhile, the mother held the violin and bow of her own free will once more.
But that was not the human power to defeat temptation.
Quite the opposite.
She was taking the hopelessly easy way out. She was handing her body over to the “demon”. This was the final motion needed to give her assent and authorization. The mother signed her name as her daughter watched.
She signed the impure contract.
Because no matter how corrupted she became, she could not allow her daughter to take the same path.
And she spoke.
Sakibasu Ryouu said one last thing along with a white breath.
I’m sorry, Yuri.
I was such a terrible mother who couldn’t do anything right.
An even more powerful shockwave exploded out and filled the large server room. The industrial computers lined up like gravestones no longer mattered. They were all knocked over and smashed, sending violent electricity scattering everywhere. The room’s cooling equipment must have been damaged too because something like white dry ice smoke erupted from the ceiling with a hissing sound.
The metal foil they had used as reflection boards to increase the power of the violin were torn. They were useless now.
It was utter chaos.
The mother had been willing to throw herself into the fires of hell to fulfill the Zero-Day Link plan for her daughter’s sake, but whatever she had become did not bat an eye at destroying all that now. She wielded her violin and the four intensely vibrating strings produced a deafening roar of laughter.
“Ha ha!! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!”
Some invisible rails had clearly been changed.
A dull zapping sound burst out.
Mikoto could restrain herself no longer, so she had launched a lightning spear, but it veered off course partway through and exploded.
One note from the violin had been enough to rule over this entire space.
“Contract received! Contract received!! You have my praise for exposing your pathetic side, accepting your foolishness, contemplating your powerlessness, and yet clinging to your honesty!! So don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll supply everything you lack. You want a noble family, a respected bloodline, and a name no one will ever forget, do you!? Then I’ll create all of that for you! By any means necessary!!”
Was there any meaning in it?
Or was it just a physiological reaction?
A single clear drop fell from the eye of the mother’s limp empty shell. She could not wipe it away, so it froze there on her cheek.
How painful must it have been for that mother to shed a tear of weakness in front of her child?
That selfish violation made the black-twintailed girl clench her teeth.
It was true that her mother had not known what to do with the sudden influx of money that had destroyed their previously gentle lifestyle, came in contact with a strange violin, had her heart disturbed, and ultimately harmed a great many people. If she had not been stopped, she would have spread chaos around the world. No matter how she had reached that point, she would have to pay for it.
Did she really have to pay this much? Did she have to have the mask stripped away against her will, have her dignity shattered, and have her heart trampled on? Was anything permitted as long as the victim had committed some kind of crime? When the person making the punishment was the one who had convinced her to commit the crime in the first place!?
“Who are you?” asked Sakibasu Yuri with a tremor in her voice. No, her voice was a bullet of sound on par with the Ainsel. “Who in the world are you!!!???”
“I am Stativarius Tam Lin, the device that provides its master what they lack by the fastest means possible. Zero-Day Link? Noble bloodlines? Noblesse oblige? Whoever pays the most to the common folk gets to be the new nobles? To be honest, I don’t understand any of that crap! It’s all so slow-going and who knows if it would even work. No matter how much she tries to dress it up, she’s just some kind housewife who could use a lot more ambition. Of course, that’s probably why she got surrounded and devoured the instant she had some money. She’s never gonna accomplish anything herself, so I’ll give her what she wants in a much more surefire way.”
The ringlet curls girl was ever vigilant and tried to sneak into a blind spot while Tam Lin was talking, but she was blocked by a complete coincidence. A thick burst of electricity exploded at her feet. That was not Mikoto’s power. It was the high-voltage current leaking out of the servers destroyed by Tam Lin. This was very different from the 100 volts of a home power socket.
The black party dress lady was not immune to the electricity either. Those glowing electric serpents were crawling unpredictably around. If one happened to touch her ankle, her flesh and blood would explode and she would die.
There was no fear or tension in that voice. In fact, it seemed to be enjoying this.
“Now, then. How to make her die?”
Even Mikoto tensed her shoulders when she heard that.
This was taking an unexpected turn.
“Why are you so surprised? History and tradition are the result of a great many deaths. Family names are the things written on graves. So there’s a real simple way for this mother to lay the foundation for her daughter. Sakibasu Ryouu only has to die to grant her own wish. And in as dramatic, moving, beneficial, and unforgettable a way as possible.”
“But…but no one was talking about that!” She wanted to be happy. Her methods were wrong, but she only relied on you so they could all smile together as a family!!”
“It’s no use, Misaka-san. This thing does not seem to have any real interest in the person it has borrowed. Whatever it is, my Mental Out does not work on it. I doubt it even has a human mind.”
“Call me whatever you like, but you humans have a bad habit of assuming being like you is a good thing. It’s like putting clothes on a cat and feeding it miso soup. Miso soup full of chopped green onions.”
Tam Lin seemed to be saying it was not human.
If a program was monitoring human activities, would it make that same assessment?
“The way people die has meaning. Maybe you would have an easier time understanding if I used this country’s origins as an example. Oda Nobunaga is only famous because of his shocking death as Honnouji burned around him. Can you list the names and causes of death of the Tokugawa leaders who lived through times of peace!? It’s all about death. Death is the quickest way to give weight to your blood and family. Ha ha ah ha ha!! And I’ve gotta make the best use of this life I’ve been entrusted with, don’t I!?”
Sakibasu Yuri heard that conclusion.
But there was more to the world than malice.
“I’ll help you, Sakibasu-san.”
“Didn’t I tell you? You belong to me. I don’t have to explain why I’m doing this, do I?”
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki stood in the way to challenge this foe.
But they were not the only ones.
“This black twintails girl is nothing but trouble. But I’m used to it by now, so let’s get this over with.”
“Queen, grant me permission. I know I offered this power to you, but she is part of your clique. May I use my full power just this once?”
“GK> Tell me whatever you need. I’ll investigate anything!”
“Sa10> Me too!!”
Shirai Kuroko and Hokaze Junko had joined the others again.
And Sakibasu Yuri quietly held up her violin.
“You are not a terrible mother.”
When the words spilled from her lips, she used them as a starting point to express her thoughts.
No matter how much the chemical coolant leaking from the broken cooling equipment froze the server room, it could never extinguish the heat filling her heart.
“You did hurt a lot of people and cause even more trouble, but it all started with nothing more than a desire to protect your family. I refuse to believe that is a bad thing.”
She did not hesitate.
She did not look away.
“I never wanted the money.”
The mother had agonized over her desire for the strength to say that.
So the daughter would do it.
“Our bloodline and family status never really mattered.”
Sakibasu Ryouu had separated her and her daughter’s accomplishments in her mind, but that had not been necessary. They could have shared it all as part of the same family.
She had even done so herself.
When she had drawn a crayon picture of her mother, her aunt had praised her for it. She had written a school essay about her father’s job. She had bragged to her friends about how incredible her family was and that her parents could do anything.
That should have been enough.
There was nothing wrong or shameful with having pride in your family.
Sakibasu Yuri did not hesitate to wield another Stativarius capable of becoming just as much of a monster and shouted like she was picking a fight with the entire world.
“She wanted to protect her family!! It should have been enough to stay in that small house full of memories, smiling together and making pancakes!! And mother must have felt the same before a demon like you latched onto her and took advantage of the fears all that money gave her. …Distorting people’s wishes is not the same thing as granting them, Tam Lin. Whatever wicked temptation you bring, it can never truly fulfill or satisfy anyone! Everything you give them is a product of misguided compromise and resignation that actually cuts off the path to truly granting their wish. Everything you hold so dear is no more than that. It isn’t even worth a fistful of dirt!!”
A high-pitched noise rang between Sakibasu Yuri’s eyes.
No, perhaps only she could hear it.
Were her blood vessels or nerves going haywire?
It was a disconcerting feeling like all her body’s skin had grown taut. In fact, something may really have been tearing like a run in a pair of stockings. She could feel a spreading heat within the chilly server room.
But the surface wounds and bleeding were not what mattered.
This was a call.
She held a world-famous violin in her hands. That Stativarius was worth well over 100 million yen. Her mother’s soul had been taken away when she was overwhelmed by that brand name and its fame, but that would not happen to Yuri who was supported by so many people and understood the power of her own performance.
She could face it properly.
An instrument was a tool.
It was the person who was in control.
As long as she made no mistake there, she could change the Stativarius’s curse into a blessing.
“I will be taking my family member back. No matter what.”
That name referred to a fairy with the same name as yourself.
With a white breath, the girl answered the call.
She called out to the partner in the unlocked violin case who she had literally shared her bed and table with.
She would not be defeated by that world-famous instrument.
Because she was an equal and independent being.
“So lend me your power!! Stativarius Ainsel!!!!!!”
The Ainsel and Tam Lin, both Stativari which carried the title of world-famous violins, clashed using notes of destruction. The leaking chemical coolant made the large server room even chillier than necessary. Computers the size of refrigerators were lined up along the floor and they exploded one after another as “stray shots” hit them. The dry-ice-like fog was torn through and thick arcs of electricity colored the darkness like neon.
This time, Sakibasu Yuri’s performance was not enough to overpower her mother Ryouu.
No, something had stolen her mother’s body and that something was working to swallow up the girl as well.
Mikoto grabbed the black-twintailed girl around her slender hips and used magnetism to leap toward the ceiling. A storm of EM waves raged along the floor. When Mikoto saw gravity pulling on the upside-down girl’s skirt, she hastily changed how she was holding her.
During all this fighting, the wicked strings vibrated to spit out a voice rather than music.
“Gee kee, ah ha ha!! You play some nice violin, girly. I had assumed a mature woman was best when looking for the body most suited for playing me, but did I actually want the fingers of a refreshing unripe fruit gently wrapped around me instead!?”
“I refuse to touch a monster like you! Show him what we can do, Ainsel!!”
“Yeah, that’s the stuff. You really know how to stimulate the scab. It’s making me so damn jealous. You must know nothing is more exciting than taking what belongs to someone else, so I can only assume you’re asking for it by showing that off!!”
The positions of master and servant had been entirely reversed on the other side. Instead of adjusting the size of the instrument to what the performer could best play, the humans were lined up and compared to see whose arms, legs, and fingers were the perfect length to play a 60cm violin. This was a clear statement that a human life was a small price to pay for drawing out the music of a world-famous instrument.
The violin’s explosive notes targeted the ceiling, so Mikoto moved around while holding Sakibasu around the hips. She moved from the ceiling to the servers and then back to the floor.
“Kuroko, you take over! Help Sakibasu-san with your Teleportation!!”
Of course that bastard was going to aim for the moment of the switchover.
Mikoto launched a lightning spear as covering fire, but it was once again diverted away from the enemy.
“A gentle but world-wise wife is pretty great, but this opportunity doesn’t come along every day. Instead of tearing apart a man and woman to take her #1 spot, I actually have the chance to steal someone from another Stativarius!! Gee kee, ah ha ha ha!!”
“Kh!! Damn you!!!!!!”
“Lick those slender fingertips in preparation for me. Once I grant this old wife’s silly little wish, it’s your body I’ll claim next, girly. So you’ll need those fingers to play some beautiful music with me! And there’s no stopping until I’m satisfied!!”
They were both Stativari, but the attacks coming from Tam Lin had clearly surpassed anything possible using the wavelengths of a violin. It was like some other destructive force had been added on. This was something indescribably sinister, which came at the price of the owner’s destruction.
Shokuhou Misaki let out a white breath and gave an order.
Starting with an explosive step, the girl with gorgeous ringlet curls tore apart the dry-ice-like white fog and approached Sakibasu Ryouu. She circled around to the side of the mother and daughter who were clashing head-on.
“That ain’t gonna work!!”
It was the ringlet curls girl who was pushed back.
Even though her opponent had both hands full playing the violin.
A shadow extended from the feet of the beautiful mother in the black silk party dress and something like the upper body of a dark giant burst out.
“What is it now!?”
“I don’t think we have to time to let every little thing surprise us, Kuroko!!”
The thick arms reached out on either side of her body and the torso rose up behind her and leaned over her head. It was the fist of one of those pitch-black log-like arms that pushed back the ringlet curls girl who claimed she could bench press more than a ton.
What was more impressive here? The dark arms that could push back Rampage Dress, which strengthened the body by controlling it on the cellular level using the weak bioelectricity within?
Or was it the ringlet curls girl who could survive a blow from a dark arm more brutal than the heavy machinery used to demolish buildings?
“That isn’t metal or wood. It was similar to thick rubber, but subtly different. …Dead flesh. I think the closest comparison would be punching a giant tuna or hunk of frozen meat.”
“Risking yourself to test my strength? You’re a brave little thing, curly. But it seems to me you must have a death wish.”
They had to support the ringlet curls girl, but Mikoto’s attack would be too powerful.
“Kuroko, I’ll take care of Sakibasu-san, so you focus your attacks on that violin!!”
The usual metal darts skipped right past the thick dark arms and directly invaded the holy territory in which the party dress woman stood.
“I can’t hit it!! Why!?”
The 60cm violin skillfully dodged the teleportation attacks as the woman shook her head and shoulder with the rhythm she was playing herself. Those metal darts could tear through the walls of a nuclear shelter, but they were meaningless if they only hit empty air.
“Sa10> This is three Level 4s and two Level 5s from prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School, right? How can a single person fight evenly against all of them at once!?”
“GK> That’s just how dangerous they are, apparently! Agh, there’s nothing in the Bank related to violins or this situation… What theory is this technology based on!?”
Then they received their answer.
And just because a search produced no results did not necessarily mean it only relied on the mysterious occult.
When panicked and confused, the proper search terms could slip from your mind.
“It’s called an indefinite curve. Like pi, it’s an irregular waveform that has a clearly defined formula but that never arrives at the crucial answer. The wonders of music can control the human body, so what happens when I produce a random fluctuation that your minds can’t predict? You could link up all the world’s supercomputers and have them work at it for a 1000 years and never find an answer to this long-ass string of numbers, so how are the puny brains behind those cute little faces supposed to stand a chance? An attack that sweeps across a line or fills a plane would be one thing, but one that pierces a single point can never hit me.”
“Queen, please make contact!!”
“Will do. Fall back, Hokaze!!”
Mental Out was not just for use on enemies. It could also forcefully intervene in an ally’s thoughts, so the ringlet curls girl jumped back and away from the giant arms with movements she never could have pulled off with her own reaction speed.
Just like with empty cartridges, the enemy must not have wanted to step on one of the metal darts and lose balance.
The root cause of it all used those high-heeled feet to kick the fallen darts aside within the cold fog.
“I don’t like the way you’re fighting there. You’re holding back out of fear of killing this woman, aren’t you? But just so you know, this body is part of me now! There’s more to a Stativarius than the violin in the glass case!!”
“Dodge, Kuroko!! Don’t let the apparent distance trick you!!”
Just as Mikoto shouted that warning, one of the dark arms tore up a fridge-sized computer like it was a weed. And it threw the server. The fog that hung in the air like dry ice was entirely blown away. That weight and speed could crush the average car and the electricity it scattered in every direction could easily destroy a human body if it flew anywhere near them. Shocked Shirai vanished into thin air at about the same time the ringlet curls girl fell back further to reassess the appropriate distance from this enemy.
“What’s wrong!? I’ve gotta create a new family name for this careless wife. Aren’t you gonna help me give her a dramatic death!?”
If they stood in front, the violin would hit them.
If they circled around to either side or behind, the dark arms or the giant’s upper body would handle the offense and defense. A clean hit from either would be lethal. Plus, keeping their distance was not enough to ensure safety.
Shirai Kuroko clenched her teeth next to Misaka Mikoto while viewing that fearsome situation.
“To be honest, this is a formidable opponent!!”
“So what? How can we accept anything but a happy ending after coming this far!? Let’s smash that hunk of junk and take back Sakibasu-san’s mom as soon as possible!!”
Did you know the well-known Do Re Mi scale was “designed” using math? For example, if you call the base string Do and halve the length of the string, then you have moved up an octave. In other words, you have moved through the entire Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do scale to reach that next Do up. And if you shorten the base string by two-thirds, you end up with Sol. Knowing those two facts is enough to fill in the entire scale with halves and two-thirds. The idea dates back to Pythagoras.
And while the ancient alchemists played with glass test tubes in an attempt to separate the elements, it is said they used Pythagoras’s arrangement of the seven planetary symbols along the Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do scale to preserve their secret techniques in a form the ignorant would not recognize. It is fairly well-known that Heinrich Khunrath’s lab contained musical instruments right alongside the more traditional lab equipment like pots, stills, and bellows.
Playing music was enough for a special power to gather.
For that matter, the practitioner’s own body could be seen as an instrument as they send vibrations through it to recite incantations.
What did that mean?
“Hokaze-san, help me out!!”
“I will support you from behind, so go ahead!!”
An explosive boom erupted out.
That was the sound of a Railgun tearing across the large server room and mercilessly slamming against the thick outer wall of that panic room. The dry-ice-like fog was stirred up after a moment’s delay. According to Uiharu Kazari, the entire top floor was surrounded by thick walls made of special steel so not even a Railgun could destroy them. But that meant the Railgun blast shook the entire wall violently, creating a deep and violent boom similar to a large drum.
Mikoto had no intention of destroying that mother’s body in front of her daughter.
The global threat of Zero Day Link had long since been ended, so their current objective was rescuing Ryouu from that violin. And to be honest, Mikoto found herself much more motivated to fight toward that end.
“Sa10> Whoa!? What’s going on!? The display broke!!”
“GK> The sound must be so loud it overwhelmed the voice recognition and caused an error.”
Mikoto’s attack had not been meant to defeat their target.
“Tch. Even that loud boom wasn’t enough to stop the bizarre things that violin is causing!?”
“Not a bad idea, but it isn’t the sound that reaches your ears that matters; it’s the sound that leaves me. The world doesn’t revolve around you, so why should I care how those wax-covered eardrums vibrate? Try to ignore the title of Stativarius with a little trick like that and you’ll just get yourself killed.”
Shirai Kuroko and Sakibasu Yuri grimaced at about the same time.
“I really do not think we can ever reach an understanding!!”
This was the exact opposite of what they had done during the elective exam. Was this a sign that even Stativarius Tam Lin was only a musical instrument – a tool used to produce sound? Could he not even imagine the ways beautiful music could move someone to emotion?
This was a selfish performance where only the produced sound mattered.
That was no different from a racket that kept the neighbors up at night.
How could that bring anyone happiness?
“Nothing’s more boring than seeing you repeat yourselves because you don’t know what to do,” said Tam Lin. “I’ll switch things up myself.”
The note that followed was not exactly loud, but it never seemed to end.
This was not a great mass of sound that hit you like an explosive boom or shockwave.
A moment later, the volume leaped up like a giant shark bursting from the water’s surface.
It was loud enough that Mikoto could not even hear her own shout.
But that was hardly surprising when this sound did not come from the violin’s strings. This was the noise of things burning. A tsunami of flames filled the space, swallowed up all the computers that had been knocked over, and pushed out toward Mikoto and the others!!
The amplitude of sound was not enough to explain this.
Gathering together nearby scrap metal to create a shield would have actually been more dangerous because it was all glowing red with heat. The radiant heat was so powerful it might have scorched her black.
The ringlet curls girl clung to her and asked for help, but Shokuhou Misaki pushed her TV remote back at her.
Yes, this heat was no illusion.
The heat from straight ahead brought a piercing pain and the rapid heating of the floors and walls caused them to “sweat” like the condensation on a glass.
Of course, they did not think vibrating the water molecules to heat it up like a microwave oven could produce explosive flames like these.
Plus, they had already seen a dark giant’s upper body leaning over the beautiful mother from behind. They had no way of explaining that either.
But they still could not hide their surprise.
Things had been overturned yet again.
This was a world of which Misaka Mikoto was unaware.
“Sound is only the foundation. Just as angry yelling on a snowy mountain can ultimately trigger an avalanche, the amplitude of my notes can summon the four elements of fire, water, wind, and earth in whatever balance I like. Have a taste of the true threat I pose!! Have a taste of Stativarius Tam Lin’s spell!!”
The unexpected occurrences slowed the girls’ reaction speed just a bit.
And like windshield wipers clearing away the raindrops, a great wall of flames swept out across the entire server room.
There was no escape.
The server room was on the 20th floor and there were no windows regardless. Breaking through the walls, ceiling, or floor would be difficult since they were all made of special steel so it functioned as a panic room. They could not reach the limited number of exits before the approaching wall of flames would roast them.
Even Level 5s were still human.
If they were swallowed up by hellfire with no advance preparation, they would die.
It should have ended right then and there.
“Queen, please make contact. Please eliminate the fear that is making me tremble.”
A high-pitched sound burst out and the approaching tsunami-like mass of flames was deflected right before Mikoto’s eyes.
Technically, that was not quite accurate.
The flames had not simply been blown away.
It was a giant mass of ice.
When Sakibasu Yuri played an especially loud note on her violin, countless pillars of ice burst from the floor as a thick barrier.
She was supposed to be the Ace of Tokiwadai.
She was supposed to be #3 in Academy City.
Yet the situation left her behind entirely. Mikoto did not understand any of what was happening around her.
The flames disappeared like some kind of magic trick and the chill of the chemical coolant crept back in from all directions as if as an afterthought. With a loud noise, the weeping floor and walls were rapidly covered by white frost.
“What in the world?”
“Stativarius Tam Lin. If you can do it, then I can do it with my Ainsel. …I am sick of special privileges and ‘keys’. No one needs to be ‘chosen’! I will drag you down into the depths here!!”
A change came over her music. The vibration of the strings followed a different set of rules from before. She pressed the bow against the taut strings with so much force it looked like she would snap them herself and the notes she released into the air followed rules different again from those of music.
A wind whipped up.
They could only see it thanks to the fog that resembled dry ice.
This ignored the most basic of rules that an esper could only use a single power.
Her short skirt fluttered dangerously and showed off her slender legs contained in black kneesocks while a great explosion of noise was released. That noise became a solid blow on the level of a wrecking ball, but Ryous deflected it with the violin. The powerful dark arms smashed the great mass and flames erupted out.
“You reached this level already?”
A voice spoke up in astonishment.
Not even Stativarius Tam Lin could believe it.
“No, even if you understand the idea behind it, I doubt you could use a spell so quickly without any sheet music to follow. Did you receive inspiration from somewhere? What did you memorize to pull this off??? Or are you actually summoning Ainsel in real time and with a straight face!?”
“GK> Don’t ask me! What am I even supposed to search for this!?”
“I have not done anything special,” said Sakibasu Yuri. “Stativarius Ainsel has been with me from the beginning. I briefly misinterpreted our relationship and paid the price for that, but I will make no such mistake again. So I can say this with confidence! Ainsel!! Lend me your strength just this once so I can save my mother!!!!!”
It no longer mattered who was controlling who.
If Sakibasu Yuri and Ainsel were both working together to save that mother, then the phenomenon they produced would be the same in the end.
The violin girl gave a roar.
“Queen, contact! Please give me the courage to take just one more step forward!!”
So there was nothing to fear.
She could rely on Misaka Mikoto, Shokuhou Misaki, Shirai Kuroko, Hokaze Junko…and one more: Ainsel!!
“That huge body is in the way, so I will destroy that first!!!!!”
She released a sharp white breath of resolve, played a note with the bow, and sent out a tornado that grew crimson as it swallowed up the flames.
The powerful dark arms worked to push it back, but then a beam of light shot in even faster than the explosive boom of its firing. That was a Railgun. It tore through the air at three times the speed of sound, glowed orange thanks to the friction of the air, and tore off that entire right arm made of an unknown substance. And with its defenses drastically reduced, she could secure a line of fire on their main target. Needless to say, that was not Sakibasu Ryouu. It was the unforgivable violin that she held between her shoulder and chin.
Shirai Kuroko teleported over several metal darts, but the black party dress lady easily dodged them all with her rhythmic movements.
However, that was only meant to confirm something.
Sakibasu Yuri would not hesitate any longer.
“Indefinite curves, was it? If you think you can dodge my attack with such a cheap trick, then just try it.”
“Remember what I said? If you can do something, then so can I. As long as I play this Ainsel and give myself over to its music, I can achieve the same rhythm. And if I sync myself with you before using that thing you call a spell, I can attack you despite the randomized dodging!! I can defeat you!!”
A broken sound followed.
But this did not come from Sakibasu Yuri.
It came from Ryouu’s feet. While the enemy was wary of an attack from the front where a line of fire had been opened, the girl launched a surprise attack from below. Some kind of pattern made from blue circles and complex symbols appeared on the floor further down even than the black party dress’s skirt.
To use some older terminology, it almost looked like a magic circle. More and more of them appeared like bizarre reflection boards reacting to the violin.
Their element was water.
But the provided symbol was destruction.
So they produced giant shards of ice that jutted vertically up like smashed pieces of drift ice.
“Be skewered, Tam Liiiiin!!”
Just as she shouted with a white breath, all strength seemed to leave Sakibasu Yuri’s knees.
Mikoto and Shokuhou did not know what they were seeing here, but they shouted in alarm regardless.
A rusty smell burst in the black-twintailed girl’s nose. And it did not end there. All her body’s blood vessels throbbed disconcertingly and she sweated profusely despite how chilly the cooled server room was.
She had not hit her head anywhere, yet an unnatural trail of blood dripped down from her forehead.
He laughed while moving back outside the range of the patterns on the floor.
All while the movement indecently flipped the black silk party dress’s skirt around.
“Things are different between this gentle wife and her daughter! Did I forget to explain what happens when an esper takes a step into this world? Gee gee, bwa ha ha ha!!”
Most likely, this was some kind of malfunction. Two sets of rules were conflicting, like running a computer with more than one security software installed. If she continued using Ainsel’s “true power”, all her body’s blood vessels and nerves might be shredded, her bones shattered, and her organs ruptured.
“So I’ll play your game!! Once I’m done with this gentle wife, it’s your turn, girly! I’ll smash Ainsel while you watch and then I’ll take control!! Ah ha, ah ha ha!! Tell me whatever it is you lack and I’ll give it to you. It’s like losing a pet. An Almati or a Guarnari won’t cut it. Once your Stativarius partner has been destroyed, only another Stativarius can soothe the pain!!”
But had he forgotten?
Ainsel and Tam Lin were not the same. This violin was a partner she could rely on. She and the instrument already had an understanding, it would never hide information that would harm her.
It was her trust in that fact which allowed her to find the answer.
It was there inside her.
This was why the Stativarius Ainsel had chosen her as its owner and true performer.
A white breath slipped from the corners of her mouth as she whispered.
“Wait, what the hell are you doing!?”
“Setting tracking element and designating myself as the scan target. Beginning scan of body circulation!! Locate everything running wild within my blood vessels, nerves, tendons, marrow, lymph nodes, and muscle fibers!! …The problem is the malfunctions occurring within my body, right? Then all I need to do is locate each and every one of those issues and use my power to smooth it all over. I refuse to be nothing more than some sheltered girl. I walked through the city myself, I pursued this case with Misaka-san’s group, and I fought alongside my Queen! I have changed!! And the path I have walked has given me the opportunity to face what my own power is!!”
The girl said this was not just her own power.
She had only reached this point thanks to the support of Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, Uiharu Kazari, Saten Ruiko, Shokuhou Misaki, Hokaze Junko, and many more.
“So I will no longer fear Ainsel. Give me your full power! I will not claim to be your partner only when things are going well! I will accept even the pain you bring me!! …Now, let us share the good times and the bad. So do not cower in fear like a small child! Give this your all, Ainsel!!!!!”
More and more distorted notes shook the air.
They came from the floor covered by white fog.
Those intricately detailed patterns covered the entire surface except where her allies like Mikoto were standing. The patterns seemed to resonate with her music. And of course, those were all landmine points from which shards of ice resembling split drift ice would burst. As large as the server room was, there was no avoiding a direct hit with the floor so thoroughly covered.
“Am I really losing?”
Tam Lin sounded confused and was not even sure how to move the violin bow to control the flames against this.
He could use fire, water, wind, and earth and he could even use ice just like her, but that malicious being could do nothing against this.
An instrument was not whole on its own.
No matter how superb it was, a tool alone was only a decoration.
It needed a performer.
Only with a true partner could it draw out its abilities as a world-famous instrument.
As long as that girl was acting out of benevolence and not out of self-interest, everything on the field – both enemy and ally – would work to her benefit.
Even the choice of a server room with special walls for the final stage had ended up preventing Tam Lin from escaping.
“I am not some bizarre Academy City technology, nor am I one of your garbage esper powers that simply rewrite the concepts of Thelema using arbitrary new terminology like Personal Reality… I am a crystallization of the Rosicrucian age that predates even the Golden cabal. I am one of the autonomous parasitic spiritual items that were the envy of all. Even a lower-end estimate gives me 300 years of experience in this field, yet some little girl is going to outdo me!!!???”
“Farewell, Tam Lin.”
The trigger took the form of a musical note.
Sakibasu Yuri mercilessly moved the bow.
There were no extra malfunctions or side effects here. That girl had achieved a perfect harmony as she released that final attack.
“I do not care about your history and listing it off changes nothing!! …You chose the wrong opponent here. Messing with us, was your biggest mistake!!!!!”
The many shards of ice that burst from the floor acted as heavy weapons that pierced and destroyed the giant’s upper body leaning over her mother’s back.
“That wasn’t enough!?” shouted Shirai Kuroko.
The powerful dark arms were stabbed through, but that acted as a cushioning layer that distorted the ice’s path just enough to miss the violin.
“I will not…let this end here!! As long as the violin itself survives, I – Stativarius Tam Lin – will never diiiiiiiie!!”
However, the metallic sound of a flicked coin rang through the air.
“This is our fight.”
Misaka Mikoto, Academy City’s #3 and the Ace of Tokiwadai, took aim.
This was much like shooting an apple off of someone’s head, but the path had been cleared. The dark giant had its hands full dealing with Sakibasu, so she did not have to worry about it interfering.
None of it had been wasted.
Without Sakibasu Yuri’s efforts, Misaka Mikoto could not have arrived at this final moment.
“So no matter who delivers the finishing blow, this was our victory!!”
All sound was blown away.
This time, the violin controlling that mother was accurately shot through.
In that final moment, Misaka Mikoto forgot all about the air chilled to a midwinter temperature by the chemical coolant. Her eyes were focused not on Sakibasu Ryouu in that black party dress or on Stativarius Tam Lin that was controlling her. She was focused on Sakibasu Yuri who stood alongside her in harm’s way.
Something erupted from the girl’s shoulder blades.
This was not a dark giant like the one that had leaned over Ryouu’s back.
Really, it may just have been an optical illusion caused by the chemical coolant floating around.
They were pure white.
Something like soft white wings floated behind her.
And a halo glowed above her head.
It made her look like…
The demonic violin was smashed to pieces.
Time seemed to stop.
The amber-colored splinters fell to the floor with an oddly loud noise.
All strength left the black party dress mother’s body and she started to collapse forward.
All of a sudden, Sakibasu Yuri was running forward.
There was no longer a halo above her head or white wings behind her. She ran forward while some glowing particles scattered around her as the last vestiges of those things. She caught her beautiful mother whose face was about to smash against the floor. She wrapped her arms around the woman with the violin and bow still in her hands.
She made it in time.
Her mother had done a lot wrong, she had troubled a great many people, and she may have threatened quite a few lives.
Sakibasu Yuri knew she had made it this time.
“It’s okay now. There is bound to be a lot of criticism. And I think I deserve to share it with you since I failed to notice your pain and stop you before all this happened. Maybe I am naïve for thinking this and maybe I will cry, be overwhelmed, and despair at my life after I see what sharing this with you means.”
That woman had experienced malice and pain born from being handed more money than she ever imagined.
The mother and daughter were sure to face the kind of focused criticism that the ordinary person would never experience. They were a criminal and her family. They were the fallen wealthy. Complete strangers might take everything from them, leave them with nothing, and openly mock them. She could not remain at Tokiwadai or even in Academy City. And the future she could easily imagine would likely only be the beginning of the pain.
“I will say it again: it’s okay. I now have the strength to stand on my own two feet. That is thanks to everyone who stood up for my sake and thanks to Ainsel who chose to fight alongside me. So there is nothing to worry about. No matter how overwhelmed and broken I feel, that will not be the end for me. I will stand back up and face forward with pride every single time. I will not let this end he way you feared it would, mother.”
Sakibasu Yuri squeezed her arms around her mother’s back as she spoke.
“So I will say it as many times as it takes to put your mind at ease: it’s okay. I promise. You do not need to worry yourself sick over me, mother. I am no longer a child who needs protecting.”
After watching the events through to the end, Misaka Mikoto sighed and slipped out of the server room so the mother and daughter would not notice.
She knew her underclassman Shirai Kuroko would follow, but she was a little surprised to find Shokuhou Misaki and Hokaze Junko do the same.
“Huh? I didn’t realize you could be so considerate of other’s feelings.”
“How rude. I am not that coldhearted☆ Unlike you, who gave up on trying because you thought anything you did would ruin this perfect ending.”
“Hm? Is this flippant blonde girl picking a fight with my Onee-…?”
“Wait a second, Kuroko. Shokuhou, are you saying you still plan on doing something here?”
“Did you forget? Sakibasu belongs to my clique. I am only lending her to you. For now.”
Shokuhou swept back her honey-blonde hair and breathed an exasperated sigh.
And without a sound, her expression grew more intense.
“Are you kidding me? I chose to take her in and she is one of my favorites, so I will be the one to decide what happens to her. And my clique will never discriminate against someone who had the courage to do what is right and stick with it to the end. She might be overwhelmed by emotion and talking about whether or not she will give up, but I am the one who decides what happens here.”
Mikoto started to say something, but the ringlet curls girl lowered her head to ask her to stop.
That girl was smiling bitterly, but she also seemed to be enjoying this.
She seemed to be saying it was because of things like this that she could swear loyalty to that girl without reservation.
“She thinks this is a family burden shared between mother and daughter? Do not make me laugh. Do you really think the bonds of my clique are too weak for something like this? We will of course accept this family problem ability as well… So make all the preparations for that, Hokaze. You have 24 hours to write up a report on all possible threats to our clique and prepare to fight back. I do not care if we are talking about online or real life or about adults or children. Whatever world it might happen in, I will not let anyone harm or laugh at one of my favorites. No matter what.”
“Yes, Queen. I will be quick but thorough.”
Mikoto and Shirai finally exchanged a glance and sighed.
The Ace of Tokiwadai looked to the Queen and asked a question.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“You handle everything her Queen cannot. I will always protect her, so you include her in your fun like usual. That is the best way to protect the human heart… and if I tried to care for her personally, it would only make her nervous.”
It felt like no one could stop it now.
Sakibasu Yuri had shown the way, but it was those two extraordinary girls who would ensure it happened no matter what.
This was their way of saying they would not let this end as coldly as Sakibasu Yuri feared.
“She thinks she can do everything right, correctly, and decently, yet still lose everything? Not a chance.”
Shokuhou had learned something in the past.
If you lived long enough, you might eventually become aware of some invisible gears and rails. Those things carried a great power capable of easily crushing and shredding an individual’s feelings and efforts.
But back when she was all alone, that Queen had seen something else happen.
A single fist had smashed all of that.
She had been taught that it was okay to boldly stand up to unforgivable cruelty.
“Who can complain if we utterly destroy those illusions that rob people of their happiness?”
This was a world very different from the one in which those middle school girls lived.
However, it was not a fantasy world of swords and sorcery.
It was a messy izakaya.
The interior decoration was all meant to be somewhat reminiscent of a street stall: curtains used as dividers, bare lightbulbs, and even works of art modeled after grills and small generators.
A dorm manager in a suit and glasses looked to a table in the back and waved when she spotted a familiar face.
That dorm manager had very little romantic experience and was never sure how to act around the opposite sex, but that was not the case with this man.
If anything, he was more like an apprentice or a younger brother.
He was not a target of those other things, so she could relax more.
“Hi, Maeda. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Since our Anti-Skill competency test, right? I never expected you to contact me.”
“The way you two failed to complete the test because you kicked all of the instructors’ asses without breaking a sweat is still famous, you know? Yomikawa managed to get a passing score by bowing and apologizing, but you were so disappointed by them you just gave up on joining Anti-Skill.”
“I am a specialized defender, even if no one believes me for some reason. It is not in my nature to run all over the city like a takeout delivery boy with a bicycle and smartphone. I can’t get invested in my work that way. This is lesson I learned through experience, but I don’t feel like protecting a place if I do not eat and sleep there.”
While he waited for her to arrive, Maeda must have been worrying about how he would broach the topic, so he sounded relieved she had brought it up herself.
He asked a question of the dorm manager who grimaced at the appetizer she was served without asking (some mystery dish of chopped cabbage and an unidentifiable salty sauce) but still ordered a shochu sour.
“How are things at your dorm?”
“Ugh, this really is just cabbage… We are talking about a girl’s dorm of the Tokiwadai Middle School. Do you really think I am going to tell anything to an outsider—and a man at that—like you?”
“I’m glad to see you still have your pride.”
You only had to look at the flat screen TV in a corner of the izakaya or the 1seg app on the smartphones of the couple enjoying some kind of discussion at another table. Turn on any TV and you would find nothing but discussion of how that incident had ended. The internet was bound to be even worse. Sakibasu Ryouu, the community called Blue Blood she had created, and their misuses of Zero Day Link. It was certainly a big deal, but discussion of it was fast wearing out its welcome. For one thing, the press still had not figured out how exactly the incident was resolved, so they were focusing on the “keys” and Blue Blood’s misdeeds to hide their own failure there.
It was shocking and provocative.
So the press left the truth in the dust as they pursued that instead.
Maeda glanced over at the screen and took a drink of his cold sake before opening his mouth.
He needed to be drunk for this.
“Sakibasu Yuri was innocent. She even helped solve the case. A lot of the details about that are still unknown, but she was the one who arrived at an Anti-Skill station with her unconscious mother, Ryouu.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Isn’t this just too much? Why does she have to put up with this just because she’s a blood relative? What century do people think this is? Besides, punishment is a job for the justice system, so you don’t get to hand it out based on a personal grudges or emotions. That’s been banned since the time of the ancient Romans, for crying out loud! Judgment and punishment must be managed by those with the proper qualifications. And with extreme caution even then.”
Officially, in public, and on the surface, everyone said the same thing. Everyone knew you were not supposed to do that. But how did it really work? They might go online and spread personal information and half-truths along with a photo, they might figure out where the person lived and throw rocks at or spray paint their house, and they might follow them around town recording them on their phone.
Anti-Skill work had a way of disillusioning one about so many aspects of the world, but it was that kind of “misguided justice” that depressed him the most. Victims and assailants would have their own feelings and circumstances, but not so with that kind of person.
They did it for fun, to cheer themselves up, for the praise, to stand out, because they were driven by some kind of complex, or even just because they were bored.
…He felt a duty to risk his life to protect people because of all the good people out there, so when he saw the malice inside those very people and realized his own actions could easily give them an excuse to act on that malice, he started feeling stupid for risking his life for anything at all.
But the bespectacled dorm manager smiled and helped herself to one of the grilled chicken skewers Maeda had ordered before she arrived.
“Do you really think anyone would be stupid enough to throw a rock at the window of the dorm I manage? You know perfectly well what will happen if they do… Oh, so this is a chicken place. I was wondering why you were drinking something cold. This isn’t bad.”
“I see… Yeah, if you spray painted the entrance of that place, you probably would end up having to pay a small fortune in damages.”
“Tokiwadai is well-equipped with buses. And unlike a certain Railgun or Teleporter I could mention, Sakibasu is very well-behaved. If she does not make any odd detours and uses the buses to travel between the dorm and school, there will be no unwanted physical contact with anyone at all.”
But modern society’s problems were not restricted to that.
The dorm manager audibly gulped down her shochu sour that was given its sour flavor with shikuwasha juice.
“I can’t say anything about the internet. To be honest, that is outside my control. But the right to be forgotten has received a lot of discussion lately and her school rather than her dorm will request the deletion of any truly ‘dangerous information’. And those requests will have the kind of backing that can, in all seriousness, reduce a massive IT company’s stock to worthless scraps if they refuse. Have you forgotten? The girls of our school have more money than they know what to do with. To the point that brats of only 12 or 13 can buy a Stativarius with a price tag of over a hundred million. More than that, Tokiwadai is a prestigious esper development school... and exclusive schools like that tend to be merciless when it comes to issues related to their own profit and privilege. Any information still out there is likely misinformation that has been deemed harmless. Simply put, do not worry about it. Those bored commenters will move on to something else soon enough.”
“Then what about inside Tokiwadai?” cut in Maeda.
This must have been bothering him all this time. He must not have had the best manners because he stabbed the end of his chopsticks into his fried chicken.
“Like you said, we’re talking about a prestigious school and they’ll want to protect their image. You act like the power of their money will work to protect Sakibasu, but is that really how it will play out? Couldn’t they instead use their money against her in order to protect themselves?”
“C’mon, don’t fall silent on me. One of the good people out there—and a minor girl at that—saved us all and protected this city even though it meant fighting her own mother. She even saved my life and I doubt I was the only one. So I’m not sitting by and letting her get expelled over this! I’m not as hasty as Inoue, but who knows what’ll happen if I grow any more disillusioned in my job with Anti-Skill!!”
“Let us discuss the teachers first.”
The bespectacled dorm manager sounded a little exasperated.
He was the scary gym teacher, so nothing he did would lead to the students liking him. He had gotten the short end of the stick like that, yet he still had to ask this question? The dorm manager was not really one to speak since she too was feared by the students, but she knew Maeda must have been doing his best to fulfill his duties as a teacher.
“Prestigious or not, it is a private school. Given all the high-level equipment needed for the esper development program, it cannot survive on nothing but the subsidies from Academy City as a whole. If students do not continue to enroll year after year, it will go out of business. That means keeping a student with a controversial past is nothing but a risk. There have indeed been some opinions given on this matter. Some teachers are wondering why Sakibasu Yuri has not already been expelled.”
“Don’t give me that look. It is all nonsense with no actual authority behind it. For one thing, it was the mother and not the child who committed the crimes. But it is not just children who get upset when their opinion is ignored. So once that silly minority learned that their idea of ‘justice’ could not control the faculty room, they said this was a problem for the school as a whole and should be put to a vote. They wanted to go through the student council, announce the issue to the entire Tokiwadai student body, and propose a solution to the issue. Then everyone would vote on whether to expel Sakibasu Yuri or let her stay.”
“That’s practically the stereotype of vigilante justice!! She must feel like she’s sitting on a bed of thorns with that being discussed! Teenage children value their pride more than money, so a fall like this could even lead to suicide! Innocent or guilty, the suspicions alone have to be tearing her heart to pieces. How can grown adults do something so irresponsible!?”
“Settle down, officer. Like I said, those bored people will move on to something else soon enough. And it isn’t like I am talking about her homeroom teacher here.”
The dorm manager waved a hand dismissively.
Why was he so clueless?
Just as Maeda had joined Anti-Skill, she did her best to fulfill her duties as a dorm manager. Sakibasu Yuri lived in her dorm, so she was one of the children she had to protect. No matter what kind of person their parents or guardians were, she would not compromise when it came to the children placed in her care. Would she really be sitting here so calmly if she knew one of those children had been placed in such a cruel situation?
“Had you not heard that Sakibasu Yuri is part of the clique created by Shokuhou Misaki?”
“That is Tokiwadai’s largest clique… Issues of good or evil are meaningless against the power of numbers if you try to hold a vote against a group like that. The result of such a vote could not be more obvious, so Sakibasu Yuri will not be expelled no matter what. That silly faction of teachers had to give up on their idea, wrap it in thick chains, add a padlock, and throw the key into the sea.”
Anyone who knew what to look for would have noticed just how irregular Sakibasu Yuri was.
She crossed between two of the world’s systems.
She was a high-level esper on the science side, but she could also use extremely high-level spells without any side effects.
In a way, that made her even more unusual than Fuse Kazakiri.
There was also Meigo Arisa, but that may have been a sign of just how many mysteries remained regarding music.
Normally, the entire Board of Directors may have worked to eliminate her. No, the larger categories that defined the two halves of the world may have done so.
But that girl’s legend did not end there.
It would never end in such an ordinary way.
The orange light of the sun filled Tokiwadai Middle School’s courtyard afterschool. Some music gathered some listeners despite not trying to draw attention to itself. The song was Air on the G String, which a certain girl loved to play. She was likely practicing it for her own enjoyment instead of performing for others.
Once she finished playing, Misaka Mikoto called out to her.
When the girl noticed, she turned around, causing her black twintails with curly ends to sway.
She bowed and smiled.
And she opened her mouth to speak.
Someone had once said that girl had it.
As long as she was acting out of benevolence and not out of self-interest, everything on the field – both enemy and ally – would work to her benefit.