Toaru Majutsu no Index:Biohacker
Welcome, Kamijou Touma, to the colorful underground!!
Only after hearing it did Kamijou Touma realize the groan had come from his own mouth. His blurry vision came into focus to reveal he was lying on his side.
His entire body ached.
The type of pain varied. An oozing pain made him intensely aware of his skin, a dull pain slowly spread through the core of his body, and a hot pain covered the swollen parts across his body. He could only count himself lucky that he did not feel that knife-sharp pain that refused to even be touched.
It was an awful night. He was surrounded by the sweltering midsummer air and lying in a back alley that reeked of mold and urine while a smile appeared on his lips. If this was what he called “lucky”, then the average for him must have been at rock bottom.
He had learned something with his attempt here.
Taking on five at once did not work. He could handle three at the most. And then only when they had to approach him along a single narrow path. When they could attack him from several directions at once, it was hard to even see them all at the same time. There was nothing you could do unless you were a master swordsman who could dodge an attack from directly behind by sensing a presence there.
Nothing went the way he had hoped.
His uselessness frustrated him to no end. He had grown tired of the boring routine of everyday life and stepped off the rails in search of some excitement, but this was the result. It felt like he had been shoved back onto the rails by some powerful force.
This may have been the extent of the freedom allowed to a middle schooler.
While he lazily pondered that, he finally noticed something that did not fit the obvious result of his actions. Specifically, his cheek felt something far softer and warmer than asphalt. And a faint floral scent tickled his nose within the musty alley.
He wondered if the pain had been so great his brain had emitted a rush of endorphins.
But this illusion did not seem to be the type that his right hand could destroy.
Someone was there.
And quite close by. They were looking down at him from above. No, they were practically leaning over him.
They appeared to be older than him. For middle schoolers, a powerful barrier stood between them and high school. If he was told to separate the middle schoolers from the higher schoolers in the bustling shopping district of District 15, he was confident he could do it in five seconds. That was how great the difference was.
She had shoulder-length glossy black hair held back by a hairband that showed off her forehead and she had a beautiful face. Beautiful, not cute. She wore a short-sleeved sailor uniform, but either it was too short or her chest was too big because the rise and fall of those twin masses when she breathed tugged the cloth up enough to give a glimpse of her shapely navel. Much like the story of the North Wind and the Sun, she may have chosen a skimpier outfit after succumbing to the heat on this sweltering night.
She was way too close.
He could feel something warm and soft on the back of his head and he was looking up at her face while collapsed on the ground, which meant…
(A lap pillow!?)
“Bwah!? Wait, you- ow!!”
“Stay still. You won’t be able to move right away. You were pummeled from pretty much every direction.”
He frantically tried to get up, but his entire body was thrown into a vortex of agony. He froze up in a weird pose, so the black-haired beauty grabbed his shoulders and guided his head back to her lap.
He had done nothing to earn this.
And when he was given something for free, it scared him. You never knew what they would demand in return. …Of course, that worldview may have been the result of his constant misfortune.
On the other hand, that mystery person did not seem to mind.
But then again, she was a grownup girl(?) – one of those high school girls he had always dreamed of getting to know. Once a girl reached that level, they apparently did not grow flustered over something as simple as a lap pillow. It felt like seeing a businesswoman before Valentine’s day who focused on cost-performance by buying a box of processed cocoa products instead of worrying about romance or competition.
And with a large-chested older girl, even an exasperated sigh could sound sexy.
“I had heard rumors of a boy wandering this area and causing trouble, but you aren’t quite what I expected. I certainly didn’t think you were this stupid.”
“Who are you?”
“Are you sure you want me to tell you? There are some things you are better off not knowing.”
That suggestive refusal was immediately followed by a complete reversal.
This mystery high-risk girl was apparently going to drag him into this while knowing it was dangerous.
“I’m Kumokawa Seria. You can think of me as a high school girl who happened to be in the area.”
“Oh, and you don’t have to worry about those Skill Outs who attacked you.”
She made it sound so simple.
It was a hell of a thing to say about a group armed with collapsible batons and modified gas guns, but it was true there was no sign of them in this back alley. Yet the girl had no obvious cuts or bruises. Did that mean she had easily driven them away? That certainly fit the profile of the “Senpai” characters seen in dramas and movies, but how had a girl with such skinny arms and bare legs managed that?
There was only one possibility that occurred to the Level 0 boy (and it came with some jealousy).
“Are you an esper?”
“Only you would ask an Academy City student such a stupid question. Have you forgotten what the primary curriculum here is?”
Espers could create movement, fire, electricity, and vacuums with their minds.
With a high enough level, they could indeed make short work of so many opponents. After all, at the higher levels, it was said they did not need any kind of weapon to wield as much destructive power as a battleship gun. Even if a bunch of weak thugs gathered together and joined forces, they would be easily defeated. Coldly logical and coldly efficient – those were the rules that governed Academy City.
“You have the wrong idea.”
But his thoughts were overturned a moment later.
This high school girl named Kumokawa Seria apparently liked to confuse people.
She brushed the hair from her shoulder as she continued.
“We still live in the age of television.”
“The media power balance may collapse before long, but TV still remains strong. Anyone up to no good will flee when the cameras focus their way.”
He did not understand.
However, he could hear a woman’s voice coming from the well-lit main street where the bright lights and electronic signs allowed everyone to travel in peace. But this did not seem to be someone chatting on the sidewalk. Abdominal breathing? Proper enunciation? The methods he only really thought about during music class or karaoke were used to produce an artificially clear and carrying voice.
“The wait is finally over, everyone! L.S.S. presents the Street Corner Kitten Show! It’s time to take a stroll while searching for some cuties. Where are those kitties hanging out tonight, I wonder? Oh? Where did that one from before get off to? I have heard that there is a gathering spot for cute kitties between some of the buildings around here.”
There was a lot of motion out front.
Some bored onlookers must have gathered around the TV crew and the female reporter. It was true the villains (if you can call them that) who worked to maintain a reputation on the streets would not want their dumb mugs showing in living rooms across the city. And if the cameras caught them in the act, then they would have Anti-Skill after them.
“It may be that disease unique to middle schoolers,” said the high school girl while her large chest rose and fell slightly from her gentle breathing. “But everyone seems to judge weapons and esper powers based entirely on their direct usefulness in a fight. Academy City’s culture is said to be 30 years ahead of the outside world, but based on what I see here, I can only assume the entire planet will soon become a postapocalyptic wasteland of mohawks and motorcycles.”
Kamijou Touma thought she had a point.
Academy City was well ahead of the pack when it came to technology, but the brains of the people living there did not necessarily achieve the same standards. Greed, lust, and pride were what ruled the minds of the most intelligent lifeform on the planet. …And Kamijou was not about to claim he was an exception there.
Convenient tech led to depravity.
Would humanity always be struggling with the same issues, no matter how far technology progressed?
He could complain about depravity all he wanted, but what did it say that he could not even keep up with that degraded world? He could only smile cynically while covered in wounds and bruises.
He could not get anywhere on his own. He had not even decided on a destination.
“So they ran away because of the cameras?”
“Don’t just assume it was a coincidence.”
After a sigh of relief, something occurred to the boy.
“What about that girl!? Agh!!”
“Again, don’t force yourself to get up. You’ll only bring back the pain.”
He desperately tried to sit up, but he froze in place halfway up and the mystery high schooler pressed her finger against his forehead and returned his head to her lap.
“Ah, ow! Th-then what happened to that girl? Ghhh, what happened to the girl who they were attacking in the first place?”
That was it.
Kamijou Touma was not an idiot. Well, he was actually an idiot who liked to believe he was not, but even he had learned how to stay safe on Academy City’s streets. He was not reckless enough to enter a dangerous back alley and pick a fight with a bunch of armed delinquents for no reason.
Yes, he had a reason for it.
And that was what mattered now.
“Don’t tell me she just disappeared. Ow, dammit. They didn’t snatch her away during the confusion, did they?”
He had to force himself up now.
There had been a lame used car near the entrance of the alley.
The round light car meant for housewives had been decked out with wings and a modified muffler in an attempt to make it look manly. It was the obvious compromise of someone who wanted to rebel against society but could not rebel against the price tag. He doubted anyone but those delinquents would want to touch that thing. It was unlikely they would try anything as risky as dragging an entire person around with them, but it was still a possibility. If caught, those numbskulls would probably try to claim it was just a joke and they did not mean anything by it, even if that would not exactly explain why they were wielding a knife. Logic was not always the best predictor of what people like that would do.
“Oh, you mean Mitsuari Ayu?”
“Wait, you rushed into danger and you didn’t even know her name? Can’t say I expected that.” Kumokawa placed a hand on her famous forehead and shook her head, but then she smiled. “But you can draw some conclusions from the fact that I managed to ask her her name, can’t you? Look, I can tell the pain is keeping you from thinking straight, so I’ll say that again: I managed to ask her her name.”
While still seated on the filthy ground with their faces so close their noses nearly touched, Kamijou moved just his head.
He was not sure if this qualified as a public road or private property, but the back alley was piled high with miscellany: a plastic trashcan, a rusty bicycle, and some cleaning tools that had practically become one with the grime.
Among it all, a stack of yellow beer cases shook slightly.
There was someone behind it.
The small face that finally poked out belonged to a girl even younger than Kamijou. The gap between middle school and high school was enormous, but the opposite was also true. She looked very young, but the spiky-haired boy could tell she was the same as him. She was probably in middle school.
She had fluffy chestnut hair and a slender build. Her chest size and her entire skeletal structure appeared to still be in the process of growing. She wore a short-sleeve blouse, a beige sleeveless sweater, and a dark gray miniskirt. He was pretty sure that was the uniform of some famous school or another, but he had no idea which one. She also had the nerve to wear a small (he assumed) brand-name bag over her shoulder despite only being in middle school.
There were tears in her eyes, her shoulders were tense, and her legs were pressed together and trembling.
On the other hand, her hair and clothing looked unmolested and she did not appear to have a scrape on her.
She was so unscathed that it actually confused Kamijou.
His awareness could not keep up with what he had done.
“You got between them and her and caused enough of a scene to gather attention and buy some time. Of course, you were probably lucky to buy even 10 minutes like that.”
It had not worked like a samurai movie where the hero could swing a sword around and cut people down in all 360 degrees or like a Western where everyone wanted to send their rival to their grave in a one-on-one quickdraw shootout.
All the boy had managed was to curl up in a ball to protect his vitals.
He had only managed to endure and endure while running down the clock.
“But without those 10 minutes, I couldn’t have noticed what was happening and brought that TV crew here. Then Mitsuari Ayu here might have had her arms, legs, and mouth duct-taped up before she was thrown into the back of a car and driven away.”
Her tone said she refused to accept it.
But at the same time, the situation demanded that she say it.
And Kumokawa Seria said more under her breath after looking away from him.
“Well done, hero. I haven’t felt this excited in a while.”
It was late at night, but it was still hot as hell.
The sun was not even out, but they were going to collapse from dehydration if they did not get inside somewhere.
On the other hand, the late-night food at a family restaurant was a little bit outside of a middle schooler’s price range. Ordering ordinary food would mean a bill of more than 1000 yen. At times like this, it was safer to visit a burger place that forever fought the good fight with burgers, fries, and coffee, each for less than 100 yen. The trick was to order individual items instead of going for the meals which looked like a good value but actually cost a fair amount.
The paper sheet on the plastic tray doubled as an advertisement: “Please consider making a donation to the L.S.S. Animal Protection Fund. Weekly donation plans start at just 200 yen – the price of a single ice cream!!” That did not do much to catch the interest of a middle schooler.
“Come to think of it,” said Kumokawa, who had only ordered a coffee and a chocolate pie. “I hear they’re ending their 24-hour service soon.”
The midriff-baring high school girl really was a grownup for coming to a fast food restaurant during such a hot night yet not ordering a soda. Kamijou had of course prioritized cost-performance by ordering a medium-size fries and the world’s most famous soda. Visiting a burger place and not ordering a burger was a fairly heart-pounding experience.
“If the burger places are shutting their doors, then the world must be ending. That seems less likely than the power being cut off to my dorm.”
He had not immediately returned to said dorm because he wanted to check on the bare minimum of things about that back alley incident.
Had it been a random attack, or was there more going on there?
He at least had to know that much.
He had put himself in danger to rescue a girl he had never met. It would all feel like a waste if she was kidnapped by those delinquents five seconds after they parted ways. It was a selfish reason, but he honestly did not want his own efforts to have been for nothing.
That was his own reasoning, so it had been a surprise when the fluffy-haired middle school girl named Mitsuari Ayu had gone along with it. If he had grabbed her skinny wrist and forced her to come with him, he would be doing exactly what those delinquents had been, so if she had refused to go with him, he could only have let her go.
When he climbed the narrow stairs to the no-smoking section on the second floor with his tray in both hands, a tremor ran down his spine. He had been careless. The air conditioning was stronger than he had thought.
The girl seated at the table was chowing down on the flimsy burger she held in both hands, so she must have had a ravenous appetite. Eating it that fast destroyed the usual cost-performance advantage of this place, but that may not have mattered to her. The part-timer at the counter had been flabbergasted upon seeing the limitless black card she had pulled from her brand-name bag.
“I thought that bag looked cheap for Tokiwadai, but I didn’t expect it to act as a cooler.” The mystery high school girl named Kumokawa Seria sounded somewhat exasperated. “And since it has a charging unit, is it actually refrigerated? Do you keep frozen treats and cold drinks in there? As hot as this night is, that kind of luxury wouldn’t even occur to most people.”
“Eh? That looks cheap???”
“Heh heh. Take your time and educate yourself, boy. You need to be careful when buying gifts.”
The girl had also pulled her normal phone and card from that ultra-luxurious brand-name cooler bag, so it may have had a chilled zone and a room temperature zone separated by insulation. He had heard that lithium ion batteries had trouble in the cold.
The cheap sauce based on mustard and mayonnaise must have been too powerful a flavor for her because Mitsuari Ayu kicked her feet below the table while smiling happily. She did not seem at all aware that she was the topic of conversation.
That troublesome girl seemed ignorant of some basic rules such as holding the burger by the wrapper to keep your fingers clean. She made up for that by frequently licking off her slender fingers.
This did not look like someone enjoying an old favorite.
That smile was more like someone enjoying the unfamiliar tropical flavor of a banh mi or loco moco. Cooking some commercial curry with a bit of coconut milk mixed in might be enough to delight her.
The busty upperclassman high school girl (now there’s a powerful series of words!!) sat next to Kamijou and crossed her arms in a way that lifted her boobs from below.
“Oh, so she’s that type.”
“She’s what type?”
Kamijou looked puzzled and Kumokawa took a drink from her paper cup of hot coffee without adding any sugar or milk. Mature older girls apparently did not make a slurping sound.
“Boy, this is just how some girls are. This is probably going to take some work, but do not snap and cause a scene.”
He still did not get it, so maybe you needed to be a girl to figure this one out. Still, it looked like Mitsuari was willing to speak with them while she worked at the burger with a smile, so he focused on asking her what he wanted to know.
He did not want any more trouble.
He wanted to confirm that nothing else was going to happen, feel relieved, and head home so he could collapse into bed.
The mystery super high school girl was always the one initiating conversation, but he did not know where to start when speaking to a middle school girl. Speaking with his classmates made him nervous enough, but this was some rich girl from another school altogether.
There was no way he could come off as suave here.
He decided to make an attempt as if sending out sonar signals and reading the response.
“U-um, who were those people?”
“Did you run into them by random chance? I certainly hope they haven’t been stalking you for a while or something.”
“Wowwwww. Th-this is soda looks even more amazing than the rumors said. So this is that mix of powerful carbonation, artificial colors, and mystery sweetener.”
“And that uniform is for some fancy girl’s school, right? Don’t they have strict curfews? What were you doing out so late?”
“I will now partake in my first ever soda!! Gulp, gulp, gulp, nbh!? Uh, uhhhh, burp!? H-how indecent of me.”
She was not listening and had no intention of answering him.
And had that lovely girl just succumbed to the inner pressure of the carbonation and let a belch escape her mouth?
Pure Boy Kamijou Touma trembled as his hopes and dreams took a powerful blow from a sledgehammer, so Kumokawa placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. The soft hand of an older girl acted like glue filling in the cracks in his hopes and dreams.
The busty black-haired high school girl whispered in his ear with her long legs crossed below the table.
“She never intended to speak with you. She only wanted to get a meal out of you and leave. Her type only ever has fancy French cuisine and tea to eat and drink, so junk food like a burger must have sounded like a very attractive offer.”
Now was not the time to be soothed by the high school girl’s hand on his shoulder and breath in his ear.
He nearly shot to his feet, but she held him firmly in place.
“Like I said, don’t get mad. Eating what she can and then leaving is a standard strategy for a girl who has no actual interest in you. It looks like putting yourself in danger to save her wasn’t enough for her to open her heart to you. I can see how someone like her might anger those low-IQ thugs.”
He did not want the answer.
He had a very bad feeling about this, like he had taken the bag containing his New Year’s money – which should be his biggest source of income in the year – and only feeling the hardness of perhaps a 500-yen coin instead of a soft paper bill.
The black-haired forehead girl looked utterly exasperated.
Perhaps to deal with her own stress, she bit a small piece off the end of her chocolate pie to get some sugar in her.
“Munch. I imagine something similar happened before you came running. You saw that ugly car outside the alley, didn’t you? Her pure upbringing probably left her curious about the world of junk cars, so she asked those thugs all sorts of questions that sounded an awful lot like compliments. Right up until she had had enough. They probably thought they could offer her a drive and take her home with them, but then she smiled and said goodbye. Then they snapped.”
Kamijou wanted to hold his head in his hands.
Then what was the point of all that pain filling his body? It was more than half Mitsuari Ayu’s fault, wasn’t it!? …Of course it was still about 30% the fault of those idiots who could not handle a bit of teasing.
“Um, they did not provide chopsticks or a fork, so am I supposed to eat these nuggets with my fingers just like the burger and fries? Is everything here finger food? How fun.”
Meanwhile, fluffy-haired Mitsuari Ayu could not stop smiling.
She probably was not even hungry, but she still showed no interest at all in their conversation.
“Munch, munch. Hm, these are chicken fried in oil, yet they are nothing like karaage. The flavor changes a lot with ketchup and mustard. A-are they only meant as separate flavors? Would I be breaking the rules to attempt a forbidden mixture of the two?”
“Hey, wait! Not the mini salad! Don’t eat that with your fingers!!”
“Hm? Why not?”
That question was not even worth answering, so he just strongly reiterated that she was not to do it. The girl in a prestigious school’s uniform wrinkled her refined brow in response. It looked like she disliked having an odd-man-out to the finger food category. If left to her own devices, she may have tried eating the corn potage and ice cream cup with her hands as well.
“If you insist, I suppose I can do things your way today. I hope you are thankful how accommodating I am being here.”
While complaining (in an incredibly condescending way), Mitsuari reached into her bag and pulled out a multitool bearing a Swiss maker’s logo. The blade was made of practical gold made stronger by mixing in some titanium. That was probably the world’s most expensive tool that could be called a fork or a can opener. It might be more expensive than the big-screen HD TV or concept model PC displayed at the front of an electronics store.
The grip shined with a glossy pink resembling painted nails and the blade was gold, so it was clearly custom-made but still not at all in line with Kamijou’s tastes. If someone handed him shoes in that coloration, he might suspect it was some kind of punishment game.
The fluffy-haired girl mixed up the packaged salad with that super-fancy fork (that looked a little too small for practical use).
“I always hesitated to come here since I did not know how to order at the counter, but now I have no reason to hesitate. I can do it on my own next time. I will be leaving once I finish this.”
“You ate and drank all that and the only time you responded to anything I said was asking why you couldn’t eat the salad with your fingers? Are all middle school girls this impossible to deal with!?”
“Don’t act above it all, boy. You are a middle schooler too.”
“This is about the difference between the boys and the girls! I can’t even hold a freaking conversation!!”
“She is being difficult, I’ll give you that. She also seems interested in the grittier side of the world, so maybe it would be a good life lesson for her if we wrapped packing tape around her and left her overnight in a bathroom around here. Like a park bathroom.”
The large-chested upperclassman was in a wild mood.
Her odd excitement may have been due to the coffee’s caffeine.
The darker side of a high school girl was peeking out instead of staying hidden in the restroom or break room. The unexpected attack left Kamijou trembling.
If this had all been caused by Mitsuari Ayu leaving herself more defenseless than an armpit in a sleeveless China dress, then the situation was actually extremely simple. If she was not being targeted by some grand conspiracy, then he did not need to do anything more for her.
“What school is she from? I know that uniform is from some famous place.”
“Tokiwadai Middle School – one of the prestigious powers development schools in the School Garden on the southern end of District 7. The students there are all monsters since you have to be at least Level 3 to attend.”
“Where are its dorms?”
“They have one inside and one outside of the School Garden. But we’re talking about someone sheltered enough to go with a strange boy who promised her nothing more than a burger that costs less than 100 yen, so I seriously doubt she lives outside that no-boys-allowed zone.”
“Then this is all over once we get her back to that…School Garden place?”
Mitsuari finally looked up from the food she was eating.
That girl wearing the uniform of…Tokiwadai was it? made a clear statement.
“That would be a problem.”
“Oh, shut up. It’s time someone got after you for sneaking out at night to have fun. I don’t want to babysit you, you know? But who knows how much trouble you can get yourself into before reaching your dorm if we just let you go here.”
The fluffy-haired girl sighed softly and pulled something from her short skirt’s pocket.
She placed a phone on the table, but it had been given a more powerful camera with an attachment. It seemed to use a wider angle lens than was standard.
“Mental Stinger.” She gently whispered the name of a strange power. “Tokiwadai students must have at least a Level 3 power. Yes, at least. Did you really think some catcallers on the street could get the better of me?”
“Oh, not Mental Out? What a disappointment.”
Powers or not, that multitool knife in her hand looked dangerous enough.
“I was afraid that power might have been mass-produced, but I guess that isn’t possible.”
“Stop, Senpai. I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but don’t provoke the girl holding a knife!! Just think how sad the Swiss craftsman would be if something happened!!”
He did not know what she could do or how much she could do with it, but the name was enough to guess it was some kind of psychological power. This would have actually been easier if she could shoot fire from her hand or buff her muscles.
But Kamijou was curious about something else as well.
“I don’t get what’s going on, but why did you pull out your phone while bragging about your power?”
“H-hmph. That isn’t obvious? I control my powers by aiming the camera lens at whoever I want to targ-”
He did not even wait for her finish her explanation.
He instantly snatched up the phone sitting in front of him. When Mitsuari leaned out over the table in a panicked attempt to take it back, Kumokawa grabbed her skinny wrist and lightly twisted it.
She struggled in vain.
In Kamijou’s opinion, being well-versed in the art of self-defense pushed an older girl another step up on the attractiveness scale.
It made them even more untouchable or out of reach.
He made sure that Mitsuari’s ultra-convenient refrigerated bag of cold ice cream and drinks and her very Swiss multitool were not knocked from the table in the struggle.
The night-shift part-timer must have been accustomed to trouble because they showed no sign of panicking. They pretended not to notice while continuing their lazy job of mopping the floor (which a robot could probably handle just as easily). Kamijou really wished he could live his life like that.
“N-no fair! You can’t just steal people’s possess- ow, ow, ow, ow!!”
“There are two kinds of people who come out and explain how their power works: liars trying to sow confusion, and complete dumbasses. Now, which one is more likely from a sheltered young girl?”
“Kiiii!! H-how dare you call me a, uh, dumbbutt for simply answering the question I was asked!!”
“This is quite something for how condescending you were being earlier.”
“You’re being more condescending than I ever was!!”
Mitsuari belatedly started protesting while the pressure on her upper body squished the flat chest of her sleeveless sweater against the table, but Kamijou and Kumokawa could only sigh in exasperation.
She was red in the face, had tears in her eyes, and sounded out of breath.
When her defenses were this poor, it almost felt like some sort of sex appeal.
Although saying so would be nothing but an insult to her.
Kamijou looked shocked after perpetrating something as scummy as stealing a girl’s phone.
“Wow, she’s defenseless.”
“Which is why those morons got the wrong idea. She didn’t even try to keep her short and fluttering skirt under control when climbing the stairs earlier. The way she shakes that little butt around makes her something like a walking powder keg.”
Kamijou updated his opinion of her to “the kind to fall into a pit of fear while riding a packed train”.
The fluffy middle school girl must have still been in her rebellious phase because she kicked her legs to no avail while forcibly held down on the table. The view from the front suggested that short skirt was doing very little to hide the butt sticking up on the other side. And if this were the back alley, there would be no one around to put a stop to it. There were no refs in real fights and there were no ropes surrounding the ring like in professional wrestling. Once you were caught, it was over. Pins and joint locks were a hundred times scarier than flashy but simple punches and kicks. In a one-on-one clash, their head-on blow might break your nose or knock out a front tooth, but it was said you had a better chance of winning if you left yourself unguarded in order to pin them down.
Judo, sumo, Muay Thai, wrestling, and aikido.
Setting aside debates over which would be the most frightening to run across on a dark street, they were all plenty dangerous. When a documentary described a country’s military hand-to-hand technique, it was usually based on a martial art with a focus on grabs and throws as opposed to punches and kicks. And in the countries or regions without a good local example, judo was often imported from the Far East.
As long as the joint was pinned at the optimal angle, there was no real need to use much force.
“Kicking your legs isn’t going to accomplish anything,” scoffed Kumokawa Seria. “Except make your underwear ride up, I guess. You don’t want that happening when you don’t have a hand free to fix it, do you?”
The middle school girl’s struggling finally stopped.
But since her hips were wiggling while she pursed her lips and blushed, things may indeed have been uncomfortable inside her skirt. It was the same phenomenon seen in girl’s swimsuits during pool class.
Kamijou Touma casually waved the phone in the face of the pinned and tearful fluffy girl.
“I’ll be escorting you home.”
You did not use a cellphone for things like this.
They were convenient pieces of technology, but they were also full of personal information.
Thus, you should use an old-fashioned payphone. It was best to use one in some forgotten place where there were no security cameras nearby.
People were easily captured even after going to the trouble of leaving their home and sending the threatening email from an internet café a few subway stops away. That was thanks to the security cameras that kept track of who was using each booth and moving through the café’s aisles. You could not get away with anything just because it was a public space that received a lot of traffic.
You had to hide your face and be careful about fingerprints and hairs so you did not leave behind any trace.
Whether the evidence was physical or digital, you had to keep in mind that you were breaking the law or you could not ensure your own safety. The checklist needed to avoid Anti-Skill’s forensic investigation was a long one, but if you decided you could not accomplish everything on the list, you should not stoop to criminal activity in the first place.
Crime was crime.
If you could not escape being caught, you would be punished.
“That’s right,” said the person who pushed aside receiver’s curly cable with his gloved fingers.
That was just how careful he had needed to be when entering this phonebooth. He had to speak with someone located elsewhere and discuss things they could not allow to be discovered.
“The back-alley brats I paid off failed to accomplish anything. Making this look natural is no longer possible. The Wyvern should work, so once the cargo arrives, I will settle this myself.”
A skeptical voice spoke over the heavy receiver.
He had expected this, but when hesitation over a small risk would only lead to the risks snowballing out of control, it was best to nip that death spiral in the bud. It was too late to panic once the point of no return had already passed.
“Yes, that’s right. I want to do something before the package enters the School Garden. This will become much harder if that happens. So contact the cargo deliverers immediately. Drones? No, those would be useless with all the unexpected gusts of wind and updrafts created by the buildings. Yes, that is why I will guide it with my bow. So you only need to get the cargo to me. I can handle the precise adjustments on site.”
They began pouring with sweat as soon as they stepped outside.
They were all wearing short-sleeved summer uniforms. However, this had more to do with the excessive air conditioning in the burger place than it did with the sweltering night created by the heat island effect of a metropolis like Tokyo. It had been chilly enough for their spines to tremble when they stepped inside and it had altered their standards without them noticing.
“Man, it’s hot,” said Kamijou.
“I understand the urge, but don’t mess with the fire hydrants around here,” said Kumokawa.
“I don’t want a shower that badly!!”
“Phew, I think I need to take a long bath tonight. Especially after eating that extra food.”
“Girls have our reasons. It’s primarily about washing away the sweat, but only an ascetic monk at a Buddhist temple can maintain their weight through nothing more than eating in moderation and exercise.”
The beautiful older girl apparently put some effort into maintaining her body. She was a very different person from wild Kamijou who just ate and slept when he wanted.
The trains and buses stopped running when the school curfew went into effect, but there were still plenty of private cars and motorcycles on the roads. It looked like taxis and motorcycle couriers were doing good business and the large trucks and tanker trucks were just as busy at night as they were during the day.
Kumokawa held her skirt down against the wind caused by a large truck with the L.S.S. corporate logo on the side driving by. The glorious being that was a high school girl was very different from some old man who walked bowlegged up the train station stairs. Her casual mannerisms did not feel at all unpleasant and in fact seemed weirdly sexy. …Why the excessive detail on this subject? Because that was what drew Kamijou Touma’s eye!!
Mitsuari sighed after walking out ahead a bit.
Her actions contained a dangerous naivete very different from Kumokawa’s upperclassmanly ones.
Showing that fluffy girl back to the School Garden where Tokiwadai Middle School and its dorm were located was the quickest method here, but she would occasionally stop, reach into her skirt, and do something in the buttocks area. It was weirdly alluring despite her immature body, so Kamijou was unsure where to look. It seemed more like she was reaching there without thinking instead of doing anything on purpose.
But what was she doing?
Kamijou grew incredibly uncomfortable while he tried to figure out where to look, but more mature Kumokawa spoke up in his stead.
“Hey, how long is it going to take you to fix your underwear? Adjusting it once should be enough. This is embarrassing to watch.”
Mitsuari realized what she was doing once it was stated that bluntly.
She frantically held the butt of her skirt with both hands, blushed bright red, turned around, and snapped back at Kumokawa.
“Y-you’re the one that did this to me!!”
“All I did was pin you to the table. It was you who pointlessly kicked your legs until your underwear rode up in the crotch. You only have yourself to blame.”
Angry Mitsuari pulled out her phone, so Kamijou snatched it from her grasp while Kumokawa grabbed her arm and pinned her to the sidewalk.
“Senpai, what kind of move was that? An Anti-Skill technique?”
“It’s my own personal style. That muscular style of martial arts is beyond my abilities.”
The scariest aspect of esper powers was the great variety of supernatural phenomena that could be produced from the mind. It went beyond a soccer player letting the ball slip past them. Oftentimes, it was too late by the time you even realized you had been attacked.
So having a visual trigger like this was convenient.
Tokiwadai Middle School students had to be at least Level 3. Kamijou did not know the details of the Mental Stinger power, but using it while the target was within arm’s reach was basically suicide.
“Ah, hey!? Wait, my skirt!”
Kumokawa twisted the girl’s arm behind her back and pressed her soft cheek and growing chest against the ground. Kamijou was surprised to find how oddly sexy it was to see a rich girl crawling on the ground in defeat. It probably helped that she could not support herself with her hands, so her butt stuck up in the air, leaving the color of her panties as visible as could be.
“Black, huh?” commented Kumokawa. “Is that the Silk Spider by Morgan & Claudia? I’m a little annoyed that that’s the movie limited edition.”
Kamijou was unsure what part of that was the brand name, what was the product name, and why there would be limited editions. Girls lived in a strange world. At this point, he would not have been surprised to learn there were also high-mobility and one-of-a-kind versions.
The pointy-haired boy tried to find somewhere else to look, but Kumokawa showed no mercy.
“Yeah, I was right. In fact, it’s riding up even more than I thought. How did this even happen? Does underwear ride up more easily depending on the shape below?”
“Gwah! Please stop talking about the shape!! Why are you looking that closely!?”
“Take a look here and tell me what you think, boy. The crotch doesn’t normally bulge out quite this much, does it? Ha ha ha. And check out this mole here.”
“Stop trying to trick me into looking! I won’t look and you can’t make me!! So you can rest easy, Miss Red Ribbon Bows Given Spiderwebby Accents With Black Lace!!”
“You’re clearly looking enough to pick up on the basic design concept! I’m going to jab my fingers through your eyes and scrape out the brain cells containing those horrifying memories, liar boy!!”
She was past trying to rely on her Mental Whatever power.
At this point, it felt less like they had rescued the girl and more like they had taken over the sexual harassment right where the delinquents had left off. It was enough to make Kamijou blush even brighter than Mitsuari herself.
“Keep this up and I’m pretty sure it’ll haunt my dreams, so let’s stop here, Senpai!!”
“How thoroughly were you burning all of that into your memories!?”
He turned his head away to keep himself from looking and waved his hands while begging the upperclassman girl to release her.
“Well, if you insist.”
As soon as Kumokawa released the twisted wrist, Mitsuari hopped up fast enough to stir up the sweltering night’s air and tried to swipe her phone away from Kamijou, so the self-defense lady had to pin her down again.
“Have you learned you lesson?”
“Heh heh. I have, I have!!”
They could no longer take her at her word, so Kumokawa Seria smushed the girl’s face into the world’s ugliest pig face and snapped a photo with her own phone. Once they had some photographic insurance, they finally released her.
Just to be safe, Kamijou removed the battery and external lens from Mitsuari’s phone and returned the separated parts one at a time.
“The School Garden, huh? I didn’t realize we had a dimension of girliness right here in District 7. I live here and I’ve never been there.”
“Of course you haven’t. It wouldn’t be much of a no-boys-allowed zone if they let in people like you.”
So it was a restricted area.
Academy City had 23 districts in all, but unlike the large shopping district that was District 15 or the aerospace-focused District 23, District 7 was – for better or for worse – known for being a nondescript mishmash of things. The population density and level of development was also a mixed bag. It was bustling with energy in the busier places, but it was entirely deserted in the emptier places.
Things grew quieter as the three of them walked together.
It even felt like the night’s heat had suddenly gone away.
They were approaching a collection of prestigious girl’s schools and the atmosphere would be ruined if modified motorcycles were roaring around all the time, but Kamijou still grew more and more timid.
It was not that there were no buildings around.
Nor was it getting any darker.
But it still felt like there were fewer and fewer people around with each step they took. It may have been like the difference between a school during the day and at night. No, like the difference between a school in use and one that had been long abandoned. The actual city around them had not changed, but the altered atmosphere made it look entirely different.
Perhaps you could call it an omen.
To be blunt, Kamijou Touma did not have the sharpest instincts. He would not notice anything was amiss right up until the surprise party crackers went off all around him. Even though there was nothing he could do to change things without sensing the preparations being made around him.
So this was not a testament to some sixth sense of his.
It was more like the threat lurking below the surface had finally taken tangible form.
They all stopped when they heard something unbelievable.
Fluffy-haired Mitsuari took a step back and bumped into Kamijou.
It may have been an instinctive attempt to distract herself from the fear.
Something was up ahead on this road with too few streetlights, but it was not something that should exist in a concrete and asphalt metropolis. In fact, it should not have been found in the zoo or even in the depths of the Amazon.
Tigers and killer whales had no natural predators, but this intimidating presence would cause even them to turn tail and flee.
It was an animal.
Kamijou felt like his legs were going to give out. He had yet to see the whole thing, but the intense gaze piercing him contained the kind of killer intent that a mechanical camera lens could never reproduce.
It was watching them.
It was hunting them.
He finally noticed a glint of light in the darkness. No, there were two arranged side by side. They had to be eyes. They reminded him of a cat’s eyes, but he had not noticed them until now because he had been looking at his own eye level.
These were much higher.
He had to tilt his head up to see those glowing eyes at the same height as a three-story building.
What was that? Not even a tiger on its hind legs or an elephant known for its giant body were that tall. Could it be a giraffe since they were made to have elevated heads? No, the eyes were too far apart for that. This head was bigger than that. Also, the eyes were not positioned on the sides of the head to expand the visible range in order to detect danger, as was common with herbivores. These eyes were positioned on the front of the head for the depth perception needed to judge the distance from one’s prey, as was common with carnivores.
This should not have been possible.
He could flip through an animal encyclopedia all day and never find an answer.
A tremor shook the ground.
It took him a moment to realize that was an excessively large footstep. And the threat went beyond the legs. He also heard something like large sheets beating at the air. The silhouette came into focus as the creature approached them.
It was large enough to rival a three-story building in height.
It looked something like a bipedal carnivorous dinosaur.
That was shocking enough to make his heart skip a beat, but it did not end there.
Thin, bat-like wings spread out from its back.
And with the sound of oxygen being sucked in, an orange glow flashed near its enormous maw. Almost like the sparks at the end of a flamethrower.
That clinched it.
He knew the answer now, but the name that came to mind was unbelievably unrealistic.
That silhouette was covered in slimy green scales like a lizard.
He had never imagined his knowledge from fantasy video games would come in handy here.
He did not understand.
But a moment later, that great maw opened wide and fire burst out in a straight line as if from a flamethrower.
Its giant form stood about three stories tall.
The breath unleashed toward the ground from its great maw roasted the space along a straight line of 50 meters. The heat was so great it burned away the branches of the roadside trees, liquefied the asphalt, burned and discolored the paint of the cars parked on the curb, and finally ignited their fuel tanks, making them explode.
That single attack recolored the world.
Recolored it orange.
The light of the heaven-scorching flames swept away the tranquil darkness of the city night.
Even the hot night air was blown away. The heat that now slammed into their faces was like sticking their head inside a sauna or oven. Kamijou almost thought his face was covered by clear clingwrap that had been dunked in hot water.
An odd buzzing sound came from the roadside trees.
The cicadas should have been docile at night, but they were frantically flying away.
Kamijou’s group had only survived because a powerful gust of wind had blown in from the side. The breath was slightly diverted to the side like water from a hose bending. Otherwise, they all would have been burned to death.
Kamijou had no idea what was going on.
He had grown tired of the boring routine of everyday life?
He had wanted to step off the rails in search of some excitement?
When someone’s limbs went limp, they apparently fell right back onto their butt.
It took him a few seconds to figure out that was what he had done. Shouting only drew attention to himself and crouching down kept him from moving to safety. If he had been munching on some popcorn in the living room and watching this scene on TV, he might have considered those facts. But he could not manage that here. Instead of his body refusing to move the way his mind told it to, it was more like his mind was not functioning at all.
It had gone entirely blank.
Emptiness filled his head.
Was this what he got for rescuing a stranger? What good was clenching his fist against something like this? The power in his right hand did not matter here. He was a middle school boy who could only curl up in a ball and get pummeled when facing some delinquents armed with cheap, easily-bent batons they had likely bought online. Of course an animal larger than a dog was going to terrify him. Worse, this one was a carnivore that could breathe fire. He did not even want to count how many rules of the city night this broke.
He had no idea what would help out here.
Meanwhile, Mitsuari was panicking in a different way.
She swung both her arms around with enough force to just about squeeze her chest with the strap to the bag she was wearing over her shoulder.
She gathered every last ounce of strength and screamed.
Then Kamijou felt a tug on his hand.
Kumokawa Seria used her other hand to push on Mitsuari Ayu’s back while yelling at them both.
“Into the alley!!”
“I don’t know what that is, but a hit from that fire would have been the end for us. There’s no hope in a wide-open space like this!!”
That green dragon was so large they had to look up at it. Its maw was lined with brutal fangs. This was not a pair of cold scissors or a mechanical press; it was a living creature’s mouth covered in the slobber that represented hunger. What would happen if those jaws snapped shut on them?
No, it did not need to reach that point.
A thick reptilian tail thicker than Kamijou’s torso was swinging around in obvious displeasure. It crushed a large motorcycle parked nearby and crashed through a building wall. It had to be heavier than a metal barbell. And not one of the dragon’s green scales seemed to have been dislodged in the process.
A human would be turned to mincemeat if it simply rushed forward and trampled them.
And just because it was big did not mean it was slow. If that entire body was a huge mass of muscle, it might be able to run as fast as, or faster than, a car.
Their eyes met.
Kamijou’s eyes met the emotional eyes of a living creature.
The giant dragon dragged its legs across the road as if checking to see what kind of surface it was. That was enough to peel up a layer of melted asphalt.
That thing did not hesitate.
Its enormous body finally charged forward!!
He could not do anything as fancy as turning around and running away.
He was still down on his butt, so he rolled to the side instead.
“Ah,” gasped Mitsuari in surprise.
He had rolled in the opposite direction that Kumokawa Seria had indicated by pulling on his arm.
He had not done it on purpose.
Or had he?
The action felt a lot like brushing off that good will.
He could no longer judge for himself why he had done it, but now that he had done it, he had to stick with it. He did not have time to turn back toward the alley the girls were running to. Even a second’s delay could mean being trampled to death right now.
(I have to run!!)
He scrambled to his feet on the asphalt and finally managed to run, as if pushed on by the loud roar. On the way, he got his feet tangled up below him and stumbled.
He turned his back on everything there.
A loud boom sounded behind him.
Had the dragon knocked over a thick traffic light pole or the reinforced concrete of a building?
It might not have been so bad if the dragon had charged after him, but that was not what happened.
He only noticed after rolling on the road and climbing underneath a car parked on the curb.
The pressure was gone.
The only sound was the pounding of his own heart.
The giant dragon was focused on someone other than him.
Even if it was temporary, finding safety brought his usual senses back to him.
It was like feeling the guilt rush in after leaving someone else to drown so you could use the piece of driftwood to float in the ocean.
(Did I kill them? Did I let them die!? Dammit, no, that can’t be! No, dammit!!)
Tears welled up in his eyes.
No matter how tightly he clenched his teeth, the slight chattering sound would not go away.
What was he doing?
He was curled up below a car desperately clinging to life like a bug on the underside of a stone.
He hated how much relief he found here.
Abandoning those girls and escaping to safety on his own like a chicken was the lowest of the low. After this, he could only crawl around in the shadows like a slug without ever receiving sympathy from anyone.
He felt pathetic.
He was on the way to becoming exactly the kind of grownup he did not want to be.
Or so it felt to him.
Which may have explained what he did next.
Finally, that ordinary boy stopped fighting the pressure building up inside him.
“To hell with this!! I can’t stand it anymore!!!!!!”
This had nothing to do with love or courage.
If anything, it was the opposite of justice or bravery.
He was driven by panic, anxiety, and fear – the same things that pursued anyone in their adolescent rebellious phase. He did not want to be any more pathetic than he already was. He would rather die than continue down that path. He moved his trembling fingers to grab at the asphalt, crawled out from below the car, and finally stopped being a bug clinging to the bottom of a stone for dear life.
He might look foolish and silly, but he had made the choice to be the type of person he wanted to be.
“Are you kidding me!? Don’t you dare die without my permission!”
It was a horribly selfish way of putting it, but that was they way he saw it.
He ran back to where he had come, but that extremely conspicuous dragon was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d it go?”
“You idiot!! Why would you come back after getting away!?”
He looked around cluelessly until the girl named Kumokawa shouted at him from the alleyway that was now a mess of large cracks.
A moment later, it dropped from above.
The giant dragon slammed into the ground like a meteor.
In this case, Kamijou Touma was saved by how pitifully small he was.
The asphalt rose up around the dragon’s landing point and scattered every which way, but it passed above his head while he curled up on the ground. If his legs had maintained their strength for even a moment longer, his entire head would likely have been knocked off.
All logical thought left his mind as he stayed down on the ground.
The giant claws he saw before his eyes simply terrified him so much he swung up his right hand on reflex.
It was too weak a move to call a punch. It was more like a playful swat from a cat.
As soon as his fist touched it, he only felt a strange slimy sensation.
Nothing else happened.
(It really doesn’t work!?)
“You dumbass!!” someone shouted from the alley entrance.
Then something wrapped around him as if tying up his neck and right shoulder.
As soon as he grimaced at the prickly sensation of a plastic rope, the loop tightened and he was forcefully tugged backwards. He struggled on the pavement while he was dragged over like someone caught in a cowboy’s lasso.
Something crashed down where he had been sitting earlier (was it the enraged dragon’s foot?) and tore up the ground.
“I tried to focus the weight on your shoulder, but I didn’t dislocate your neck bones, did I? But even that would be better than being trampled back there, right?”
He was dragged into the nearby alley.
“Also, why did you come back? You should have escaped.”
Kumokawa Seria had a hint of happiness on her face that belied her words.
That had been a close shave.
He initially just lay there where she had dragged him, but then he heard a loud crash like a truck plowing into a building. The space between buildings was just barely enough for a large motorcycle, so the slimy green dragon’s large maw could not fit.
But this was not over.
With the sound of oxygen being absorbed, orange sparks danced within its mouth again.
The flamethrower was coming.
The dragon was preparing its breath.
Kumokawa Seria used her slender chin to gesture toward the makeshift emergency stairs on the filthy wall instead of further back in the alley.
“Run!! Climb up!!”
They were entirely focused on escaping.
They could only count themselves lucky their legs had not frozen up.
A fearsome boom and flash of light erupted out. An orange flamethrower blast filled the surface of the narrow alleyway just as Kamijou’s group reached the third-story landing. Flamethrowers were most effective when used to quickly clear out complex and narrow spaces like trenches or caves. Hiding behind cover or around a corner was not enough to escape the wall of flames.
“Th-the color,” said Mitsuari Ayu in a daze. “It’s changed color.”
This was more than the reflected firelight could explain. The scales covering the giant dragon had definitely changed to an orange hue. But what did that matter? It probably did not mean anything. Mitsuari was probably subconsciously afraid that she would panic if she was not analyzing something and keeping her mind busy. It was like being in an elevator dangling precariously in the air. Feeling helpless while in a dangerous spot was horrifying enough to make breathing difficult.
They had avoided the fiery breath by running into the narrow alleyway and climbing the emergency stairs.
But they could not rest yet.
The fire’s heat would rise, so they would be cooked as if on a grill if they stayed put. Plus, the dragon was still on the move. It could think for itself and it was targeting them. They had to lose it somehow if they were to survive.
Mitsuari Ayu gasped as she finally managed to focus on reality.
“Um, could we call Anti-Skill!?”
“We would have to dodge those flames and that body for the several minutes it took for them to arrive!!”
Plus, could standard Anti-Skill patrol equipment really deal with that monster? Their 9mm handgun bullets could not kill even a human being instantly, so critics had pointed out they would allow a criminal to kill the hostage while they were dying. And that mass of muscle could probably deflect even a rifle bullet with ease.
Kamijou did not have an actual plan, but the beads of sweat pouring from his body demanded he hurry his thoughts along. The heat of the flames covering the alley surface was rising toward them. The night was hot enough already and now they had to contend with this sauna-like heat. Staying here would only drain their stamina and dehydrate them.
He roughly wiped the sweat from his brow.
He had the needlessly strong pride of a teenage boy, but he no longer felt any reluctance toward choosing to run.
“L-let’s climb to the roof for now. Staying here will just wear us down.”
But he had underestimated the enemy.
He heard something beating violently at the air and then a tremor erupted from directly above.
He hesitantly looked up to see the night sky had been covered up.
A giant form was pressing its thick legs against opposite buildings and looking down at them. The bat-like wings on its back were opened wide. Yes, it had wings.
It was unclear how far it could actually fly, but it could at least ignore most height differences.
It must have absorbed the color of the night sky this time because its scales sand wings were dyed a pitch black.
Its massive jaws opened.
An igniting sound rumbled out.
“Get inside!!” shouted Kumokawa as they all tackled the metal door together.
A moment later, the fearsome flamethrower breath shot straight down with enough force to melt the makeshift emergency stairs.
Their combined weight broke through the metal emergency door and they tumbled inside.
They heard bending metal directly behind them. The emergency stairs were falling to the burning ground after either the wall’s surface or their bolts were melted.
There was no turning back now.
There were no obvious lights, so they had to rely on their phone backlights. This appeared to be a multi-tenant building with a few different restaurants crammed together. Instead of an office, they were in a space meant for customers. There was a somewhat sweet smell in the air and a glance at the building map next to the one small elevator said the first floor of the building was a cake shop.
“Is this a combination yakiniku shop and boutique?” The busty high school girl sighed. “I feel like everything from the latter would smell like the former.”
The dragon must have still been walking on the roof because low tremors sent small pieces of the ceiling falling down. It was a lot like being in an air raid shelter during a bombing.
“W-w-we need to call Anti-Skill! And the firefighters!!”
“Young lady, I know you want to avoid getting in trouble for breaking and entering, and there is nothing we can do about the fire ourselves.” Kumokawa put her hands on her hips in exasperation and then turned to Kamijou. “But you know why we need to do something about that dragon before we call in the firefighters, don’t you? I would have trouble sleeping at night if our report led them to their deaths here.”
Even when focused just on extinguishing the fire, she seemed to think they could not just let the adults handle it.
This was like another world altogether. Reinforced concrete felt like the symbol of the structures built by the grownups, yet they found no relief at all after hiding inside one of those sturdy buildings. Manmade things were no match for that extraordinary threat. Its claws and fangs were not directly targeting them right now, but the pressure alone was so great it seemed to be damaging his stomach and heart. The pain was like having a thin wire wrapped tightly around his soft internal organs.
This was on the level of a natural disaster.
He felt the same hopeless despair as if he were watching a tornado approach with enough power to rip a house’s roof off. He had to consciously keep his breathing stable or else he would scream and run around.
“What do we do?”
He knew he could not sit down.
Once he did that, he was never getting up again.
“I’m so stupid. Why did I come back? I should’ve just accepted being a chicken. I should’ve made an anonymous report from a safe distance and then gotten the hell out of here! Oh, god!! Why does it always end up like this no matter what I do!? I always second guess myself until I don’t know what’s what anymore!!”
“Cool your jets, boy. What’s done is done and thinking about it now isn’t going to improve our situation.”
“Why does it matter that they’re girls? It’s not like they’re going to kiss me if I save them. I’m so dumb. Why would I risk everything just to save someone when it won’t benefit me in the slight-…”
“Calm down. Try to stay calm. Here, I’ll help.”
A loud sound echoed out.
Fluffy chestnut-haired Mitsuari held her hands to her mouth in surprise.
The busty high school girl winked after throwing a solid slap.
“Staying here isn’t going to save us. Staying by the wall will only get us roasted if it breathes fire through a window and cooks the entire floor. It also might break right through the roof or wall with a tackle or knock the entire building over at the bottom. Not to mention all the fires around here. The smoke and flames will get us if we stick around too long.”
Kamijou did not say anything.
The situation made him picture a bundle of tangled cables. She might be calmly listing off what they had to do, but the fear of being trapped at every turn only grew inside him.
While Kumokawa Seria leaned against the wall and crossed her arms below her large chest, she seemed to be focused on something else.
She was looking elsewhere.
She opened her mouth in a colder way than before.
“Do you know what that thing is? Spiky Head and me can’t think of any reason why we would be attacked by a monster like that.”
The fluffy-haired girl squeezed her small bag in her arms like a pillow and shook her head.
“I-I don’t know. This came out of nowhere for me too.”
“I see.” Kumokawa exhaled through her nose in displeasure. “Then let’s leave it up to luck. We have no way of defeating it, so running away is our only option. The boy, you, and me will split up and run in three different directions. No matter how big it is, there’s only one of it. Since it’s entirely up to chance, no complaining if it goes after you, okay? The other two can run to safety while it attacks one of us. That gives us more of a chance to escape into a crowd or seek help from the adults. That’s fair, don’t you think?”
“Wait, um, but then, uh.”
“The odds are 1/3 for each of us, so it’s a lot like playing Russian roulette with two bullets loaded in a six shooter. If there really is no reason for it to attack you, then it should be entirely fair. And you can’t think of anything, right? Then you don’t have to pessimistically assume it will 100% go after you.”
The girl gulped.
Her tiny body shrank down even further.
Her mouth moved, but no words came out.
Silence surrounded them.
However, the first to give in and speak was not the fluffy-haired girl.
“Wai- cough.” Kamijou Touma’s voice caught in his throat due to the heat and fear, but he managed to interrupt. “Wait, Senpai! Hold on a second, please!!”
“God, really!?” Kumokawa blatantly scratched at her head. “Don’t get all softhearted, boy! I had just set things up so Mitsuari would talk if she’s hiding anything!!”
“I can’t just watch this. It’s too much. I came back because I was afraid of abandoning you, so I can’t waste that effort by letting even one of you die now. I can tell I’d crack first if we tried to do that. And regardless, there are a few things I want to check on.”
Mitsuari held her hands to her undeveloped chest and shrank down, but Kamijou waved a dismissive hand.
“No, it isn’t about your situation. I’m sick of this squabbling between friends.”
“Friends? You don’t know who either of us are. You’re more softhearted than I thought.”
“That doesn’t matter and you can make fun of me for it all you want. I’d rather be mocked then see a girl looking blue. So our top priority has got to be that mysterious dragon going nuts out there. I want to brainstorm some ideas about that thing. Please! If that thing stays a mystery, I think I’ll go crazy!!”
“Well, if that’s what you want.”
Kumokawa sounded irritated, but she must have felt somewhat similar since she actually agreed. An unidentified but undeniably deadly creature was crawling around out there. This was like one of the strange curses seen on a summer ghost story show. Simply being told not to feel afraid was not going to cut it.
Kamijou took a deep breath and made sure not to let his imagination overpower him here.
“First of all, what is that thing? I mean, it’s a dragon, but can it actually be scientifically explained?”
“Well, it’s not like they found it deep in a European forest and wrapped a rope around its neck to drag it here.” Kumokawa kept her arms crossed and pouted her lips like a child. “But the dragon breath doesn’t have to be some occult phenomenon from a picture book. We don’t know its anatomical structure, so it might have multiple stomachs like a cow. It could always create some kind of flammable substance inside its body and ignite that.”
“A flammable substance?”
Mitsuari tilted her head and Kumokawa sighed.
“A familiar example would be methane gas. Although the gas that left your mouth at that burger place would have been carbonation, I suppose.”
“Bwah!? Erase that from your memories right this instant!!” shouted the fluffy girl, but Kamijou had a troubled look on his face.
He wanted to give this the proper thought even if he had to force it.
He wanted the peace of mind that came with categorizing that thing – that monster – as an understandable creature.
Just like people insisted ghost sightings were actually caused by plasma illusions or special mental states brought on by low frequency waves.
“Would it really be that simple? I mean, that flamethrower melted the metal stairway like it was stripping it from the building.”
“It might be difficult for a single creature, but, boy, did you know that the termites which do so much damage to trees and wood do not actually have any internal organs capable of digesting the wood they eat and converting it into nutrients?”
“They exist in symbiosis with protozoa that break down wood and convert it into nutrients. So if that other creature broke down stone instead, termites would eat stone. And if they broke down plastic, termites would eat plastic.”
Kumokawa Seria seemed to be saying that the same monster would be considered a vampire if it liked blood or a zombie if it liked flesh.
Academy City science was known for taking things to extremes. The esper development was the primary example.
“How much of your food you digest is dependent on the balance of your gut bacteria. And depending how sugar, a necessary nutrient, is broken down, it can become flammable. Like with methane gas or alcohol. I can’t write out the actual equations for you, but I still think it’s possible to reproduce a dragon’s fiery breath with a purely biological approach.”
“The melting point of iron is around 1500 degrees. If methane gas is mixed with the air before ignition, it can surpass that number depending on the level of oxygen intake. It’s the same basic idea as the bellows used for metalworking.”
If that creature had burst out of a magic circle after someone recited a strange magical incantation, there would have been no way of understanding what was going on. Their only option would have been to use their final trump card: have the boy clench that right fist which only he was aware of and charge blindly in at the dragon.
But this was different.
That animal wandering around out there was doing just fine after a blow from his right fist.
So was it a product of the organized and understandable science that was managed by Academy City’s technology?
That would open up a different path even if his right hand would be of no use.
“Are you saying it’s a chimera creature made with cloning or biotech?”
“Yes. If someone abused biological science to rearrange the DNA for their own purposes, I suppose you would call them a Biohacker or something. People like that will use anything that catches their interest, from bacteria to mammals. Safety will be a secondary concern.”
That word sent a disturbed chill down Kamijou’s spine.
It was an entirely different sort of crime to mugging or murder. They would create even more prolific black bass or an even more virulent influenza virus just because they wanted to or because it was there. They did not need some grand conspiracy or plan. They might doom the world “just for fun”. They would assume they at least would be safe, but they would be little different from the people who released a turtle into a city waterway once they could not look after it anymore.
“I have to know. If that thing was created by piecing together existing animals like a puzzle, then what do you think it was made from?”
“What it was made from?”
He traded opinions with Kumokawa Seria and Mitsuari Ayu.
Setting aside how exactly the genetics had been manipulated, the girls’ opinions were not all that different from what he had been thinking. There was a tendency to overthink things when your life was on the line, but when they kept it simple, that should be the answer.
They could understand this.
It made sense.
And that meant they could fight.
The final key was the small bag carried by Mitsuari Ayu. It seemed like an item from another world altogether to Kamijou, but grownup Kumokawa Seria had said it was not as expensive as it looked. In that case, why did Mitsuari choose it over other, nicer ones? That question led to the answer they needed.
“That’s a sweets shop below us, right? With cakes and cream puffs and stuff?”
“What about it?”
“I think we’ve already found its weak point.”
Of course, Kamijou Touma had gotten the snot beaten out of him in a no-rules street fight that was not divided out by weight category. He had learned his lesson. Since being a head taller could provide as big a difference as wielding a weapon, he was not about to challenge this enormous beast with just his clenched fist.
He had something else in mind.
The building and possibly the ground as well shook hard enough for fear to clutch at his heart, but staying put would not improve their situation. And if the dragon destroyed a certain something while trampling everything on the ground, it really would be checkmate. They would lose any hope of winning.
“Pant, pant, gasp!!”
He now ran down the stairs alone in the dark.
He needed to reach the first floor.
His reasoning was solid, but a theory and practical results were two very different things. He could not relax yet. There were no lights on and he only had his phone’s backlight to go on. As dumb as it would be, tripping here could still kill him.
They had been thrown into what looked like a hopeless dead end, but he was not going to let this end with that seemingly legendary monster killing them. He did not know what the dragon was thinking, but an animal was an animal. There was always a chance it would try to harm its prey for no logical reason.
(Was it a cake shop or a pastry shop? Where is it!? There!)
Was the door locked or had all the intense shaking bent it? Either way, it would not open when he turned the knob, so he forced it open with a tackle. He had no interest in the desk drawers or the safe in the corner of the room. He instead grabbed a large waterproof cloth bag hanging on the wall.
According to Kumokawa Seria, what they needed could not be opened with his bare hands. Strictly speaking, it was a public item anyone could use, but the necessary tool was traditionally kept by the manager of a nearby building.
“I’ve never seen one of these before,” he groaned after checking the hefty weight of the bag.
He did not have time to be choosy, so he grabbed the large bag and then made his way to the large silver freezer. However, this was not meant to store ordinary food. It was used to cool things to -70 degrees and it contained the other key they needed.
(This isn’t something I can carry by hand.)
He wanted a cooler, but none were in evidence. Instead, he checked the back of the shop and found a box made of styrofoam and plastic rope. It was apparently used to carry around whole cakes.
After filling up the box, he used his other hand to grab the loop of plastic rope connected to the styrofoam box.
He was too scared to use the building’s front exit and the back entrance was enveloped in the flames of the dragon’s breath. He ended up opening a window in the office room and rolling out from there. He failed to stick the landing and fell over, so he clicked his tongue.
He felt a low tremor.
He stayed stock still. He would lose if he screamed.
He observed his surroundings while fighting with the great pressure inside him, but the bipedal monster did not seem to have spotted that raw flesh that posed less of a threat than a chicken. Driven by his pounding heart, he carefully observed everything.
He wanted two things while out here.
One was a flat red metal box on the side of the road, and the other…
“There it is.”
It was a special sign.
His gaze followed the metal pole down to the asphalt where he found what he was looking for.
He pulled a metal object from a thick bag. It was heavier than a metal bat, but it was not a weapon. It was a certain kind of handle shaped like a letter T.
His hands were trembling too much to move like he wanted.
Reality was not a video game, so his body did not always react the same way, like he was moving an analog stick or pressing a colorful button.
But he had to do it regardless.
His breathing was heavy and sweat poured from his forehead.
(Argh, this is such a pain. Why can’t you just hit a single switch for this? What are you supposed to do in an emergency!? The damage will only spread while you’re dealing with all this crap!!)
It may have been similar to pitching a tent. He glanced down at the manual found inside the waterproof cloth and connected things together as instructed. It used paper instead of a digital format in case of a widespread power outage or communication disruption.
(I don’t want to release it yet. Where’s the intake? There it is. If I fill that with the stuff from the freezer, the tank’s pressure should rise.)
At any rate, it felt heavy in his grasp.
Once the unit was complete, he held it at his hip like a giant machinegun.
“Now, let’s get started.”
Three stories tall was about 10 to 13 meters.
Weapons like a knife or metal pipe were useless against a mass of muscle that large. And while handguns were enough to simply warn off a criminal in the city, not even they could handle something like this.
Once it was released, the Wyvern was guaranteed to obliterate its target.
There were flaws such as the effort it took to guide around and the unexpectedly large spread of damage from any mistake made there, but the opposite problem could never happen. The damage would never be less than expected and the target would never escape alive.
It was a prized possession used when a target absolutely had to be taken out, even if it meant paying a small price.
Which was why the man could only gasp at the situation he found here.
“I am calling over the emergency line,” said the operator’s voice in his ear. “Due to the exceptional circumstances, I am skipping the safety procedures and removing the wireless communication restriction. Please report. The Griffon’s mechanical observation equipment is not enough to grasp the situation. Please respond immediately.”
But he had bigger things to worry about.
And he still held his bow in his hands.
“What is that? What the hell is happening!?”
Kamijou thought his heart would freeze from the unexpectedly loud rattling sound made as he ran. He had to approach that dragon either way, so there was no way of getting out of this without it noticing him. He clicked his tongue, but there was no way around it.
(Damn, this tension is definitely taking years off my life. Years!!)
The roar was loud enough for the surrounding glass to rattle.
The dragon was there.
It must have absorbed the color of the building’s wall because it was colored gray as it clung upside-down to the wall of the 10-story multi-tenant building. It seemed to be peeking inside each window in turn. It probably intended to unleash a flamethrower blast if it saw anything moving inside. Whether it hit or missed, the building would be engulfed in flames, smoke, and heat, which would kill the girls huddled together and hiding within.
Then their eyes met.
The gray dragon moved its head while clinging to the wall.
Its enormous jaws opened and it roared.
Normally, Kamijou would have been helpless. His opponent was sitting high up on the wall with its sharp claws digging into the concrete. It could roast him with its flamethrower, but his fist could not reach it. And he doubted it would help much even if his fist could reach.
But things were different now.
Kamijou Touma held a tool down at his hip.
A moment later, something flew from each of them.
The dragon had launched that powerful breath from its great maw. The oxygen intake from the wind made that flamethrower hot enough to melt steel, but what had flown from Kamijou?
“Damn, that is so cool!!”
He was restraining it with his entire body, but the tool still struggled in his arms. He could not help but give an impressed cry.
The tool itself could be found anywhere.
This was his first time using one.
He was not the kind of student who actually attended the fire safety lectures.
“What else do you expect a human being to use to put out a fire!?”
The water roared out in a white stream and attacked the dragon on the wall like a laser beam. The pressurized water crashed into the armor formed by its hard gray scales and thick muscles.
The dragon breath was deflected and ended up burning things elsewhere.
Whether it used methane gas or alcohol, some kind of flammable substance was needed to produce the flames. His pressurized water had hit whatever that substance was and deflected it away.
Even a professional firefighter would have been shocked to see this.
The hose was much more powerful than normal.
It actually tore the electronic signs from the building wall.
“That’s a cake shop on the first floor, so they had plenty of dry ice for coolant!! Throwing that in the tank causes it to vaporize and increase the pressure, so it’s perfect for upping the power of the water!!”
Kamijou made it all sound like his accomplishment, but it was actually Super High School Girl Kumokawa Seria who had done all the calculations. If he had dumped it in there randomly, he might have cracked the tank, rendering it useless.
The water pressure was so high that a direct hit from close range would have dislocated someone’s shoulder.
But his target was not human.
He heard a roar from directly in front of him.
The brutal stream of water could strip the paint from a car, but it was still not powerful enough to tear off the giant dragon’s scales.
Kamijou would lose at this rate.
It was all over if that thing opened its mouth and released its flamethrower breath.
But he was not done yet.
“I said I dumped dry ice in, didn’t I?”
The effect was dramatic.
Kamijou was not using simple water.
“That coolant has a temperature of -70 degrees. Since water freezes at 0, I couldn’t exactly use it as is. But by creating supercooled water, the water stays liquid below its freezing point. It’s normally nothing more than stable water, but that strange liquid will freeze the instant it’s hit with a powerful impact!!”
The earlier dragon breath had not hit Kamijou. It had flown off in a different direction instead. That was partially due to the flammable substance colliding with the pressurized water, but it had more to do with the dragon being thrown into confusion by the damage it took and losing sight of the puny boy it assumed it could kill in one hit.
“That’s gotta hurt like hell.”
He grinned while holding that metal nozzle thicker than his arm.
He had lived a life of misfortune. If he was up against a kitten or a chick, he might have hesitated even with an animal.
But both he and his opponent had encountered misfortune and chosen violence as a tool to break free of it.
He had no reason to hold back with someone so similar to himself.
A white steam different from smoke appeared in the hot midsummer night. It looked like a breath in midwinter. Kamijou felt a stinging pain in his cheeks and earlobes just by watching it from nearby.
“Reptiles like snakes and lizards are generally coldblooded. They can’t maintain their own body heat. If they’re rapidly cooled by having a bunch of water or ice dumped on them, it can actually put their life at risk!!”
In fact, a normal lizard would enter hibernation mode from a change of 5-10 degrees. If the internal structure of the dragon was the same, then it would also have a weakness to cold, no matter how large it was.
Kumokawa Seria had said this could all be explained scientifically.
A dragon seemed like a legendary monster, but if it was truly contained in the category of science, then it was no more than an animal. No matter how big, brutal, winged, or fire-breathing it was, it had to contain the inner workings of a living creature. It breathed with its lungs, it pumped blood with its heart, and it thought with its brain. Those ordinary rules had to apply.
In that case, appearances were important. If it looked like a lizard or bat, then it would have to have the biological traits of a lizard or bat.
For the most part, it had to be based on a reptile. The bat wings were thin and had no fat, so it was unlikely it was producing and storing up body heat there.
Flamethrower sparks danced in the dragon’s mouth That was actually a blessing in disguise since it gave advance warning of the attack to come. In that way, it was the same as Mitsuari Ayu’s phone. Kamijou forcibly moved the hose struggling in his arms and adjusted its aim.
He aimed it toward the dragon’s wide-open mouth.
The stream of water could not get through its armor-like scales or thick muscles, so the cooling effect would be so much greater if he blasted it directly inside its body.
The intense roar was enough to shatter the surrounding windows.
Was that a bat’s ultrasonic waves instead of a lizard’s traits? Was it simply crying out in pain, or was it using sonar to accurately scan the terrain in the dark? The dragon’s giant body strained as it struggled. It apparently intended to crush him directly instead of going for a long-distance attack.
It kicked off the wall with a loud boom and small cracks spread across the building’s concrete wall like a car’s windshield.
He let go of the firehose and rolled to the side.
It was like a meteor strike.
The thick asphalt tore up and the gravel foundation below that was scattered around. The ground was torn up in a straight line continuing for hundreds of meters. The cars parked on the curb were thrown around and the roadside trees were broken down.
The boy slowly stood up.
He was soaked with the water spraying from the firehose as it flailed about on the ground and his uniform was half frozen like sherbet, but he still laughed quietly.
The dragon had knocked the ground itself into the air, but that was the end of it.
It was no longer moving.
It trembled some, but it curled up and stopped moving to desperately preserve what little body heat it had left. Its ability to change color stopped working, so it remained that gray color that now stood out from its surroundings.
“Reptiles hibernate in the winter,” he spat out.
The firehose was launched up by its own pressurized stream and he caught the metal nozzle out of the air in a single hand.
“So you’ve hit your limit.”
“This…can’t be happening.”
The man slowly exhaled.
He did not know what had just happened.
But if he did not understand the threat, why had he withdrawn so far from the front line? And why was he holding his breath as if in fear of being discovered?
His back bumped into a metal wall.
The string of his bow twanged like a broken musical instrument. It had a stabilizer and dot sight attached, so it looked more like a piece of sports equipment than a hunting tool.
No matter how hard he found it to believe, the Wyvern they had prepared had indeed failed to destroy its target. That should not have been possible, but he could not fall behind. If they had failed, he had to withdraw. His own safety was priority #1.
He came back to his senses.
Now was not the time to blindly follow his homing instinct.
Emergencies were exactly when you had to choose your actions most carefully.
He removed his back from the metal wall – the side of a large truck container – and made his way to the payphone he already knew was safe. He needed to use a special method to contact the others.
“Prepare the retrieval team!! Send them out immediately. We cannot let the public know of the Wyvern’s existence. We can only erase the footage from security cameras and robots that comply to public standards! Personal cameras and phones are beyond our reach! We must erase all trace of this before Anti-Skill or the firefighters arrive!!”
He knew that was asking too much of them, but listening to the operator’s rebuttal at a time like this was a very bad idea. Thus, the man “rationally” placed the receiver back on the hook, took an intentionally deep breath, and rubbed his fingers down the center of his chest. He was stimulating his autonomic nerves to calm his thoughts.
His identity as a researcher rose to the surface.
“(Where did we go wrong? If the Wyvern functioned according to our expectations, its ground and aerial mobility and its flamethrower radiator attack should have given it the mobility and firepower needed to destroy a formation of four main battle tanks. On the defensive side, it should entirely neutralize ultrasonic and infrared targeting and it should be able to adjust the angle of its scales to divert radar waves so they won’t return to the radar. Did the focus on high firepower create a gap in its anti-personnel attack power? If it did not begin with a detailed scan using its ultrasonic sonar, then was it an issue of insufficient education rather than an anatomical flaw!?)”
The man muttered under his breath while opening the glass door and stepping outside. He kept doing so as he walked toward the driver’s seat of the large truck.
But that was when his shoulders shook and he came to a stop.
“Oh? You noticed me faster than I expected. I was hoping you would reveal more valuable information first.”
He was facing the truck container.
A high school girl with black hair, a prominent forehead, and a sailor uniform a size too small was leaning back against the container’s side. Just like he had been a little earlier. How long had she been there? Had she been smiling there while listening to the critical information he had so carelessly let slip!?
“It looked like that dragon could partially change colors to match its surroundings like a tree frog or chameleon, but in that case, why was it green to begin with?”
Her oversized chest must have tugged on her summer uniform’s top because her navel was showing while she waved around a skinny stick-shaped voice recorder.
“You managed to get that giant thing here without causing a scene, so it must have been in a large box of some sort. A special box with the largescale cooling equipment to artificially induce hibernation so your own pet dragon won’t devour you. That means the green dragon must have been frozen in that state and then shipped here. That made its weakness simple enough to deduce and also helped me search our surroundings for the culprit.”
The tool was not meant to be used like this, but now was not the time to be picky. The man frantically nocked an arrow to his bow and he pulled the string tight.
But he did not loose the arrow.
He unnaturally froze in place with the string still taut.
“Oh, I didn’t think you would help out.”
Kumokawa Seria sighed with the look of someone whose thunder had been stolen.
Someone stood behind the man.
It was a girl with fluffy chestnut hair, a small bag over her shoulder, and the summer uniform of a well-known middle school. Mitsuari Ayu was targeting the man’s back with her phone’s camera.
That allowed her to open a hole in the barrier around someone’s mind and manipulate the soft stuff within.
“Mental Stinger, hm? That’s a pretty cheap power.”
(Much like someone else I could mention.)
“Are you really one to talk? How did you manage to escape his notice? I provided no support whatsoever until just now.”
She still had her secrets.
The capable high school girl stepped away from the container wall and slowly approached the man who had his bowstring taut but could not move a finger.
She took one step to the side.
That was all it took for the unarmed high school girl to escape the line of fire.
Her slender fingers moved to his sweat-soaked chin.
“I should probably get a photo of your face, your fingerprints, and a hair sample. The hair root will give me your blood type and your genetic type. You seem to specialize in biology, so I imagine you know just how much of a threat that is.”
“You have no way of hiding your identity any longer. Biometric locks are generally unchangeable, so all the secrets you left in your accounts could leak out. …And once your boss starts fearing that possibility, you might just be the next target. You’ll have one of your own creations sent after you. Hm, I wonder what it will be next. A Kraken? Or maybe a Cerberus?”
Mitsuari Ayu looked to the side instead of at the man.
She looked to the truck container that Kumokawa had been leaning against. Three large letters were printed there: L.S.S.
“Were you using a random company’s name for camouflage, or were you being honest?”
Kumokawa sounded exasperated.
She could investigate that later, but settling the immediate incident took precedence. Since this man had tried to kill them, letting him go free would never end well. No matter how much of an advantage she had now, she could not leave any possibility of him taking revenge at a later date.
She would not claim to have no fear, but that was exactly why she could not go easy on him. She had to fully eliminate that fear.
When she could crush an enemy, she would do so.
And she would use as surefire a method as she could.
“What do we do now?” asked Mitsuari.
“Since he’s under your control, you do the honors. First, have him slowly release the bowstring and then drop the weapon. Although I doubt that is meant for self-defense or assassinations. He probably uses the arrow to launch some kind of substance that will guide in the dragon with its scent or moisture. That way, he can use the arrows to control it.”
Unlike higher thinking lifeforms like humans, lower thinking lifeforms like insects and reptiles generally only thought in terms of yes or no. They thoroughly scanned the terrain and circumstances using high-quality sensors that could detect temperature, humidity, sunlight, scent, and other factors and they used that to search out the route with the least risk, the most food, and the best possibility of leaving behind offspring. For example, a snail looked for shade, high humidity, and edible rocks and a rhinoceros beetle looked for early morning, tree sap, and places where birds would not find it. The group that arrived at the optimal location through that series of yes-or-no questions would be able to reproduce and the group that failed to do so would die out. It was obvious enough what would happen to a snail that wound up in an arid desert. They lived in a world of those sorts of choices.
That said, the terms “higher” and “lower” are only for convenience’s sake and there is no real superiority or inferiority between the two methods. The aforementioned thought process was adopted by the field of mechanical engineering for things like a Mars exploration robot.
But if you knew what conditions and materials those yes-or-no questions were based on, it was not that difficult to externally control a lower thinking lifeform like an insect or reptile. That was used in the field of non-agrochemical insect extermination such as the sticky sheets that caught flies and roaches.
So if you wanted to control an enormous dragon, you only had to prepare a few different arrows carrying cotton soaked with different perfumes and launch them in a long arc.
At the very least, that would be easier than controlling a human being like Kumokawa Seria and Mitsuari Ayu could do.
The Tokiwadai Middle School monster released an exasperated sigh.
“Now give him a simple command. I imagine the person who risked his life more than either of us would be frustrated if he did not play a role in the conclusion, so we can give him a reward. Just this once, we can let a boy take the credit.”
The other girl tilted her head in confusion, so Kumokawa gave her a cruel smile.
She winked as she explained.
“Have that twig of a researcher run full speed toward Kamijou Touma. His fist will do the rest.”
A loud, dull sound filled one corner of Academy City.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“That L.S.S. truck wasn’t just a random disguise; it appears to have been real. They’ve just gone berserk. So how do you intend to fix this as a member of the Board of Directors?”
“Surely you aren’t going to take a wait-and-see approach. This is never going to end with that one attack. I will protect myself, but this could still be seen as a direct attack on a Board member’s Brain.”
“Kaizumi. Just this once, I will defer to you since I know you so well. I will wait six hours from this very moment. Use that time to calculate out the pros and cons on your secretary’s computer or whatever.”
“Yes, that should tell you what you need to know.”
“It does not matter how much corporate profit L.S.S. provides. They have started using you-know-what, and that is supposed to be Kihara Kagun’s domain. Washing your hands of them and crushing them would be the best choice for Academy City.”
“My interest here is in Mitsuari Ayu.”
“Surely you know who that is. She is the esper developed as a parallel line to ******** ******. Aren’t you curious what they want with her?”
Tokiwadai Middle School was known as a prestigious esper powers development school.
The girls who attended had to be at least Level 3 and the school was having an especially fruitful year since they now had two students at the effective upper limit of Level 5.
That was this girl’s goal, yet she found herself unable to attain it.
Fluffy-haired Mitsuari Ayu was not fond of the Curriculum she was put through. Her Mental Stinger affected people’s minds and it did not work on animals like monkeys or dogs. So no matter how safe the experiments were, they had to be human experiments.
(I have heard that espers with telepathy and mind reading powers have similar worries.)
The school counselor was of course aware of these troubles, but Mitsuari was a specialist in manipulating people’s minds. The adult counselor tried to resolve her problems by following the arrows on the flow chart in some manual, so it was as meaningless to her as watching a magician when you knew how all the tricks worked. Whether or not it was effective, there had to be a bond of trust established first.
“Red,” she said softly while feeling blue.
She sat across from a Tokiwadai teacher who was assessing her power. The cards in the woman’s hand were held so Mitsuari could not see what color they were, but she continued regardless.
“Yellow, red, red, blue, red. Oh, and that is right to left from my perspective.”
The teacher smiled brightly while turning the fanned-out cards so the girl could see.
“A perfect score, Mitsuari-san.”
Mitsuari did not have a remote viewing power. Her phone did have an external lens attached, but not for that purpose.
The power to control people’s minds was so broadly defined that the user sometimes had to clearly define what they were doing in order to use their power properly. That may have been exacerbated by the fact that the power had no visible component, unlike the power to produce fire from the hand.
So in her case, she had to start by aiming with her phone.
All she was doing was breaking through the barrier of the teacher’s mind, slipping inside, and stealing away the images of what the woman was seeing, but did the teacher really understand what that meant? She may have been so delighted to have found such an excellent student that she did not care that her mind was being read, but she also might have had other intentions hidden somewhere deeper.
The teacher put on a perfect smile and spoke even more politely than an ATM.
“We can compare the data on our brainwaves later. Are they synchronized, or are they drastically different? We should learn a lot from that.”
“I have been interested in Mental Stinger for a while. If you ask me, the final frontier for research is not the farthest reaches of space; it is the human mind. In that sense, I am so glad you were placed in my care.”
A veil of mystery hung around the adults in Academy City.
Looking purely at abilities, they should have been easily overthrown, yet that never happened for some reason. The majority of the population were the students in the schools, but the small minority of supposedly powerless adults remained in control.
The teachers encouraged a spirit of competition by telling the students they could stand at the top if they increased their Level and grew stronger, but the adult teachers themselves were outside that entire framework.
“Sensei, there’s something weird with my data.”
Just as Mitsuari started to speak, someone else cut in.
Yes, this special classroom contained around 30 girls hooked up to the measuring equipment on the desks in front of them.
The teacher turned around with a bright smile.
“Yes, yes. I will be right there. Remote viewing is such an interesting power. There is no actual organ reflecting or absorbing the light, yet somehow you can establish a fictional viewpoint in 3D space. If you ask me, the final frontier for research is not the farthest reaches of space; it is…”
The teacher started a very familiar spiel.
Her praise was a canned thing that could apply to anyone once she filled in the blanks. Mitsuari felt a twinge of self-loathing for letting that come as a shock. It meant she had let herself trust one of those creepy adults.
Sitting by the window had been a mistake. The fluffy-haired girl glanced outside and allowed her mind to drift from reality. The air conditioning was perfect and the special glass was thin but solidly soundproofed, so she could not even hear the cicadas crying in the outside world.
Some adults in work jumpsuits were holding something like monstrous bug-catching nets. Had a dog or a cat gotten on the school grounds again? That was the usual explanation when people were wandering around in jumpsuits designed differently from the usual cleaners and janitors.
You have such a promising future. You are an excellent student. You are sure to reach Level 5.
She snorted as those words came back to her.
She toyed with her phone and muttered to herself.
“If that were true, we would be doing this one-on-one in an individual room, not in this big room full of other students.”
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
The cicadas really were loudest when the sun was high overhead.
“Why aren’t you in school? At your age, you should have entrance exams to prepare for.”
An exasperated voice spoke on a roadside that was already shimmering with heat that morning.
It was hardly fair how a beautiful older girl could look stunning no matter where she was, from a party hall to a park bathroom.
But the pointy-haired boy gave her a dubious look.
“Classes are at irregular hours because we’re preparing for entrance exams. The teachers are so busy doing practice interviews with the kids hoping to get a letter of recommendation that us normal kids have had study hall after study hall.”
“That doesn’t mean you can just skip school, you know?”
“Yeah, well, what are you doing wandering around in your school uniform on a weekday morning?”
“You act like a capable older girl and you’re definitely a grownup girl, but you seem more like me deep down. Do you even go to the school that uniform’s from?”
Kamijou Touma gave Bare-Midriff High School Girl Kumokawa Seria a skeptical look, but he could not break through her jokey atmosphere. A super high school girl’s personal space was inviolable.
“Now, you never answered my question.” She put a hand on her hip. “What are you doing here?”
“They do say the criminal returns to the scene of the crime.”
“I’d rather you didn’t put it like that.”
Kamijou kept things casual as he sighed and moved his chin to point at the ordinary ground.
Yes, there was nothing here.
Despite the excitement from the day before.
Heat shimmered up from the asphalt as if to mock them.
“It’s all been cleaned up without a trace. I was aware this kind of mysterious phenomenon could happen when some rich kid drunkenly destroyed a street sign or something, but the scale was way bigger here. This was more than knocking over and breaking a sign.”
After all, that dragon had been around three stories tall when standing on its hind legs. He had stopped at putting it into hibernation since he had been hesitant to kill it, but what had happened to it afterwards?
Someone had not wanted it making the news and becoming the talk of the town.
But based on what he knew of Anti-Skill, he doubted it was them that cleaned this up. Running across them while out late at night was unbelievably annoying, but he knew they did their job. It was not like them to cover up a crime due to special circumstances.
That meant someone else had done this.
And if that someone else could hide all this, they could probably make a corpse or two disappear just as easily.
The beautiful older girl used her flip phone to search the online news.
“It looks like the story was passed off as a propane gas container rupturing behind that multi-tenant building.”
“That sounds plausible enough, but did you see any of those big gray metal canisters in the alley yesterday? Cause I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the place received town gas through underground pipes.”
Kumokawa only shrugged.
The motion was enough for her large chest to jiggle a little. Delightful.
And whether the building used propane or town gas, those two knew all too well that the fire yesterday had not been a simple accident.
The upperclassman girl made a grownup suggestion.
“It’s probably best to keep out of this from here on. The immediate threat is gone at least.”
“You said that dragon was a chimera creature made by a Biohacker…so through genetic manipulation or however that all works, but could an individual really create and raise a creature that big?”
“What if it’s a group instead of an individual and what if they have more than just that dragon? Then aren’t we in trouble? They might have learned what we look like and who we are.”
That was why he had wanted to see it on the news.
He had wanted to hear that the incident was over and that everyone involved had been arrested and he had wanted to see footage of the tough-looking heroes in fancy suits carrying box after box of evidence out of the secret lab.
He had wanted to know nothing more was going to happen.
“I wonder what happened to him,” he muttered while surrounded by the noisy cicada cries.
His words sounded oddly tranquil.
After the dragon, he had punched out the researcher who had released and guided the dragon.
“He should have been arrested by Anti-Skill, so I can’t imagine he could do anything more. But then why didn’t the newspapers or TV news say anything about what happened?”
It was a conversation.
Three girls exchanged words that did not reach anyone else.
“Is it done, Riku Onee-chan?”
“It is, it is. Man, that was not easy at all. He had no ID and the facial recognition turned up nothing, so his address and occupation remain unknown. I imagine even those hard-workers were hesitant to report that to the news, but nothing lasts forever. He really shouldn’t have let Anti-Skill get to him. Really, he was a little too mischievous. There’s no way we could have covered for him this time.”
“He won’t die right away, will he, Rikuri Nee-san?”
“Don’t worry, Kaibi. I used a slow-acting one that has to break down inside his body first. Honestly, even if visiting hours were the only option, doing it through that thick acrylic was not easy!! But regardless, the foaming at the mouth and eyes rolling back in the head will only happen after lunch, so don’t you think they will suspect that first and foremost? Oh, right. And I learned in advance that the lunch today is fried oysters, so they should assume shellfish poisoning. Even when those things are raised in a temperature-controlled indoor environment, the summer sure can be scary.”
“It’s divine punishment! He shouldn’t get to eat so well after screwing up and getting thrown into a holding cell!!”
“Amazora, my ever-complaining little sister? How about we go get some oysters for lunch. There is no need to get upset. Academy City raises and grows everything indoors, so you can get whatever you want year-round.”
“Yes, yes, yes!! Kai Onee-chan, I want them raw instead of fried! I want to eat even better than him!!”
“Let’s avoid the raw ones, my adorable little sisters. We have another job coming up, remember?”
The first afternoon class after lunch was always a struggle with drowsiness. That was as true for the girls of prestigious Tokiwadai as it was for anyone.
And it was worse when that class was gym.
Not only did you have to contend with the drowsiness then, but if you used up all your strength, you would zonk out in the next class. This was made all the more troublesome because their school held its students to a higher standard of classroom behavior than normal schools. They did not even want to imagine what kind of lecture they would receive if they fell asleep in the middle of class.
They needed a delicate hand on their reins at times like this.
If they did not hold back just enough to preserve some power during gym, the boredom in the following class would be too great, their batteries would run dry, and their faces would slump down to their desks.
So this was not her fault.
The word “unathletic” did not at all apply.
“A-are you okay, Mitsuari-san!?”
They were inside the gym.
The day’s activity was volleyball.
The fluffy girl wore a sleeveless athletic uniform – in other words, the top showed off her shoulders and armpits and the shorts showed off nearly all of her bright thighs. She had her hips low and her hands together in the perfect form to receive the hard ball flying her way, but she instead received it straight to the face.
It was such a clean hit that the ball bounced straight up and was still considered in play. Her teammates would not let her sacrifice go to waste. They quickly tossed it around, made a powerful attack, and scored the winning point. The gym teacher nodded silently with arms crossed, so she seemed to approve of how they waited until they had won to rush over to aid the girl. Mitsuari Ayu, on the other hand, wished they had come help her sooner.
After using up all her strength, she fell straight to her knees and collapsed forward. The butt showing its shape through her shorts stuck up in the air behind her and she secretly wondered if she could take a nap in the infirmary if she just lay here like this for a while longer.
“Ugh… Why does this have to happen to me?”
She rubbed together her almost fully exposed thighs as she hobbled out of the gym alone. Her change of clothes was in the classroom, but she had brought her small bag with her to the gym.
As soon as she stepped out the door, her ears were assaulted by the cicada chorus.
A few classmates had offered to accompany her, but she had refused. Yes, when you wanted to throw a fit and climb into one of the beds, you could not let the school doctor know the exact amount of damage you had taken. Bringing a witness with her would only work against her.
She removed the shoes meant for the special wax that kept the gym floor so shiny and put on her ordinary indoor slippers before walking down the outdoor walkway to the white-walled school building. To really get some good sleep, she would have wanted to take a shower, spray herself down with deodorant, and change into her uniform, but making herself look hurt mattered more right now.
She reached into her small refrigerated bag and pulled out what looked like a gelatin drink but was not. It was a type of ice cream that you melted yourself and sucked out to drink. It of course broke the school rules, but the world of maidens was rife with secrets. The strawberry milk flavor in her mouth now was more valuable than anything.
(Ugh. Sweet things really do make me sleepy.)
On the way, she heard a rustling sound.
It was loud enough to hear over all the cicada cries since it came from the bushes right next to her. A prestigious school considered the psychological effect of the scenery in addition to simple efficiency and logic, so there was a lot of greenery on the Tokiwadai campus. They did not actually believe in the negative ions myth, but flower beds and even artificial woods were fairly common.
Mitsuari Ayu kept the ice cream pack’s opening in her mouth and kept walking.
She only glanced over while continuing on her way. A fair number of Tokiwadai girls had unusual pets like snakes or monkeys, so she assumed one of those had escaped. An intruder here was unthinkable. It seemed far more likely she would run across an animal protected by the Washington Convention.
That was why she let her guard down.
And a moment later…
A great din seemed to chew through space itself as a Gatling gun mercilessly fired 6000 rounds per minute.
Normally, she never could have survived that.
She would have been torn to pieces and killed before she even knew what was happening.
And while strictly speaking she may not have been normal, her power was a psychological one. She could not hold out a hand to produce a thick barrier.
So in this case…
A surprised voice came from the bushes.
By that point, Mitsuari Ayu’s small butt had fallen to the walkway’s floor, tears had welled up in her eyes, and she had rolled and turned around so fast it swung her small bag around. The hips in her shorts wiggled back and forth while she crawled and then tried to stand back up.
How had she managed to survive that deadly spray of bullets?
An odd voice could be heard from behind the bushes.
“Eek!? There’s something on my back…ahhh!? Please tell me that isn’t a cicada! Please, Mr. Janitor! You’re keeping precious rich girls here, so do a better job of maintaining the grounds!!”
It sounded like whoever this was had pulled the trigger prematurely.
And unfortunately, while Tokiwadai had janitors, none of them was a “Mr.”
The bullets had been fired in frustration at the flying cicadas, so they hit the artificial woods instead of the walkway. Broadleaf trees thicker around than Mitsuari were splintered as easily as chopsticks.
The ubiquitous chorus was gone.
A figure came into view.
It was a girl smaller even than Mitsuari. The longish wavy hair fluttering around her was an unnaturally bright blonde, likely made through bleaching. Could she be in elementary school? But that appearance clashed with the Gatling gun and the enormous drum magazine that she dragged around like a vacuum cleaner.
Mitsuari could not believe her eyes.
She doubted this girl was only here to destroy those empty woods. And since this was the middle of a class period, Mitsuari was the only one on the walkway between the gym and school building. There was only one conclusion here: Mitsuari was the target.
Plus, this was a Gatling gun.
She thought of those as something from the action movies she rarely watched. How had one of those left the movie trailers and entered the real world? It was rumored those could slice a tank in two if you attached it to an attack helicopter and fired on the surface along a straight line.
Since her hips did not give out and she did not wet herself, Mitsuari Ayu may have had greater-than-average coping skills when it came to abnormal situations. Or maybe it simply worked in her favor that she was so shocked that she froze in place and the ice cream caught in her throat. She did not have time to think about anything else.
“Bweh!! Cough, cough!!”
She spat out the still-solid chunk of strawberry milk ice cream and then aimed her phone’s camera toward her own forehead.
(Self-suggestion!! I need to force my body to move!!)
That paid off.
Wavy, bleached blonde hair fluttered. The attacker was holding shockingly high firepower at her hip, but she immediately hid back behind the bushes.
She could still be heard complaining to herself, but not because she was unaccustomed to fighting. She simply did not bother keeping too quiet since the roar of the Gatling gun would drown it all out.
She knew she could make up for a small mistake.
That young girl had a monopoly on that deluge of violence.
“Dammit, that isn’t what I was told. She wasn’t supposed to be able to use her power! I thought they kept their valuables elsewhere during gym class!!”
(Someone told that intruder detailed information on how Tokiwadai works!?)
She actually needed more than just the phone with the external lens to use Mental Stinger. Not even psychological powers were that convenient and all-powerful.
She needed to accurately target the other person.
Still, she held out her phone as an empty threat and repeatedly used the camera’s flash while making a mad dash away from there.
(Hm? She fell for my bluff?)
“Amplify fear!! Now your mind is trapped in the fog of suspicion and doubt!!”
“Don’t get carried away, dammit!!”
Mitsuari swallowed a shriek, gave up on her poor attempt at acting, and focused on running.
She moved off the walkway’s path.
(Even if I am in my indoor slippers.)
Tokiwadai looked peaceful, but gathering that many teenage girls in one place and making them live together was bound to lead to trouble. There was plenty of friction between classes, cliques, clubs, and committees. And everyone involved was at least Level 3. A fight or prank done on a whim or just for fun could often be decorated with deadly force even if they did not realize it themselves.
So Mitsuari was more accustomed to death than normal girls.
Otherwise, she would have died when she encountered a dragon so large she had to look up at it. Or so she believed, anyway. And the other two with her there had been even less normal than her.
“Get your ass back here!!”
(The teachers? Anti-Skill? No, this isn’t a normal intruder since she managed to get inside not just the School Garden but Tokiwadai as well!! The protection of the grownups isn’t going to stop her!! They’ll all be swept aside and blown away!!)
That firepower was enough to drown out the midsummer cicada cries.
The wide schoolyard or open walking paths would be suicide against all those projectiles. A real Gatling gun would be able to tear through the school building’s white walls like they were styrofoam or cardboard, so holing up in some sturdy location was not an option.
Thus, she did not hesitate to run inside some other artificial woods.
She ran alongside the tall fence next to the tennis court.
She was still in her indoor slippers, but she did not have time to worry about that. It helped that she had her bag and thus the unlimited card within. She kept moving her legs, which had most of the thighs exposed, and made sure she did not trip over her own feet as she ran at full speed.
She stayed off the paths and worked to leave the school grounds. Tokiwadai and the School Garden were no longer safe, so she had no choice but to try to escape them. Even a sheltered girl knew how effective a credit card could be while outside your usual territory.
“Argh, really!? That idiot’s running. Riku Onee-chan, this is why I told you to make sure she was surrounded!!”
The fluffy-haired girl was dumbfounded when she heard that voice again.
She had not mistaken what she saw earlier.
The girl really was that tiny.
She spoke crudely, but it was still the voice of a girl younger than a middle school first year like Mitsuari. Mitsuari caught glimpses of her as she ran, but she did not have time to aim her phone at her. But if that appearance was not some kind of disguise, then it had to be a blonde girl of elementary school age. Although her hairstyle and dress made it seem like she was trying to look older than she was.
She was less than 130cm tall.
A girl that small was walking around with a Gatling gun meant to be attached to a fighter or armored truck, but that was Academy City for you. In a way, her skimpy dress left even less to the imagination than Mitsuari’s athletic uniform, but there was no sign of any motors or pistons supporting her movements. She probably used an esper power to strengthen her muscles.
Mitsuari heard something slice through the air.
This was clearly different from the deafening roar of the Gatling gun. And in a battle against an esper, you could not afford to overlook any hint. Hadn’t that unidentified gunner mentioned a “Riku Onee-chan” who was supposed to make sure Mitsuari “was surrounded”?
Mitsuari came to a stop and did not take another careless step forward while she held out her phone and slowly spun around on the spot. Stopping seemed to remind her how wildly her heart was racing and how out of breath she was. She was not simply relying on Mental Stinger. Modern cameras could be more precise than the human eye when focused on certain functions. The expanded capabilities of the attached external lens helped.
The small screen showed glimpses of something shiny.
“A wire? And it’s moving!!”
A thin metal wire was drawn taut along a horizontal line as it approached her from straight ahead, as if slicing through the scenery. In a world where esper powers were commonplace, you could not freeze in place just because you saw something absurd or unreasonable. She doubted hiding behind a tree branch or even trunk would be enough here. At first glance, she could not judge the power or accuracy of this attack, so she crouched down to the ground in a frog-like pose and let the sharp wire pass by overhead.
But it turned out the wire was not being directly moved by an esper power.
She heard small motors running.
She also heard something that reminded her of the electric shaver her father had used long ago.
(Drones!? Are two of them holding the wire between them as they charge in at me!?)
She looked up through the trees and caught a glimpse of those devices that resembled giant crane flies.
She might be able to bring down one of those drones if she held her bag by the shoulder strap and swung it around, but they had flown past before she thought of that. Just like with her phone’s camera, it was over before you realized it.
(They’re slicing right through branches as thick as my arm, but they seem to be avoiding the thick trunks.)
And the simple cutting edge was not the scariest part. She could see some kind of sticky liquid on the wire. She did not want to lick that or even touch it.
Being sliced through was not the only way to die here. That was a poisoned blade, so even the smallest nick would be deadly.
Even if it had been a split-second decision, she was ashamed of how wide she had spread her legs there. She sat up and used her index finger to fix the shorts that were riding up.
(It isn’t big and it isn’t a weird shape.)
The older girl’s words from the day before were still bothering her, so she childishly pouted her lips while thinking about her situation here.
This was a real pain.
It had sounded like the initial Gatling gun girl knew that she controlled her powers through her phone camera. So was this other person staying hidden and using drones as a method developed specifically for use against her?
She heard the bushes behind her being parted.
That would probably be the Gatling gun girl.
Staying here would allow that girl to catch up and turn her to mincemeat. But even with the expanded functionality of her phone’s camera, she had no way of knowing if she had spotted all of the wires. The drones were constantly flying around, so they could always set up a new wire in a spot she had already checked and judged safe. She was unsure if continuing on blindly would be a good idea.
She felt like a fleeing soldier driven into a minefield.
She pictured her opponent’s smile in her mind’s eye.
She grimaced while aiming her phone’s external lens around.
She had a shallow wound on her exposed upper arm.
It looked almost like a cut, but she doubted it was from that wire. That would have taken off her entire arm and then made her foam at the mouth with its poison.
(Really? Did I cut myself on a leaf like a papercut?)
She could only bite her lip and bear with it.
Now was not the time to shed tears of disgrace.
She continued observing through her phone camera. The Gatling gun was the most obvious threat, but the invisible wires were there too. She was trapped between the two and could not move.
The Gatling gun girl was approaching from behind while using an esper power to strengthen her muscles and swing around that heavy weapon. Unlike Mitsuari, she did not seem to be using any electronics or sensors.
(Does she simply trust her ally not to attack her? Can she not actually see where the wires are?)
There was no time to actually confirm that theory.
It would mostly be a gamble.
Mitsuari Ayu grabbed a longish stick that had fallen nearby and then turned around to look at the branches that had been sliced through at about her eye level. The clear sticky liquid on the wires was more frightening than the wires themselves. It had to be some kind of poison, so even a scrape could be deadly.
Then Mitsuari looked down.
These artificial woods were more than just thick trees. There were also bushes and underbrush toward the ground. And it was possible for the edge of a hard leaf to cut a girl’s soft skin.
That Gatling gun girl had been showing just as much skin as Mitsuari.
Still silent, Mitsuari Ayu lightly tapped the side of the refrigerated bag she used to sneak ice cream and drinks into school.
Her final trump card was in there.
The girl was less than 130cm tall.
Her wavy blonde hair had obviously been bleached and her gaudy minidress looked out of place on her slender frame. It must not have been fitted properly because the shoulder straps were slipping off and, if she were to lean forward, the dress would likely create a tunnel revealing her undeveloped chest. However, no one who laid eyes on Gokusai Amazora would have paid any attention to that.
Something else seemed far more out of place.
She was carrying a giant Gatling gun made from 6 barrels, each capable of firing 20mm rounds, and she was dragging around a drum magazine full of those rounds. The magazine had small wheels attached in a very DIY way, but no one would mistake it for a household vacuum cleaner.
She used a single hand to casually drag along the weapon despite its barbell-like weight and she used her other hand to vigorously scratch at what was more her butt than her thigh. The skirt was short, but the dress also provided little protection for the armpits or chest.
She was dressed maturely, but her behavior was so childish it may have made other girl’s her age blush.
“Why do they have to bite me in all these awkward places? Those wild bugs are just plain rude! You know I’m atopic, Riku Onee-chan! This was the wrong job for me. Oh, hell! Why can’t every last kind of creepy crawly go extinct!?”
She was willing to yell and shout because she already knew stealth was not an option while dragging such a large piece of equipment through the forest. She could not wield it skillfully enough to follow the basic rules like not stepping on leaves or breaking twigs.
But the bare-thighed little girl’s complaints led to an unexpected conclusion.
“Bugs are biting you? Amazora, those aren’t mosquitos, are they? We make a living with murder, so we can’t leave any blood behind on the scene.”
She rapidly whipped her blonde head around every which way, but she had no way of knowing which bugs had sucked out her blood. That was not something she could investigate by hand.
However, the second sister, Kaibi, showed no mercy.
“So. What are you going to do about it?”
“Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
But when god closes a door, he opens a window.
In this case, it came in the form of intervention by the biggest sister.
“Yes, yes. Your trusty big sister will send in a drone and check things out for you. A mosquito full of blood will weigh more than twice one that isn’t, so they fly subtly differently. I can analyze the camera footage to figure it out real quick. And I can grab those flying blood-suckers with my poisoned wires, so none of the evidence will remain on the scene.”
“Wahhhhhhhhh! Riku Onee-chaaan!!”
“Rikuri Nee-san, she will never get any better if you spoil her like this.”
“She learned her lesson, so it’s fine. And besides, if my cute little sister got scared and wet herself, that would just mean more evidence. And even I would have a difficult time digging up the ammonia-smelling dirt with one of my drones.”
“I knew you weren’t really on my side! Shoo shoo!!”
3rd Sister Amazora took all her emotions to the extreme. Her job was to pursue their target while 2nd Sister Kaibi and 1st Sister Rikuri helped her keep track of the details.
That was how they worked as a team.
The short girl was like a hound. Her job was partially complete as long as she made a lot of noise, pursued the prey in the hunting ground partitioned off by Rikuri, and filled that prey with plenty of fear. Once she had guided them to the perfect spot, Kaibi would supply the finishing blow as the hunter.
(What is wrong with that she-cat? I get running, but why that way!? I need to get this over with already so I can have Riku-Kai Onee-chans rub anti-itch cream on me. I won’t scratch until then. I won’t. That would only make it itch worse. Ughh, gwaaaaahhhhh!?)
Her innate inability to focus may have been her undoing because she did not notice anything until she had already parted those bushes with her long blonde hair fluttering behind her.
She had failed to notice the sharp leaf edges lightly cutting her bright thighs.
She had also failed to notice the mystery goo splattered on the bushes around here.
For the first time, the girl with the giant Gatling gun came to a complete stop.
In fact, her mind itself had gone blank.
“Riku Onee-chan, wait. Where are you sending those drones of yours!?”
Instead of that familiar voice, she was answered by a long tree branch flying in from somewhere. She reflexively swung around her Gatling gun and blew away the surrounding trees with a spray of gunfire while her short skirt fluttered wildly, but that was not what mattered.
The stick was as long as a mop handle.
And the clear goo on the end gave off an obviously artificial sweet smell.
The drones piloted by 1st Sister Rikuri were not the only ones who could use that poison. Anyone could use what had been left on the scene already. For example, they could scoop it up with a long stick and rub it somewhere else without ever touching it themselves. It was a lot like digging up someone else’s landmine and reburying it elsewhere. Anyone could have figured out that the 3rd sister was following the target around, so what if the poison had been smeared on the hard leaves at hip height, where the path of the narrow animal trail would block it from view?
That made it a game of probability.
But there was no guarantee that the target had only placed the poison here.
What if she had desperately set up poison locations all around this area to fill in all the gaps and then waited for the attacker to cross that deadly line?
So what if that tiny, tiny cut had allowed in her oldest sister’s prized product?
An itchy, unpleasant sensation ran up Amazora’s thighs and then across her entire body.
“R-r-r-r-r-regroup!! You two! Riku Onee-chan! Bring me the antidote! Regroup, regroup, we need to regrooooooooooup!!!!!!”
Shorts Girl Mitsuari Ayu softly exhaled.
If she hurried onward, she would get sliced by the poisonous wires, but if she was too slow, the Gatling gun girl would catch up from behind. So what was she to do? The fluffy-haired girl used her experience with life-risking catfights to reach the following conclusion:
She had to find some way to stop the Gatling gun girl.
Then she could carefully search out the way ahead without losing her life.
The most nerve-racking moment had been when she threw the stick to heighten the illusion for the other girl. She had known the girl would fire wildly, so she could have been hit by pure chance. That would have torn off an entire limb.
Once it was over and she could relax some, tears welled up in the corners of her eyes.
It was too soon to collapse quite yet. She had to remain focused.
Only after wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand did she realize how improper that was.
(But breaking the school rules pays off sometimes. I’m so glad I had that ice cream in my bag.)
Her gym clothes left her shoulders bare, so she only had to hold that drinkable ice cream pack in her armpit to quickly melt it. By squeezing the sticky sweetness on the end of the stick and on various leaves, the difference from the poison would be too subtle to detect with the naked eye.
It also helped that the other girl was already feeling itchy from the bug bites.
She was caught in a horrible situation, but she could only count herself lucky today. Otherwise, she felt like her spirit would break and she would come to a stop.
“Agh, itchy, itchy, itchy.”
She had also fallen victim to the bugs targeting soft maiden skin.
Her bra’s hook had apparently shifted a bit out of place and her shoulder blade had been bitten through the thin fabric of her gym shirt. She arched her back and reached back with both hands, but she could not quite reach the itchy spot. She realized just how bad an idea it was to run through the midsummer woods with your shoulders and thighs bared.
But she had to remember that the tiny army of bugs had helped bring the Gatling gun girl to a stop. That girl was panicking and throwing a noisy, tearful fit, so now was the time. Mitsuari quietly left that area and aimed her phone’s enhanced camera around to check for wires as she made her way out of the woods.
The Gatling gun was certainly frightening, but so were the drones.
Not only were the wires and poison dangerous, but the drones themselves had cameras. If her location was discovered, the Gatling gun girl might regain her cool.
The Gatling gun could easily destroy a target from a straight-line distance of 2 or 3 kilometers.
That was too far to escape on foot, so the best course of action was to get as far away as possible without being discovered.
She managed to break free of the bushes.
She found herself in what looked like a faculty parking lot.
She pulled some chilled tea from her refrigerated bag, took a sip, and sighed.
She had noticed some difficulty in walking, so she looked down and removed the pebbles caught in the grooves of her indoor slippers’ rubber soles while she thought.
This space was surprisingly peaceful given the deafening roar of the Gatling gun from earlier. That may have been a downside to being a prestigious esper powers development school. People would assume those destructive sounds were part of some Curriculum or another. The assumption that intruders were not possible did not help matters.
She was still in her indoor slippers and she had left her school bag, textbooks, and uniform back at the school.
Now that the chaos had temporarily passed, she felt a little embarrassed. Still, heading back now would be beyond suicide. She had to consider herself as fortunate for having the bag containing her credit card and her phone which could handle e-transactions.
(Ugh. My face is…fine. At least I don’t see any bug bites there.)
She viewed her face in the side mirror of a nearby parked car and performed a quick once-over of her appearance. Now that she had avoided the worst possibility, she had time to think about the smaller problems. It was a stereotypical technique used in business deals to guide people’s thoughts.
Just as she breathed a sigh of relief, she heard a dry gunshot and the window of the car door shattered right next to her.
She shrieked and crouched down as another gunshot rang out. This did not seem to be the Gatling gun. The entire car would have blown up if it was. This sound was as light as the starting pistol for a race, so she guessed it was some kind of handgun.
Not that that was any reason to relax.
Bullets were bullets and she was not wearing those tough bulletproof jackets that Anti-Skill wore. She would be killed instantly in those thin gym clothes.
When she pressed her back against the car door, she felt the soft pressure on the bug bite to her shoulder blade. An odd “hahoo!” of air escaped her mouth. It may have been an instinctual response to preserve her mental stability by forcing her to focus on that slight pleasure signal.
It could not accomplish much, however.
Her heart had been jackhammering in her chest for a while.
“There’s more than just the Gatling gun and the drones!?”
She belatedly recalled how the one girl had included a qualifying name to the “Onee-chan” title. That meant she had to have more than just the one older sister.
Someone was approaching from the other side of the parked car.
That person was intermittently firing while walking straight toward her. She could not raise her head, but if she stayed put, this assailant would circle around the car.
But she was in luck: this enemy had made a physical appearance.
They were firing a handgun, but that was far weaker than the Gatling gun from before.
Mitsuari Ayu gripped her phone tight.
She did not know who this was or what kind of power they had, but if she could take control of them before they used that power, she could overcome this threat.
As long as they stood here themselves, her power could work on them.
She remained crouched with her back pressed against the car while she slid to the side. Her gym shirt was caught between her body and the metal door, so it pulled up to reveal her navel. She moved forward, toward the hood. She got down on all fours, pressed her soft cheek against the ground, and nearly jerked her head back up from the heat, but once she did peek down below the car, she saw bare legs and feet in expensive-looking sandals.
She had never tried using her power when she could only see the target’s legs, so she did not know if it would work.
She would much prefer to aim the external camera lens at their face or head.
That would make it a sure thing.
She slowly let out a breath and held the phone to her chest.
She waited until the time was right.
This was just the one opponent. They had no allies to cover for them while they swapped magazines, so there would be a slight opening there.
Now was her only chance.
She gathered strength in her legs and hips to spring up. She leaned out over the hood and held out her phone’s enhanced camera.
A blonde head showed a look of slight surprise while its owner froze in the middle of loading the first bullet.
“Die, bitch!! Mental Stinger!!”
An odd sound filled the air.
No, it may not have actually been a vibration of the air picked up by her eardrums.
Her power had been deflected?
No, that was not it. She found it hard to believe, but could it be?
The attacker was a girl with long and obviously bleached blonde hair worn up in the back. She may have been Mitsuari’s age or a little older. Regardless, there was a thin smile on the lips of that girl in a dress that shined gaudily with spangles.
“Hm, that was unexpected. I knew it was theorized that similar powers would interfere with each other, but we may just have proven it.”
Come to think of it, the Gatling gun girl had hidden in the bushes as soon as the phone was aimed her way. And the drone pilot had chosen not to make a physical appearance at all.
They had both taken different countermeasures against Mental Stinger.
So this girl in a dress, whose blonde hair was worn up to accentuate her bright nape, never would have walked right up to her without any sort of plan.
“On the other hand, I doubt even my Measure Heart would have stood a chance against the rumored Mental Out.”
“It’s lucky we had a more manageable target like you. It’s important to know your limits.”
With a metallic gashunk, the handgun’s slide returned to its proper position and the initial bullet was loaded.
Mitsuari let off several camera flashes before the gun could be aimed her way. A few dry gunshots rang out in response, but they were poorly aimed thanks to the bright flashes. Or had the other girl fired while rushing behind cover because she was afraid of having a photo taken in the middle of a crime? Either way, Mitsuari Ayu used that chance to climb the faculty parking lot’s fence and drop down on the other side while ignoring the tug on her shorts when they caught on a piece sticking out from the fence.
This was not over yet.
The nightmare produced by this trio of hunters was far from over!!
The girl in a dress sighed softly.
She was Gokusai Kaibi, second of the three sisters.
After shaking her head to the side to crack her alluring neck, she placed a hand on her ear. She spoke into the small radio there.
“Success. I will continue to apply pressure, but it looks like she will leave the School Garden regardless.”
“Ugh,” groaned the youngest sister. “Kai Onee-chan, bring the itch cream already. I can’t stand it any longer!!”
“Hee hee,” laughed the oldest sister. “Don’t worry. I don’t have an antidote for insect venom, but if you use this botulism bacteria, it will block the signals from your nerves. Just leave everything to me, my adorable little sister, and that itchiness will be a thing of the past.”
“Hurry!! Before Riku Onee-chan gets to me! And don’t you dare try that!! You can’t bring back the dead nerves afterwards!”
That had been their plan.
Not even those three sisters could cause trouble in Tokiwadai and the School Garden for long. If they were going to do this, they had to be more precise. First, they had to make sure their target thought she could survive this if she lasted just a bit longer.
She had to assume Tokiwadai Middle School and the School Garden’s security were useless.
They wanted her to use her shallow, childish mind as best she could and grow so paranoid that she ended up leaving the entire School Garden.
Once their prey had left that safe birdcage, the true hunt could begin.
“Rikuri Nee-san, are you tracking her from the sky with your drones?”
“Always. I am relaying my control signal through a cellphone tower, so we don’t have to worry about the distance causing any trouble. Still, I do wish I had splurged a little more and gone with a model meant to disseminate agrochemicals. Then I could hit her with a single spray of knockout gas even in the middle of the city.”
“Then is there a convenient location nearby?”
“Oh, dear. Are you trying to test your biological sister? There is a parking garage for a shopping mall near the School Garden’s gate, so that should do. The rooftop seems to be a popular peeping spot for lonely gentlemen. They can park a car there with an active drive recorder and ‘just so happen’ to ‘coincidentally’ film some rich girls frolicking in their school swimsuits and it’s all perfectly legal. Although the exact positioning never allows Tokiwadai to be in the frame.”
“Burn it all down!” insisted the 3rd sister in a newfound spirit of righteous chivalry, but the 2nd sister remained entirely rational.
(That might just work.)
Kaibi ignored the shoulder strap slipping down on one side as she crouched and reached into the bushes for what she had hidden there earlier. She pulled out an electric minibike small enough to fit in a backpack when folded up.
“Then we need to leave too. Let’s chase her down and finish this.”
She caught on.
Mitsuari Ayu finally caught on.
She had ended up here while being chased by the drones and an electric minibike. All while wearing her indoor slippers.
She lightly beat on her fluffy-haired head because she was now inside a concrete parking garage.
She had figured out what the enemy was trying to do, but it was too late to matter.
She had screwed up really bad.
“I’m so stupid, stupid, stupid!! What is wrong with me!?”
She heard a loud boom followed by the disconcerting roar of flames sucking up oxygen.
She could no longer return to the first floor. A sweep of the Gatling gun had shredded the cars there like wet tissue paper, triggering a large explosion and engulfing everything in a great conflagration. It terrified her how the heat seemed to stab into the upper arms and thighs left exposed by her gym clothes. Worse, there was a risk of the gym clothes’ synthetic material melting like cheese on toast.
She climbed the winding slope.
That was all she could do.
Once on the second floor or higher, there was no escape for the skinny girl. Her sleeveless top and her shorts were both uncomfortably soaked with sweat. She gradually consumed the drink she had pulled from her refrigerated bag, but she felt like she was sweating the fluid right back out of her. It was like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
The emergency stairs on the outside wall had long since been torn away by the Gatling gun, but if she jumped down and hurt her legs, she would be obliterated by the Gatling gun or sliced up by the wire drones. On the other hand, the rising heat and smoke of the fire meant she would be burned to death if she stayed where she was. The second and third floors both felt equally oppressive. It was already a midsummer day, but now she was assaulted by an intense heat similar to a sauna or pizza oven. There was no doubt in her mind that her stamina was slowly but surely being sapped from her.
She really was trapped.
What had she been thinking?
She could not help but wonder that while dripping with sweat.
She had her phone with her, but Mental Stinger only worked on people’s minds. She needed someone to use it on. Her power had one weakness: being alone. That seemed to perfectly reflect the shape of her own heart.
She did not know who this enemy was.
There were at least three and possibly more. That was all she knew.
The thing was, she had actually run across some people on the way here. She had spotted some Tokiwadai students, some School Garden security officers, and even some people in this very parking garage. If she had aimed her phone’s camera at them, she could have controlled them and sent them toward the enemy as a diversion.
But she had not.
Now that she was trapped, she had to ask herself why she had not.
Of course, the answer could not have been more obvious.
“Okay! Can I go in first, Riku-Kai Onee-chans? Neither of you already entered the first floor, did you?”
The 3rd sister’s long, wavy blonde hair fluttered behind her in the blazing sun as she began checking on her surroundings only after firing her Gatling gun to blow away everything on the first floor.
A carefree voice reached the small radio in her ear.
“That’s perfectly fine, my adorable little sister. I am enjoying some tea while looking down at you from above. Hee hee. I wish I was still young enough to not care about getting sunburnt. Our bath tonight should be fun. Let me peel it off, will you?”
“It must be nice letting the drones do all the work, Rikuri Nee-san. Of course, I’m also holding a position that gives me a good view of everything. And, Amazora, you stand out a little too much. You never know when the higher ups will cut off their support, so you need to make sure you have an escape route for yourself.”
“Yes, yes. Grownup society is so unfair. The hardest workers get all the complaints.”
3rd Sister Amazora pouted her lips, but her face lit up when she looked in the window of a car parked nearby. She smashed the driver’s side window with the Gatling gun barrel and made sure to cover her hand with a handkerchief before unlocking it from the inside and grabbing the small bottle sitting on the dashboard. Reaching over caused one of her dress’s straps to slip off of her skinny shoulder, but she did not seem to care.
“Yay! I found some itch medicine☆”
It was a liquid variety instead of a cream.
She began humming as she removed the cap and pressed the wet opening against what was closer to being her butt than her thigh. An icy feeling similar to ethanol soaked deep into her skin.
“Unyah!? Heeee, kh, khh!!”
She shivered from the unexpectedly powerful feeling and then someone behind her slapped the top of her head.
She spun around toward whoever was treating her like a quiz show buzzer, but it turned out to be the 2nd sister with an exasperated look on her face.
Kaibi pointed at the car’s broken window with her automatic handgun.
“What are you going to do about that?”
“Well, ha ha ha, let’s just call it a necessary mission expense?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Wahhhhh! Kai Onee-chan, help me!!”
When her older sister put a hand on her hip and spoke with the emotional distance of a local dentist, the bare-thighed 3rd sister rubbed her inner thighs together and started to cry.
Then the loud sound of breaking metal exploded out nearby. Kaibi looked over in surprise to see a supposedly empty steamroller drive up onto the car and crush it flat.
Now no one would be able to tell if the window had been broken beforehand or not.
The oldest sister, who specialized in using unmanned machines, spoke lazily over the radio.
“There you go. Now is not the time for sisterly fights, my adorable little sisters. Just borrow some remote-controlled heavy machinery and all that dangerous evidence goes bye-bye.”
“Rikuri Nee-san, how many times do I have to tell you not to spoil Amazora!? …Wait, where’d she go!?”
The flashy Gatling gun girl had vanished in the short time Kaibi let her out of her sight.
She had forgotten how speedy that girl was despite her heavy equipment.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make up for my mistake,” said missing Amazora over the small radio in Kaibi’s ear. She sounded so carefree you would think she was talking about splitting up the chores between the sisters. “That girl is following the usual path. We just have to trim the meat, soften it up, slice it up nice an even, and then cook it over a sizzling flame!! She’ll be ready to serve with some ginger sauce soon enough☆”
Mitsuari Ayu’s teeth chattered inside the parking garage as it was gradually engulfed in flames, starting from the bottom.
Her refrigerated bag was almost empty.
She had consumed several drinks and ice creams, but she did not at all feel hydrated. At this rate, she would wither up in the heat.
Wasn’t that just about the worst way to die?
How could you rank it? Being killed by someone else for no good reason was the worst no matter how it happened.
She trembled, her legs naturally turned inwards and lost their strength, and her small hands wandered through empty air in search of anything at all to rely on. But there was nothing there and she slid down to sit on the concrete floor in her out-of-place gym clothes.
She was not just afraid of the absurd attackers who had managed to waltz right onto Tokiwadai’s campus.
This was not like the night before.
Then, someone had always grabbed her hand to lead her around the fiery scene, she had been given a role to play, and she had not had to defeat that giant dragon herself. Things could not have been more different from when that pointy-haired boy and mystery high school girl had been with her.
She had the power to control people.
But if she did that, she would have to take responsibility for everything that happened to those people. What if they were caught in the fire and smoke or if they were torn apart by the Gatling gun or wires? She could never carry that weight. Choosing to fight meant to no longer remain just a victim. She would then be a victim and an attacker simultaneously. One or the other would be hard enough to bear while living a peaceful life, but a normal student (albeit one at a prestigious school) could not so easily choose to bear the combined cross of the two.
So she had failed to do anything.
She had not even asked for help.
There had been some adults here who would have shared her fate in the parking garage, but she had aimed her phone’s camera at them and given them a simple command: Forget your cars and wallets. Just leave this place immediately.
This was the result.
If she had chosen to fight despite the consequences, she may have found a different option along the way. If she had created a great army using her phone, the attackers might have feared the difference in numbers and chosen to regroup. If she had chosen to cry and beg to exchange addresses the night before, she may have even been able to ask for help from the two who had defeated that giant dragon.
But she was alone.
She had turned her back on all of the cruel choices she could have made and that had led her to the precipice.
Perhaps this result was to be expected.
Had it really been strength that led her to avoid getting anyone else involved? Could it have come from weakness instead?
Just then, she heard the strange roaring of an engine.
No, it was not the sound itself that was strange. Plenty of large motorcycles in Academy City made the exact same sound. Then why did it seem so strange here?
The direction it came from.
The fluffy-haired girl’s eyes widened in disbelief, but no matter how crazy it seemed, the reality before her was very real. She could only accept it.
In other words…
“It’s outside the building? But this is the 5th floor!”
With a deafening roar, an airborne motorcycle soared into the parking garage at a point well off the ground.
It began with his phone.
Kamijou Touma pulled it from his pocket and glanced down at it. A few unread online news notifications were flashing.
A parking garage was on fire near the School Garden.
The wind could carry the smoke to nearby locations.
Kumokawa Seria raised one of her shapely eyebrows.
“What, did you actually write a macro for that?”
“It’s nothing that fancy.”
It was a built-in service on the phone, although he rarely used it.
The pointy-haired middle school boy exhaled through his nose. By inputting some keywords, the icon would flash whenever related news articles or blog entries were posted. He had given it several keywords related to the previous night’s incident: dragon, District 7, L.S.S., archery, Tokiwadai Middle School, Biohacker, and School Garden.
“I was a little afraid that this list of terms would make me look like I had something to do with it, though.”
“You’re overthinking it. Bored people on the internet will pursue incidents far more obsessively than the actual criminal. If search terms were enough to arrest people, the jails would be full of self-styled defenders of justice and freelance tabloid writers. It’s not hard to find full articles posted online about the various crimes and accidents that happen around the city. With very little evidence for any of the conclusions drawn therein.”
Kamijou Touma did not care if it came from TV, a newspaper, or the internet. He just wanted to find what news he could related to that dragon so he could learn that the culprit was arrested and there would not be a second attack. Unfortunately, he had found nothing so comforting and had to conclude that someone was instead covering it up.
That was why he had set this up, but it had not given him what he wanted.
And now it was picking up on something else. Because he had set the keywords to focus not on himself and not on Kumokawa Seria but on that other girl.
He snapped his flip phone shut and sighed.
Then he turned around.
“Where are you going?”
“I know where this is happening. I’ve wanted peace of mind this whole time and I’ve finally found a clue where I can find it.”
“Have you already forgotten what you got caught up in yesterday? Based on that article, there’s already a fire. We have no idea what is going on a rampage there. It might not be anything as cliché as a dragon.”
“Does it look like I want to go there? Can’t you see my legs shaking? But that’s why I have to go.”
He was no saint.
He had his own reasons for doing this.
“It might be that Mitsuari girl being targeted today, or it might be someone else entirely. But what about tomorrow? Or the day after that? How can I ever relax knowing nothing has stopped the people who released that dragon, had it attack us, and then cleaned everything up afterwards? Plus, we already tangled with them last night. We probably have higher odds of being attacked than most anyone else.”
He glanced down at his right hand.
He clenched it to form a fist.
He was plagued with misfortune, so he would never consider the possibility of being coincidentally overlooked for no reason.
He knew all too well that those prayers would only leave him feeling like a fool.
He needed a solid basis for thinking he was safe.
“This is an opportunity. Or you could call it a crossroads. I was only reacting to the crisis before my eyes, but now I might be able to catch up to whatever this is. It’s either this or tremble in fear while waiting to be attacked. It could be tomorrow, it could be six months from now, and it could be a year from now. Am I supposed to wait that long? If it’s dangling in front of me like this, it would be faster to just go for it. The risk is the same either way. Whether I’m attacked tomorrow or a year from now, the odds of death are still 100%.”
And if this was not considered to be the crime it was, then he could not call Anti-Skill like normal. He felt like the grownups’ rules did not apply this time. He had no proof of that, but he still felt sure of it. If he did not see it through to the end himself, he could never rest easy.
If this did not follow the grownups’ rules, he would have to seek out the truth using the children’s rules.
“I see,” said the older girl, even if she did not sound convinced. Her tone was one of pure exasperation. “You seem to have a way of sounding reasonable without actually being reasonable. That sounds nice and all, but if the risk is the same tomorrow or a year from now, then why the rush? Plus, those search terms aren’t focused on you. You clearly used keywords related to Mitsuari Ayu.”
“Fine, let’s just say your reasoning is valid. But even if the risk to you is the same whether it happens tomorrow or a year from now, you might be able to save someone else if you act now. Isn’t that what this is about?”
“No, I wasn’t…”
He trailed off and stopped speaking altogether.
He heard a dull metallic sound and looked over to find Kumokawa Seria had broken the chain lock to a large motorcycle parked nearby.
“Hold on. What are you doing!?”
“Was it that confusing? Don’t they teach how leverage works in elementary school? Scissors and chain cutters use it, so it isn’t just about seesaws, you know? I knew you weren’t bright, but this is just sad.”
“No, not that.”
“This is a no-parking zone and it’s covering up the tactile paving for the visually impaired. Removing this asshole’s bike would be doing the world a favor.”
“No, I’m asking why you’re getting involved in this! Stealing a motorcycle isn’t exactly risk free!!”
“Oh, that? My reasoning isn’t as pure as yours. For me, it’s about weighing the pros and cons. The risk is the same whether I’m attacked tomorrow or a year from now, but if I save a useful esper now, it increases the odds of having them on hand later. We aren’t up against a single Biohacker here; it’s probably a group, so I doubt anything we do today will be enough to fully end this. And if I’m looking at a long-term fight, it can’t hurt to have a full set of cards I can play at any time.”
“Her power was called Mental Stinger, right? I’ve never actually seen what it can do, but I guess she is from that prestigious Tokiwadai school.”
“(She isn’t the useful esper I was talking about.)”
“Just talking to myself.”
After brushing off his question, she spread her legs wide in her skirt to mount the large motorcycle.
With a dull snapping sound, she broke the keyhole and easily reconnected the wires to start up the engine. She really was a super high school girl. The pointy-haired boy had no idea who this mystery older girl was, but she seemed more accustomed to the rules of the city’s night than he was.
“Now, boy. If we are going to act, time is of the essence, but are you prepared to do this? I am the one stealing the bike, but some blame will fall on you if you ride behind me.”
“There’s no time.”
“Didn’t even have to think about it, hm? You’re quite something. …But you’re only thinking about fluffy cotton candy girl, aren’t you? I may need to give you a kiss on the cheek once this is all over.”
With an unnecessarily deep roar, the motorcycle picked up speed.
Kamijou was nervous at first and tried not to touch the defenseless back and hips of that busty high school girl (every word there is crucial), but it was too wild a ride to keep worrying about that. He ended up wrapping his arms around her torso to hold on for dear life. She was a lot softer and warmer than a boy.
“You’re awfully pure for someone who wanders the streets at night. Heh heh heh. I can feel your pounding heart on my back.”
“Bff!? No, um, you misunderstand! I’m scared because I don’t normally ride motorcycles!!”
“Oh? So you won’t say you never ride them?”
“And if you’re going to hold on, do it a little lower. Stop using your arms to surreptitiously weigh my boobs. Stop lifting them.”
He frantically let go only to have the blowing wind nearly blow him back into a bridge pose.
The girl and boy riding in broad daylight without a helmet roared out onto the main road while ignoring all the lights and speed limits. First, a drum-shaped security robot sounded an alarm and then one of Anti-Skill’s (so-called) supercars, which was legally modified from a civilian vehicle, took chase with lights flashing.
“Pull over right this instant, you criminal couple!! We have a V12 hooked up to oxygen under the hood, so we can reach 400km/h easy! You can’t outrun us, so give up now! We’ve already scanned the license plate number! Why the hell are you stealing people’s bikes in broad daylight!?”
“Hey,” said Kamijou.
“A couple, hm?” said Kumokawa. “Heh heh. Is that what we look like? And, boy, don’t look back or their facial recognition will get you.”
“No, not that.”
“We know something’s going on at that parking garage, right? Won’t the attacker panic if we arrive along with Anti-Skill, the defenders of law and order?”
Their motorcycle’s engine could not hope to outdo that car, but it provided its own advantages. Once the cheerful blue sky grew discolored by toxic-looking smoke, Kumokawa turned the handlebars so hard Kamijou screamed and clung to her back. They turned right into a nearby park.
Park entrances generally had thick poles in place to keep vehicles out. A motorcycle could slip between them, but a car could not. They heard screeching brakes and shouting behind them.
“You damn criminal couple!!”
“Hah hah hahhh!! If you want to stop the city’s young residents from getting it on, you should really research the usual hookup spots!! You’ve gotta use your head if you want to keep people from doing it outdoors, Anti-Skill!!”
Kumokawa laughed as she cut across the park and drove out the exit on the other side.
He felt like a mystery phrase of hers had hinted at an exciting concept.
“You’re probably full of questions, but don’t search that one online.”
They were almost to the burning parking garage now.
Since they were so close to the School Garden, a well-dressed adult woman could be seen watching the spectacle. The white foam she was spraying on the sidewalk from something like a monstrous vacuum cleaner was probably a fire extinguishing chemical meant to prevent the spread of the blaze.
“If she has something like that, why isn’t she helping to put out the fire?”
“Stop breathing on my ear, boy.”
“If I don’t hold your hair down with my chin, the wind blows it back into my face, and it really hurts when it slaps me like that!!”
“Call it what you like, but stop using it as an excuse to enjoy my scent, fetish boy.”
She must have had her own thoughts on what was and was not acceptable because her tone was much lower than with the arms on her underboob earlier.
And after that sharp warning…
“Also, don’t be so harsh on her, boy. Adults have their own issues to deal with. The School Garden has much better equipment than the other districts, so acting beyond their jurisdiction can get them in trouble more easily. Simply put, she wants to help out but can’t. Because that would count as moving beyond her territory.”
This time, there was no sign of a dragon, kraken, or other giant monster created by a Biohacker. They only saw the tall parking garage engulfed in flames and dark smoke.
They had no idea who they would run across if they rushed in there. They did not know the first thing about what the attacker looked like, so they could not even trust an office worker with neatly parted hair walking in the area. Thus, they chose to observe things from a distance.
The motorcycle was stopped now, but Kamijou continued holding Kumokawa Seria’s slender waist in his arms like she was a stuffed animal.
“The first floor is burning and the second and third floors look risky too. Hmm.”
“I’ll overlook it this once since I doubt you’re doing it on purpose, but stop teasing my navel with your fingertip, boy. That hurts more than you would think.” And after that sulky warning, “Do not forget about the smoke and heat. In a real fire, most of the deaths aren’t from the flames themselves. You need to worry about heat, lack of oxygen, and dehydration.”
Kamijou glimpsed something.
The plain concrete wall had openings that were more not so much windows as gaps between the barrier and ceiling.
He saw some fluffy chestnut hair through one of those.
He subconsciously squeezed the motorcycle driver’s torso even tighter.
“There she is. 5th floor!!”
“Ngh, my navel! Kah, cough, cough! W-we have two options here. One, run into the blaze and meet up with Mitsuari Ayu. Two, circle the parking garage to find the attacker and defeat them if they’re here.”
That was not even a question.
“If circling the place is enough to find them, then the Anti-Skill we brought here can deal with them. And defeating them isn’t going to make that fire go away. What’s the point if the girl in there suffocates on the smoke while we’re fighting!?”
“Rescuing an ally takes precedence over defeating the enemy? Fine, we can do things your way today.”
The engine gave a deep roar once more.
Kumokawa spun it around and the pointy-haired boy could only grab onto her waist like before.
“Hm? What’s this hard thing here?”
“What are you, a mischievous elementary school boy? That’s my bra hook. But I will throw you off the bike if you undo it during an emergency like this.”
Now, Kamijou Touma had stated his ideal solution, but how exactly were they supposed to get in there? The ground floor was engulfed in flames, so they could not get in unharmed no matter which cardinal direction they chose. And these flames were not as thin as a circus’s ring of fire.
“This will be a little bad for your heart, so be careful,” casually warned Kumokawa Seria.
“Huh? What will be?”
“Academy City is well known for packing its buildings in close together. Entering the first floor of a burning building is not going to be easy, but there’s a tall building right there next to it.”
The parking garage had been built as a later addition for the large shopping mall next door. The older sailor uniform girl drove the motorcycle directly inside the large shopping complex and sent it up the down escalator for a ride even wilder than a coming of age ceremony. Once at the top, she made a sharp turn and drove up to the next floor. They needed height. Their goal was the 5th floor, so the 7th or 8th floor would be best.
Kamijou Touma’s eyes widened in shock while he was tossed around in the back seat like he was in a rodeo.
“Can we calm down for a second!? What are you trying to do right now!?”
“If you would hold onto my hips more firmly, you wouldn’t be so close to being thrown off and dying. Listen, you need to wrap your arms around my hips for what’s coming. Nice and tight like this, okay? Bikes don’t come with seatbelts or safety bars, so you have to look after yourself.”
She finally stopped the wild motorcycle.
The engine continued to idly rumble below them.
Kamijou had his chin on her shoulder and was nearly rubbing his cheek against hers, but he was entirely focused on what the headlight was shining at.
It was a women’s clothing store.
It looked like it had a solid wall in the back, but that was actually a giant window with decorations attached over the glass wall.
It did not take a genius to realize what she was planning.
“Hold on. Wait.”
“What, does the women’s underwear section still make you blush? That mannequin there is displaying a concept model, but don’t you worry, boy. Don’t let it shock you. Not everyone wears that kind of see-through stuff on a daily basis. Everyone prefers what’s easy, so you’ll find ordinary white is pretty common. Same with stripes.”
“That’s not what I meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeant!!!!!!”
He tried to shout in the busty high school girl’s ear, but accidentally bit her earlobe instead, eliciting an odd cry from the older girl’s lips, but none of this changed that she was the one in control of the handlebars and foot pedals. With a screaming Kamijou on the back, the 750cc mass of metal used its full speed to crash through the women’s underwear and negligees.
His life flashed before his eyes while he was surrounded by a kind of frilliness that featured nowhere in that life.
“That one you can’t stop staring at is known as an open gate bra. Undo the bow in the middle and the thin cloth falls away to reveal the tips. There’s also a bottom to go with it, but I don’t have to explain how that one works, do I?”
He was too preoccupied to respond.
The large motorcycle plowed full speed into the wall and shattered the reinforced glass window simply covered with a sheet.
This was the 8th floor.
An ordinary motorcycle with no special flight equipment soared through Academy City’s sky.
(What is ordinary Anti-Skill doing here? The higher ups were supposed to tell everyone but a bomb squad which will never actually show up to stay away in order to prevent secondary damages from an explosive leak!)
3rd Sister Amazora, the elementary school girl with wavy blonde hair and a gaudy dress, gasped at what was happening.
She doubted hiding behind one of the decorative pillars would be enough.
Those people took everything too seriously, so she had learned the hard way that her special move, Thigh Flashing Seduction, did not work on them. She also wanted to avoid using that because (for some reason) her older sisters got really mad when she used it.
She folded up the thick metal components like a 3D puzzle and the six-barreled Gatling gun was soon small enough to fit in a drum bag.
She wanted to take advantage of this man’s preconceptions.
If he was going to find her regardless, it was best if she approached him than if he found her spying out from behind a pillar.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at school!? Those clothes and that luggage…you didn’t run away from home for the summer, did you!?”
“Heh, eh heh heh. Today’s the anniversary of the school’s founding, so we have the day off☆”
She fidgeted and rubbed her bright thighs together.
She also waved her phone around to make it look like she was here to get some footage of the fire.
Since a smiling elementary school girl was holding one bag over her shoulder and the other in one hand, he would never guess each one weighed more than 50kg. She was trying to act mature, but she did not seem to notice how the belt over her shoulder had twisted her dress’s strap out of place.
(I might be screwed if he asks me to open the bags.)
She maintained her perfect smile as she began wondering if she should play the harmless little girl to avoid any questioning, or if she should use up one of the acceptable deaths for this mission.
But her thoughts were interrupted by a loud shattering of glass.
The adult must have had an idea what caused it because his head shot up to look overhead.
Just as he shouted into the air, Amazora used the distraction to slip away. That righteous hero had been lucky, but the 3rd sister had to click her tongue and hide behind a nearby building while carrying around two hefty sports bags and without paying any attention to the hem of her short skirt. A villain up to no good would not rely on luck. They could hardly complain if the tables were turned on them.
It was a motorcycle.
A 750cc motorcycle left the adjacent building, soared through the blue sky, and entered the burning parking garage from a point well above the ground.
Once she had cleverly escaped to safety, she had to whisper into the small radio in her ear.
She set down her bags and absentmindedly fidgeted with her dress strap as she did so.
“Riku-Kai Onee-chans, what should I do?”
“Plan B,” replied the middle sister. “We don’t know what kind of power or means of escape this newcomer has, so we can’t just let them burn. Of course, neutralizing them would be simple enough if I used my Measure Heart to adjust their emotional distance. If their beloved husband or girlfriend was still inside that conflagration, they wouldn’t be able to turn tail and run so easily, right?”
“Let’s hope this intruder isn’t a teleporter and doesn’t have a personal jetpack,” added the oldest sister. “Hee hee. This is a pain, but let’s head on in and take them out ourselves. Did you know that dehydration increases the concentration of sodium in the body? Inject a little more from outside the body and the balance is easily broken. Hee hee hee. Just inject some here and the burned corpse will look right at home in the scorched building.”
The elementary school girl giggled and sent commands to her two drum bags. There was no need to hide it anymore. The Gatling gun heavy enough to crush an adult was revealed, so she picked up the machinegun itself and dragged along the wheeled drum magazine. If she leaned forward just a little, the baggy neck of her dress would likely have created a tunnel around her flat chest, but she did not seem to care.
Each unit weighed 50kg.
Together, they weighed around three times her weight. That was blatantly too much to wield unassisted.
This unnatural feat was boosted by an Academy City esper power.
“That’s perfect. To be honest, waiting around isn’t my style!!”
Everyone was gathered in one place.
Good and evil, expert and amateur – everyone.
The large motorcycle broke through the shopping mall’s 8th floor window, flew in a falling arc, and charged right into the 5th floor of the blazing parking garage. The force of landing blew out the rear tire, but Kumokawa kept the motorcycle from falling over and forcefully stopped it by spinning it around in something like a roundhouse kick.
A high-pitched scream sounded from surprisingly close by.
A fluffy-haired middle school girl was crouched down clutching a refrigerated bag to her chest to look as small as possible as she cried out in terror. The heat and smoke must have gotten to her because she was so sweaty you would think she had been in a sauna. Also, she was inexplicably wearing sleeveless gym clothes. It was plastered to her bodylines and the color of her skin showed through in places.
“What’s with the oddly sweet smell in here? I was wondering how she had held off dehydration in this sauna of a place, but she must have been rehydrating all the while.”
“Eh? You mean that isn’t just how girls smell? I mean, she is pretty sweaty.”
The motorcycle was useless with the tire blown.
Kamijou hopped off of the rear seat and Kumokawa did not bother with the kickstand. She just let it fall and she did not seem to care when the sidemirror was smashed against the floor.
Mitsuari Ayu stared in confusion at first, but once she recognized who this was, she felt a different sort of panic. This must have been an odd curveball for her current mental state because her eyes started spinning and her small hands wandered aimlessly through empty air.
She wore gym clothes and indoor slippers.
She sat there in that mismatched outfit and looked up at the boy and the girl.
“Wait, what? What are you doing here!? Why would you break free of the earth’s gravitational pull to come here of all places!?”
“Direct your thanks to Mr. Lady Killer here. To be honest, I wouldn’t have seen any need to come here if I was doing it myself. I’m pretty sure I can get information on LS.S. from another source.”
Still unable to get up, she glanced over at the pointy-haired boy, but he did not say anything.
What could he say?
If he explained at length why he had come to rescue her, what would it accomplish aside from making it sound like he was asking for something in return?
He did not know how much it would help, but he handed her the handkerchief from his pocket.
“I don’t see anyone else in here. I don’t know who did this, but was the idea to let her burn in here?”
“That would make this easier, but I imagine they’ll come check the corpse to make sure she’s dead. So someone will be coming here. What I can’t tell you is whether that will be a human or if it will be a dragon or dinosaur or something.”
The fluffy-haired girl got her voice out in fits and starts.
She squeezed the borrowed handkerchief in both hands and spoke like she was taking a step forward in this hopeless situation.
“There are at least three of them!! One is an esper using a Gatling gun, one controls drones with poisoned wires, and one is another psychological esper with a handgun!!”
Kumokawa Seria put a hand on her hip and sighed.
That girl could have done a better job than this with Mental Stinger at her disposal. If she had controlled a large number of people and sent them in, she may have been able to escape to safety even if it meant a bloodbath for everyone else. But there was no sign of that. In fact, there was no sign of anyone else having collapsed from the fire and smoke in this parking garage. No customers and no security guards.
Kumokawa coolly asked a question within the blazing heat.
“Did you use your power to move the other people away? First this boy insists on going to rescue you and now this. Does no one else have any sense at all?”
“So why the change of heart now? The information you gave us may change the outcome of the battle. And in this fire, if the attacker is left unconscious, they could be killed in the fire they themselves set.”
Still slumped down on the floor and with tears in her eyes, Mitsuari’s mouth moved.
For a while, no words came out.
But she finally managed to squeeze the words from her dry throat even though her hips were too weak to move and the sweat pouring from her skin had plastered her fluffy hair to her cheeks.
She was desperate.
This did not at all sound like a brand-name girl.
“I can’t keep going like this. Someone came to save me even though it meant choosing to fight and being an attacker instead of just a victim. So…so I can’t just hide behind them. I want to be useful to someone!!”
That was enough.
It was unclear what she could do in this situation.
But in that moment, Mitsuari Ayu joined their party. Of her own free will. She was not waiting in safety to see which side was going to win and then joining them. She was taking their side when everything was still up in the air.
Now it was Kamijou’s turn.
They were all in this together now.
So it was time for him to reveal a certain secret.
“We’re not up against a giant creature made by a Biohacker. We have multiple opponents and we need to be on the lookout for next-generation weapons based on esper powers. In that case, we might just be able to use my right hand.”
“Do you really believe that?” cautiously asked Kumokawa Seria, but the pointy-haired boy did not apply the brakes.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I believe it with all my heart. Maybe I’m wrong, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it. We all make mistakes, but it definitely wouldn’t be this girl’s fault.”
These were exceptional circumstances.
Mitsuari Ayu looked up at him with a curious look while she sat on the floor with her sweat-soaked gym clothes plastered to her skin.
Kamijou Touma rotated his entire right arm around as if to see how his shoulder was doing and then he clenched his fist.
For the first time, he called a certain girl’s name.
“Don’t worry, Mitsuari. If anything tries to hurt you, I’ll smash it to smithereens.”
He took on the burden of that girl’s life after she was driven to the very edge.
He was in his element now.
A certain inexperienced boy was going to use his right fist in a true battle between espers.
The parking garage roared with flames.
The three sisters could hardly complain since they had done this themselves to corner and deal with Mitsuari Ayu, but they were still not delighted at the thought of going in there. It was a lot like walking through the minefield you had created yourself.
“Riku-Kai Onee-chans, can I head in?”
“Go ahead. Rikuri Nee-san, you keep an eye on our surroundings with your drones. Be on the lookout for the target making a desperate attempt to jump down from a higher floor. If she’s lucky, she could survive a drop from the third story.”
“Yes, yes. Kaibi-chan, you head in too and support our cute little sister, will you?”
“We don’t need your Measure Heart to keep Anti-Skill away. I will handle it, so you get going.”
Those flames and smoke were like their own minefield.
“Ugh, w-where were you hiding all this time, Kai Onee-chan?”
The girl in a dress breathed a sigh of exasperation at the less-than-130cm Gatling gun girl who did not seem to care how much of her bright thighs were showing off. And about half of that exasperation had to do with the thighness of that younger girl’s thighs.
Kaibi pulled up her own short skirt and drew a small handgun from her own bright thigh.
“You stand out too much. Do you have the distribution memorized?”
“Course I do.”
“Then tell me.”
“I’m not some little kid, Kai Onee-chan! I can run errands without a memo!!”
“Remind me again who it was that bought a pack of eggs at full price even though they were on sale.”
If you had created the minefield, you would know where all the mines were buried. At the very least, you were not going to step barefoot on one of the explosives. The parking garage was filled with flames and smoke, but that did not mean there were no avenues of entrance.,
Those two espers had combat-level powers.
The second and third sisters looked up at the burning prison of reinforced concrete.
“Let’s get started. Let’s go with the usual plan.”
“I chase her down and you finish her off?”
“Just like at Tokiwadai, right?”
“Why do you always get the best part!?”
The youngest child needlessly flipped her short skirt up as she swung her large weapon around while red in the face, but that empty-headed girl failed to notice how her older sister was intentionally taking the jobs that required bloodying one’s hands. She also failed to notice that this made her all the cuter.
It was said that people’s hearts could not be measured by their words or expressions, but being able to alter people’s hearts with Measure Heart had taught her that was an empty ideal.
The girl in a dress, Kaibi, held her gun in one hand and pressed the other to the side of her alluring neck.
“Let’s get this over with and head home. This job kept us from eating those raw oysters, right?”
“Wait, did L.S.S. actually give us some?”
The third sister paid no heed to the girl in a dress’s chiding words.
Unnecessary chatter should be avoided on a job. Especially when it came to their client’s name. If people managed to link this back to the client, it defeated the purpose of hiring someone to do the job for them.
“Hm, it is true the oyster stew we had for lunch wasn’t quite what I wanted, but twice in one day might be a bit much. I love the luxury of it, but I’m afraid I’ll get tired of them.”
They were soaked.
The fire burning below had practically turned the parking garage’s 5th floor into a sauna. At this point, neither sexy high school girl Kumokawa Seria nor small middle school girl Mitsuari Ayu could worry about the fact that a boy was around. Thanks to their thin summer uniform and sleeveless gym clothes, they were giving off a sweet scent and the white or flushed pink color of their skin was showing through.
“You have no idea how much this helped,” said Kamijou while cooling his forehead with an ice cream pack that resembled a drinkable gelatin pack. Mitsuari’s refrigerated bag was not working at 100% in this heat, but somewhat cold was better than nothing. Even room temperature water would be valuable in a situation like this.
Meanwhile, the fluffy-haired girl waved her small hands wildly with her face beet red.
“(O-oh, no. That’s the one I used at Tokiwadai to trap that Gatling gun dummy. By which I mean I held it in my armpit to melt it and then kept the rest around in case I needed to use it for another trick, but how am I supposed to say that now?)”
Kamijou gave her a confused look while also looking so happy to have that cool package against his forehead.
Then a deafening roar reached them from below. This was not the roar of the flames consuming oxygen or of a car blowing up. This was the kind of real, unexaggerated gunfire you could not find even in a movie. And instead of just a shot or two, this was a continuous stream where the individual shots were indistinguishable and it sounded like the single long tone of a broken buzzer.
“That’s the Gatling gun girl!”
“What, did you want half of this?” Super high school girl Kumokawa Seria wrinkled her brow while holding in her mouth a colorful popsicle that came in a tube and could be broken in two. “A Gatling gun, huh? But it sounds like she’s firing from below us instead of from a distance. I can’t see any good reason for entering the sea of flames she created herself. Well, if I had to come up with some kind of benefit, she may be tearing down the walls to create airways that send in oxygen and increase the intensity of the blaze to kill us. Y’know, like how they would blow air into the stove through a bamboo pipe in old kitchens.”
“Not the kind of advice I was looking for,” said Kamijou. “For now, you wait here.”
“Someone’s in here and, according to Mitsuari, this is one of three espers. But with a small number of elites, they can’t surround us perfectly. It at least doesn’t look like we’re surrounded by a group of more than a hundred. You’re the only one who can drive the bike, so I want to keep you around so you can use the bike’s speed to lose them and get Mitsuari to safety.”
The motorcycle’s rear tire had blown when they landed, but that mystery busty high school girl seemed skillful enough to steal any of the cars or motorcycles parked in this garage. She could straight up steal them, or she could remove a tire to fix the busted motorcycle.
However, the black-haired forehead girl breathed an exasperated sigh.
“Justify it however you like, but I’m not greedy enough to demand gender equality while also insisting on a ladies first policy.”
“And I feel like you left something important unsaid back there,” added Mitsuari. “If the gloomy boobs girl is driving and I’m in the back seat, then what about you!?”
Kamijou did not answer that question.
He crouched low in the way he had seen Kumokawa do and approached the downward slope that seemed to symbolize death at the moment. The slope belched heat and black smoke, so it felt like he was sticking his head inside an oven.
He was not doing this out of courage.
When they had been attacked by the giant dragon(?) created by that Biohacker, he had run away, leaving Kumokawa and Mitsuari behind.
He had come back, but that was only an excuse.
He still remembered the look on Kumokawa’s face when she had grabbed his arm and told him to run into the alley. He could picture it so vividly he could make out her eye color.
(To hell with that.)
That was what it came down to.
He was not fighting because he was brave.
Kamijou Touma was a coward. That was the kind of boy he was.
(I’m never letting myself feel that way again. So it’s 100 times better to stand up and face the threat!!)
Alone, he moved down to the 4th floor.
There were no partitions in between. He had only descended the slope one floor, but the air itself seemed to change. It prickled at his skin so much he felt like he was one careless inhalation away from scorching his throat.
The enemy apparently planned on climbing one floor at a time.
He had his doubts about that.
The fourth floor was the same height as a school building’s top floor, and it was already this bad. How much worse of a hell would one find at the source of the fire on the ground floor?
Guns and esper powers were unnecessary.
Simply losing your sense of direction in that black smoke would be enough to lose your life.
He held a hand to his mouth and looked around the area.
Then he made his way to the slope down to the 3rd floor.
The elevators were stopped and the Gatling gun had apparently already blown away the emergency stairs on the outer wall. That left just the one route up and down: the slopes he was using.
He was descending while the enemy was ascending.
He did not know who this assassin was or what they looked like, but he was bound to run into them somewhere.
Another roar of gunfire sounded from below. They must not have cared about preserving ammo, but Kamijou did not know if they were blowing up cars to accelerate the blaze or if they were using a rain of bullets to tear down any cover creating a suspicious hiding spot.
The roar was closer than last time.
And not just because he had descended a floor.
They really were getting closer.
The pointy-haired boy slowly descended the slope to the 3rd floor.
There was more than just heat and smoke this time.
He felt some other kind of pressure.
It was like returning to school at night to collect a forgotten item and spotting someone else there.
He sensed a human presence.
Both sides were approaching the third floor from above or below, so Kamijou Touma finally saw the small grim reaper.
This came as a surprise.
It was a small girl of only about 130cm. Her gaudily bleached blonde hair and her spangle-covered dress seemed a little much for her age, but that alone would never have led him to guess she was an assassin.
The real problem was what he saw right next to her risquély-exposed bright thigh.
She casually held an enormous Gatling gun at her hip.
“You’re not the girl from the photo. Are you some normal person who didn’t get out in time?”
“Are you playing dumb? I flew through the sky on Senpai’s bike and crashed into one of the higher floors. You set this place on fire and have it surrounded, so I know you must have seen that.”
To be blunt, Kamijou Touma did not properly understand the threat of a Gatling gun. If he had, he would have crumbled just like he had when facing the raw power of that dragon. He might have been more afraid against a smaller knife or stun gun.
And that was why he had the “confidence” to immediately dive behind a rectangular concrete pillar as soon as the bundle of barrels began to rotate.
A moment later, the pillar was blown to smithereens.
The stream of bullets swept by horizontally at just above hip height.
If he had not fallen over while diving behind cover, his top half would have been removed from the bottom.
The weapon must have been using a motor.
If not for the one second delay needed for the barrels to begin rotating, the initial shot would have killed him.
The destruction did not end there. All the cars parked along a horizontal line from there were blown away and lifted into the air before the gun swept back the other way to fill the flaming scraps with even more holes and tear them down beyond recognition. The metal became scorched fireballs that rolled every which way like living things. Hiding behind the pillar did not matter at all. A cold sweat poured down Kamijou’s body as those giant distorted dice rolled his way.
He rolled along the bare concrete to avoid what looked a lot liked crumpled balls of aluminum foil. The pointy-haired middle school boy finally realized how destructive this weapon was when he considered those were all that remained of a sports car’s classy streamlined shape reminiscent of polished pumps.
He was dead if that hit him.
And the bullets were not the only thing to be afraid of.
The terrain was crumbling and the cars were exploding and flying through the air. The water spraying from the burst pipes was evaporating and increasing the humidity to the point of a sauna.
While making sure he did not lift his head, he slid behind a light truck that had been smashed into the ground.
And his thoughts did not focus on the Gatling gun that gave a much louder roar than a park lawnmower.
The unique rules of Academy City had shown themselves here.
(This is definitely scary, but a small kid like that couldn’t swing that monstrous thing around.)
He clenched his teeth.
That meant there was a hidden element to this that was bending the laws of physics.
He doubted there was a medical power assistance suit hidden within that thin dress.
This had to be an esper power.
He silently clenched his right hand into a fist.
Whether it was her arm strength or grip strength, if she was using some kind of power to buff her physical body, he could neutralize it by slamming his fist against her body. Then she would either be flipped over by the recoil, or crushed below the Gatling gun’s weight. Even an amateur like Kamijou could tell that was not a weapon meant to be carried around by human hands.
If she was using a trick to bypass that impossibility, he only had to remind her how impossible it really was.
Fear of that terrifying barrage crept up on him and tears welled up in his eyes, but the area was full of smoke and deafening gunfire thanks to the Gatling gun girl blowing up all of the cars. If he stayed low and slowly circled around her, he could approach from a different angle.
The calm voice that reached him from the side made Kamijou Touma’s mind go completely blank.
(Wait…there’s someone else here. There’s someone else in this smoke!? And they found me right away! But how!?)
His thoughts were scattered.
He did not even have time for his throat to dry up.
Dry gunshots flew toward him from the side.
The girl in a dress, Kaibi, used her Measure Heart power.
It allowed her to adjust the emotional distance between herself and a target.
It was a purely psychological power that could not even make a single leaf float up in the air, but there was still some room for more creative uses of it.
She used a handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat from the side and nape of her alluring neck.
(Knowing the distance between our hearts lets me know where the other person is located without relying on my eyes or ears. Just like the tension is very different depending on whether someone is standing in front of you or behind you. It’s only a vague sense, but it still functions like a cheap bug detector.)
She was not foolish enough to mention her trump card aloud while on a mission.
She adjusted her grip on the automatic handgun and walked forward, as if parting the dark smoke. Approaching this irregular target meant moving within the swiveling Gatling gun’s range. She could contact Amazora via radio, but the third sister would not hear her within the maelstrom of noise caused by that powerful gun.
But that was fine.
Amazora could do as she wished while the older sister made some adjustments.
The girl in a dress softly sighed.
(What would she find it hard to shoot? Yes, the emotional distance to a kitten abandoned in the rain should do it.)
Even if that youngest sister could not see through the smoke or hear over the Gatling gun, that emotional distance would still accurately affect her heart. Just like a suspicious presence approaching from behind in the dark would send a tremor up your spine. If she was implanted with the idea that she did not want to shoot whatever was in that direction, then she would obliterate her own ally with friendly fire.
Kaibi did not even need to duck down while that stream of bullets swept horizontally at a rate of more than 6000 rounds per minute.
This was one of the scientific esper powers developed in Academy City.
She had no interest in arguing with the skeptics who wondered how those powers stacked up to a gun or doubted they were superior to a nuclear bomb. They provided a greater breadth of options and that was enough to give them tactical value. It was like playing a game of rock-paper-scissors while having a fourth move available only to you.
That could tear down the rules of the battlefield.
That was true of any power proven to exist by the researchers.
She confirmed the boy’s presence through the smoke.
She dangerously approached him through the obscuring smoke and did not hesitate to speak.
The flow of time reverted to normal for her.
Dry gunshots flew toward him from the side.
After confirming his general distance and direction with Measure Heart, she had fired thrice for good measure toward the figure curled up beyond the smoke. But she still kept her gun at the ready because this was Academy City. She did not know this person’s name, so she did not know what their power was. Just like she had located him by breaking the rules, he might have some kind of barrier that also broke the rules. That might sound ridiculous, but she had to consider the possibility that he could gather up the air or sprinkler water to create a solid wall or that he could use pure telekinesis to repel anything flying his way.
Not knowing what to expect made things difficult.
If she had a special fourth move in this game of rock-paper-scissors, then he might have a special fifth move.
When she circled behind the scrap metal that looked like a sponge after a dog chewed it up, the person she had supposedly shot was nowhere to be seen.
A car door with broken hinges lay there, but its position could not be explained by the gunfire coming from just the one direction. Someone had likely grabbed the broken door and then throw it away later.
The paint was stripped away by cheap bullet holes different from the youngest sister’s Gatling gun rounds.
It had been used as a shield.
The girl in a dress grimaced.
She lightly poked her slender foot at the damage on the metal panel.
“He blocked it and ran away?”
Not saying the important things out loud was the standard while on the job.
She wished this had taught her something about the power he had used to defend himself, but this could mean he had used magnetism to move the door into place or that he was a powerless Level 0 who had held it in his hands. To reiterate, not knowing what to expect made things difficult. She had revealed her Measure Heart power and her handgun, but her opponent was still a mystery. She might seem to have the upper hand, but he had actually outdone her in the unseen side of the battle. She actually felt ashamed of her miserable performance. This was a lot more troublesome than having received a cut from a blade.
(But in that case.)
An invisible pressure reached her temples and she felt something odd gathering around her brow as she activated her power.
With Measure Heart, she could generally search out her target’s direction in the smoke.
(I don’t know who that boy is, but I have exposed him more than if I knew his name. I have his emotional distance in my hands!!)
He was moving in a large circle around the girl in a dress.
He was slipping between the burning scrap metal.
And he was approaching Amazora’s coordinate while she fired blindly with her Gatling gun???
His top priority was not Kaibi, who had attacked him from the side, but Amazora who was firing wildly from head on.
However, the tracking using Measure Heart was no more than a side effect. It did not give her very detailed information. She had no guarantee she could accurately hit him if she aimed her gun through the smoke. And this would all be meaningless if she hit Amazora instead.
But knowing that did not mean there was anything she could do.
She quickly reached for her earpiece and shouted into the radio while ignoring her slipping shoulder strap.
You were not to say the important things out loud on a mission, but she could not inform her cute younger sister of the threat without shouting loud enough to be heard over the roar of the gun!
“Amazora!! Get away from there!! I don’t know who it is, but they’re headed your way!!”
Really, the assassin girl with a handgun was overthinking things.
Kamijou Touma was only an amateur middle school boy.
When up against gun-wielding criminals with esper powers, he was nowhere near calm enough to cleverly stay a step ahead of them.
“Oh, god! How am I not dead!?”
A tingling pain remained in the bones of both his wrists.
The car door had been lying nearby by pure coincidence. If nothing had been within arm’s reach, a lead bullet would have smashed his skull and killed him.
And that was just the small handgun.
How much worse would it be with the Gatling gun?
(I don’t know if they have special goggles or an esper power, but if they can track me through this smoke, they wouldn’t be using that Gatling gun. They could have snuck up on me and taken off my head. That means their scanning ability isn’t that great.)
That was all he had to work with.
Fortunately, it was not hard to locate the less-than-130cm girl in the smoke. She was constantly producing enough noise that it not only rang in his ears but also seemed to smack him in the face.
(That means a hostage should work! That Gatling gun girl must be on the same side as the scan girl, so if I use her as a shield, the troublesome scan girl can’t attack!!)
For him, 10,000 anti-material rounds thicker than his thumb were no different from a single 9mm handgun round. If any one of them hit him, he was done. If they did not, he would not shed a single drop of blood. It was a binary choice for him.
He was scared.
Scared, but coping.
His opponents must not have been very coordinated because the scan girl had clearly known where he was yet she had not informed the Gatling gun girl.
That meant he did not have to worry about an accurate counterattack.
The cacophony of gunfire told him where the little girl was even with the smoke obstructing his view, but that very same noise would mask the delinquent boy’s footsteps while he approached her.
He tore apart the curtain of black smoke with his fist clenched tight and attacked the left side of the little girl with the gaudy spangle dress.
People were slowest to react when attacked from diagonally behind them on the opposite of their dominant side.
Her too-short skirt flipped up as she frantically turned around and the ammunition hose attached like to a vacuum cleaner wrapped around her slender waist. That clinched it. With a dull click, the gunfire suddenly stopped. The aluminum hose must have twisted past its limit because the belt of bullets got caught within and stopped moving. The motor kept the barrels spinning, but that was it.
Kamijou Touma showed no mercy even against a girl of less than 130cm.
He clenched his fist with all his might.
“Say hi to your big sis for me!!”
“You son of a bitch!!”
The enraged little girl showed no concern for her bright thighs while she grabbed the Gatling gun’s ammo hose with one hand and swung around the drum-like magazine she was dragging around like a vacuum cleaner. It was a lot like a monstrous morning star. How much did that weigh? A hit from that in a cross counter would shatter his skull, so he unclenched his fist and focused on dodging. He quickly ducked his head to let the horizontal attack fly past, but then he heard an odd sound.
It sounded like concrete cracking, but the giant metal magazine had not crashed into a concrete pillar.
It had unnaturally come to a stop in empty air.
And the sound had come from somewhere lower than that – from the ground below his feet. From the concrete shards produced by the merciless gunfire.
“Tch! It’s stuck!?”
(She isn’t boosting her muscles or making the object lighter. If the oddity came from the ground…)
“You aren’t lifting that heavy-ass Gatling gun with your muscles or your esper power. Were you allowing the weight to escape into the ground!?”
A poor student like Kamijou did not know what people pictured in their heads while using telekinesis. There had to be many different control methods – magnets, threads, wind, cranes, arms, etc.
What if this was done by creating something like an “invisible support”?
The concept would be the same as a camera’s tripod. With a support to hold it up, she would not have to worry about the weight of the device on her own arms. With that separate support, the weight could escape into the ground instead.
Also, he was pretty sure Gatling guns were not designed to be mobile.
“In that case…!!”
Before the unnaturally-stuck magazine could fall from the air, the Gatling gun girl let go of the hose and reached her small hand toward the back of her gaudy dress. Did she have a knife hidden there? While the close-to-home fear of something other than the Gatling gun clutched his stomach, Kamijou threw his first toward the little girl.
He felt an electric tingling in the back of his head.
He had meant to show no mercy, but her appearance may have made him hesitate at the last second.
The fist intended to land on her head instead hit her shoulder and slid down from there. Amazingly, that sent his fist straight toward the “line” connecting the giant magazine and the concrete floor.
A moment later, the invisible support shattered and the weight being sent into the ground returned to the device.
The midair drum magazine suddenly crashed into the concrete floor. The hose wrapped all the way around her slender hips squeezed tight and forced an odd sound out the self-bondage girl’s mouth. She was a lot like the anchor when one side lost badly in a game of tug of war. Her feet left the floor and she was tossed forward.
Which sent her right into the chest of today’s lucky bastard, Kamijou Touma.
The girl in a dress clicked her tongue while hiding behind some scorched scrap metal.
(Measure Heart didn’t stop him from immediately swinging his fist at her? Agh, these self-righteous types are the hardest to deal with!!)
The emotional distance between herself and the target boy was that of a dangerous escaped convict. He should normally have been frozen in fear or immediately turned around without worrying about the little girl in front of him, yet he had stuck to the enemy there.
Her power had affected him.
The emotional distance had changed.
Yet his actions had not changed.
That sounded simple, but it was actually the hardest thing to do. Most people would not even try and skip straight to targeting her instead. Especially if their life was on the line and they wanted to escape that pressure as soon as possible. Except that would cause them to rush things, they would fail to unravel the tangled threads, and they would be stopped by the strength of that large tangle.
Yet this boy did not mistake what order to do things in.
As the one using the power, Kaibi knew the emotional distance really had changed and shaken him. It was working, but he did not change. It felt like she was up against a giant insect or an AI weapon.
He was straightforward and unwavering.
To someone from the back alleys, that alone was a threat.
She ignored her slipping shoulder strap while bringing a hand to her ear and speaking over the radio.
“Rikuri Nee-san, Amazora is down. And she’s been captured by the enemy. I will retake her, so you increase the drone surveillance outside. We can’t let our real target get away while we focus on this distraction!”
“No, Kaibi-chan. There is no need for that. You did well, so leave the rest to your big sister.”
She heard a buzzing even louder than an electric shaver.
And it was not alone.
A deadly army flew in like someone had split open a hornet’s nest.
“A distraction? Do not make me laugh. Nothing could be more important for us.”
The girl in a dress felt a chill run along her spine.
This was someone who could inspire uncontrollable emotions in an emotion-controlling expert.
She was a specialist in unmanned weapons and poisons.
She was Gokusai Rikuri, the Potion Lady.
That spider lured you out with a sweet aroma and then captured you in her invisible web.
“I hope he is ready for what is coming to him now that he laid a hand on my little sister. This is a job I am willing to do pro bono.”
Kamijou Touma also noticed the change while carrying the dizzy Gatling gun girl.
The color of the flames changed.
The scorching orange became a blue and purple reminiscent of fireworks.
A rotating yellow light was flashing over by the elevator. That belonged to a device installed specifically because this was a parking garage with a concrete ceiling. The scorched plate said it was a carbon monoxide detector.
Kamijou had heard of people taking their own lives using charcoal grills.
While struggling to untangle the hose from around the less-than-130cm girl’s hips, he half-dragged her over toward the elevator. There was a small metal box below the rotating yellow light. It resembled an AED, but this was different. He checked inside and found a mask that covered the entire face and a small air canister the size of a hair spray can.
That was better than nothing.
He hesitated for a moment, but still placed the mask over the little girl’s face.
That was when he heard a buzzing similar to an electric shaver.
He quickly stood up while holding the unconscious mass shooter.
“Oh, what a gentleman. Or is my older little sister’s power affecting you? …Well, that power is meant to bind herself with others, so she has always had difficulty adjusting the distance between two other people.”
“If you weren’t aware, then I should avoid letting anything else slip. She would probably let me have it if I did.”
An aluminum and plastic unmanned device resembling a large crane fly had skillfully stopped at his eye level. But this looked different from the ordinary drones that were discussed in relation to aerial photography and online shopping.
A reel of wire and a unit resembling a gas-powered tranquilizer gun were carried below it.
This was a lot like the models used to deal with harmful animals like wild boars and bears.
If it could handle a bear, it could easily handle a human.
And there could always be more. He could glimpse a swarm of silhouettes through the flames and smoke and this nonhuman opponent might be able to slip through gaps far too small for a human.
“I will be taking back my littlest sister. No matter what.”
“You picked the fight with us.”
“Street fights begin because you assume you can win. But I never intended to let you stand on equal footing with us. Be devoured like the herbivore you are.”
“You do know I have a hostage, right?”
Kamijou finally said it.
The flames around him glowed with an even brighter bluish-purple hue.
He could not see it, but the levels of carbon monoxide may have been growing. And it would be too late by the time the physical symptoms began to show themselves.
There were at least three of them.
He had previously seen the Gatling gun esper and the mental esper who had a handgun, so this had to be the one who used drones to wield poisoned wires. He still did not know who she was.
Poison and machines were a good combination.
In a fight between humans, you could get hit by your own poison. Poison gas and biological weapons were difficult to use on the battlefield because there was always a risk of being given a taste of your own medicine in retribution. But that was not an issue when using a non-living drone. After scattering it around to cover the designated area, you could hang around without any ill effects.
(Carbon monoxide and chloride gas are easy to get your hands on since the ingredients can be found anywhere. That makes them convenient poisons when you want to disguise it as an accident, right?)
Kamijou’s head was full of pointless trivia from suspense dramas.
His opponent could win simply by keeping him from leaving the parking garage before he ran out of strength. She only had to send multiple drones after him and restrict where he could go. She would not be harmed if he managed to destroy a drone. It was even possible they had a bomb hidden inside.
(For now, I hold onto the hostage and it doesn’t actually matter all that much if I can get outside right away. Carbon monoxide is scary, but it isn’t like a biological weapon that dooms you the instant it’s inside your body. I just need to get some fresh air. I can’t forget I have an entire Gatling gun here. If I destroy a wall, it’s sure to provide better circulation.)
His thoughts were fairly decent for a split-second decision.
Rapidly increasing the amount of oxygen might cause the flames to explosively expand, but he had bigger issues to worry about.
“Hello, blockhead. Let’s not underestimate the Potion Lady, okay?”
He heard something slice through the wind from shockingly close by.
And that female voice had not come through a microphone or speaker. He was clearly hearing it directly. Had she filled the parking garage with carbon monoxide and then walked into the very gas chamber she had created!?
She had already moved right up to him.
He had no choice but to toss away the little girl in his arms.
His enemy swung down something like a pen, but was it a syringe that used gas to inject its contents, or was it a needle launcher?
He did not have the martial arts skills to accurately knock back the approaching assassin’s wrist.
He forcibly suppressed the instinct to protect his face with his hands, looked the sexy blonde woman in the eye to draw her attention, and threw a kick toward her long legs. If he knocked her off balance, it would throw her aim off as well. By doing that and twisting his body around so he fell to the floor, he successfully avoided the needle of that mystery syringe.
He was amazed such similar dresses could look so different on different people. Was the poison hidden in her feather-shaped necklace, her dress’s spangles, or the decoration covering her ring finger? Perhaps it was all of the above.
When he viewed her again, he found her sex appeal had reached almost oppressive levels. This was different from busty high school girl Kumokawa. Instead of a youthful beauty, hers was on the verge of rotting.
“You don’t look like the fist-fighting type, so getting in punching range was not the smartest move,” he said.
The electric shaver sound tormented his ears.
And it came from more than one direction.
The toxic woman smirked while sweat gathered in her cleavage.
“Make sure you take deep breaths to carry the carbon monoxide into your lungs,” she said. “You are sweating and I imagine you are feeling faint. Now, are those real symptoms or merely the placebo effect? Think carefully as you enter that mental labyrinth.”
The situation should have been the same for them both.
At the very least, she did not appear to be using an air tank or mask.
Then why did she not seem more worried?
“Carbon monoxide is so dangerous because it bonds more strongly with the hemoglobin meant to carry the oxygen through your blood. Once the carbon monoxide takes up all the empty seats, there is no room left to carry the oxygen and you die of asphyxiation.”
The sexy blonde woman spun the syringe around in her hand like it was a pen, tapped it against the decoration on her ring finger, and then pretended to jab the needle into the side of her neck.
“But it has no effect on crustaceans like shrimps and crabs. That is because they do not use hemoglobin to carry their oxygen. Instead, they use a completely different substance known as hemocyanin. The toxin functions much like a power plug, so it only works because the plug just so happens to match the outlet. So if you change the shape of the outlet, it no longer works.”
“I am not an esper suited for the battlefield, but I can handle this much, don’t you think? Not that knowing this gives you any way of fighting it.”
The very nature of their blood was different.
When he thought about it, he realized filling the parking garage with carbon monoxide presented a huge risk to her sisters when she was supposedly here to rescue them. But she had a countermeasure. Some of her drones had a unit similar to a gas-powered tranquilizer gun. If she injected her sisters with a special drug that provided a way of transporting blood without hemoglobin, the carbon monoxide would no longer be a threat to them.
This might look like a trickier weapon to wield than shooting fire or electricity from the palm, but altering someone’s oxygen transportation method or oxygen capacity would give them the endurance to run a marathon and allow them to function normally in the deep sea or on a tall mountain. It was tricky to wield, but when wielded well, it would provide absolute victory.
In that case…
“Isn’t it a bit soon to assume I can’t handle this? If I take down one of those drones and steal the drug based on hemocyanin or whatever it was, I might be able to escape this as much as you.”
“If you really believed that, you would have kept it to yourself. If you came down with an unidentified disease and found yourself in a deserted hospital, what could you actually accomplish? You would see all the bottles of drugs lined up on the shelves and despair. A substance can be a life-saving medicine when administered by an expert and a deadly poison when used by an amateur. That is how this field works.”
She hit the bull’s eye there.
She remained as unworried as ever while holding her own body in her arms, squeezing her large breasts from the outside.
Stealing from a poison expert’s collection and injecting it into his body without knowing what it was would be reckless in the extreme. That would be like a game of Russian roulette when working with medicines meant to save lives, so he would have to be insane to rely on luck with the poisons that were designed to kill from the get-go.
And Kamijou Touma was second to none when it came to being unlucky.
That woman, who kept clicking her pent-like syringe against her ring finger decoration, only had to drag out this conversation long enough and she would win. This was already a path to victory for her, so she would be delighted to chat with him over tea.
The time had come to make a decision.
If he did not deal with her, Mitsuari Ayu and Kumokawa Seria on the higher floors would fall victim to her as well.
“So what will you do? Make up your own mind.”
“I’ll go for that.”
Kamijou Touma did not hesitate to point toward the floor.
Specifically, at the Gatling gun girl who was still dizzy and had a small oxygen mask on.
“I’ll take that mask from her.”
“You prepared everything in advance. That other esper – from what you said, I guess she’s an esper – hiding here somewhere may be getting that saving drug injected into her from one of your drone’s tranquilizer gun things, but not that kid. You wouldn’t have had a chance. Without the mask, she’ll die as much as me.”
The atmosphere changed, like powerful microwaves were boiling the moisture in the air, but if that was enough to deter you, you could never walk the back alleys.
“If you frantically pulled out your oxygen carrier, I could just take that, but I have no way of knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes on your tricks. I don’t want to swipe it from you and find it was actually poison. So the mask is my priority. I know that’s safe, so I won’t hold back. And you have a countermeasure ready, right? So she doesn’t even need the mask and I can take it for myself.”
“You really do have a screw loose.”
“What else did you expect from a guy so broken he’ll immediately punch someone in the face if the situation demands it?”
“I can see why my cute little sisters had so much trouble. You might be on the side of good, but your claims of justice change from one moment to the next. You take an all’s well that ends well stance, so everything leading up to that ending can get all twisted around. No one with normal sensibilities could throw aside the very small girl they had just worked to save. Even a professional soldier would get PTSD from that.”
Kamijou was closer to the collapsed Gatling gun girl.
He was 2m away, while the sexy blonde woman was 5m away. He would reach her first, but his opponent would not wait around while he swiped the mask and put it on his own face. That pen-like gas-operated syringe would be coming. And it was hard to predict what the drones would do while they flew all around like a swarm of bees in the flames and smoke.
But if he managed to get that mask, he would at least have a chance.
Then maybe the two girls waiting up above would not have to suffer in the same way.
There was no flaw in his thinking.
Not if you were solely focused on winning and losing.
But was that really acceptable?
That irremovable thorn of doubt may have been the worst poison of all.
The syringe spinning in her hand came to a stop.
The sexy blonde woman gripped it like a stake as she spoke.
“I will kill you, for those cute little sisters of mine.”
“And I’ll survive, also for them.”
Then they both took off running.
Kaibi, second of the three sisters, held a hand to the side of her aching head and gradually stood up.
She slowly pushed back up her dress’s slipping shoulder strap.
Her sluggish movements were enough to imagine how much damage her body had taken.
One of Rikuri’s drones had injected her with a bloodstream oxygen carrier, but that did not mean the carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms would disappear immediately. She would not die, but the pain would continue.
The trembling of her fingertips would not stop and her vision grew blurry from time to time.
She would have a hard time aiming and firing a gun like this. Especially in a wild fight between her target and her family member.
(I can’t leave this with Rikuri Nee-san. She isn’t suited for the battlefield. But my Measure Heart should be able to shake him.
She did not say anything important aloud on the battlefield.
Because you never knew how that would come back to bite you.
She practically rubbed her body up against the side of a rectangular concrete pillar that had broken halfway up to prop herself up on two legs and she focused her mind on both her temples.
She pictured it like moving the electrode between her eyes and releasing sparks from there.
(He’ll know which order to do this in. He’ll defeat his opponent, create a safe zone for himself, and make sure he can keep fighting. I’ve seen how broken he is, so I can’t expect pleas to his good will or decency to stop him.)
Kaibi was part of the science side.
She had a hard time imagining this sort of thing’', so she had never used her power like this. But now was not the time to be picky.
She had to use any method available to her.
She adjusted the emotional distance between herself and the pointy-haired boy.
(A god or something should work. I just need a being of absolute authority. That should drive all other thoughts from his mind. As long as he panics for a second – no, even a split second – Rikuri Nee-san’s poison needles or wires can reach him!!)
She clenched her teeth and glared at her target.
Since the main attack was now the carbon dioxide instead of the flames and heat, the actual fire had lost some of its intensity. The curtain of dark smoke was coming apart in places.
Which was why she saw it.
He never even glanced in collapsed Amazora’s direction.
A certain boy immediately rushed toward Rikuri and swung his right first with all his might.
Rikuri must have been absolutely convinced her cornered prey was going to mercilessly rip the mask from the youngest child’s face. She had started running toward Amazora, so the boy’s attack seemed to catch her entirely off guard. She frantically tried to swing the pen-like syringe around, but she was not used to in-person combat. She had positioned the many drones in the best positions to protect collapsed and unmoving Amazora because she had never imagined the attack would be directed toward herself.
Her initial assumption had been wrong.
She could not keep up with his unexpected action.
It was like playing a game of shogi and having a piece on the edge of the board suddenly warp to the opposite side. Even if you had moved your king to the corner and set up the perfect Anaguma defense, there was no defending against that.
A great sound burst out.
He landed a clean cross counter on Rikuri while she still held the pen-like syringe in hand.
The oldest of the sisters was knocked backwards.
“How?” she asked without moving.
“You were cornered by the invisible carbon monoxide…so how could you ignore my cute little sister there?”
“You really think I would steal that mask from her?” spat out the pointy-haired boy. “I already ran away once.”
In the end, this was the boy’s true nature and his limit.
“I felt this awful bitterness rising from the pit of my stomach then. I had escaped the monster created by that Biohacker and I had saved myself, but that wasn’t good enough. I never want to taste that bitterness again. No matter what.”
No matter how much he hardened his heart, there was a line he could never cross. If the enemy discovered that, they could take advantage of it. That was why he had needed to hide it no matter what.
You did not say anything important aloud on the battlefield.
So he had held his tongue and bit his lip to keep it inside.
“Oh, come on.”
She even smiled a little.
Not even Kaibi had seen this look on her sister’s face before.
She looked satisfied despite being tricked.
“Say things like that and I can’t help but find you a little cute.”
She sank down.
Gokusai Rikuri’s knees gave out and she slowly collapsed.
The girl in a dress grimaced.
The many drones lost control and fell from the air.
First Sister Rikuri and Third Sister Amazora had been defeated. Measure Heart was about trickery and lacked the power needed for a finisher. yet this opponent had the Gatling gun he had stolen from the third sister.
Plus, there were two more people on the upper floors.
The girl who had ridden the motorcycle was an unknown quantity and their original target, Mitsuari Ayu, had a psychological power just like her.
The girl in a dress had deflected Mitsuari’s Mental Stinger before, but the other girl might be able to do the same to her. How much her power would be weakened in a clash against a similar esper was an unknown until she actually tested it out. And an unknown was not good enough to call a trump card.
After all, Second Sister Kaibi was their final chance.
If all three of them were captured, there would be no one left to rescue her family.
That was true whether they were being sent to Anti-Skill or the city’s dark side.
She could control emotional distances.
She could earn the public prosecutor’s trust and have them drop the case, or she could curry the favor of someone with clout in the back alleys. As long as she knew the appropriate “etiquette”, she would have an opportunity to free her precious sisters from their cells.
(In that case!!)
Once she made up her mind, there was no hesitation within her.
Even if it meant turning her back on her sisters while they lay collapsed in front of the enemy. Even if she had no way of striking back at the person who had done that to them.
She had to escape here and resume the fight at a later date.
Still, she was on the third floor.
She climbed over the parking garage’s concrete fence and jumped down.
She lost her balance and her vision whirled.
She fell on her back, but she survived because she landed in the bushes planted around the structure. She could not have done that on purpose, though.
She got up.
She could not hold her shoulders at the same height and she was covered in soot and mud, but she managed to leave the parking garage on unsteady legs.
After practically dragging her legs along and reaching the road, she noticed the sharp heels of her sandals had broken. She removed the unusable footwear and carried them while walking barefoot.
She was separated from the older sister who always spoiled her family and from the younger sister who was always so annoying and got into so much trouble.
She bit her lovely lips.
And she silently wept all alone.
Kamijou Touma wiped the sweat from his brow inside the parking garage filled with flames and smoke.
One of the three sisters(?) was missing. The presence he had felt before was gone, but since she had had a gun and another of them had used drones, that was no guarantee of safety. It was cruel, but he would have to use the two defeated enemies as insurance.
(I hope she wasn’t taken out by the carbon monoxide. She was given that hemo-whatever countermeasure, right?)
He was of course at the most risk. He did not know the exact concentration of carbon monoxide in here, but with the alarm still going off, it would be best not to linger. If he waited here in fear of the enemy he had lost track of, he would eventually collapse.
The poison woman and the Gatling gun girl lay limp on the floor, so he picked them up to use as shields.
He had to get back to the upper floors.
They were girls, but with two of them and with them unconscious, they were very heavy. But he could not drag them along the floor littered with shards of glass and concrete, so he found an all purpose wheeled cart, loaded the tall woman into it, and used a plastic rope to tie the little girl to his back like a baby.
(I can’t last much longer in here!)
He did not have a headache, but thinking so much was making him feel sick. He could not let the real carbon monoxide sneak up on him while he suffered from the placebo effect brought on by his own anxiety and stress.
He had needed a shield against the unseen enemy.
When figuring out which one to carry, that adolescent idiot had wanted to go with the sexy young woman with the big boobs, but she was a poison user who could kill with a single needle. He wanted to avoid close contact with her even while unconscious.
On the other hand, the little girl alone was too small to provide much coverage as a shield.
(But that gun would punch right through my body if it hit me, right?)
So even if the surviving enemy aimed at him through the smoke, he did not have to worry as much about being shot from the front. Unless she was willing to sacrifice her sister in the process.
In the end, there was no such thing as 100% safety.
There could be an unseen fourth enemy, or the survivor might leave the building and then fire a barrage of missiles and rockets to bring down the entire parking garage. After all, he had already seen esper powers and a Gatling gun here. He could not rule out any possibility.
This human shield was really just a good-luck charm to rid him of his anxiety.
(Maybe it’s wrong to calm myself with close physical contact with an unconscious little girl.)
He called out to them because visibility was so poor.
After coming all this way, he did not want them mistaking him for an enemy through the smoke. He could just imagine them stabbing at him with a makeshift spear made by taping a knife to the end of a mop.
“You made it back alive, boy?” asked Kumokawa. “Hm, and with plenty of souvenirs, it would seem.”
“A-are those supposed to be your victory prizes?” asked Mitsuari. “This isn’t ancient Rome.”
Kumokawa grinned and Mitsuari trembled.
At least they seemed to be doing well. Perhaps it was asking a lot for people who had spent their time in relative peace, but he wished they could intuit that he had been dealing with a hellish festival featuring a handgun, a Gatling gun, carbon monoxide, and poison needles.
The genius (←riichi) busty (←ippatsu) high school girl (←dora) crossed her arms.
“What happened with the enemy?”
“They seemed to be a group of three, but I lost track of one. They seemed focused on the hostage I had and she hasn’t attacked since, so I’d like to believe she gave up. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure. She had a gun, so we might not be safe. Plus there’s carbon monoxide, so we should get out of here if we can.”
“Eh? You mean you defeated them all on your own?” asked Mitsuari.
“I don’t see any other way of explaining these two he has here,” said Kumokawa. “I doubt he paid some money to hire some extras.”
In her gym clothes and indoor slippers, Mitsuari silently watched Kamijou lower the little girl from his back.
Kumokawa Seria sighed.
“Well, good job, I guess. You upheld the promise you made.”
“This is nothing so cool. I only did what it took to survive.”
“You can say that after walking toward near-certain doom when you didn’t have to? You protected lives here. And not just the lives of your allies – of your enemies too.”
In what may have been a sign of her trust, the upperclassman girl smiled a little and started to rest her head on unsteady Kamijou’s shoulder from the side.
An odd sound interrupted.
No, it was Mitsuari Ayu. Just before the super high school girl of his dreams could touch him, the other girl slipped in between them. That meant he only got to feel the bony flatness of a skinny middle school girl.
What was this?
Did his misfortune really need to give him a post-battle bonus?
He clenched his teeth.
“Senpai, when did Mitsuari grow so attached to you?”
“To me? It’s clearly you she is attached to. And there’s nothing weird about a sheltered girl having a thing for a knight in shining armor.”
It was unclear what that meant, but Mitsuari herself clearly did not agree. She squeezed her eyes shut and continued shouting “nhh, nhh!” in protest.
But there was no reclaiming a lost opportunity.
While mentally weeping tears of blood at his inability to rewind reality, he faced the more immediate problem.
“Senpai, how are we going to get out of here?”
“Yeah, the bike blew its tire when we landed.”
“Plus, it couldn’t carry me, you, Mitsuari, the hot one, and the little girl.”
“I adore you for including all five of us. But anyway, the best plan would be to switch to a vehicle capable of carrying all of us.”
Kumokawa got to work picking the lock of a nearby car. She picked up some kind of long wire, but what was this? Instead of inserting it into the keyhole, she appeared to be jabbing it vertically down into the power window.
“Don’t try this at home.”
After unlocking it as smoothly as if she had the key, she opened the door, climbed inside, and broke the plastic cover below the steering wheel. Once she connected the wires within, the engine started right up.
Apparently high school girls these days could drive not just motorcycles but cars too.
That seemed to clash with his basic image of high school girls, but whatever.
“Tie the two unconscious idiots up with packing tape and stuff them in the trunk. That is the most mercy I am willing to show.”
“The fight is over, so can’t we all just get along!?”
Kamijou protested, but he knew they were short on time and had no choice but to obey. He was already well aware that the poison woman had used carbon monoxide.
The tires squealed and Delinquent High School Girl Kumokawa-senpai drove the car down the slope to the next floor. On the way, Kamijou spotted some scrapped cars and the abandoned Gatling gun. He felt like leaving that there was a bad idea. He was afraid it might explode like a firecracker in those flames.
After descending a few of those slopes, he lost track of what floor they were on.
The seatbelt alone must have felt insufficient with how much the car was shaking because Mitsuari was pale in the face and clung to him in the back seat.
“Are we going to drive all the way down? But the ground floor must be engulfed in flames!!”
“Why do you get all the fun when you’re just along for the ride?” asked Kumokawa. “Maybe I should go for another bike ride with that boy seated behind me.”
“Senpai, I don’t like the sound of whatever you’re planning!”
“Anyway, I wanted to get as far down as possible, but this is probably the limit.”
“Um, but what are you planning to do? Wait, Senpai, why are you turning the wheel that way!?”
“Why?” she said casually while stepping on the gas pedal.
The view out the windshield showed the concrete wall meant to keep cars from falling off.
“Cause this is a shortcut.”
Beating on the driver’s seat headrest accomplished nothing.
A moment later, a mass of metal weighing more than a ton flew out into empty air from the second floor.
It had been rough.
Real rough, but Kamijou’s group had escaped from the burning parking garage.
“Are you insane, you amazing busty high school girl!? I really am grabbing those things this time!!”
“I will respect your freedom of speech and accept your complaints about my behavior, but try not to slip your own desires in there.”
He complained, but this was a stolen car. It would have been engulfed in flames with the rest if left where it was, but given how dented up the bumper was, it was highly unlikely the owner would thank them for saving it. It was too dangerous to drive around in, so they decided to get out and escape on foot.
“What about the two in the trunk?”
“Assuming you’re not interested in abducting them and having your way with them, I recommend setting off the car alarm and then leaving them there. It’s a stolen car, so Anti-Skill will secure them for you.”
They would probably be taken into custody as victims instead of criminals in that scenario, but the authorities could apparently figure out who had fired a gun from fingerprints and something called gunshot residue. They would at least figure out the little girl was the mass shooter, which would make it hard for the sexy poison user to claim she was uninvolved.
They could be safely left with the adults.
“Anyway, I’ve never heard of real-life professional assassins before. What happens to them once Anti-Skill arrests them? Will this be a top story on the evening news???”
“Of course not. Academy City as a whole is in the service industry, so they can’t stay in business without showing off how safe everything is and bringing in lots of kids. What happened here will be never be revealed to the public. And if they can’t fully cover it up, they’ll just call it a spontaneous incident with no planning behind it.”
They held that conversation after finally escaping the parking garage.
Kamijou was so soaked with sweat he could probably produce a very gross sight by stripping off a piece of clothing and wringing it out like a rag. Unlike a super high school girl or a high-class middle school girl, nobody was interested in a guy’s sweat.
They peered out around the corner of a building to spy on the flashing lights gathering a short distance away.
Needless to say, they were hiding because they had done a little too much they could not let come to light, starting with Kumokawa Seria’s motorcycle theft. And while Kamijou had clenched his fist to protect a girl, that would go down in the Anti-Skill paperwork as assault and battery.
“Do you really want to get arrested now? One of the assassins got away and L.S.S. management might use some other method. That would only lead to three unnatural suicides in the holding cells before dawn tomorrow.”
After that threatening statement from Kumokawa Seria (who had committed the most criminal acts of the three), Kamijou and Mitsuari could only curl up like small animals and go along with her plan.
“Okay, the straitlaced teacher/guidance counselor combos have arrived. And it looks like they have indeed taken those two into protective custody.”
Those two did not seem to put up much resistance even when they had their hands handcuffed behind their backs.
That was something of an ending, but there had been three enemies.
There was still one out there. It felt like hearing the shark extermination at the beach had been called off before it was complete.
“A-anyway, you really did beat them all yourself, didn’t you?” said Mitsuari.
“Hm? Yeah, but one-against-three is my limit. Any more and I shouldn’t even try to fight.”
Kamijou made it sound so simple, so he seemed unaware of what a tightrope walk he had made. Your own lucky shots tended not to leave much of an impression in your memory.
But more than that…
“Senpai, what is L.S.S.?”
He felt like he had glimpsed that name a few times.
For example, as a TV show sponsor or in ads at the burger shop. He was pretty sure they were a company that worked in some kind of biological field. He was unsure what exactly they specialized in – or rather, they seemed involved in everything from the food business to the pet business, so everyone online claimed they were too unfocused.
“Hm? Did you really think two different criminal groups had targeted Mitsuari Ayu by complete coincidence? Those three sisters were professional assassins, so that means someone must have hired them. Doesn’t it seem most likely that was meant to get back at us for what happened with the dragon?”
The term “Biohacker” had come up, but had they ever determined where exactly that dragon came from? Kamijou had to wonder, so Kumokawa continued in exasperation.
“Did you forget all about that researcher you punched at the end of that night? A single photo is enough to search out all sorts of information these days. It was a little tricky to track down since he was not registered as an employee, but he had influence over a company project as a guest. That link was intentionally made to be indirect. Also, that very same researcher apparently kicked the bucket due to food poisoning while in his holding cell. It was due to the oysters in his lunch, but…hm, don’t we know someone who specializes in animal poisons?”
She stated it so matter-of-factly that Kamijou did not realize what she meant at first.
It felt like watching a news program for some distant country.
And Kumokawa was not done talking.
There was more.
“To look at it from a different angle, part of L.S.S.’s charitable activities includes managing the distribution of the stray cat population.”
“Simply put, they capture the kitties, have them sniff an anesthetic, and then chop off their you-know-whats. It’s done out of love for the animals, but I imagine the cats don’t appreciate it much. It’s not much different from alien abductions and cattle mutilation from their point of view.”
Kamijou Touma shrank down a little.
He knew it was wrong, but that topic felt more real to him than the assassination in the holding cell. L.S.S. apparently sponsored a cat program on TV, so were they using information taken from the program staff?
Mitsuari Ayu still looked confused.
A devilish smile spread on Kumokawa’s face like the scissors in rock-paper-scissors.
“By accepting contract work from the health department, L.S.S. can freely enter areas normal workers could never go. For example, the School Garden and Tokiwadai Middle School.”
Soaked Mitsuari did not seem to quite get it.
“Have you ever seen outside workers entering your school grounds to collect a cat or dog that wandered in? Those were L.S.S. workers.”
“Eh!? You mean those people in work jumpsuits!?”
“There are two ways to earn trust: spend a lot of time somewhere, or call yourself some kind of expert. It’s a pretty basic method.” Kumokawa sighed in extreme exasperation. “Those sisters may have used some kind of esper power or special skill to get into the School Garden, but didn’t they attack Mitsuari and lure her outside a little too smoothly? Someone who knew a lot about things inside must have given them detailed information on the distribution of people and things at different times.”
Also, even if that dragon had been the product of a dangerous experiment combining the DNA of a few different animals, that did not seem possible for an individual to pull off. Wouldn’t it require specialized equipment, personnel, and plenty of funding to keep it all running?
“Well, we know someone used high-level cover-up techniques to erase all trace of the dragon attack. If L.S.S. is involved this time too, that parking garage will probably be handled in the same way. If we check to see what materials and chemicals were used to repair the damage at both sites and then track down where they came from, we can figure out who the Biohacker is.”
Mitsuari Ayu must have had a hard time believing this (or she was embarrassed standing on the roadside in sweaty short-sleeved gym clothes) because she gave them a puzzled look while fidgeting her butt.
“But isn’t L.S.S. a trustworthy company that everyone knows? The girls from the major cliques talk about it a lot. Would a major company with a solid position at the top of the listings really take the risk of messing with life using a Biohacker or whatever?”
“Heh heh. A trustworthy company? Do you actually think those exist?”
“This is no time for dark jokes.”
Mitsuari seemed to mistake that for a joke as she walked along in her loose indoor slippers.
Meanwhile, the busty high school girl gave her the look of someone seeing a small child write “I want to be a wonderful wife when I grow up” on their Tanabata wish card. It was a somewhat maternal look.
“Well, the people behind corporate misdeeds usually lose track of the scope of their actions. So with the Biohacker, it probably started out small. Yes, like modifying genetics to create a thoroughbred in the lab instead of relying on selective breeding. Then they moved on to developing delicious edible earthworms to use for cheap hamburger meat and they eventually reached the point of creating giant dragons without anyone involved noticing anything wrong with what they are doing. That tends to be how these things go.”
Kamijou groaned again at this.
He recalled seeing an L.S.S. ad at a burger shop. That meant there was some form of favorable relationship between those two. He could not help but worry about the burger meal he had eaten there.
“We saw the assassins taken in by Anti-Skill, so there’s no point in staying here. Let’s get moving.”
“Th-there’s more? Can’t we just head home now?”
Mitsuari may have wanted it all to be over so she could strip out of her sweaty gym clothes and take a shower.
Kumokawa Seria breathed an exasperated sigh (which made her large chest rise and fall).
“Have you already forgotten they got assassins inside the strictly-defended Tokiwadai Middle School? Needless to say, L.S.S. is a big company. Go to sleep in the dorm linked to you in the school paperwork and you might as well be leaving the window open and asking them to attack you.”
“Eh? But then what do we do?”
Mitsuari’s exhaustion was quickly making her useless, but Kamijou’s heart had felt the squeeze of fear ever since the discussion about chopping off cat balls.
The mystery super high school girl smiled thinly.
“That just means you have to go somewhere not linked to you in the school paperwork. I will show you to my apartment. It’s too late to turn back now, after all.”
Was that normal for a high school girl, or not?
Kamijou still dreamed of the freedoms found in a high school life, but this was starting to feel like more than that. He doubted you could rent an apartment with the money from an afterschool job.
For now, they had to obey her, but she did not lead them to a train or bus.
But not because her apartment was nearby.
“What a pain. Using public transportation now would like asking for an ambush.”
They were forced to walk for quite a while along deserted roads. That was difficult for Mitsuari in her indoor slippers.
“Hey, quit leaning on me from behind! What, you want me to carry you!? How about using words next time!?”
“(You’re quite something yourself for readily accepting her demand to be carried!!)”
It grew dark while they walked.
They had spent an entire day on this.
If you did not earn any experience points, your level remained at 0. All this fighting had earned them nothing.
“Hm, hm, hm, hmm.”
The fluffy-haired middle school girl was in a good mood now that she was riding on Kamijou’s back. She kicked her feet cheerfully.
“There it is,” said Kumokawa.
This was not just a studio apartment.
It was a huge multi-room apartment meant for families. No, this high-rise apartment building was clearly meant for investors and resellers. It was the kind only seen on soap operas.
“Being invited somewhere this luxurious makes me fear some kind of trap,” said Kamijou.
“Why would you associate fanciness with booby traps?”
Hearing the fluffy middle school girl say “booby” right into his ear just about awoke something inside him, but he decided it was best to keep that to himself. He wanted to avoid putting his foot in his mouth.
“It’s not really a booby trap, but they did find some unexploded ordnance in a park near here, which made the apartments hard to sell and caused their value to plummet,” said Kumokawa. “But rumors fade and I’m sure the value will return to normal eventually.”
The entrance naturally used an automatic locking system.
Once through the thick automatic door, they found a huge air-conditioned lobby.
“C’mon, get down now, Mitsuari. We’re here.”
“Don’t you dare go to sleep. And don’t throw a fit! Just get down!!”
He decided it was for her own good to not spoil her too much, so he forcibly lowered her from his back.
A butler-like old man in a black tailcoat stood at the reception counter. Was that what they called a concierge? This was feeling more like a resort hotel than an apartment. The man said nothing about the sweaty girl in gym clothes.
And Mitsuari did not seem to care either.
He had forgotten, but she had had an upper class upbringing.
“Well, whatever. Which floor is your room on?”
“52. That high up, I’d be worried about power outages if I actually lived here.”
Kumokawa opened the window below the panel and pressed her thumb against the inside. The fingerprint scanner set the elevator to take them straight to their destination floor without any intermediate stops.
They found an insane place where only four rooms took up the entire floor.
“At the very top, they have this ridiculous thing they call the Tenshukaku Room. It takes up two whole stories on its own, but the most expensive room tends to be harder to sell, so resellers won’t touch it.”
Kumokawa Seria did not pull out a key.
Did these fancy luxury apartments for the wealthy not get hit by filthy burglars because they used fingerprint and iris scanners?
At this point, Mitsuari Ayu (still in her gym clothes) tilted her head.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a lecture from your parents when a Biohacker and professional assassins are trying to kill you.”
“No, not that.”
For some reason, the fluffy-haired girl glanced over at Kamijou as he walked alongside her.
Then she got to the point.
“I mean, you’re inviting a boy into your room, right? If it’s a complete mess, won’t you lose all of the ‘capable older girl’ points you’ve earned so far???”
It looked like her heart had stopped.
Kumokawa Seria froze in place, but that did not change the reality around her.
Thump, thump, thump, slam!!
The super high school girl went pale in the face, opened the entranceway door, and rushed inside all on her own.
“Um, senpaiii? If you need some heavy lifting done, I could help out.”
“How dense can you be? Or are you trying to deliver the finishing blow?”
“Fine, fine. I will explain everything. We’re stuck waiting for a while anyway.”
They heard a lot of dull noises as things were moved around inside the room.
They apparently were not receiving their invitation for a while yet.
“Sorry about the wait.”
The super high school girl was back.
Kumokawa Seria’s smile was shining bright as she opened the front door from within.
“Everything’s fine now, so come on in. No, wait! Everything was fine from the beginning, of course! My apartment was as clean as the perfect model room!!”
“(Hey, what do you think is inside that tightly-shut door right next to the entrance? I see some paper and clear files sticking out from below it.)”
“(That’s probably the sealed-off room where she shoved everything during her rush cleaning job. More rooms will inevitably lead to sloppier work, so let’s ignore it.)”
Night truly had fallen.
Kamijou was somewhat nervous about visiting a girl’s room, but he knew he could not let the room’s owner notice that tension. Otherwise, his adolescence would explode.
“Heh heh. What’s got your shoulders so tense? Do you think something might happen, boy?”
He could not let her notice!!!!!!
They removed their shoes and stepped inside.
Mitsuari neatly lined up her own indoor slippers and then did the same for Kamijou’s shoes. She apparently needed everything to line up nicely.
Kamijou was familiar with living alone in his school dorm, but a luxury apartment was something else entirely. He was grateful enough to have a room to himself since some schools made students share dorm rooms, but this had several different rooms all for just the one person!
“Let’s head to the living room for now,” said Kumokawa. “There’s something I want to discuss.”
“Phew, I’m so tired,” said Mitsuari. “Can’t we just get to sleep already?”
In this case, it was not surprising. Despite her wealthy upbringing – or perhaps because of it – Mitsuari Ayu just came out and said things like that. This rich person space did not bother her and she simply walked along the wooden flooring while the room’s owner showed her the way.
The living room alone felt like it could hold three or four of Kamijou’s entire dorm room.
First of all, the TV was huge. The glass table and leather sofa looked like something from a corporate office instead of a home. Instead of limiting things to the everyday necessities, there was also some workout equipment in a corner of the large room. Kamijou did not think they were meant as interior decorating, but there were a few large unfilled water tanks. He heard a quiet motor and saw a white boxy thing approaching him. It was a robot that looked like a hospital’s minifridge with wheels attached.
It had a door, so Mitsuari (in sweaty gym clothes) bent over to check inside (while sticking out her small butt with shorts clinging to it) and she found it was full of bottles of soda and iced coffee.
According to the room’s owner, “It’s convenient for lazing around with a drink.”
“Then if you will excuse me.”
Mitsuari grabbed a bottle of iced tea and pressed it against her soft cheek while throwing herself into one of the leather sofas surrounding the glass table. Instead of a long and big one, this one was made for a single person. It was like the seat for the birthday girl.
Some other furniture could move around just like the fridge, so that was apparently the Kumokawa-style(?). Even the closet and side table were wandering around with the help of small wheels.
“Hey.” Kumokawa pressed a finger against her temple. “That’s real leather, so don’t jump into it in those sweaty gym clothes. I’m willing to wait, so you go take a shower already!”
“Ehh? Won’t this boost its value?”
The pointy-haired boy clicked his tongue at failing to use his phone to record the line about taking a shower, but they had bigger issues.
Angry but smiling, Kumokawa Seria took her next action.
“Is that so? But an object’s value is dependent on someone who sees that value in it.”
“What are you muttering about, you old-…”
“I will forgive it just this once, so go, pent-up teenage boy! No one sees greater value in a sweaty middle school girl!!”
She shoved him forward.
Mitsuari had been sitting on a one-person sofa, so when she tried to scoot over and out of the way, there was not enough room. The two middle schoolers ended up tangled together and crammed into the space between the armrests.
The fault lay in the design.
Prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School’s gym clothes had adopted a true athletic style, so they were not even short-sleeved. Perhaps because the school existed in a boy-free space, the design cared not for the girls’ shy hearts. Both armpits were left fully open for a focus solely on functionality.
That was not what she wanted to be wearing while sweaty from some hard exercise and with a teenage boy right next to her.
Girls locker rooms were always so fragrant of deodorant because those girls’ pride demanded it!!
Mitsuari Ayu beat on the side of that pointy-haired head with her unopened drink bottle (500mL of iced tea), rolled onto the floor to get away, and waved her hands around while red in the face.
“Ha ha ha. Why are you so embarrassed now? You were all over him and even had him carry you before, sweaty middle school girl. Hmm?”
“Gnyaahh!? I-I will be borrowing your bath!! Excuse me!!”
“You need clothes.”
Mitsuari had tossed aside Kamijou’s limp form, but she was pinned in place by Kumokawa’s words. She quickly threw open the wheeled closet slowly crossing the living room.
“Wh-why do you have uniforms from so many different schools? And in your size?”
Kumokawa Seria cleared her throat in a super suspicious way.
Mitsuari was still confused, but she had no choice in the matter. She grabbed a Tokiwadai summer uniform and finally left on her bath time journey. Hopefully she knew where the bath was in this labyrinthine apartment.
Kumokawa chose one of the longer sofas around the glass table and lay down on it instead of sitting.
“Now, Kamijou boy. If you have nothing better to do then enjoy the girl sweat soaked into that leather, could you join me in conversation instead?”
He apparently needed to straighten up with perfect posture if he was to deflect these false accusations. He was seated in a single-person sofa, but he could not relax.
“She only grabbed a uniform, so I wonder what she expects to do after the shower. That parking garage was like a sauna, so her underwear has to be soaked too.”
“I have no obligation to lend her underwear too. She might be able to buy something basic at the convenience store down below, but this should be more fun if I don’t tell her that. Boy, don’t you want to see what becomes of a willful girl who is forced to hold down her miniskirt at all costs?”
“Not what becomes of her, no.”
“Hm, so are you the type to want some backstory and context in your porn? It takes a true connoisseur to understand the important of Chapter 1, boy.”
“What are we even talking about anymore???”
He wanted to run away and shout for Mitsuari, but he heard the shower running. If he burst in while she was changing, he would upgrade his false accusations to Version 2.0. Yes, to something truly devastating like accusations of being a panty thief only interested in the wet and just-removed variety.
“Let’s use this chance to talk.”
Kumokawa beckoned while lying on the sofa. He just about got up, but that was apparently not what the alluring upperclassman was going for. She had instead activated the sensor to call over the fridgebot and she pulled a bottle of strong carbonated water from the door.
“Y-you’re drinking unflavored carbonated water straight from the bottle?”
“Hm? When I’m in the mood for water, I’m in the mood for water, not for tea. And wouldn’t it scare you if the label called it natural water but it had a flavor?”
Why did people pay money for simple water when they were not even stranded out in the desert?
That was a tough one for a middle school boy.
Kamijou himself removed the cap from the bottle of iced tea since he was not sure what else to do with it.
“So what did you want to talk about?”
The way the shower sounds stimulated his imagination was bad for his heart, but it did not seem to affect Kumokawa in the same way. Could she tune it out as no more than featureless white noise? The genius busty high school girl’s muscles were relaxing like she was swaying in a train seat.
She seemed close to dozing off in the sofa, but she managed to continue speaking.
“I believe I gave you a quick explanation earlier, but this has passed the point where we can simply brush off the embers that have fallen on us. We need to be ready to repel any form of attack around the clock, whereas they only have to keep up the attacks until just one gets through. We only have one life, so a defensive battle would be a poor strategy here.”
Embers, attack, gets through, one life, defensive battle.
Things had been unusual enough already with the winged dinosaur and assassin sisters, but hearing it again felt really strange to him. Lives hung in the balance, like something from a video game. And all for the convenience of someone he had never even met.
He had seen billboards for L.S.S., but when it came to a specific individual, nothing was known.
It was like having a masked serial killer wandering around.
“But won’t the police…no, in this city it would be Anti-Skill. Anyway, won’t they take care of this? Senpai, you said yourself that the cover-up methods used with the dragon and the parking garage would show similarities that could be traced back to the culprit, right?”
“Well, doesn’t that mean we haven’t been bested at every turn? The more they do, the more evidence they leave behind. And L.S.S. is a big company, right? A scandal would be a huge deal for them, so aren’t these failed attacks doing damage to them as well? If Anti-Skill does a household search – or whatever it’s called with a company – and carries out tons of evidence and documents in cardboard boxes, won’t everything they’ve been trying to hide come to light?”
He did not think he could be wrong about this.
He at least thought it was more realistic than a strange action blockbuster where the shirtless and machinegun-toting hero attacks the corporate headquarters all on his own.
He was supposed to be showing Kumokawa Seria a more realistic path, but she did not seem at all troubled. She looked like this was exactly the question she had been expecting.
“I really don’t think that will happen.”
“Even if traces of common cover-up methods are found at the scenes of the dragon attack and the assassin attack, they will lead to something that no public organization can touch. And that means Anti-Skill can’t act on it.”
“What good is a method of covering up evidence that becomes evidence itself? Those methods are only used once finetuned so they can’t be used in court, no matter how suspicious they might seem. For example, everyone will suspect a flesh soup in a bathtub full of powerful acid, but if all of the DNA has been destroyed, it doesn’t ‘count’ as a corpse. That is generally considered hard to actually pull off, but Academy City tech can do it.”
It was unclear how serious she was being about that dark joke, but she followed it up with a gulp of her strong carbonated water. A capable high school girl could apparently inspire a restless feeling from the movement of her throat alone.
“Pwah. To sum up, I’m saying the cover-up method will tell us who to investigate, but it wouldn’t be enough to convince the average person. We have to fight this fight alone. Pointing at L.S.S. and saying ‘officer, they’re up to no good’ would only make people suspect we’d lost our minds.”
“Anti-Skill will not act. And if that public organization won’t act, L.S.S. will forever reserve the right to attack us. Do you get it now? Now is not the time to complain that life isn’t fair. If you want to survive, then you have to put in the work yourself.”
“Are you for real?”
He could not even drink that 140-yen iced tea.
With the giant dragon and the three assassin sisters, they had not exactly escaped unscathed. They had worked hard to survive, but he had no idea how many national laws and Academy City regulations they had violated in the process. He suspected he would go pale in the face if he looked it all up in the Six Codes or whatever.
“Things are different now. They attacked us, so we had no choice to defend ourselves. I feel like we had a clear line we weren’t willing to cross. But you’re talking about something else, Senpai. You’re talking about attacking them ourselves, but we’re not talking about leveling up in an RPG. We might be able to convince ourselves it’s for the best, but everyone else will look at us and only see criminals.”
“Hm? I think you’re confused about something here.”
“If we do things your way, they’ll just keep attacking us. And when we’re only defending ourselves, it only takes one mistake for the axe to fall and lop off our heads.”
“But, um, but.”
“Attacking L.S.S. is the only way to survive this. If you want, you can think of ourselves as trapped in a burning building and the giant L.S.S. building is the only exit.”
“You said Anti-Skill won’t act, but what about those assassins? We saw them handcuffed and loaded into Anti-Skill vehicles!”
“Those professional fighters know all the loopholes, so do you really think they’re going to talk in a simple interrogation room? Keep in mind they probably assassinated an L.S.S. guest researcher so he wouldn’t talk. And by probably, I mean almost certainly. They know all too well what happens if they talk…no, if the monstrous VIPs suspect they might talk.”
Kumokawa Seria was not swayed.
Her slender throat moved alluringly as she stimulated her esophagus with the powerful carbonation.
“To be blunt, we can’t wait around for those two to give in. The odds are extremely low that will ever happen. And even if they build up a laughable friendly relationship in that closed room, another assassin will kill them the instant they show any sign of talking.”
But not because they were at a loss for words. A slight change had come over the pointy-haired boy.
Kumokawa removed her bewitching lips from the drink bottle.
“Something just changed in you. But I doubt this is some kind of awakening. …Hard to believe this is the chicken who ran away from danger, abandoning two girls there.”
“You said I could run away.”
“To be honest, I had to tense my stomach when you came back that night. Because I thought the tears would start flowing if I didn’t.”
High school girls were truly dangerous since they hit you when you least suspected it.
After a blow from that unpredictable side that Mitsuari lacked, Kamijou had to work hard not to choke.
“Anyway, our only escape from this deadly labyrinth is to attack L.S.S. and create an exit. Nothing can change that at this point. Think of it like Russian roulette. The six shooter only has the one bullet, but the odds of death aren’t static. With each round, the cylinder turns and the odds are updated. …With each attack on us, the overall odds of death go up, boy.”
“This will never end until L.S.S. gives up on the entire thing. The question is how far we have to go if we want to end it. At the very least, I can tell you Anti-Skill isn’t up to the task. And we aren’t the ones making the rules; L.S.S. is. So the quickest route to ending this is to adopt their rules and show them hell.”
“So you’re saying we should stoop to their level? That’s like someone who’s afraid of robbers putting a hood over the criminal’s heads and beating the snot out of them!”
He could not let this slide. If he did, he might find himself on a set of rails headed in a very bad direction. He raised his voice to that end, but he never managed to finish his argument.
He was cut off, but by what?
He heard glass shattering.
And he heard an ear-splitting scream from another room.
“What the hell!?”
He immediately stood up from the single-person sofa.
For some reason, Kumokawa moved to a corner of the living room instead of toward the sound. He looked over in confusion and saw her grabbing a metal bar from the workout equipment there. It was the barbell bar used for bench pressing. It looked heavier than a metal pipe or baseball bat.
“Senpai, where’s the bathroom!?”
“On the left of the hallway. All the water pipes head either there or to the kitchen.”
Kumokawa remained calm, but she had been surprisingly careless. That weapon was so long that it caught on the door and in the hallway. A weapon longer than a bamboo sword must have been a poor choice. Kamijou was too impatient to wait for her, so he ran on ahead. As large as the place was, it was still a home. As long as he knew where to go, it would not take him long to arrive.
Now was not the time to hesitate in front of the changing room.
The door was already open and Mitsuari Ayu had slumped to the hallway’s wooden flooring after grabbing only a towel and gathering it around her flat chest. She was leaning against the wall and trembling with her hair still wet.
She did not even turn toward him.
She was pointing weakly inside the bathroom.
She did not seem injured, but he could not perform a careful examination given her state of undress. He decided to leave that job to Kumokawa once she arrived, so he instead looked in the direction she was pointing.
He stepped inside.
Just one step.
She had to have been running the shower, but there was no sauna-like steam. It was escaping somehow.
The changing room contained a sink and a larger washing machine. He made a pointed effort to not look at the gym clothes and underwear in the clothes basket as he walked further in.
She really must have been in a hurry because the smoked glass door into the bath was sitting open.
(What in the world happened?)
He had heard glass breaking along with her scream.
He heard a sound like pouring rain. She must not have turned off the shower. The bath was fairly large, but he felt no desire to set foot inside. But not just because he did not want to get his feet wet.
He saw something other than water that was clear and glittering in the light.
They were glass shards.
While hesitant to walk further, he looked up.
And he saw it.
The bath must have been on the outside wall because it had a window. That was where the glass had come from. Instead of a single point breaking from a jab by the tip of an umbrella, it was more like nothing remained except for the window frame. That explained the lack of steam.
But that was not all.
The water and glass were not the only transparent things in there.
There was a liquid on the window frame, but this was a lot stickier and gooier. It looked awfully biological, which made it all the creepier. He felt no desire to touch that. Why had Mitsuari screamed? What if it had not been due to the glass breaking? If she had seen something, then what exactly had she seen?
A strange living thing.
A Biohacker toy.
“What do you say now, boy?”
He heard a voice from the changing room.
It was Kumokawa who had set down her handmade weapon and started looking after Mitsuari.
“It doesn’t look like we were attacked by anything as big as a dragon, but smaller things have their own unique uses. Such as doing drone work. If they’ve released a bunch of small animals with cameras and transmitters on their backs, they might be able to search us out.”
“Our safe place here was compromised in five minutes. If you don’t want to be attacked, I suggest we move elsewhere.”
They had no other option.
This day had seemed long enough already, but it was not over yet.
They took the elevator down and rushed out into the lobby where the concierge in a tailcoat gave them a puzzled looked, but they did not have time to explain themselves.
“Where do we go now? A business hotel or rental room or something!?”
“Anywhere that leaves no record that we stayed there!” shouted back Kumokawa as she raised a hand to hail a taxi.
That was an expensive means of travel for a middle schooler, but he could not resist when she shoved him into the back seat.
“Ugh,” groaned Mitsuari Ayu uncomfortably.
Without her own change of clothes, she had been forced to wear her sweaty underwear underneath the borrowed uniform. Even in Academy City, a fidgeting and freshly-bathed girl must have seemed unusual because the driver gave them a curious look through the rearview mirror.
“I intended to wait until the value recovered a little more,” said Kumokawa while messing with her phone. “But I need to sell that apartment right away now.”
They came to a surprising place given they were being pursued: District 7’s shopping district. The last train and bus had already left, but there were still a lot of pedestrians and open shops. This was apparently the time for college students.
“You’ll find teachers taking some time to relax at this hour, so don’t let your guard down,” explained Kumokawa after having them leave the taxi at a random point.
They apparently still had some walking to do. She must not have wanted to tell the driver exactly where they were going.
And they arrived at…
“A manga café?”
“It has individual booths, a shower, and snacks. And it isn’t classified as a lodging facility, so it often slips through the cracks in of a variety of networks. Both for public agencies and underground groups.”
They climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor of a multi-tenant building.
Kumokawa got straight to business with the part-timer sitting boredly at the counter.
“Three for the late-night course. Give us neighboring booths if possible.”
“Eh? Uh, right. Um, what internet plan would you like?”
“Do you have a membership or would you like to sign up for one?”
“No. We just need somewhere we can sleep for the night.”
After paying in cash, Kumokawa gestured the other two on with her chin.
A boy and two girls had shown up late at night and they had not used a membership card or credit card so as not to leave any record behind. The mention of sleeping was the clincher. Those three planned to be ‘sleeping’ here and in their uniforms!!
“(D-damn, I wish I was him.)”
What did that trembling college-aged part-timer think they were doing here?
They did not actually use all three booths. It would probably lead to more misunderstandings, but they all gathered in Kumokawa’s booth.
It was only meant for one person, so it only had the one desk and chair.
Still standing, Mitsuari started to lean back against the thin partition, so Kamijou had to stop her. He was afraid she would knock over the plastic wall and fall into the next booth.
“We need to talk, but keep your voices down. These walls might as well not exist.”
“Isn’t this like a library? Why do I smell curry???”
Mitsuari Ayu asked about one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Kamijou sat on the floor and Mitsuari settled on sitting on the desk. That height difference was a little concerning vis-à-vis her skirt, however.
Kumokawa sank down into the chair and sighed.
“We’ve lost them for the time being, but if we assume they found my apartment in a random search, they’re bound to locate us here eventually. Time is on their side. Not to mention that manga cafés aren’t made for multi-day stays.”
“This is a temporary solution. We’re only brushing off the embers, but we haven’t escaped the deadly labyrinth yet. Do you get that now, boy?”
After having to run away like this, he did.
This was more than just the big threats. A single triggered alarm could lead to a dragon or assassin coming for them. It could be triggered by some strange animal, by an L.S.S. employee, or by an unrelated student or worker they had hired.
They could not relax.
While walking down the street after leaving the taxi, it had felt like so many eyes were skewering him.
He pouted his lips.
“But how exactly are we supposed to attack L.S.S.? Grabbing a big hammer and smashing up their HQ building from the outside isn’t going to cut it, right?”
“You mentioned a household search earlier, remember?” Kumokawa gave a snort of laughter. “You were on the right track; it just needed more force behind it. Basically, we have to patch together the broken rails and give Anti-Skill a reason to act. Simply put, evidence of criminality. If everything really is pointing toward L.S.S., there has to be records of it. In L.S.S.”
“You mean we have to sneak in?”
“Yes. A lot of people work for L.S.S., from the president at the top to the bottom-level employees and part-timers. If we don’t figure out who is giving these instructions in the company’s name, we won’t know who our enemy is. Besides, we still don’t actually know why that initial dragon was sent out or who it was meant to attack.”
“Now that you mention it…”
Mitsuari fell silent.
At first, Kumokawa had pretended to abandon her in order to get her to talk, but how correct had her guesses been? Had that been an experiment in which it was intentionally made to attack, or had it escaped on accident? There had to be any number of possibilities. Had it been intentional or accidental? There was no way to accuse anyone when they did not know what had caused it.
Kamijou only looked more puzzled.
“So we’re supposed to sneak into that major company’s server room?”
“Looks that way, yes.”
“That’s bound to have all kinds of security. We’d be caught and roughed up well before sneaking into the ducts like ninjas!”
The attractive upperclassman did not seem bothered by his concerns.
The movement of her shapely nose suggested the smell of cheap curry was inspiring some hunger in her.
“Did you forget? We have a Mental Stinger user, who can directly manipulate people’s minds, and we have me, who can control people without an esper power.”
Mitsuari Ayu ate a surprising amount.
It seemed to have less to do with hunger and more to do with wanting to try out everything at her first manga café, so she walked all around the place in loose leather shoes (borrowed from Kumokawa who even had the shoes in her size for some reason). She made a mixed soda at the soda fountain, she ate not only a light sandwich but some heavy curry rice despite the late hour, and she grabbed Volume 1 of a super-long-running shounen manga with volume numbers reaching the triple digits. Surely she did not intend to read all of it in a single night. She may have thought she was in control, but she was apparently unfamiliar with the weekly manga trap that kept you reading “just one more chapter” forever.
“Do not use the shower.”
She looked puzzled at that warning, so Kumokawa winked and explained.
“These are cheap services, so they don’t have separate showers for guys and girls. Anyone can go in there.”
Kumokawa finally whispered into the dense girl’s ear.
“(Which means they can set up hidden cameras. So be careful.)”
“Senpai, why did she just slap me on reflex???”
They could not stay in the same booth as they slept.
Mitsuari was a little worried (“Because of what you said about cameras in the shower!”), but they were only separated by thin partitions. The others would notice if she screamed and they could even break down those walls to take a shortcut if need be.
There was only a desk and a chair.
That left only two options: sit in the chair and lie down on the desk like someone napping during class, or lie on the floor. Even this late at night, the store kept its lights on and the thin partitions did not really feel like walls. This did not at all feel like being in a private room. It was more like being challenged to sleep in a department store fitting room.
But Kamijou Touma had a powerful will.
He only had to call upon the spirit of a middle-aged woman from deep within his mind.
(It’s just like catching some shuteye in the classroom or on a train.)
Except the neighboring booth was making a lot of noise.
He looked up in confusion and then stood up on the desk to peek over the partition.
“What the hell are you doing, Mitsuari?”
“Eeek!? I-isn’t that a really old-fashioned way to peep!? Are you the kind of gentleman who wears black full-body tights and a cloth over your head while climbing the open-air bath’s partition!?”
“It’s almost midnight, so could you keep it down?”
“I-I would love to, but I can’t tear myself away from this phantom thief’s adventures.”
It was just as he had feared.
At this point, telling her not to read it would do nothing to stop her. A serialized manga had to start its run fighting the label of garbage and come out on top. Only the best of the best survived in that world.
“Stop telling yourself you’ll read just one more chapter. That will keep you going forever. If you’re going to read, then go all out with it. It doesn’t matter if the story moves you or not.”
“If you keep at it, you’ll reach the end of the Gold Bar Arc at Volume 7. That’s a good stopping point, so you can tell yourself to stop there for the day. Because if you don’t stop there, you’re stuck reading all the way through Volume 15 to reach the end of the Grim Reaper Arc.”
“No spoilers, no spoilers!”
“By the way, the Grim Reaper arc honestly isn’t very good. I think the author must have focused too much on the survey results saying the manga had lost is thrill because the character relationship had fallen into a rut. Everything is so tense, so it’s like a desert. And starting from Volume 7, you’re a long way off from the next oasis. The manga does eventually get back on its feet, so don’t worry too much about that.”
Mitsuari left her booth and he heard her the footsteps of her loose shoes from beyond the partition.
She was apparently grabbing up through Volume 7 as per his advice. Just to be safe, he snuck out afterwards and snagged Volume 8 to prevent her from continuing past that.
The sound of flipping pages was fairly loud.
The creaking of the thin partition suggested she was sitting on the floor and leaning against it instead of using the chair.
“Hey,” she said.
“Do you really and truly think we can get back home safely?”
She may have been afraid of tomorrow, so she did not want to go to sleep and “fast forward” to that moment.
He sighed and leaned his own back against the creaking partition. He supported her weight through that thin wall.
“Don’t worry about it.”
He had no proof of anything.
He did not see how they could win and he was also afraid of winning but becoming a criminal.
Nevertheless, he said what he had to say.
“Leave all the dangerous stuff to us. If things really start looking bad, you can run away.”
“So if you focus on returning to your normal life…”
“No! I wasn’t talking about that!!”
He was trying to calm her, but she exploded.
In fact, she opened the booth door without knocking and entered his space.
The most he could manage was to hide the Volume 8 safety measure underneath the desk.
If she found that, she would definitely be up all night.
“Hey, wait! For the time being, this is a boy’s room!”
Before he could back away in the small space, she stepped inside and plopped herself down next to him. Then she slapped the top of his head with her open hand.
“You should have told me not to worry because we all would be fine. If you act like we might not all make it, I’m still going to worry!”
“Yeah, but the exact same scandalous behavior is going to harm someone like you a lot more than a guy who hangs around back alleys like me! So!!”
He just about snapped back at her, but he realized defeating her in this argument would accomplish nothing. He might be able to disprove that they could all make it back safely, but why would he want to do that?
“Hmph. At least you understand now.”
She snorted but showed no sign of moving away.
He could feel her body heat reaching him through their touching shoulders.
“You told me to stop at Volume 7, right? I need you to grab me by the clothes or something to make sure I don’t give into temptation and return to the bookshelf.”
She appeared to be sulking.
And that line was especially horrifying since Volume 8, the gate to a hellish all-nighter, was right there.
Still seated on the floor and leaning against the partition, he looked up at the overhead lights. He was surrounded by the body heat and sweet scent of a girl. Not to mention the breathing sounds he could only make out while in the same space as her.
He had a feeling he was not getting any sleep tonight.
The following morning, the booth door opened and Kumokawa Seria put her hands on her hips in an exasperated way.
“I’m surprised you two can sleep with your mouths hanging open like that.”
Kamijou immediately woke up, but Mitsuari appeared to still be slumbering. She was breathing gently with her head on his shoulder, but his movement shook her awake.
She rubbed her eyes.
“Ugh, I feel all sticky. Not letting me take a shower really isn’t fair.”
“You mean from sweat, right?” he said. “You don’t mean anything more than that, right?”
“Nh, hhh? …I’m all stiff. It was my first time doing that, so my body doesn’t feel quite right. I’m still tingling in places.”
Kumokawa grabbed him by the collar and lifted him up, but there was nothing he could tell her. He did not remember when he had fallen asleep!!
“(I set up this sleepover, so why was I the one left out!?)”
Fortunately, Kumokawa Seria did not seem short on cash. The manga café’s late-night course ended at the same time as the first train, so they left and visited a spa that was open in the early morning. After washing off their sweat, it was time to visit a convenience store for breakfast. 5 in the morning was too early for breakfast at a café.
Mitsuari was surprised by the blessings of a big city while she started eating the corner of the roast beef and sliced onion sandwich she held in both hands.
“We can’t go home, but we can still get by fairly well, can’t we?’
“From toothbrushes to movie tickets, you can buy most anything at convenience stores these days.”
“Do they sell shoes anywhere? Walking around in these is tiring.”
Kumokawa breathed an exasperated sigh at the other two’s casual conversation.
“Have you already forgotten you were attacked in the bathroom yesterday? Like I said, this is a temporary solution – it won’t last long. We need to break into L.S.S.’s fortress before they can corner us.”
As one would expect from a giant corporation, their HQ building was located in tidy District 3. That was an area full of government buildings and corporate headquarters, so students rarely went there. The morning train was fairly empty and they did not have to worry about getting caught in rush hour.
Kumokawa explained why this was.
“They say the poor are always busy and the opposite is true as well. The rich tend not to get into work until after lunch.”
She guided them down a deserted block.
The building they wanted was at a corner between neatly-maintained major roads. It was a distinctive tri-tower with between 30 and 40 stories. Three tall buildings formed the corners of a triangle and were connected by midair walkways. The area around the buildings was covered in greenery, so if not for the sign, they might have mistaken it for a park.
Kamijou looked up at the tri-tower.
“I was expecting something more…I guess you would say biotechnological? Y’know, shelters all over the place and the employees and guards all wearing octopus-like masks.”
“Car companies don’t build their own HQ either. This is where they deal with the business rights and put together projects before actually doing the work.”
Kamijou’s mind filled with question marks when he tried to imagine what a biotechnology project would be, but companies came in all forms. Still, he could guess that cloning humans did not just happen on accident.
In other words, if that dragon came from a company, then someone had approved that project because they saw some apparent profit there. Someone had spent all night creating a proposal and gathering materials for a slideshow, they had made their presentation with a projector in a conference room, and the project had been approved. That made the whole thing seem almost comical.
“How exactly are we going to sneak inside?”
“That’s the easy part.”
Kumokawa Seria pushed something into Kamijou and Mitsuari’s arms.
They were raincoats large enough to cover their entire bodies and dust masks that covered their faces.
“We live in convenient times. You can buy handy things like this at 24/7 discount stores.”
Before Kamijou could say anything, she put on her mask and raincoat.
Congratulations! Your BUSTY HIGH SCHOOL GIRL evolved into OCTOPUS ALIEN!
“Let’s break through the glass front door. No one will notice right now.”
With a loud crash, the deactivated automatic door’s glass shattered.
The culprit was the firehose Kumokawa Seria held. The pressurized water was bad enough on its own, but the destructive force increased considerably when she dropped some pebbles and metal screws into the stream. At the very least, it did more than a commercial air gun would.
“Don’t use the additives when spraying a guard! That’ll tear through their flesh and bone!!”
“There’s something wrong with you!!”
The L.S.S. HQ’s open grounds looked something like a park, but that was a problem for the company here. It was equipped with proper fire hydrants instead of simple fire extinguishers.
While dragging the long, long hoses along, Kamijou and the others entered the first floor lobby through the shattered glass wall.
“I thought for sure you were going to use some kind of hypnotism to slip right past the guards.”
“Why would I use my special abilities when I’m wearing a mask to hide my identity? Not doing what you could do is a good way to muddy the waters.”
The firehose was contained in a reel, but it was still only so long and they could not drag it around forever.
The sound of those loose leather shoes suddenly stopped.
Kamijou heard a weird voice, so he looed back to see Mitsuari had fallen on her butt with the raincoat covering up her summer uniform. Her hose had apparently reached the end of its length, so it had gone taut without warning and she had lost her balance.
“Hurry back to your feet, idiot!!”
“H-how dare you call me an idiot! Who do you think you are!? I am Mitsua-…”
“Why would you use your real name, you absolute dumbass!!”
A firehose must not have been as threatening as a knife or gun because the private guards bravely charged straight toward them and Kamijou was forced to knock them away with the pressurized water.
(If not for the hoses, we wouldn’t have to worry about this single point of entrance. They’ll have a fire hydrant inside the building, right?)
“Senpai, which way to the server room!?”
He turned back and shouted just in time to see Kumokawa Seria throw aside her firehose and leave through the very same automatic door she had destroyed herself.
“It’s fine. I was never planning to break in through the main entrance! Now, you need to follow me or you’ll be trapped in there!!”
She gestured for them to follow, so she must not have simply lost her marbles. He quickly grabbed fallen Mitsuari’s arm, followed after the older girl, and was very nearly hit by something like a guillotine.
Mitsuari practically slid along the floor while face down.
After they had rolled out, metal shutters dropped down to cover up everything.
“This is the same method used by South American banks,” explained Kumokawa who had left ahead of them. “Lure the criminals inside and then trap them in there.”
“But now we can’t get inside.”
“And that’s fine. The point was to seal off the building so no one can get in or out.”
She pulled out a red fire extinguisher that looked a lot weaker than the previous firehoses.
Needless to say, she did not plan to use it to extinguish a fire or to break through the metal shutter.
She popped the cover off of a nearby switchboard and blew a pink powder onto the exposed contacts there. That produced a distinctive electric popping noise different from gunpowder, so Kamijou and Mitsuari ducked down.
“You aren’t intentionally finding every excuse you can to cling to the boy, are you?” The capable high school girl seemed irritated for some reason. “Anyway, that shut off all their communications. No external command can lock down or erase the server’s data now. I don’t know if we’re up against the president, an executive, or a low-level employee borrowing their authority, but the villain can’t interfere physically or digitally. So let’s take our time sneaking in and investigating.”
“But how are we supposed to sneak in!?”
“Using the secret entrance I left open, of course.”
The deafening sound of construction machinery echoed through the dimly-lit tunnel.
Mitsuari Ayu covered her ears with her hands, but the hard mask and the raincoat hood seemed to be getting in the way.
Kumokawa Seria was using something a little different from a drill. The machine seemed to move a thick metal spike in and out at high speed, but it was not something anyone would use at home. It was breaking through concrete, so this was on the level of construction work.
“This is a chipping hammer,” readily answered the high school girl. “Academy City’s underground areas tend to be overcrowded. The city has crammed water pipes, gas, electricity, communication cables, subway tunnels, and even flood-prevention waterways down here. L.S.S. has enough land to mistake it for a park, so they’re bound to overlap some of the underground public infrastructure.”
The surprisingly powerful high school girl was talking through her dust mask and skillfully operating the heavy machinery she had swiped from a construction site for expanding the subway tunnels.
“And server rooms are heavy. Just like you can break the floor in a wooden house by filling a second-story room with bookcases, they are generally built on the lowest floor, whether that is the ground floor or a basement. So if we can determine that ‘depth’, we only need to break through a single wall. See!?”
While making sure they were not crushed by the removed piece of reinforced concrete wall, they stepped inside a server room larger than a school gym.
The room had probably been designed to keep dust out, but it was now so dusty that fluffy-haired Kumokawa began coughing once she removed her dust mask. She must not have liked how the raincoat and thick mask felt on her skin because she stripped those off and looked around with loose shoes clapping on the floor.
“Pwah.” Kumokawa removed her dust mask and raincoat too. “Let’s cover up the door to the rest of the building from our side. That door has to be sturdy to begin with, so the guards won’t be able to get through.”
“Um, what about the hole we used!?”
“The guards and company workers only have the official plans for the building. The walls themselves don’t have sensors to detect breaks, so it should take them a while to think of the subway’s backup power room.”
Computers larger than industrial refrigerators lined the room like bookcases in a library. The machines here were only meant to store and retrieve data, so there were far fewer screens.
Kamijou heard a dull banging sound.
Instead of placing a bar or other obstacle in front of the door, Kumokawa had taken that piece of construction equipment – a chipping hammer? – and bent the thick metal door itself.
After discarding the heavy equipment, she returned to them and pulled out a small folded electronic device.
“Oh, it’s those things businessmen use.”
“It’s called a PDA. Really, I wish they would just use their phones for all this.”
She did something and the wall of giant computers opened up like some kind of puzzle box. She looked inside and inserted a cable directly into a port that looked like it would shock her if she touched it.
She was apparently accessing the data on that small screen.
Kamijou huddled up next to her and her body heat placed a burden on his heart.
Fluffy-haired Mitsuari looked puzzled.
“Are you downloading all the data onto there?”
“This thing’s flash memory is nowhere near big enough. I’m checking through the entire server first and then I’ll pick and choose what data to steal.”
“What are you going to search for, Senpai?”
Her answer to that was simple.
It was a single name.
“I’m not going to accuse you of anything at this point.” She kept her eyes on the PDA’s screen. “But think back to the original dragon attack. The boy and I couldn’t think of any reason we would be targeted. If we hadn’t chosen to see Mitsuari back to the School Garden out of the goodness of our hearts, we never would have encountered it. That means Mitsuari Ayu holds some kind of value to L.S.S. I’m checking to see if it’s an ordinary issue of money or family, or if it’s an Academy City issue of esper powers or genetics.”
“I-I don’t know why they would-…”
“I’m not asking you if you know anything. Besides, we’ll know soon enough if I follow the data.”
But Kamijou tilted his head.
“Senpai, can’t her Mental Stinger control people’s minds?”
“What about it?”
“Umm, would that work on something like that dragon?”
He asked the question while guessing it would not.
If it would, she would have at least tried holding out her phone and using her power while the dragon chased after her. Not doing so when she could would be like not protecting your face from a ball flying your way when you could use your hands just fine.
“And if her power doesn’t work on animals, I don’t see why L.S.S. would be interested.”
“A-and L.S.S. was already controlling the dragon. That man in the lab coat had those arrows covered in some kind of chemical, so they wouldn’t even need my Mental Stinger, right???”
It was possible they did not want two different control methods to exist since it could cause a conflict, but that was not an issue if her power only worked on humans.
“Wait. I’ve found a few files.”
The time for theories had ended.
Kumokawa Seria continued with confidence in her voice.
“These files were linked to the keywords of Mitsuari Ayu and Mental Stinger. Since they’re using her esper name, I doubt it has to do with her money or family.”
“Wh-what does it say? Why are they trying to kill me!?”
Mitsuari was eager to know, but only Kumokawa knew how to access the data. Her device did not look like much more than a handheld game system, but she was spying on the giant industrial server’s data in debug mode. That worked differently than a normal computer OS.
Kumokawa Seria was like a shrine maiden.
She received the giant system’s oracle and relayed it to the other mortals.
“Middle school 1st year. Oh, I thought that was a strange family name, but you’re from the north.”
“Hm, your weight is a little high for your height. I’m betting you have more subcutaneous fat than you let on. Ha ha. Watch your waist and you might do well in the chest department. But based on your pelvic shape, it might all go to your butt instead. You might want to be careful with your clothing’s color coordination.”
“Wh-wh-wh-what are you looking at!? Why do they have this data in there!?”
Mitsuari Ayu blushed and waved her hands around in a panic.
Kamijou could only stare in confusion, but was her flustered attempt to stop Kumokawa proof that this data was accurate?
Kumokawa Seria lightly shook the small device hooked up to the cable.
“This includes your entire life history. Every address you’ve lived at, your academic history – including awards and punishments – your power development data, your health checkup results, and even the places you generally visit.”
“It has…all of it? It doesn’t talk about Ideal, does it???”
Kamijou tilted his head at that unfamiliar term. He had trouble making any sense of it, but Kumokawa must not have considered it important because she moved on.
“Hm, you use the herb mist deodorant instead of the white powder? And you’ve started buying boxes of it online instead of at the drugstore. You also have a light ragweed allergy. Had you noticed you have a red spot below your right shoulder blade? It looks like that isn’t a bug bite.”
The fluffy-haired girl’s flustered behavior came to a complete stop as she grew white in the face.
This was more than embarrassment. That data included personal information she herself was unaware of.
And it continued to be gathered in real time.
Could someone follow this information to learn she had spent the night at a manga café with Kamijou and Kumokawa and that she had used a raincoat and dust mask to get inside this building? It was unclear how many steps behind her pursuers were, but they were sure to catch up if she came to a stop. She had no chance of escaping if she let all this data overwhelm her.
(We have to act first.)
He felt like he had glimpsed what scale this enemy existed on.
(The grim reaper is creeping ever closer, so we have to finish this before it can tap her on the shoulder. But is that even possible?)
As opposed to a simple stalker, this data had the cold intimidation of medical records or a report card. It was calm, thorough, and unerring. A corporation was a giant entity with no personality of its own, so being in its sights was a unique feeling.
Kamijou felt a chill down his spine despite being a boy, an outsider, and not the direct target.
How much greater was the shock to the girl being targeted?
“Um, Senpai? L.S.S. is a company, so they wouldn’t be chasing Mitsuari around just because they’re perverts. What are they trying to do by collecting all this data?”
It may have been difficult for Mitsuari Ayu herself to continue on, so Kamijou chose to do it in her stead.
The high school girl answered while doing something on that small screen.
“The Beginning Child.”
He initially thought that term pointed to Mitsuari, but apparently not.
“That is the oldest modern esper,” continued Kumokawa. “A normal person was trained based on Mifune Chizuko’s data and she became Academy City’s first esper. Modern Academy City was supposedly constructed based on the system used for the Beginning Child.”
“She was an esper from more than half a century ago, but the general public never believed her powers were real. Although I don’t know if that was because the cruel reporters forced her to perform experiments that were set up for her to fail, or if it was misinformation spread by Aleister to hide her existence.”
The few newspaper clippings were in black-and-white and had far less information than modern internet articles.
Still, that provided evidence that it was a true story.
A photo showed her wearing what was not quite a kimono.
It was a student uniform with a very different design from the ones Kamijou and the others wore nowadays. It was more like a hakama than anything. Her waist-length black hair had an evident luster even in the black-and-white photo, and her hands were folded in front of her in a graceful way not seen anymore. If that form of elegance still existed anywhere, it would have to be inside Tokiwadai Middle School.
But at the same time, there was an exhausted or sorrowful light in her eyes.
“In the end, she apparently went missing. She supposedly could not bear living a life of constant attacks from skeptics. The letter she left behind only said ‘but I do have it’.”
“What does she have to do with anything? The data about me is scary enough, but I’ve never heard of that Mifune or Beginning Child. You aren’t going to claim she’s my grandmother or something, are you!?”
“She was preserved.”
That was all Kumokawa said.
Kamijou did not understand at first, but then a crawling feeling gradually moved up from his fingertips.
“The Beginning Child’s physical body was frozen and somehow ended up with this company. She remains unconscious, however.”
“It isn’t clear how her disappearance led to this, but information on her is locked down more strictly than Mitsuari’s personal information. Take a look.”
The colors seemed to stab into Kamijou’s retinas.
He had gotten too used to the black-and-white photo, so the bright digital colors seemed almost toxic.
The photo on the small device showed a thick plastic bag similar to an IV pack, but it was the size of a sleeping bag or body bag. It was sealed shut with something like a zipper and the inside was filled with something like frost, making it white and hard to see through. A few cables and tubes were connected to the top of the long bag, but it was unclear what those were for.
There was no movement since this was a still photograph, but the protrusions pushing the plastic out from within showed it was filled with something solid.
So Kamijou could only see a silhouette.
But he could tell that it was an alluring female silhouette contained beyond that obscuring white frost. It reminded him of a mammoth frozen and preserved in the Arctic.
This was a human.
A human was sealed inside there while still alive.
It almost looked like a display in a museum.
“That date…that date is recent. You’re kidding, right? That’s from this week!!”
“That’s probably the last time the data was updated.”
This was the first esper created in Academy City.
That was no more than a schoolgirl who lived in the time of black-and-white photography, but the flow of time had been greatly twisted. It almost felt like seeing a time traveler.
“But an esper who can control minds might be able to shake her mind from within and resurface her consciousness. L.S.S.’s goal is to resurrect and monopolize the ultimate specimen that is the Beginning Child, Academy City’s first esper. The dragons, griffons, and other creatures were no more than candidates for waking the Beginning Child. Although it appears that fear and threats to her life were ineffective.”
Kamijou recalled seeing a documentary about external stimuli like music or smells being tested as ways to stimulate an unconscious patient. But that must not have been enough in this case. When those bizarre creations were not enough to give them what they wanted, L.S.S. must have finally settled on directly stimulating her mind from within.
In other words…
“Mitsuari Ayu’s Mental Stinger was the perfect candidate.”
“But…why go this far? The first esper certainly sounds impressive, but is this really worth attacking people over!?”
“Aleister couldn’t control her.” Kumokawa inserted her words as if to cut off that line of thinking. “He created the Beginning Child, but not even he could control her. After all, the official records say she ultimately went missing and the technology of the time was not enough to keep her in a cage. The attacks from the newspapers only happened because she could not use her power when and how powerfully they wanted. …So if LS.S. could wake up the Beginning Child and then fully control her, they might be able to reach a level of technology that eluded even the Board Chairman.”
“The average lifetime income of the Japanese is between 200 and 300 million yen, right? If we think of that as a human’s value, then this would bring in more than enough to outweigh the cost of killing someone.”
“So…that’s why they want me?”
That was when they heard a quiet sound from overhead.
They were on their guard since they had snuck in, but this surpassed anything they imagined. Kamijou initially thought it was the sound of rusty screw turning, but that was not it.
The ducts and even the ceiling itself bent like a plastic greenhouse under too much snow and then a black mass avalanched down into the server room as if to crush everything there.
Kumokawa managed to shove Kamijou out of the way, which was a decent result for how suddenly this attack had come.
But even that was not enough.
Kamijou had tried to reach out toward Mitsuari Ayu.
He shouted her name, but it was too late.
It looked like a sea of filthy fur had broken through the thick ceiling and poured down, but it had to actually be a swarm of rats. There had to be thousands or tens of thousands of them.
And a man stood at the center of them all.
He was older than Kamijou and Kumokawa. They were children and he was an adult. They could sense that dividing line very clearly.
The tall young man whore a fancy suit.
“Good day, my friends. From the look of things, I will assume you have already searched out our secret.”
“Matsuo Ryuusuke. A visit from the president of L.S.S. himself? You must be confident to show your face at the scene of a crime like this.”
“Did you not consider that I can simply alter my face? My company shows little restraint when it comes to working in every single field connected to life.”
It sounded more like a groan than a scream.
Mitsuari’s feet had left the floor. The spiraling swarm of rats had captured her torso and she was having trouble breathing. It was hard to believe that was actually a swarm of smaller animals because it looked more like an octopus or squid tentacle.
Kumokawa discarded the handheld device that was useless now that its screen was broken.
“Wouldn’t anyone have worked as long as they could stimulate the Beginning Child? You didn’t have to be so fixated on Mitsuari Ayu that you sent a dragon out into the city streets.”
“That was something of a communication error. The request was to capture her by any means necessary because she was our top priority, but that somehow got twisted into ‘kill her in the cruelest way you can’.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“You already know the answer, don’t you? She is the only key within my reach. She is the only one in the world who fits my needs and is realistically obtainable. To be honest, the other one is far too unapproachable.”
Kamijou looked puzzled, but Kumokawa only clicked her tongue. The man apparently had no intention of giving a more detailed answer.
“She is the key. With Mental Stinger, I can awaken the Beginning Child.”
The entire atmosphere crawled.
The swarm of artificially-modified rats intimidated Kamijou’s group like a strange monster.
“And then Academy City will be ours for the taking. We will rise higher even than the Board Chairman. No more scientific agencies will be necessary. My company will create and use espers for our own profit. That is how valuable the Beginning Child is.”
“We won’t let you!!”
“Did you know, boy, that rats have killed more humans than any other animal save one? After all, they are famous for being carriers of the black death.”
Was it too late once she symptoms presented themselves?
He did not think he had been injured any, so had he absorbed it through hairs too small to see?
All strength left his knees.
Matsuo Ryuusuke had won once he dragged out the conversation long enough for “this” to happen. That was why he had engaged them in conversation even if it meant revealing some of his own information.
“I believe I mentioned that my company shows little restraint when it comes to working in every single field connected to life.”
“A virus… a biological weapon!?”
“Have fun imagining how you will die. It won’t be pleasant, I will tell you that much.”
That was the end of it.
The L.S.S. president had never considered actually fighting them.
The filthy mass of fur that was the swarm of rats leaped straight up. They carried Matsuo Ryuusuke and Mitsuari Ayu up with them. Kamijou tried to reach out, but he could not even stand up right now.
Those two were gone.
Movies and dramas often featured vaccines and cures, but what could they actually do after being infected by something microscopic? Figuring out what had infected them would be hard enough, so how realistic was it to actually create a drug or serum matching the symptoms? And would any solution like that even work on someone who was already infected? Wouldn’t they have needed to take it beforehand like with the flu vaccine???
He heard a distant voice.
Or did it only sound distant because of how out of it he was?
“Hey, boy. Listen carefully. Cough. Look me in the eye!!”
He was lying on the floor and could not stand up, but he looked over to see Kumokawa Seria squirming while collapsed just like him. No, she had not given up yet. The arm extending from her sailor uniform’s short sleeve had something attached to it.
“Senpai, what is that?”
“A patch test. This is reacting to quinine and there’s an abnormality in my red blood cells. I also have a fever and feel chilled.” She sighed. “This is Di003S or something derived from it. That means it’s probably a stun weapon made by modifying malaria. It was designed to be silently disseminated across the battlefield where it would nonlethally knock out all the soldiers. Gh, it’s known for causing a blood infection, a fever of close to 40 degrees, chills, and a feeling of weakness. But if this was derived from that, its lethality may have been revived.”
“And? That means he’s spread some dangerous pathogen and run off, right? That seems reckless even if he has a vaccine for himself.”
“I called it a stun weapon, didn’t I?” Kumokawa was sweating profusely. “Malaria is actually a brutal protozoan that produces fevers of close to 40 degrees and they have killed more people than man-eating sharks. Gasp. But Di003S was modified to provide a weaker fever since they only wanted a stun weapon. In other words, you take yourself out with the heat you create. If a criminal was holed up in a building, this could knock them out but their fever would go down before they died.”
“Specifically, 39.5 degrees is the borderline. If this fever lasts for half an hour, the modified malaria carried by our red blood cells will die on its own.”
“But you don’t know what L.S.S.’s version will do, right?”
“Right. If the fever reaches 42 degrees, that’s it right there. That would modify all the protein in our bodies and we’re the ones that will die. Pant. Which is why we can’t rely on the fever. We need to keep our body temperature up some other way before they can affect us.”
An unexpectedly strong force reached him.
While still lying on the floor, she had grabbed his collar and dragged him toward her.
Almost like she was going to hug him.
“You don’t have to think about anything. Just let it happen. 39.5 degrees. Cough. Think of it like a somewhat hotter-than-usual bath and it isn’t that difficult. Don’t worry. Leave it all to me.”
Kamijou could not move much anyway.
High School Girl Kumokawa Seria held him in her arms and he was surrounded by the beating of her heart.
He might die here.
They had no vaccine or cure and they had not been examined by a doctor. This was a biological weapon created by a professional(?) Biohacker. The situation could hardly be worse. It was like playing a game of Russian roulette with all six chambers loaded and betting your life on it jamming.
“This isn’t over yet,” he said. “Not with Mitsuari captured.”
She spoke softly and her tone suggested she was smiling while holding him in her arms.
“You focus on that.”
How much time had passed?
Kumokawa Seria had said half an hour, but it felt more like hours if not days.
He had passed out a few times.
His mind had been like a dying fluorescent light.
But at some point, his mind had come back on.
He was sluggish, but he managed to place his hands on the floor and slowly get up.
“Sen…pai? Are you okay?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. You kept me alive.”
She still could not get up, but she was thinly smiling with her hair spread out on the floor.
As bad as L.S.S. was, they must have had a limit to what kind of biological weapons they were willing to use in the city. How far would the damage have spread if this had been something deadly like the Ebola virus or the SARS coronavirus?
“Also, I had actually predicted this to an extent. I couldn’t have known the details, but I knew the attack would be biological in some way.”
“By the way, I guided you here in order to resolve this more quickly. I can’t exactly complain to you after doing that to you.”
He grew cautious since he did not like the sound of this and she smiled thinly while still sprawled out on the floor.
“Mitsuari was attacked by a strange creature in my apartment’s bathroom, remember? That came from me. Specifically, it was my pet salamander. Although not a species found in Japan.”
“Something like that dragon was going to be sent after us either way, so I couldn’t afford to give L.S.S. more time to act. We would have been killed if we didn’t act quickly.”
Kamijou seriously started considering having her apologize for this with her body, but unfortunately, he could not move very much either. She had probably taken that into account when choosing this moment to spill the beans.
The L.S.S. dragon, the trio of assassins, and this stun weapon had to have all been accidents for her, yet she had still managed to adlib herself into a way of using those things to her advantage. He had to sigh at that.
“His name was Matsuo Ryuusuke, right?”
“He just spread this stuff around his own company. Isn’t that enough of a reason for Anti-Skill to bring the place down, without even getting into the Beginning Child thing?”
“He may not care what happens to anything else as long as he can revive and monopolize the Beginning Child. If L.S.S. is brought down, he only has to start a new company. And that would be possible. That girl is the ultimate master key, so she might just bring his company above all the rest of Academy City combined. Whether he wants to directly take control of the world or he wants to use her as a threat to negotiate favorable terms with the Board Chairman, her value is incalculable.”
The adults still would not act.
No matter what evidence they provided or how they explained it all, those thinly-smiling grownups were always a step ahead.
He could not except anyone else to rescue Mitsuari Ayu.
His hand had not reached her.
In that final moment, he had distinctly seen her reaching a small hand out toward him.
“Senpai, can I be blunt here?”
“Please help me.”
Kumokawa Seria got up.
She held a hand to her woozy head and answered him.
“You have no obligation to bow your head to me,” she said. “And I honestly want to ask the same of you.”
“Where do you think that asshole went? I don’t care about the resurrection of that original esper or whatever. I just don’t want them putting Mitsuari in danger for their company’s benefit or profit. I want to do whatever it takes to get her back. But if he’s abandoned the L.S.S. HQ, pursuing the company might not get us anywhere.”
“The Board Chairman must be pursuing the Beginning Child too. If his attempts are being eluded, she can’t be listed anywhere we could find.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Academy City is only so big, but I doubt we could find her by searching at random. So we’ll rely on what hints we have.” She sighed. “Those two assassins were brought to an Anti-Skill station, remember? We just have to have a chat with them. Using methods Anti-Skill can’t.”
“Hm? But weren’t those assassins outsiders?”
“Yes, but as outsiders, they will have done some research on their client’s leader from their outside perspective. You wouldn’t want to finish an assassination job only to find the client doesn’t have the money to pay you, right? So underground people like them will hold a detailed investigation of their client’s financial situation beforehand. While making sure not to upset said client, of course.”
“They might be familiar with his secret assets and real estate – in other words, any private hideouts he might possess. And if Matsuo Ryuusuke failed to notice that secret investigation, they might have slipped past his security.”
The girl in a dress, Gokusai Kaibi, did not do anything special.
She did not need to sneak in through a duct, nor did she need to seduce anyone by flashing her thigh from below her thin dress.
She simply approached a 10-story building analogous to the city police stations outside of Academy City.
She walked right up to it, pushed open the glass door, and entered the Anti-Skill station.
Handcuffed criminals were not in fact the only people with any business there. People could resolve minor infractions by paying off a traffic ticket, ask about a missing item, or renew their driver’s license. Since the place was air-conditioned, it was not uncommon for the elderly to stop by with no real business and either chat with the officers there or just lie down on a lobby bench. Just like hospitals, public facilities like this tended to become places for people to relax.
If you only wanted to go inside, the station’s doors were open to anyone. They would not exactly be “public” facilities if people were not allowed in.
Except the girl in a dress was interested in her sisters being kept in the holding cells. In other words, with some of those “handcuffed criminals”. Moving past the reception counter naturally increased the difficulty considerably.
“I am Tanaka from Judgment. I have here the case documents you requested for review.”
When she spoke past the reception counter, a receptionist woman who looked not unlike a bank teller smiled gently.
“Oh, is that so? Thank you very much.”
“Is the document storage room still in the same place?”
“Yes, yes. Head downstairs and take a right.”
Academy City had two different law enforcement agencies: the adult-led Anti-Skill and the student-led Judgment. The former took the place of the police and the latter worked in the schools to mediate trouble between students, but that did not mean they never interacted.
And if a connection like that existed, why not use it? It allowed her through without arousing suspicion.
Once she was in the back, the rest was easy. She exchanged nods with the adult Anti-Skill officers she passed on the way and waited until the flow of people had ended to head down a different hallway than the one to the document storage room.
Specifically, to the holding cells where her sisters were imprisoned.
At that point, the only way to avoid being seen was to rely on the general distance and direction she could sense using Measure Heart – something very similar to an unnatural presence felt when at school in the middle of the night – but she had a lot of practice there.
Not all powers were as simple as controlling fire or water. The people who ended up with a less-obvious power would focus more on how they applied that power.
“Yes, yes. I’ll get that door open, so step back.”
The youngest sister’s face lit up and she grabbed at the bars with both hands, so the girl in a dress sighed and waved her away with a hand.
Meanwhile, the oldest sister, Rikuri, frowned in a skeptical and yet lazy way from the next cell over.
“Are you alone?”
Kaibi used a special spray to get rid of all the fingerprints, sweat, and spittle in the one cell and then tossed the spray bottle into Rikuri’s cell.
That toy was Rikuri’s own creation, so she clacked her sharp heels against the floor and eliminated all trace of her stay there with practiced hand.
“Since Anti-Skill isn’t with you, I take it you didn’t do this by creating official paperwork.”
With Kaibi’s Measure Heart, it would be possible to use the emotional distance of “a victim of false charges” to get a public prosecutor to write up an official document for their release.
“It wouldn’t have changed much. We have to hit the server room before leaving either way. If we don’t delete your images, fingerprints, DNA, and other data, they could trace you even after you break out.”
Measure Heart could only influence her emotional distance with another person.
The Anti-Skill station was full of security cameras, so they had to deal with that now that she had infiltrated the station without permission.
“Oh, if we’re making a stop, then let’s pick up my toy too!! From the evidence locker!!”
That was already the plan. That Gatling gun was covered in her sweat and fingerprints, so they could not leave it behind here. Deleting all that data from the Anti-Skill network was useless if it could be easily reacquired from physical evidence.
“Take whatever you want.”
“Then I want to take one of those lunches they give people. Especially if they have katsudon.”
The three brazenly left the holding cells and stopped by the nearby server room to find and delete the inconvenient data. But there was always a chance it could be restored, so they also inserted a virus that would rapidly and repeatedly overwrite everything with random alphanumeric characters. To throw off the investigation, they made sure to erase the data on a few random criminals in addition to the sisters.
That just left the evidence locker.
They had found the ID number for the sisters’ case in the server room, so they opened the metal door, found the correct container among the many inside, and pulled Amazora’s Gatling gun out.
“Yay! My gun!!”
“Rikuri Nee-san, what about your drones sand close-range injectors?”
“Not a problem. They did a blood test on us, so there should be some simple medical records in here too. Is this them?”
Anti-Skill would make an immediate connection to them if only this case’s evidence was stolen, so some disturbance tactics were necessary. They opened a random container, messed with the lithium ion battery inside, and returned it to its spot. Then they only had to mess with the fire detector and sprinkler on the ceiling to trigger a malfunction. The unnatural fire and malfunctioning firefighting equipment would mean all the evidence burned away.
(We need a non-existent case and a few unrelated decoy cases that we only partially erase. Yes, that should about do it.)
Kaibi’s thoughts were interrupted by a very small change.
She heard an unpleasant click from the metal door.
She and the older sister exchanged a glance and ran toward the door, leaving behind the third sister who still had not caught on.
But it would not open.
(Was that the electronic lock!?)
There was also a metal shutter on the outside wall for loading evidence onto a vehicle, but that was locked too. This did not seem like some kind of unmanned trap. Someone had trapped them in here.
“We’ve been had!!”’
“What, what!? Should I blow our way out?”
Amazora ignored her dress’s slipping shoulder strap as she lightly waved around her Gatling gun, but that would be meaningless. Firing that around would create a bunch of new evidence after they went to such lengths to eliminate it all.
They had no time.
They wanted to escape without anyone noticing.
The second sister clenched her teeth, but then she heard the internal phone line ringing.
Rikuri’s slitted skirt swayed as she stepped back.
“A demand to surrender maybe?”
“You restrain violent Amazora. Have her collapse her gun and put it in her bag.”
The tension and pressure were unbearable as Kaibi picked up the receiver on the wall.
“Hello. You made a mess of the network and that’s causing some chaos, but I still managed to trap you in there.”
(This isn’t Anti-Skill. And she sounds really young.)
Kaibi could not use Measure Heart over the phone.
Was that simple bad luck, or was it part of this person’s plan?
(I need to assume the worst here.)
“Are you a hired negotiator?”
“The group that wants you captured wouldn’t have contacted you like this. Now, Anti-Skill will notice something is up and break through that door in another 120 seconds, so I’d like an answer before then.”
“Then hurry it up.”
“What I want is information. Talk and I’ll do something about that electronic lock giving you so much trouble. Either for that inside door or the outside shutter. It’s your choice.”
“Then we can’t pay in advance. You would simply hang up the instant you had what you wanted.”
“If you promise to tell me afterwards, that is fine with me.”
“Then we would simply run away.”
“But don’t you want to know what happened to that data you thought you had fully erased?”
Kaibi clicked her tongue.
She had no way of knowing if this was true. This person might not be able to affect anything beyond this internal phone line. But she could not ignore the possibility of the data being restored or backed up on another server.
“Have it your way.”
“I’ll take that to mean we have a deal.”
With a dull thunk, the metal shutter leading outside began to move instead of the metal door leading indoors.
“They will break through the door in another 30 seconds. You need to make a mad dash for it if you don’t want to be seen.”
Kaibi threw aside the receiver and gestured her sisters outside. She crouched down to slip below the shutter before it had fully opened.
A truck was stopped outside.
But not for them to ride on. The large vehicle moved forward a bit to reveal a manhole with the cover removed.
“That truck is remote-controlled,” said Rikuri. “They’re worried about your Measure Heart.”
They had no choice but to head down into the sewers.
After the three sisters entered the manhole, the overhead sunlight vanished. The truck had backed up to cover up the hole.
Once at the bottom, the flickering of a flame swept away the darkness instead of LED light.
That came from an oil lamp held by a high school girl in a short-sleeved sailor uniform. That was not an outfit for spelunking through the sewers, which made it a mystery how well she blended into her surroundings.
“Riku-Kai Onee-chans, can I shoot her?”
Rikuri stopped Amazora from getting carried away. As a poison user, that oldest sister knew that an oil lamp falling to the ground would cause the flames to spread. And while this was a storm drain, it was still part of the sewer. If the fire reached the sludge or plastic garbage in here, it could spread toxins like dioxin or nitrogen oxide in this enclosed space.
The girl in a dress breathed in the filthy air.
“What is it you want?”
“Information on L.S.S. Specifically, where President Matsuo Ryuusuke would go to hide after abandoning their HQ.”
“What, you’d rather die than divulge info on your client? But telling me that is as good as telling me everything I need to know.” The oil lamp girl gave a cynical smile. “By the way, did L.S.S. provide any help at all in getting your precious sisters out of that Anti-Skill station? They have enough power to cover up that dragon attack and the fire in that parking garage, so it seems to me they should have been able to arrange the release of two suspects with relative ease.”
“Oh, I know a fair amount about Measure Heart already. Feel free to set our emotional distance to whatever you like.” The girl scoffed. “Make us sworn enemies and it will come as mockery. Make us girlfriends and it will come as grave concern. Either way, what I actually say will remain the same. After all, it is a cold, hard fact that L.S.S. abandoned you.”
The river was made from concrete.
There was no real bank, but there were small pathways prepared on either side. They were only about half the width of a school hallway.
(I hope Senpai is okay.)
Kamijou peered down into the a round water port open in the concrete wall.
He only had to wait, but being on his own was agonizing.
That fluffy-haired middle school girl was no longer with them.
(How can you use the electronic lock to trap them inside and then act like you’re the good guy for letting them escape?)
He had been given extremely vague instructions (“Wait here until I’ve settled everything”) and he had anxiously obeyed, but he finally sensed someone squirming their way out from that round opening.
Kumokawa Seria gave him a peace sign with her index and middle fingers.
“The negotiations were a rousing success.”
“Whoa, those mass shooter terrorists really are following you out!!”
The three sisters in gaudy dresses did not look pleased with that description, but they also could not refute it since they had in fact been using a handgun and a Gatling gun.
The middle sister placed a hand on the side of her neck in exasperation.
“We will get back at L.S.S. for abandoning us.”
(So is she a dark sort of tsundere or something?)
“Oh, and this dark-hearted girl promised to pay us triple what L.S.S. failed to pay us. It might only be a verbal promise, but you had better not go back on your deal.”
“Well, I was wrong!! Senpai, what kind of promises have you been making!?”
“Just so you know, no matter what kind of justifications you make, we are about to attack property belonging to a company president. That is a blatantly criminal act, so it will reduce the damage we take if we have these failed assassins perform the actual attack for us.”
Still, this talk of rewards and deals was beyond what a middle schooler was used to dealing with. Were all high school girls this involved in the economic world?
“We are fine with committing the crimes here, but you still can’t escape the crime of instigation. Hee hee.”
The girl in a dress had plunged into the decadence of a defeated warrior, which drew out a mysterious allure in her. The true connoisseurs who preferred Cinderella before her transformation might have felt a fluttering in their heart.
“Since our interests are aligned, we don’t have to worry about any betrayals here. We helped you escape and even prepared a job for you, so it’s time you finally played your hand. I know you must have looked into your client’s ability to pay, so where is L.S.S. President Matsuo Ryuusuke’s hideout?”
“I see.” The girl in a dress was quick to answer. “District 21. He has a villa in the mountains.”
Academy City District 21 was the one and only mountainous region in the city.
It only had a few relatively small mountains, but there were still plenty of things built there, such as an observatory and a dam. It was also a crucial independent water source for Academy City.
A winding mountain road was covered by a canopy of trees. The area was so dim it was easy to forget it was still morning. This place seemed like a realm of eternal night, cut off from the normal flow of time.
The low-riding red sports car looked out of place on that mountain road.
Mitsuari Ayu had been placed in the passenger seat. It was unnatural for a girl in her school uniform to be there on a weekday, but she was not bound in any way. If she was, the street corner cameras or security robots would notice something was amiss.
She could not move. If not for the seatbelt, inertia would have made her fall over.
Her body felt lethargic.
Her consciousness was fading in and out.
She could not hope to use her power like this. She had to focus her mind to avoid suffocating on her own saliva.
“Once we arrive, I will inject you with my company’s antidote for the infectious stun weapon, so you focus on arriving there safely.” The young man in the driver’s seat smiled thinly. “We are very disappointed that a miscommunication has led to this. You are a crucial resource that must not be allowed to die, so you have nothing to worry about.”
He could not allow her to die, but how long would that remain true?
She could trust that up until she had given him what he needed, but what about afterwards?
She had seen the still image of the Beginning Child in the L.S.S. HQ’s server room. The oldest modern esper could be woken using internal stimulation to her mind. That alone might sound like a praiseworthy deed, but Mitsuari had been attacked by a giant dragon and a biological weapon. Supposedly, control of the Beginning Child might give one technology on par with Board Chairman Aleister and that had to be playing a large role in this man’s decision.
The classic music playing in the car was not in line with the girl’s tastes, but she could not even reach out to adjust the car stereo.
She wobbled and her head turned toward the window.
The thick forest flowing by looked like the world of the dead to her.
“All I need you to do is wake up the Beginning Child, who not even Aleister could control. You are free to go after that. Merely having her on standby in a ‘usable’ state will be a powerful bargaining chip with the Board Chairman.”
(I need a landmark…to tell me…where I am.)
She saw a giant tower rising vertically from the mountains.
She had heard of that before.
It was a power plant that used the heat within the earth. She searched her memory and found its name: Ground Geo.
The youngest sister, Gokusai Amazora, kicked her small legs at the booth seat next to the window. She opened the menu wide and cried out in joy.
They were in a District 21 restaurant at the foot of the mountains.
“They have oysters! Raw ones!! Yes, yes! I can finally eat some raw oysters!!”
“Amazora,” cut in Kaibi from the seat next to her.
Rikuri laughed while seated at the same table.
“You can’t, my cute little sister. Didn’t we say to avoid eating those before an important job?”
“Ehhh!? I still can’t have any!?”
The third sister’s legs stretched out below the table and she blatantly puffed out her cheeks.
Those sisters had created a gal-style space different again from Kumokawa or Mitsuari. It was too much for Kamijou Touma who sank down and nervously spoke up.
“Eh? Is it like bad luck or something? You’re like the pros only seen in movies, so I’m surprised you obey those unscientific rules.”
“Oh, it isn’t about that. Even little kids know raw oysters are a food poisoning risk.”
“Well, that’s no concern of mine,” he said. “Looks like my wallet has enough to cover a lunch set, so I’ll go with this raw oyster meal.”
The third sister’s small butt rose up from her seat with her eyes aglitter.
“Yay, I love you, Onii-chan! Now I can share your raw oysters!!”
“Sigh. Have it your way, but I’m not saving you if you get a stomachache at some crucial point of the mission.”
For some reason, the youngest sister rejoiced and the other two sisters brought their hands to their foreheads, but Kamijou could only tilt his head in confusion. The food had not even arrived, yet Amazora seemed convinced that she would be taking some of the oysters from his plate.
“Hm, hm, hmm. Raw oysters, raw oystery oysters☆”
The girl of about 10 began to sing while she sank down like a submarine. No, she had crawled down below the booth table and then her head popped up between Kamijou’s legs.
“Okay, this is my seat now!!”
Now she was sitting in his lap.
She kicked her legs while imagining the raw oyster meal to come, but Kamijou did not know how to handle kids of that age and he froze up. There was way too much body contact going on and looking down just about let him see down the flat chest of her gaudy dress, so it was a dangerous situation all around. But he also felt like it would be wrong to just mercilessly throw her off of him.
“Oh, geez. At least wipe your hands off with a wet towel. You just pressed them against the filthy floor crawling over, didn’t you?”
“Ehh? What a pain.”
“You can look at the menu while I do it. Here, let me see your hands.”
“I said I don’t need- hee hee, nya ha ha ha ha!!”
She laughed ticklishly while he had his way with her small hands and the girl in a dress cutely puffed out her cheeks.
Kumokawa Seria gave an exasperated sigh while crossing her legs next to him.
“I’m not about to get jealous of a girl that young, so can we get down to business? How is the preliminary investigation going?”
“I’ve given things a quick lookover,” lazily replied Rikuri while resting her head in her hand. She used her right hand because of the toxic threat of the needle on the end of her left hand’s ring finger.
She used drones in addition to poisons, so instead of barging onto the mountain without knowing the threat, they had decided to wait here for a bit.
“Near the dam, there appears to be a log cabin a short distance from the mountain road. It matches the documents we found when researching his ability to pay. Ventilation is handled using a long duct traveling underground to a remote location, but the cover has a very special filter installed. That may be an identifying mark of his, so he is almost certainly holed up in there for his work.”
“Anything else of note?” asked Kumokawa.
Rikuri placed a folding palmtop computer on the table and shrugged.
“My drones aren’t good enough to scan for mines hidden underground, but they did detect a few large heat readings. Those are living creatures. And I imagine we will find more and more of those.”
“How large is large here?”
“Larger than an African elephant. I initially thought they were robots shaped like that, but it looks like I was mistaken.”
You would have a hard time finding land animals that large not just in Japan but in the world as a whole. This was larger than the biggest ones listed in the encyclopedia.
The steep slopes and deep woods of Academy City’s only mountainous region had been transformed into a zone of death by L.S.S.’s technology.
“But Biohacker Matsuo Ryuusuke might be using more than those obvious creatures as his toys. There could be smaller animals like venomous snakes or bugs, there could be carnivorous or parasitic plants, and there could even be mold or bacteria. If L.S.S. wanted to, they could create plants and animals ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. They could probably also create biological-based explosives and ethanol.”
Meanwhile, the food they had ordered arrived, so they had to pause their dangerous conversation.
Amazora’s eyes sparkled and she clasped her hands in front of her flat chest, as if in prayer.
“My raw oysters are finally here!!”
“Those are mine,” protested Kamijou. “You ordered your own food! It’s not even the Midsummer Day of the Ox and you still ordered an extra-large eel bowl! And you ordered it without the usual sauce, like some kind of connoisseur!!”
“Don’t cry, don’t beg, and don’t lean back against me. No puppy dog eyes either.”
“Okay, fine! If it’ll keep you from crying, we can go halfsies!!”
“Heh heh. Then you can have my eel liver soup, wonderful Onii-chan.”
“How is that fair? The oysters are my main dish, so you have to give me half your eels!! With an eel bowl, dividing it perfectly in half is simple enough with some chopsticks!!”
Kumokawa Seria had ordered a bagel with avocado and sliced smoked salmon, Gokusai Kaibi had ordered pale-colored Kansai-style udon, and Rikuri had ordered a summer vegetable pasta dish, although she had asked for no chili peppers or garlic.
“This is one hell of a lineup.” Kamijou sounded exasperated. “What kind of restaurant is this supposed to be?”
“I thought it was an everything restaurant, similar to the ones on the beach.”
The only point in common between them was the avoidance of anything strong smelling, like curry rice or pepperoncino. Similarly, they had ordered cold water to drink instead of tea or coffee.
“My cute little sister, don’t put any pepper on your eels. Since you ordered them without the sauce, you need to stick to the wasabi soy sauce.”
The middle sister was apparently stronger than the oldest in their family. One forceful word from her and the littlest sister gave in.
Kumokawa Seria sighed.
“Boy, don’t put anything more than soy sauce on your oysters. Don’t squeeze any sudachi on them either.”
He had no choice but to give in.
He did understand the point behind it. They were about to enter the mountains and play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with creatures possibly possessing superhuman senses.
Still, Kamijou was dead set on eating some raw oysters after ordering that meal. The little girl in his lap had taken away three of his five oysters (how is that half!?), so he had to plan his next moves carefully. He only had two of those shelled things left. One he would eat as is. The other he would customize with soy sauce and grated radish. If he did not manage that, he knew for sure he was going to cry.
(Okay, where’s the soy sauce?)
He reached over to grab a small bottle from the condiments at one end of the table, but his hand bumped into someone else’s.
It belonged to Kaibi.
Now was not the time for a bittersweet atmosphere. The soy sauce had toppled over and its contents were spreading across the table. The tension was far greater than normal thanks to the sisters’ gaudy dresses. A stain on those would do way more damage than to a guy’s shirt or pants, so he quickly reached for the napkins. And…
His fingers bumped into Rikuri’s slender ones.
But instead of quickly pulling away, those fingers with polished nails tangled with his. That was enough to apply great pressure to his heart. It almost felt like having a large tongue licking at his fingers. And that idiot was so distracted by the sexy fingers that he failed to notice he was only a few millimeters away from being pricked by the poison needle on her ring finger.
“My, my. Did I scare you?”
The sexy girl laughed and the girl in a dress trembled.
“First you spoil Amazora and lure her in with food and then you draw out Rikuri Nee-san’s protective and mischievous sides simultaneously? And do you not care who it is as long as they’re a girl?”
“You only just noticed?” asked Kumokawa. “I bet that boy would act extra nice to a tree if its trunk looked like a woman’s crotch.”
Amazora stuffed her face full of oysters and stretched her legs out below the table.
It was rude, but the cook would have been delighted to see the smile on her face.
“Heh heh heh. They’re so good!”
“Well, isn’t that great.”
“I can eat the rest for you if you don’t want them, Onii-chan.”
“Don’t you dare! I was saving those for last!!”
They had different backgrounds and lived in different worlds, yet they could still come together like this.
But something was missing.
Kamijou Touma did not know much about L.S.S. or this Biohacker, but he would take back what had been stolen from them.
They were in the mountains.
And for whatever reason, Kumokawa and the mystery sisters refused to use the paved mountain road. That meant they were forced to go hiking through the thick forest full of who knows how many bugs.
“What else can we do? I don’t know who technically owns this mountain, but we should assume it is effectively that man’s backyard. There is sure to be something set up on the one mountain road in. The drones we sent in to check are far from perfect. I don’t know if there are cameras or sensors there, but we should avoid that road while we can.”
Kamijou and Kumokawa’s conversation was unexpectedly interrupted by Rikuri with the risqué slitted skirt.
She may have been the type to do everything she could for her client.
“It is frightening when you think about it, isn’t it? L.S.S. can create living creatures of any size, even microscopic, right? Isn’t the combination of an infectious stun weapon and a dam a horrifying thought?”
“Even kids show villains are written more complex than that these days. We should thank that man for being intelligent enough to not go for a cheap plot like that.”
In movies and dramas, villains tended to go for as much damage as possible, but real terrorist attacks and crimes would have a clear objective or profit motive behind them. In the latter case, a weapon to kill millions would be useless if there was no way of earning a single yen with it. From a cost perspective, a plan that earned millions of yen without killing a single person was much cleverer. And all the better if it also happened to be legal. Although once your crime was legal, people tended to call it a business plan.
“Ah!!” shouted Amazora when she slipped on some mud or something.
Kamijou was behind her, so he moved to support her from behind.
“Hey, can the rest of you slow down to match this girl’s pace!? She’s carrying a lot of weight and I’m pretty sure those are not the shoes you want to go mountain climbing in.”
His good will was meaningless to their underground world.
“Then how about you carry her?” suggested an annoyed Kaibi. “With gun and drum magazine, she’s carrying 100kg, so trying to be nice will just get you crushed like with an Onbu Obake.”
“Okay, I will!! If her and her stuff is only 130kg, that’s not much different from carrying the biggest guy in my class. That’s not impossible, so it’s fine. It’ll be fine. It’s to help a little girl, so I know I can do it!! I’ll do whatever it takes to not abandon a little girl in the mountains! Let’s do this!!”
“You don’t get to carry me after calling me a little girl so much. I don’t like this guy.”
“Ha ha ha. Forgotten what happened in the parking garage already, girl? Don’t you worry. This won’t be my first time carrying you. (Grin)”
“Y-you took my first time while I was passed out, Onii-chan!? How much of a super Onii-chan are you!?”
(While apparently entirely forgetting she had already climbed into his lap to get at his raw oysters,) Amazora began softly pummeling him with her fists and calling him “Onii-chan”, so he had apparently developed a decent emotional distance from her, no matter what she claimed. The other two sisters looked a little saddened by this, but that was a secret.
“Amazora,” said the girl in a dress.
“Ah!? No, wait, Kai Onee-chan! I don’t like this guy at all!”
She tried it again using the youngest sister’s emotional distance from Kamijou Touma.
“Heh heh. Eh heh heh. Oh, c’mon, Onii-chan. Don’t stare straight at me and whisper my name like that. But if you absolutely insist, I guess I can let you! …Wait, why did Kai Onee-chan just feel like a boy and why did I call her Onii-chan? H-how embarrassing!!”
Gokusai Kaibi’s mouth formed a small triangle as she stumbled across an incredible use for her power. Although her pride would probably refuse to let her use that method of attack.
Then Gokusai Rikuri made a noise while observing her sisters.
Kamijou shrieked when the sexy oldest sister leaned up against him from the side. The amount of body contact was the same as little Amazora, but the sensation was entirely different.
She rested her head on his shoulder and spoke with a sweet sigh that seemed not just ripe but rotting.
“I am letting it slide since we agreed to this deal, but we are supposed to be assassins, not bodyguards. I would really prefer it if you did not get so close to us. You need to show a little more fear lest it damage our pride.”
“Um, uh, uh, what are you trying to say? Could you translate that from your gang lingo into normal language!?”
A chill ran down Kamijou’s spine at the close contact with that lady who used poison needles and wires, but Kumokawa Seria (who was well on her way toward developing the curves needed to be in that same “sexy” category) put her hands on her hips and sighed.
“What she means is obvious enough: she hated how easily you were stealing her little sister from her and tried to steal the girl back using a honey trap, but then she started going down that route for real.”
“Let’s not be ridiculous. I simply need to remain in control if I want an upper hand in the payment negotiations.”
Kumokawa raised her index and middle fingers.
“I believe the standard is 2.”
“What did I just say about being ridiculous? We provided three people, so 3 would be the bare minimum.”
The ignorant boy was honestly surprised by this.
“Eh? 3? As in 3000 yen? Assassins are that cheap!? That’s scary, but it’s a great deal.”
“Tell him he’s wrong, Nee-san!! His amateur ignorance is not as charming as you think it is!!”
That wicked woman may not have been accustomed to seeing such a positive outlook, so Kaibi bristled and frantically shouted at her older sister.
Kumokawa carefully observed their surroundings.
“There are no cameras on the tree trunks, no drones flying around, and no mics stuck in the ground. Did we overthink this? Or did we misread it somehow?”
“Why are you muttering to yourself, Senpai? Fishing for attention?”
Kamijou could barely stay standing with the weight of the Gatling gun girl on his back, but then the upperclassman girl hit him with a low kick. Since the kick was what made him fall over and end up tangled up with the youngest sister, he really wished she would not glare at him like that.
“First that honey girl and now this. You can never trust the girls who use their younger age as a weapon.”
That was when they heard the rustling of something parting the underbrush.
It was not Kamijou, Kumokawa, or the gaudily dressed sisters.
Then what was it?
“Here comes one of L.S.S.’s hot products!!”
A two-story log cabin stood in the mountains.
There must not have been any appropriate standard for the garage because it looked like boxes of metal and concrete forcibly linked together.
“Kraken, take the girl.”
With a wet sound from the back of the car, the trunk popped open and a 10-legged monster crawled out. Sucker-covered tentacles entered through the window instead of the door to drag limp Mitsuari Ayu out like a piece of luggage.
(Nothing stopped us from arriving.)
“Griffin, Karkinos, Fenrir, Hydra, Omukade, Hræsvelgr, Wendigo. I shall thaw them all out and dispatch them immediately. Welcome, my friends, to the witch’s forest.”
That building was a storeroom. Nature was now under the Biohacker’s control. Modern mountains were paved with concrete and asphalt and laid out with power lines, optical fibers, and water pipes, but this one was quickly transformed into a deadly hunting ground where people were squashed like mere bugs.
Of course, he did not actually control the legendary monsters; these were only biological monsters given those codenames. As a Biohacker, Matsuo Ryuusuke had toyed with the DNA of several animals, shut down the immune system, and patched them together for his own cruel purposes.
There was no need for them to have taken this form.
He did not have an optimal set of pieces, like on a chess or shogi board.
This was nowhere near maximum efficiency.
These were failures that had been unable to fulfill their original purpose of using fear to awaken the Beginning Child, the very first esper who not even the Board Chairman could control. Still, his personal tastes had played a role in choosing the exact forms they had been given in that initial testing phase.
Was patching together different animal bodies really more twisted than Academy City that experimented on humans to mass-produce espers?
“I have toyed with life to the point of creating so many unique forms of it.”
They moved from the garage to the actual villa.
The young man smiled and spoke while passing through the door into his fortress.
“But I cannot create anything like you people from scratch. That is why I unfortunately had to invite you to my home like this.”
Mitsuari expressed confusion while the slimy monster carried her. She could not resist, but she could wrinkle her brow.
Was she not the only one who had been abducted?
Had he been abducting everyone he could find with psychological powers.
But the truth turned out to be even crueler?
“I really would have liked to get my hands on Mental Out, but she is the #5. I am in no position to lay a hand on one of the seven Level 5s. I so wanted the greatest quality available when preparing my experiment equipment, but I couldn’t have that desire leading the entire plan to failure before it even began. Anyone who could get the job done would do, so I decided not to set my sights too high.”
She felt a stirring in her heart.
She did not really want to hear nice words from a kidnapper.
On the other hand.
Was this the real reason she had been targeted?
“You have a similar power to her and you were conveniently unguarded, so I figured you would make do as a replacement.”
The first to respond was Amazora, accompanied by the sound of multiple metal pieces scraping together. She pulled her Gatling gun and drum magazine from the two drum bags, attached the ammo hose, and prepared the unit itself.
Explosive booms soon followed.
The trees thickly surrounding them were torn through along with whatever was hidden there.
The giant maw, sinister claws, gust-producing wings, and shadow-piercing eyes were unharmed.
“You’re kidding! This fires 6000 20mm rounds a minute! How can a biological creature of only bone and muscle stop that!?”
“Then let’s fix this with some biological poison. Cover for me, my cute little sister☆”
“Got it, Rikuri Nee-san.”
Kaibi’s handgun looked tiny compared to the Gatling gun, but while it could not provide a fatal blow, it could be used to take up a defensive position and hold back the foe.
Meanwhile, Rikuri approached her prey with her slitted skirt fluttering.
She spun a gas-powered injector like it was a pen and then firmly gripped it.
She did not aim for the tough surface.
She shoved the tip into the physically and chemically weak mucus membrane near the giant lizard’s eyelid and depressed the switch with her thumb.
After a “psh” similar to a soda cap opening, the giant form wobbled to the side.
Then it collapsed and stopped moving.
“The Clostridium botulinum bacteria can be found in the dirt anywhere in the world, but if the conditions are right, it can produce a powerful toxin. Unlike the puffer fish or wolfsbane, there is no way of managing it, making it a very frightening poison.”
Measure Heart could control the emotional distance between people.
That meant it was not much use against nonhumans, so instead of relying on that, Kaibi swapped out her handgun’s magazine and spoke up casually.
But instead of to her sisters, she spoke to Kamijou.
“You two go on ahead to Matsuo Ryuusuke’s hideout.”
“Your objective isn’t to destroy LS.S.’s forces or to stop the resurrection of the Beginning Child, right? You want to rescue Mitsuari Ayu. We’re risking our lives to fight here, so we don’t want this treated as a failure because you lose sight of your objective and let too much time pass. We want to make sure we still get paid for this job, is what I’m saying.”
“Ignore that tsundere who insists on pretending this is all about self-interest. We need to get going, boy!!”
“You think I would fall for this boy after like 5 seconds? Do I look like Amazora to you?”
(I guess I wouldn’t be much help here anyway. If we beat up that Matsuo guy, we might be able to find a stop command or some other way of ending the fight. With living creatures, the big boss is sure to have a spray or ultrasound signal that can keep the monsters from making a snack out of him!)
“Okay, but don’t you die!!”
Modern humans needed guns to hunt in the mountains. In that sense, Kamijou was nothing more than dead weight. Especially when their prey was fire-breathing monsters larger than an elephant. While Amazora sprayed gunfire to keep the monsters back, Kamijou and Kumokawa left to make their way toward the mountain summit.
They could hear ominous rustling sounds from the trees and underbrush all around them. Kamijou did not know much about hiking or hunting, but even he could tell from the weight of the sounds that these were not people.
“Stay still,” said Kumokawa while she puled out a deodorant spray and sprayed it around. That artificial scent seemed like it would make them more conspicuous out here in nature where the cicadas were crying, but while tension squeezed at Kamijou’s heart, the mysterious giant shaking the forest’s trees passed right by them.
“They seem to be tracking us using only a certain wavelength of light and certain chemical scent particles. That’s a standard way for animals and insects to track their prey. Silver ions should be enough to keep them away.”
“Are those sisters all right?”
He looked back in shock. The more monsters passed them by, the more they would gather around the sisters who were making so much noise.
Kumokawa only had one thing to say about that.
“Elephants and tigers are endangered species nowadays. Because of the guns and environmental destruction brought about by humans. Trust in the fact that the girls will have the upper hand here.”
“Is that really how it works?”
Also, he and Kumokawa were unarmed, so there was nothing they could do if they did turn back now. These were all the semi-artificial creatures created by the Biohacker. As artificial weapons, they might have limits in place that natural creatures lacked. Either in the basic structure of their bodies or in some kind of conditioned reflex trained into them like with Pavlov’s dogs.
If there was insurance in place in case of an emergency, they only had to figure out what that was.
It might be some ultrasound speakers or a spray that affected the animal’s noses far more than humans, but a cheap villain was sure to have something like that hidden away.
“Let’s go. Matsuo Ryuusuke’s villa is up ahead.”
They did not run across any dinosaurs along the way, but they did see some awfully beautiful flowers a few times. They had pink leaves and white petals. Those small and lovely flowers were growing from the ground but also from unnatural places, like tree trunks and on top of stones.
“Don’t step on any of those,” warned Kumokawa Seria. “They must be L.S.S. alarms. Get either the pollen or the nectar on your hands or shoes and every creature on this mountain will be after you.”
“Wh-what proof of that do you have?”
“Just flip through a plant encyclopedia. I guarantee you that flower won’t be in it or any other one you check.”
They also saw some ants with extremely fat abdomens. They probably contained that alarm nectar since the fat abdomen had the same coloration as the small flowers. It was unclear if the Biohacker had made those or if normal insects had ended up that way, but it would still be best not to step on them.
As they walked further up the slope, the underbrush suddenly came to an end.
Their view opened up and they found themselves on the winding mountain road.
Kumokawa pointed further into the mountain with her thumb and resumed walking.
Once on the asphalt, the temperature seemed to rise some, maybe because of the reflected sun. Academy City was an artificial place through and through. They could see an artificial lake and a large metal tower in the distance.
“Is that Ground Geo?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s an unmanned facility, so there won’t be any ignorant workers to be feasted on by the creatures. We need to focus on ourselves.”
After continuing along the mountain road a bit, they returned to the dirt through a gap in the guardrail. In a cross between an animal path and a rural road, the underbrush had been trampled down and there were tire tracks. However, they did not feel at all lost. Kamijou could tell they were approaching the person who had created this path.
“Found it,” he said.
A blatantly artificial structure awaited them through the dark trees. He saw a log cabin with a boxy garage next to it. But since this was a Biohacker’s home base, there might be more to it than that. Who could say what was living there with the man.
There was no obvious nameplate or company name on display.
But much like sunglasses and a mask, that seemed to carry the sinister air of someone trying to hide their identity.
“This is L.S.S…no, Matsuo Ryuusuke’s hideout!!”
Kamijou and Kumokawa were not infiltration experts.
So instead of following any kind of complex plan, they went for a fairly crude method of storming into the log cabin.
Kamijou did not hesitate to reach for the main entrance’s doorknob, but Kumokawa firmly grabbed his wrist to stop him.
He tensed up in fear of something he could not see, so she used the sole of her shoe to kick open the door itself. The log cabin had looked like a two-story building from outside. Even as a villa, it was the size of a normal family home.
Kumokawa put thin rubber gloves on her hands while walking inside.
What would you call this room in a villa or mountain cabin?
In a normal house, the large room would have been the living room, and that was where the man they were searching for was lounging on a leather sofa without any attempt to hide himself. Instead of sitting, he was lying down with his head on the armrest and he had a glass of brandy in one hand.
“Matsuo!!” roared Kamijou the instant he saw him.
“Now, this is a surprise. I thought no one else would appreciate what I was doing here, yet here you are just in time to celebrate with me. I know this storage facility is drab, but please, make yourselves at home.”
Kamijou did not let him say a word more.
With a short breath, he rushed toward the young winner at life who was lying on a three-person sofa.
The man did not even stir.
Perhaps Kamijou should have noticed something was wrong when the man did not get up after hearing the door kicked open.
Kamijou Touma was the one to groan.
Matsuo Ryuusuke still had not even gotten up from the sofa.
He remained relaxed in that unnatural position while the boy was pinned in empty air. Whatever had done it, a human being could not change direction once their feet left the ground. While Kamijou struggled, Kumokawa softly sighed and pulled out a flashlight. It was similar to the glowsticks an idol concert audience would wave around, but it was made so she could change the wavelength of light. As she gradually changed the color from red to blue, there was a reaction at the yellowish-green range.
Some kind of invisible wires were strung up all around.
“A spider web, huh?”
“The web’s owner is underneath the sofa. Shall I Introduce you?”
Was that a drunken joke, or not?
But Kumokawa paid it no heed and sprayed something toward Kamijou from a spray can. His bonds vanished and he crashed down to the wooden flooring.
For the first time, Matsuo twisted around on the sofa to show an interest in them.
It still was not enough for him to even sit up, though.
“How did you do that? I doubt you came equipped with tools for dealing with a spider in particular.”
“Be it spiders or jellyfish, everything you rely on is biological in nature, so all I needed was something effective against all biological creatures.”
“Of a sort. A collection of digestive acids.” Kumokawa winked while shaking her spray can. “Lions, sharks, tigers, elephants, orcas, electric eels, polar bears, gorillas, rhinos, giant squids, two-centimeter killer jellyfish, army ants, and tiny water bears. Everyone has their own opinion on what animal is the strongest, but they all have their pros and cons. So, Matsuo Ryuusuke, as a Biohacker who made biological creatures his hobby and job, surely you know that no other species can outdo human beings who eat anything and everything as omnivores.”
“Assuming L.S.S. has not started making silicon-based creatures, then this is checkmate. You specialized too far in one direction. Of course, that is a common mistake here in Academy City.”
“Interesting.” Finally, Matsuo Ryuusuke gathered strength in his abs and sat up. “Perhaps I should have done more research into sulfur-reducing bacteria or those bagworms that use plastic. That was a mistake on my part, so I will accept the consequences. Now, what is it you wanted to discuss?”
“Are you kidding me?” Kamijou clenched his teeth and shouted while enduring the pain and getting up off the wooden flooring. “You already know what!! Where is Mitsuari!?”
“I will return her soon enough.”
“Return her now!!”
“If you insist.”
An out-of-place electronic beeping began to fill the room.
Was it an alarm clock or a kitchen timer?
But it seemed unlikely that the man had a pizza or turkey in the oven right now. What had he been waiting for while lying on the sofa with a glass in hand? The cheap beeping sound felt like the toll of a bell reporting the world’s imminent demise.
Kamijou could not help but turn toward the source of the sound.
He had to wonder how he had failed to notice it until now.
The walls were lined with shelves covered in a few items. In addition to thick medical books, encyclopedias, and a few liquor bottles were some biological specimens kept in a mysterious liquid.
Among those, something similar to a coffin stood upright.
The cover was removed, giving a view of what lay within.
The coffin was lined with colorful flowers and a fluffy-haired girl lay half-buried in them.
Kamijou cried out, tripped in his haste, and somehow managed to approach close enough to grab at the coffin. It was not fixed in place, so it rolled onto its side. The girl within did not open her eyes or even stir. That was unusual. He struck his hands into the flowery coffin and tried to lift her up, but she would not move. Almost like she was held in place by a powerful super glue or something.
The girl’s unfocused eyes wandered and monotone words spilled from her lips.
“Memory amplification +3, fear stimulation +2, confusion -2, directional misidentification +1, delirium +0.”
“Mitsuari? Hey, Mitsuari!!”
She did not respond to his shouting and he was not sure it would be safe to grab her shoulders and shake her in this state.
Something was wrong.
A closer look showed that those were not flowers in the coffin.
The plant’s leaves and stems were unnaturally swollen for some reason and they filled up the space similar to a bunch of grapes.
“Are those galls?” Kumokawa narrowed her eyes. “What exactly did you do?”
“Like you said, I have specialized in a single direction, so I cannot do anything without involving biology in some form or fashion.” Matsuo Ryuusuke shook his glass and drained the rest of the amber liquid before tossing aside the empty glass. “I needed to ensure Mitsuari Ayu used her Mental Stinger power as I desired. She was already in a faint state of delirium from the infectious stun weapon, removing her limiters. Then I only had to provide the exact right external stimuli to achieve my goal. Which is what you see here.”
An odd creaking sound followed.
The coffin containing the unresponsive girl tilted disconcertingly. No, whose coffin had it originally been? Mitsuari Ayu was not the only person lying within. Another gaze peered out from below the coffin like someone hiding underneath a bed.
Someone else had been lying back-to-back with Mitsuari.
They had been sleeping on the bottom side of that same coffin.
“Boy!!” shouted Kumokawa.
Like a giant manhole cover being pushed open, the entire coffin forcefully rose up.
This small form provided a far more intimidating presence than a dinosaur or dragon.
It was a human girl wearing a hakama-like school uniform of the sort only seen in old black-and-white photos. A large bow swayed adorably at the front of her hips.
Without any advance knowledge, that would not have seemed like much.
But in L.S.S.’s server room, Kamijou had learned that this person was Academy City’s first esper who not even the Board Chairman could control. She should not have existed in this time period. She looked like she had used a time machine or stepped right out of a photo.
And that was not entirely wrong.
In fact, he may have been too slow to figure it out.
His vision suddenly blurred. He only realized he had been thrown across the room when he crashed into the opposite wall. He gasped, unable to breath, and he slid down to the floor like a wet rag stuck to the wall.
He had no idea what that girl had done.
Was that an esper power, or simple physical strength?
“The Beginning Child, who not even Aleister could control.”
He heard a singsong voice.
Matsuo Ryuusuke sat on the sofa’s armrest while viewing the fruits of his labors in satisfaction.
This strange power was of a completely different type than what he had worked with.
“If L.S.S.’s company products are no use against you, I might as well pull out all the stops. This ancient genius holds the possibility of surpassing Board Chairman Aleister. Now, you modern students. How close to her can your efforts bring you?”
Kamijou Touma heard a roar.
Everything he could see broke apart as the log cabin was obliterated.
For a while afterwards, an unpleasant afterimage was burned into the boy’s vision, like he had looked directly into the sun.
What had happened?
Searching his memories did nothing to tell him why he was where he was.
He was crawling in the mud within the humid summer mountain, but he grimaced and stood up when he felt something unpleasant. Only after moving did he realize how little he could actually move his body. He had taken a beating. His muscles and organs were crying out in protest. The light objects pouring down from overhead were small splinters of wood, similar to chopsticks broken in half. That was all that remained of the log cabin.
Where were Mitsuari Ayu and Kumokawa Seria?
He again tried to search his memories and still found no answer as to what happened.
He heard a horribly out-of-place celebratory voice.
“Ha ha ha! I see, so this is Academy City’s starting point. This is where it all began! I can see how this put Aleister so far ahead of everyone else! I can see how it allowed him to monopolize everything related to science!! But now I have a concrete way of surpassing you. She has awoken, so now I only need to fully control her. Then it will be me! Me!! I will become the fuse that steals away everything you have!! Ha ha ah ha ha ha ha ha!!”
The laughter was maniacal.
This was not about the happiness of humankind or the stability of the world.
That man, Matsuo Ryuusuke, had pulled a deplorable trigger in order to sacrifice all else for his own enjoyment. He had shaken the oldest esper’s mind and awoken her against her will, he had abducted a mind-controlling esper, and it was unclear what had become of the high school girl who had come to rescue that mind-controlling esper.
But. Even so.
Kamijou Touma felt no desire to shout in anger at the scum before his eyes.
There was nothing left below the man’s hips.
The gruesome cross-section was pasted stickily against a thick tree trunk.
Yet that self-proclaimed winner at life was too busy savoring his triumph to notice his fatal injury.
Kamijou had nothing to say to him.
Even an amateur could tell that was beyond the point of treating.
A creature resembling a small dinosaur lay collapsed nearby. Had it grabbed him in its mouth to escape with him but not made it in time? No, it must have bitten too hard and delivered the finishing blow itself.
Pale-faced and at a loss for words, Kamijou patted his hands across his own body. His sense of pain had numbed over, but none of his body parts had been torn away.
“Ah ha ha!! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!! I win! I win!! I am victorious!!”
It felt like watching a villager rejoicing in his leaf coins after a fox or tanuki tricked him. But this was the exact opposite. The moment he realized he had been tricked, it was all over. So it was too pitiful a sight to find anything to say.
The girl in the old-fashioned hakama-style school uniform moved through the gaps in the trees. She did not see that she had failed to finish off Kamijou or that Matsuo was torn in two so close by.
Kamijou heard a few sounds much like chopsticks being broken in two. Her bare feet were stepping on the underbrush and breaking some small twigs. She did not seem to care about the slope or the path through the woods. She may not have been aware where she was walking or even where she was.
Most likely, no one could say for sure whether she was good or evil. And neither answer would change the hell to come. She had awoken. She had no goal or purpose, but she would take action now that she was awake. And who was closest to her?
Her eyes moved.
A large bat fell onto her head and crawled to her cheek. She very nearly had a bat in her eye, yet she did not bat an eye.
Instead, the unnecessarily murderous eyes hidden behind her long, swaying eyes pierced through all of the trees and underbrush to quietly view the survivor there.
In other words, her gaze seemed to stab straight into Kamijou Touma’s eyes.
She let out a roar.
It was accompanied by an explosive boom.
There was a popping sound similar to a piece of firewood bursting in the fireplace. Kamijou looked over in surprise and saw an orange firefly flying by. No, that was clearly an ember.
By the time he fully turned to the side, the entire area had transformed into a crimson world.
He thought he may have been thrown in to an illusory world the instant he took his eyes off the Beginning Child, but that was not it. The trees were burning, the ground was scorched and melting, and everything really had become a hell of magma and blazing heat. Everything seemed to have been remade with the hakama girl in the center.
She had not fired anything from her hand and no lightning had struck where she placed her gaze.
The world – the environment itself – had gone insane in the blink of an eye.
(What the hell is this? Some crazy powerful Pyrokinesis!?)
Should he continue on or turn back?
This had all been caused by the Beginning Child who stood at the center, but he did not see how he could possibly approach her. Simply taking too deep a breath felt like it would scorch his throat and lungs. And while his Imagine Breaker could negate any and all supernatural powers, it gave no guarantee he could knock someone out in a single blow. He could not just recklessly rush toward his foe for a single punch if that foe could strike back to ensure their mutual destruction.
He heard a rustling sound.
The underbrush parted and Kumokawa Seria poked her head out to shout at him.
“But Mitsuari is right over there!!”
“Do you want to take a dip in that lava!? Bear with it for now!!”
A liquid consuming oxygen with its great temperature was not a sight seen in a normal life and that very hell rushed in at him from the side. If Kumokawa had been a moment slower to tug on his arm, he would have been swept away.
“The tanks of anti-creature spray and the ultrasound speakers were destroyed. And they might not have worked on an esper regardless.”
His heartrate shot up and something was wrong with his breathing. The presence of death bore down on his mind.
He did his best to calm his panicking mind by simplifying what he wanted to do here.
What was his goal?
It was not to destroy L.S.S.’s plot and it was not to defeat the Beginning Child.
He did not know where unconscious Mitsuari Ayu was. He could not allow her to be enveloped by the flames, smoke, or magma. If he could not bring this to an end immediately, then what did he need to do?
He knew the answer.
“Here she comes, boy. Let’s split up.”
“This isn’t the time for a tantrum! There is no way that is nothing more than pyrokinesis. The Board Chairman of all people would never fail to control such an ordinary esper!!”
Kumokawa started to say more, but then she vanished from view.
He saw gray.
White ash and embers poured down. They were so hot he was pretty sure breathing in would be enough to scorch his entire windpipe.
He clapped a hand over his mouth at the last second. If he had shouted out like normal, he would have burned himself on the inside.
He more slid down the slope than ran away.
He had lost sight of Kumokawa just like he had Mitsuari.
Every second of hesitation let the situation get worse. No one had been able to predict that ash. But if he had taken her hand instead of arguing, they might have been able to prevent that.
He would not let that happen again.
Simply giving into his emotions would not protect the people he knew.
He clenched his teeth so hard he thought they would break and moved away from the source of it all by rolling along a slope so hot it felt like it would have caused a bath to boil.
He was covered in burns, but he had just barely avoided taking a direct plunge into the molten rock.
He broke through some partially carbonized underbrush and shouted back behind him.
There was no response.
She did not even glance in his direction. She placed her hand on a nearby tree, producing a sticky sound. Had she touched some sap?
She tilted her head.
Was she viewing the sap itself, the bugs gathered to it, or the small frog hoping to eat those bugs?
The girl with hair swaying like a serpent had no reason to fight, but she also did not seem calm enough to listen.
(Do I really have to fight her!? But she might be another victim of L.S.S.!!)
He heard a strange splashing sound.
An unbelievable sight danced in the corner of his vision and he briefly thought he must have been infected by something. He wondered if this was similar to the “state of delirium” that Matsuo Ryuusuke had mentioned before.
But it was not.
Several drops of water were hanging in the air like round crystal balls.
Then the crimson world was dyed azure, he heard the sound of splitting water, and an all-encompassing flashflood rushed toward him. His feet floated up from the scorching slope. He was tossed about like he had been thrown into a giant washing machine.
(Is this the Beginning Child’s power too!? Then she doesn’t just have powerful Pyrokinesis!!)
Kumokawa Seria’s prophecy had come horrifyingly true.
The world entirely changed.
Despite how the bark tore into his arms, he desperately held his ground by clinging to a split tree, but he had no idea how long that tree would last. A wild boar large enough to knock him from the ground was helplessly swept away nearby. Once he was taken by the current, it was over.
Would he be torn from the ground along with a large chunk of that ground, or would he be slammed into rocks or fallen trees? The inability to move around made this flashflood even more troublesome than the previous scorching hell.
But what was this?
He felt like Kumokawa Seria would be able to tell him, but she had disappeared.
This power could completely remake the world into one of fire or one of water. He had never heard of anything like that. It seemed to ignore the basic rule of one power per person.
Worse, she was not stopping.
She roared again.
Kamijou wondered if her lack of patience was a flaw, but he soon wanted to punch himself for thinking that. A wind swept in with the biting cold of the Antarctic and then he heard several sounds like cracking plastic.
The water was freezing.
The flashflood flowing down the slope at hip height was slowing and whitening.
He may have been lucky he was clinging to a tree.
He clambered up the trunk just before the muddy water he had been soaking in transformed into a land of thick ice. If he had been just a few seconds slower, he would have met the same fate as a frozen mammoth, but he could not rest easy yet.
This cold was enough to freeze all that water in no time at all.
If he was exposed to that while soaking wet, he would not last long.
The hakama girl was not viewing the reality around her. The face behind her long hair had not changed in the slightest even when a bat fell on her head or when she touched a frog with her sappy hand. Her actions were incoherent and unpredictable. It would be extremely dangerous if her attention gathered on him.
If her attack could be focused down to a single direction, he might have chance to negate it head-on with his right hand.
(This is my only chance.)
He was not surrounded by magma or a flashflood.
He could stand on that thick ice. If he started running, he would be able to move right up to the Beginning Child.
She did not seem interested in him.
She did not scream when a large spider crawled up her leg to the side of her hip. She stood blankly at the bottom of the bowl formed by the frozen world around her.
He yelled and ran.
But before making it even 5 steps, his vision was abruptly cut off. It was like when the lights were switched off in the middle of the night. He had no idea what had happened. Only that he felt a pain in his cheeks. Almost like needles were shallowly piercing his entire body.
(Sand? Is this a sandstorm!?)
A powerful crosswind shook his body and he lost his bearings while running. The piercing direct sunlight of midsummer was hidden away and the world darkened like they were experiencing an unnatural eclipse. He saw a dark figure through the veil of hot sand, but when he punched it, it was painfully solid. It was no more than an ordinary tree trunk.
He grimaced at the dull pain running through his fist, but he had bigger problems.
He had entirely lost his bearings.
He may have been running in circles for all he knew.
(This makes no sense.)
He could not judge the distance or direction, but he clearly heard a scream from somewhere on the mountain.
She really was not paying any attention to him.
At one point, countless lightning strikes poured down on the mountain slope. At another, the mountain slope was covered in geysers that sent 100-degree water erupting from the ground along with steam.
(There’s too much variation. What kind of power would let you do all these different things!?)
He considered the possibility that she could use several different powers, but a Dual Skill was a fantasy and an urban legend. No one had been able to actually do it.
Assuming this really was an esper of the Academy City he knew, that is.
This girl had been too much even for the Board Chairman, so did she really have such an absurd power?
He shuddered, but time was passing while he lost himself in thought.
The hakama schoolgirl parted the sandstorm while still barefoot and appeared before him.
She was within arm’s reach now.
But he did not think of this as an opportunity. She was so filled with rage that it actually became difficult to read her more subtle emotions and he was also within her arm’s reach. The grim reaper’s scythe was brushing against his throat. Of course he was going to freeze up.
Her mouth opened.
She inhaled to prepare for a roar.
His half-numbed mind knew he had to stop this, but the half that was numbed kept him from moving like he wanted. His mind was fixated on the girl in front of him more than it had on the magma, the flashflood, the frigid ice, or the sandstorm.
He simply stood there.
A moment later, he heard a shockingly cute “pop” and flowers bloomed all around them.
He thought his heart was going to burst from his mouth.
This too was a change brought about by the Beginning Child. It was clearly part of her power.
But it was entirely different from the devastating powers demonstrated earlier.
The hakama girl silently tilted her head as if to say this was not at all what she wanted to do. Her long hair swayed and a butterfly fluttered away from her head.
She made her next move before the gears could resume moving in his mind.
And almost like the world had suddenly remembered to be dangerous, an unnatural fog surrounded them and his lungs began begging for oxygen. He had a headache like his entire head was swelling, a cold sweat soaked his body, and he doubled over, unable to even scream.
The hakama girl with a rabbit standing at her feet acted like her own scream had been her goal. She did not check to see if the attack had successfully damaged him or not.
(Toxic volcanic gas? No, was this just a change in air pressure!? Is this altitude sickness or something!?)
His throat felt constantly clogged and he slid along the thick ice as if rolling. There was nothing he could do if the air itself was affected. Fortunately, the Beginning Child frequently changed what power(?) she was using, so he only had to keep his distance and hope for a better chance next time.
He repeatedly slammed into tree trunks and fell down the slope like a pachinko ball or pinball until the white ice finally vanished. Some squirrels and mice fled into the underbrush when they saw the boy rolling out onto the bare ground once more, but he was relieved. He may have been imagining it, but he finally felt like he had escaped that strange alternate world.
Anyway, what had happened?
The Beginning Child’s power left no openings. Whether fire or water, it was on too large a scale for him to approach. With that much raw power, he had to wonder if she would be ranked among Academy City’s Level 5s.
But what about that one time?
Just once, she had caused a very nonthreatening change.
Needless to say, that was the field of blossoming flowers. They had not been scattering toxic pollen and they had not been giant man-eating plants. What had been the purpose of that? Or had there been no purpose? She had tilted her head after causing it.
He felt like some crucial hint was hidden there.
First and foremost, it was not possible for a single person to use multiple esper powers. He had to operate under that assumption. So even if her power looked like it could do anything, everything she had done must have branched off from a single starting point.
And a malfunction had occurred there.
To err like that, there had to be a proper method for activating the power.
“Hey, what’s going on!?”
He heard a rustling from the underbrush.
He had not noticed until now, but a small blonde girl was approaching him while cooling her gun barrels with a spray.
“What are you doing back here? Are you preparing for another attack, or are you withdrawing!?”
“Matsuo Ryuusuke is…”
Kamijou bit his lip without finishing that sentence.
This girl was from the hidden side of society where she wielded that Gatling gun to kill the target designated for her.
But he was still reluctant to tell such a young girl what had become of L.S.S.’s president.
One of Amazora’s eyebrows shot up as she guessed what his silence meant and she placed a hand on the heart-shaped opening on the flat chest of her dress.
“Something happened, huh?”
Kamijou himself could not explain that threat.
After all, that hakama girl was not even fighting. It was unclear what she was even focused on. With that much power, she truly could destroy the world if unleashed.
“Are you going to keep fighting or withdraw?” asked Amazora. “Let’s narrow it down to that.”
“We can’t back away from this,” he said. “She’s already done enough damage on the mountain. Who knows what would happen to Academy City if she reaches the foot of the mountain.”
“Got it.” The third sister smiled while using the motor to once more rotate the Gatling gun’s barrels. “Then just give the word. My job is to give you the firepower you need.”
He wanted to shout for her to run away.
Academy City’s first esper, the Beginning Child, was on another level altogether. The dinosaur that tried to protect its master had its jaw torn away and L.S.S.’s Matsuo Ryuusuke was taken out of the fight so easily, allowing everything to derail from the already insane track he had laid out. The hakama girl was entirely indiscriminate as she wandered about. But that also meant she showed no restraint or mercy. She truly would activate her power even if there was a baby crawling in her path. Because she was not looking at any of this. No one could predict what would happen, so it would be best to run.
“Here she comes! That’s who you meant, right!?”
“That was fast!!”
It was too late for that.
The barefoot schoolgirl could be glimpsed slowly descending the mountain through the trees. As always, she did not seem to care at all when a fly or roach crawled on her.
Her current height up the mountain was a lot like the countdown to Academy City’s destruction.
Once it was down to zero, everything was over.
If that magma or flashflood poured down the slope like an avalanche, the other two sisters would be caught by it and killed before they even knew what was happening. There was no safety on the mountain. Fully understanding the threat was probably best if they were going to stand up to her.
“That monster can use any sort of attack, including both fire and water. And the effects cover enough of a range to fill a domed stadium!! Facing her head on means getting hit by magma or a flashflood!! Don’t lose your freedom of movement!!”
“Hold on. We’re talking about an esper power here, right?”
“This is no fairy tale! Here it comes!!”
They heard something like a sticky bubble popping.
Then a harsh odor reached them. This must have been what it felt like to soak up to the shoulders in a river full of a chemical cleaner. Kamijou grimaced and felt the stickiness of toxic goop at his feet. He grabbed at a tree trunk to avoid tripping, but it was there too. The entire tree was coated in black and pink goo.
“The hell!? Is this like Riku Onee-chan’s poison!?”
He had no answer for her. This was yet another type of power. The magma and flashflood had at least seemed like a type of natural disaster, but this felt more like manmade environmental destruction.
Could that girl really do anything?
Were there no rules governing the Beginning Child’s power?
“We need to fall back.”
“Running away won’t fix this, Onii-chan!!”
“Start firing and you’ll have this stuff spraying in the air!! And who knows what happens if we breathe it in!!”
He and the small girl descended the slope while being careful not to slip. The small bird flying by overhead felt like some kind of sign. He wondered if it had flown away in response to a chemical substance or EM waves that humans could not detect.
He was baffled, but he did understand some things.
The Beginning Child could use everything from magma to flashfloods. And she could apparently make mistakes depending on how she used her power. She could also use a power that was more like pollution than a natural disaster.
And one other thing.
Her power never seemed to be directly targeted at him or Amazora.
The ground and tree trunks had grown all goopy, but their own bodies were not transformed in the same way.
“Was I mistaken?”
At the very least, her power was not something she launched at a target. Perhaps her power remade the entire field that contained her target.
What made it change?
She had produced magma, water, ice, a sandstorm, lightning, geysers, altitude sickness caused by an air pressure change, and toxic pollution.
Plus an entirely meaningless flower garden.
If she only had to create a phenomenon that gave Kamijou trouble or harmed him, there had to be more effective ways of doing this. She could have covered the ground in nothing but swords or she could have produced a downpour of spears. There had to be better ways of killing someone, like scattering a bunch of invisible neutrons or dropping a giant meteor on his head.
Yet she was using these more roundabout methods.
If anything, it was like she was using this power for something other than its intended purpose, like beating someone with a giant shovel.
In other words…
“Her power isn’t meant to change humans in any way. Her power causes great change to the environment itself.”
He probably imagined the crawling sound.
This would not have actually been audible.
But there it was.
Some kind of small creature was crawling from the chest of her hakama-like uniform to her throat. It was a small scorpion. Was it native to this mountain, or had it been one of the pets kept in that log cabin?
“Is that her power!? Can she instantly create the environment best suited to the animal of her choice, be it the desert or the Antarctic!?”
Then she roared.
Deep in the mountains where Academy City had a reservoir as its only independent water source, everything was enveloped by a powerful sandy wind with a blazing temperature of 50 degrees.
Kumokawa Seria held a hand to the side of her head as if trying to stabilize her shaky mind from the outside.
She had been separated from Kamijou Touma.
The direction of the wind kept the unnatural sandstorm from reaching her here. Viewing that giant filthy-looking cotton candy from without emphasized how bizarre the Beginning Child was.
For one thing, that was not a weather phenomenon that happened in Japan. She felt like she was looking at a cheaply edited photo.
That esper could control the planetary environment or the largescale climate.
Even Kumokawa could only think of a few espers on that level.
(The #1’s vector control or the #3’s high-voltage electricity. And when it comes to pure control of weather conditions, she must be stronger even than them.)
The harshest area was over there, but Kumokawa’s location was far from safe. The Beginning Child’s power was extraordinary. She had reached a point where she could take people’s lives just by standing there and without even recognizing them as people.
(I can see why not even Aleister could control her.)
She leaned against a nearby tree and sighed.
(Although if he could have controlled the Beginning Child who can freely alter the environment itself, he may not have needed that fully-airtight Windowless Building.)
Stray shots were flying in all directions.
At the slightest whim, the entire area could become an ocean of magma or be frozen in a block of ice, but she had managed to escape from the Beginning Child for the time being.
What could she do at the moment?
She knew blindly regrouping with the others was not the answer. That would mean letting go of some powerful card she had yet to see.
But she could not rely on L.S.S. tech either.
The sprays, ultrasound speakers, and other safety devices Matsuo Ryuusuke had prepared would have been destroyed already. Searching through the rubble of the villa was unlikely to provide any hint on how to defeat this enemy. That girl was not the same as L.S.S.’s creatures.
(Should I circle around and collect Mitsuari Ayu? Or I could descend the mountain and acquire more firepower. There is no way Aleister hasn’t noticed this, so I am curious what he’s sending in to deal with it.)
She was not in the center of the fighting, but her decision here could greatly change the future.
Supposedly, humans would quickly lose their mental balance if they were placed in an environment where their senses failed them. The experiments using blindfolds and tubes around the arms were well-known, but it was also speculated that the many reports of seeing monsters in the mountains during a blizzard came from that same fact.
Was the hot sandstorm in which Kamijou found himself creating that effect in him?
He could barely see his hand in front of his face.
He had lost his bearings, and he was afraid he would forget which way was up if he let his guard down. Was that how the world looked to the hakama girl?
He clenched his teeth and bore with the pain, but his mind was turning inwards. And that was not necessarily a good thing. He was gradually losing sight of who he was, like he had stared into the mirror for so long he began to wonder who that was reflected there.
What was he doing?
He wanted to rescue Mitsuari Ayu, so he had chased after L.S.S. But Matsuo Ryuusuke had been taken out of the fight almost immediately and yet the danger was not at all over.
His mental GPS was screwed up.
Where was he right now?
What could he do to escape this labyrinth?
When he heard a voice from deep within the white noise of the raging sandstorm, he initially assumed he was imagining things.
“Hey, are you okay!?”
Gokusai Kaibi, the middle sister, had grabbed his shoulders. She worked as an assassin. She lived in a fundamentally different world from him, but she was giving him an entirely ordinary look, like she was worried he might have heatstroke. That gap from his expectations seemed odd to him.
And she was not alone.
“I can’t believe this. I would have much preferred to find that high school girl since she might actually be able to pay us, but I just know she’ll refuse to pay if we abandon you.”
Rikuri, the oldest sister, was there too.
“Did you swallow some sand? Don’t worry! Humans are surprisingly tough, so playing in the sandbox won’t kill you!”
So was Amazora, the youngest sister.
Knowing he was not alone was enough to snap his mind out of it. His senses woke back up after a state similar to being blindfolded and placed on a soft, fluffy bed. Being surrounded by an assassin trio in the mountains may have qualified as a crisis under normal circumstances, but he did not see it that way right now.
They were on his side.
And if he had a side to be on, there had to be an opposing side as well.
That finally put things in focus for him.
The Beginning Child was wandering around after being awoken from her long sleep. She was not even thinking about fighting. Matsuo Ryuusuke could no longer stop this. He did not know where Mitsuari Ayu and Kumokawa Seria were, but since they were on this mountain too, the risk to their lives would be increasing by the moment. And they could not allow the Beginning Child to reach the city below the mountain in her current state.
“You, the oldest one…Rikuri was it? You specialize in poisons and drones, right?”
“Look at this.”
In lieu of an introduction, sexy Rikuri turned her mobile device’s small screen for him to see. The displayed footage was wobbling in a way that suggested this was coming from a flying drone, not a stationary camera.
It looked like there had been a gas explosion in the forest.
A figure was collapsed near what remained of the blown-up villa.
“It’s a miracle she wasn’t engulfed in the magma or enveloped in ice while that close. Or maybe being so close to the Beginning Child actually placed her in a safe zone.”
The plant-based device(?) would have been destroyed when the hakama girl awoke, but Mitsuari was still unconscious. There were still some plant remains tangled around her hair or skin.
She was safe for now, but for how long?
If she was only safe due to the Beginning Child’s immediate vicinity acting like the eye of a storm, then it was bad that the hakama girl had moved along with Kamijou and the others.
The footage vanished into static as they watched. That was not an issue with the device. The sandstorm that had hit Kamijou had reached the drone. Rikuri sighed and the footage eventually cleared to show it was being taken from much further overhead.
“I somehow managed to keep it from crashing, but I can’t send it any lower than this. Then it really would lose control and stall.”
Mitsuari would be caught in it all if she remained there.
They could not let the Beginning Child continue on any longer.
She had killed Matsuo Ryuusuke. Not out of anger or resentment but with an indiscriminate roar. She had not even glanced in his direction. She probably had not even noticed anyone was there.
How could they be certain the same would not happen again?
“What should we do?”
He forced himself out of his thoughts.
This was what he wanted from Rikuri’s drones.
“If you can use that thing for poison and medicine, can you also use it to disinfect and sterilize? A method that doesn’t require approaching the Beginning Child would be great.”
“That is possible. This drone is a new model modified from one used to disseminate agrochemicals. It depends on the level of sterilization you want, but using a combination of ethanol and disinfectant should eliminate 99.999% of it.”
“Then you, the short one.”
“I’ll cry, Onii-chan.”
“Amazora was it? You fire your Gatling gun around. But you don’t have to hit the Beginning Child. The light and noise are what I want.”
“What should I do?” asked Kaibi with a sigh and a hand on her hip.
Kamijou grabbed an acorn from a nearby tree branch.
“Do you have a way of firing something of about this size? It needs to travel…yes, let’s say between 10 and 20 meters.”
“A blowgun should do the trick. Knowing how to build your own replacement weapon is the standard when your gun is off limits.”
The Beginning Child was extremely powerful.
Under the modern era’s system, she would probably be ranked at Level 5.
But she did not try to hide her power.
He was pretty sure he knew the conditions it required.
“Then let’s do this.”
He was not alone.
He would not let anyone here be left alone.
“We have one shot at this. It’s time to go to war with our predecessor.”
When Mitsuari Ayu first woke up, she could not bring her eyes into focus.
Everything looked blurry as if due to tears, but rubbing at her eyes a few times did nothing to help. However, this may have acted as a protective cradle for her. Was it a coincidence, or were her senses subconsciously rejecting something?
As soon as her vision did recover, she saw an upper body without the bottom half attached.
“Ugh!?” she groaned.
She looked away as best she could while a corner of her mind noticed how dryly she was reacting. Someone was dying, yet she was not crying, screaming, and rushing over to try to stop the bleeding even if it bloodied her own hands. She had realized at a glance that there was no saving him.
She only heard some wheezing breaths.
How much longer would Matsuo Ryuusuke remain conscious? It was a gruesome enough sight that it overturned the usual concepts of good and evil by making her think it would be best if he died quickly.
The fluffy-haired girl saw something, perhaps because she had looked away from the gruesomeness. Was that a phone? The entire surface functioned as a monitor and a small keyboard slid out like with a calculator.
It displayed something.
The image was terribly out of focus, but she could make out some grainy black-and-white footage. It looked like it was from a security camera, but it was not looking down from near the ceiling. The height of the footage looked about eye level with the average person, but its height was changing despite no one operating the device. It almost looked like it was moving along rails standing up from the ground.
It used a tree.
A camera was crawling along a tree trunk like an insect or chameleon and it surveilled the area from there. She recalled that L.S.S. used biological creatures in everything they did.
The edges of the full-screen monitor displayed some arrows and buttons. That seemed like too much for simply controlling the camera’s angle. You must have been able to control the creature itself like with a video game.
Was it controlling the creature’s brain?
Or were things set up so a chemical substance or ultrasonic wave could be sent out to direct the creature around?
She hesitantly reached for the mobile device.
She felt no desire to touch the control panel along the screen’s edges. Touching it would not melt her finger away with poison, but she was confident that doing so would be like stepping off a precipice.
Even though she too had the power to control people’s minds.
The grainy black-and-white footage was tracking a girl in a hakama-like school uniform. Since Matsuo Ryuusuke was no longer in control, it must have been tracking her automatically.
But Mitsuari Ayu’s eyes were glued to the person she caught occasional glimpses of on the edge of the footage.
“He’s still alive!!”
Yes, she saw the pointy-haired boy.
She probably had no real reason for it.
In fact, the girl with her hakama fluttering in the wind must not have been aware she was even fighting with anyone. The Beginning Child must not have even known where she was or what year it was. That made it hard to create a logical explanation for her actions.
But she would do what she could.
Just like someone feeling around for the walls and floor after waking up in the dark. It was just that she could do far more than most could to test her surroundings.
That was not something that could be judged as good or evil.
Nor was it about a clash of emotions.
It was no more than an issue of bad timing. That she remained in this state meant that no one in this world had managed to rid her of her anxiety.
The dangerous lost child raised her voice.
Everyone could tell that her surroundings changed each time she did so. Molten rock would fill the world with an orange light or a thick layer of ice would cover everything, but her power was nothing as cliché as producing fire or water from her hand.
She would designate a specific living creature and supply the ideal environment for that creature’s survival.
In a way, it was a localized form of terraforming.
If the conditions were right, she could survive being thrown onto the moon or Mars. In fact, she could survive being thrown into the center of a black hole or the Big Bang without issue. After all, her power would remake the area around her into the environment needed to survive.
On the other hand, that was all her power could do.
She had nothing that was fundamentally meant to harm people.
She simply remade her surroundings into an ideal environment. She repeated the process over and over. It may have been similar to a child lost in an unfamiliar land crying and searching for a place to rest.
So it had all been about bad timing.
This damage never would have occurred if things had fit together better to begin with. If someone had realized the problem, they may have been able to put her at ease and stop her with a method other than combat.
It was unclear which conjunction was the better fit here.
Regardless, the time had come.
How many times had she done this now? Would peace never come to her? The schoolgirl in an old-fashioned hakama-style uniform breathed in deep once more. And…
Someone else yelled before she could.
Her eyes focused on a specific point, even if only on a whim.
Kamijou Touma rushed straight toward her.
Of course, even Kamijou Touma only had the one life. He did not have the guts to charge into the center of it all without a plan. That was why he had discussed it all with the three sisters first.
The Beginning Child always roared when using her power.
That meant it would not be all that difficult to take an action at the same time as her power activated. Just like swiping the mobile device from Mitsuari Ayu, they could stop her from activating her power.
The Beginning Child was not holding any kind of machine or tool.
So what did they need to obstruct her?
“Amazora!! Start firing those bullets wherever!!”
He was answered by a storm of earsplitting booms. That large-caliber Gatling gun could slice right through a tank if used right. Even if the storm of bullets never hit, the deluge of light and noise had enough power to pummel the body of whoever happened to be there.
And in fact, all the rustling from the surrounding area came to a stop. The birds in the branches, the beasts in the bushes, the bugs in the boughs, and all other forms of life fled in a panic from the sudden din and shockwaves.
The Beginning Child’s power remade her surroundings into the ideal environment for the living creature she designated.
But that magma and flood were clearly not the ideal for a human.
So how had she been switching between different effects before?
(She used the animals in the woods. The bat gave her a sulfur cave or volcano, the frog gave her the water, the rabbit gave her a tall mountain, and a mosquito or roach gave her a river of sludge. In each case, she remade the environment into the ideal form for the closest animal to her!!)
So they only had to remove all living creatures from her vicinity.
It was possible she could use herself as the basis for the environmental change, but creating the most comfortable world for a human would not be a threat to Kamijou. So they could eliminate all other options to create a situation where he could get close.
On the other hand, the category of “living things” was not limited to what they could see.
(She also created an icy world.)
Kamijou had a guess about that.
(I doubt that was using an escaped polar bear or penguin that belonged to Matsuo. But if she can use microscopic bacteria, that changes things. If her power works on living things at that size, she can create a world far removed from anything livable for humans!!)
“Rikuri, you’re up!!”
He heard a spinning motor that sounded a lot like an electric shaver.
A drone resembling a crane fly made of alloy and plastic flew 2 or 3 meters above the Beginning Child. It forcefully sprayed down a white mist that resembled the light shined down by a UFO. That spray contained a mixture of disinfectant and ethanol. It was harmless to people, but it would wipe out almost all microscopic bacteria.
They had eliminated all macroscopic animals and microscopic bacteria.
Now the Beginning Child was all alone.
Nevertheless, she spread the sleeves of her old-fashioned uniform along with her arms as he approached. She used all her inhaled oxygen to prepare for a roar.
She could still do it.
The human body contained gut bacteria. If she could expel any of that from her body, she might be able to select the living things on her skin or in her saliva as her target. If she created the environment ideal for those things, it was sure to be absurdly dangerous for humans.
She raised her hand toward her mouth and extended her tongue toward the back of her hand.
She was preparing to activate her power.
(I knew it wouldn’t be that easy!!)
Humans were capable of dissolving and absorbing the flesh they swallowed, so the environment meant for the microbes that lived there could be a lake of a digestive acid that dissolved all fat and protein in the area.
Kamijou Touma had prepared a last resort.
The instant he shouted that name, something flew past his cheek from behind.
It was a hard and shiny mass about the size of his thumbnail.
The attack sliced through the air and toward the Beginning Child’s forehead. She reflexively caught it in her hand.
It was nothing more than a small beetle.
That nonlethal and unharmful attack fired by the girl in a dress’s handmade blowgun seemed more like a prank than anything, but it functioned as a decisive blow against the Beginning Child.
Because she would remake her surroundings based on the living thing closest to her.
She only seemed to notice after she had already carelessly roared.
What was the ideal environment for a small bug that loved flower nectar and hid on flower petals? Colorful flowers blossomed all around the girl in an old-fashioned hakama-style school uniform.
That was all.
There was no attack power there.
This may have been who the Beginning Child had originally been. If the people around her had not attached extra value to her power and pushed her away, she may have remained that way.
She had screwed up the setup all on her own herself once.
This was not Kamijou’s first time seeing this flower garden.
Another bug must have passed by closer than her intended target – for example, flying by right in front of her face – so she had unintentionally prioritized that and failed to remake her surroundings correctly.
With that one attack neutralized, Kamijou Touma could rush toward her with nothing to stop him. He could move right up to her.
Her power would not have been some scary thing originally.
It created the best environment for a living thing. If that was all, it could be used to surround herself in a colorful flower garden.
“There’s nothing to worry about. I won’t let anyone use you for their own benefit. I won’t let them use you as a means to an end or to throw you at people as a weapon. So don’t worry. There’s nothing at all to worry about!!”
So this was not a failure on the Beginning Child’s part.
She needed to learn about this sort of success.
She should have been taught this sooner.
No matter how large and distorted it had grown, if Academy City wanted to call itself a school, someone should have taught her this.
But that could always begin now. He would not let anyone say it was too late.
No matter what.
“If…if you say there’s no place for you here and you say this is the only way you can create a place for yourself…”
This may have all been meaningless from the beginning.
This girl had done nothing worthy of blame.
But at this point, words alone could not stop her. So to grasp at a new starting point for her and to end things the way they were now, Kamijou Touma had no choice but to clench his fist tight.
When choosing between good or evil, he did not have to choose good.
He clenched his teeth to bear with the weight of that other option.
“Then I’ll destroy that idea!!!!!”
A single sound of impact followed.
He used no bullets or poison, making it an ending those assassin girls could not have provided.
Kamijou caught the girl as she crumpled and he gently set her down.
No one could say what would happen to the Beginning Child after this. To her, it would likely feel like returning from Ryugujo. If she could not adjust to this era, it would be a tragedy for her.
But he had ended it all the same.
He had done it without letting the girl die.
At the very least, he would not let anyone say the tragedy was her fault. He wanted to think he had at least accomplished that.
He doubted this was the end of all the problems. What would happen to L.S.S. itself? What about the monsters released into the woods by Matsuo Ryuusuke? He was also worried about Mitsuari Ayu and Kumokawa Seria. They would also need to contact Anti-Skill so no one would climb up onto this mountain without knowing the danger.
While he was considering all that, he heard a rustling sound.
“Yeah. I see you ended this.”
It was Kumokawa Seria. She was limping a little, but nothing seemed broken and she did not look badly burned. It was lucky enough to have simply survived in such a dangerous environment. Matsuo Ryuusuke had in fact not survived it.
“What were you off doing all this time?” asked an exasperated Rikuri.
“Did you think Aleister would just sit idly by after the Beginning Child was found? If I hadn’t messed with the chain of command to delay that operation, this entire slope would have been glassed by an aluminum and iron oxide cluster bomb.”
Now was not the time to reflect on what had happened.
Some of them had been lucky, but had they all been? The sailor uniform high school girl had made it safely back to them, but what about the other girl?
“Where did Mitsuari Ayu go?”
No one could answer Kumokawa’s question.
Rikuri’s drone had seen her lying unconscious on the ground earlier, but once the sandstorm cleared, she was nowhere to be found.
“That Biohacker’s toys should still be wandering around. She’s still in danger if she’s injured and unable to move.”
What if Mitsuari Ayu was injured and unable to move while L.S.S.’s bizarre creatures wandered around with no one at the controls? None of them wanted to think about what would happen if she was found in that defenseless state.
But Kumokawa Seria’s prediction was not quite accurate.
That may have been due to her habit of always assuming the worst.
Mitsuari Ayu was slumped down near the remains of the log cabin.
Was it a miracle she had survived all of the Beginning Child’s roars from such close range, or had she been safe so close to the hakama girl, similar to being in the eye of a storm?
Either way, it did not necessarily lead to her own happiness.
She could not live up to everyone’s expectations and she did not want all that attention.
No matter what she did, she could not become a Level 5.
Her hips had given out, but she had still tried to hide herself so no one else would be dragged down by her incompetence, but that was when she had seen something.
The fluffy-haired girl cried out because she had seen what remained of Matsuo Ryuusuke. His lower half was gone and he had slowly slid down the tree trunk to the ground, but he was still breathing. It was obvious there was no saving him, but he was still conscious. There was nothing she could do for him. The middle schooler’s heart was struck by a powerful shock subtly different from simply stumbling across a corpse.
She naturally grew more keenly aware of the presence of death.
His eyes had started to glaze over.
He probably could not even see anymore, but there was still a thin smile on his lips.
A weak voice spoke from those smiling lips.
“I was right. Mitsuari wasn’t good enough.”
The slumping girl looked up.
He was not looking at anything in particular. He probably had no idea anyone was close by and listening. He would breathe his last soon enough, so she could not imagine he would feel the need to lie.
And yet he continued.
“But Shokuhou Misaki was out of my reach. I had to find a replacement, but it seems I chose wrong there.”
She felt like something broke inside her.
She knew what he meant. She had already known she was not one of the lucky ones.
It felt like having an invisible cap placed on her abilities.
But it was such a vague feeling she could not be certain of anything.
Since she could not be certain, she should have been able to ignore it.
And she had managed until now.
I was right?
What did he mean by that?
He had abducted her and forcibly pushed her into this, but he had known she could not manage it from the beginning? She did not want L.S.S. or Matsuo Ryuusuke to have won, but why had he continued on if he had known it would not work!?
Would this not have happened if she had no power at all?
Would it not have happened if she had some great power?
The person most dragged down by her incompetence – her partial incompetence – was her herself.
She could tell. No matter how hard she worked, she could never cast aside her power and become a Level 0 and she could not gain more power and become a Level 5. She could struggle and struggle and struggle some more, but just like a helium balloon anchored by a string, she would never go anywhere and only float here in the stagnant air.
(So it’s true.)
She had occasionally heard that term mentioned recently.
Even from the boy and girl who had seemed like a symbol of salvation for her.
If this was vague, uncertain, and an ignorable margin of error, she should have been able to live her life without worrying about it. And yet…
(There really and truly is no hope for me. There are some things you can’t do no matter how hard you try.)
Kamijou clenched his teeth.
Not only had he fought on the unfamiliar territory of a mountain slope, but his opponent had been able to change the entire environment at will. He had not at all managed to pace himself. His legs were already trembling.
But it was not over yet.
He had not come here to defeat the enemy. It was all meaningless unless he saved a certain girl.
“Move, move, move! We need to get moving or we won’t find Mitsuari!!”
The younger two assassins sighed while going along with it. When people were cornered, they tended to follow one of a few different patterns, but one of those was to just do something with all their might. It might look productive, but they were actually shutting down their thoughts and just tackling the problem head on. When you wanted to open a safe’s lock in a limited amount of time, trying to brute force all the combinations was not exactly a logical plan.
The oldest esper had been defeated, but she was not dead.
Was it really right to leave her unguarded while heading out to rescue the survivor?
“(Not that I want him asking me to stay behind. I don’t want to imagine a one-on-one round two against her if she wakes up again.)”
“(We know how to defeat her, but only he could go through with such a risky plan. I doubt I could manage that even if I adjusted our emotional distance.)”
Instead of wanting to do something, he could not bear to do nothing.
That was a common failure for amateurs, but that did not mean they could not appreciate it.
Rikuri whispered as if gently butting in. But not to Kamijou who had no idea what he was even doing. She was speaking to Kumokawa Seria who still had some mental flexibility left.
“What do we do about the Beginning Child?”
“If we don’t find Mitsuari, I will take care of her,” replied Kumokawa with a heavy sigh. “Mitsuari would be the best choice since she has already proven she can manage it, but I can produce a similar effect without using an esper power.”
“Calming her down is great and all, but doesn’t the Board Chairman want to silence her no matter what it takes? The boy saved her, but can she really survive for much longer regardless?”
“That isn’t an issue either. There are plenty of people who would treat her with the utmost care after hearing Aleister doesn’t want her around. An old man I know happens to be one of those and he is fairly sensible for that sort of person. Relatively speaking, anyway.”
Grass crunched below Mitsuari Ayu’s feet.
She walked unsteadily along the steep, tree-covered slope. She must have tripped a few times because her uniform was stained with mud.
Her hands were also stained.
But those dark red stains would be due to the special mobile device she had taken from Matsuo Ryuusuke.
Its owner was no more. He had been beyond saving, so he had simply laughed and stared at nothing in particular until he ceased to function.
She had no destination in mind.
There were people on this mountain who would come to save her.
“How can I ever look them in the eye?”
She had come to realize something here.
Everything worked out for the better when she was not around. She did not harm people because she was entirely incompetent. Nor did she affect her surroundings because she was too powerful. No one had said it out loud, but the answer had suddenly stabbed into the back of her mind like unwanted divine revelation.
This was not about being competent or incompetent.
She was merely semi-competent.
No matter what she did, she could never become a Level 5. But at the same time, she could never shake that feeling of being so close – just a step away. She had never been able to tell when to give up and stop trying.
This was the result.
It had dragged her down.
If not for her, L.S.S. might have given up on the Beginning Child in their possession. If not for her, none of this would have happened. She was under no obligation to defend the person who had sent assassins after her, but if not for her, Matsuo Ryuusuke might have never taken that final step.
What could have remained an idle fantasy had become more than that.
So who was really to blame here?
She was not amused and she was not happy, yet some odd laughter spilled from her lips.
“Ah ha ha ha.”
Her skinny arms drooped and she nearly dropped the special mobile device.
But it was not over yet.
The familiar voices coming from the footage on the screen pierced into her heart.
“What should we do about the Beginning Child? She appears to be unconscious for now.”
“She isn’t a bad person. I doubt this will happen again if she has a chance to cool her head and take a look at her surroundings.”
“That sounds awfully optimistic to me.”
“You’re taking their side, Senpai? Once you start saying you can never know for sure what someone’s thinking, you can never be sure of anyone anymore. You’d be acting just like L.S.S.!! Sticking an antenna in her head and spraying her with an invisible chemical mist won’t calm her down. Anyone would freak out if you did that to them!”
“Hear me out,” cut in Kumokawa’s voice.
Mitsuari felt a great weight bearing down on her heart before the girl said anything.
“There is one way of knowing for sure, isn’t there? Matsuo Ryuusuke resorted to kidnapping to acquire it since L.S.S. couldn’t do it on their own.”
“Actually altering her mind isn’t necessary. As long as we have some insurance at the ready, we can all accept this. And you know who would work best in that role, don’t you?”
“Oh, I get it.”
Don’t say it.
“That’s right! Mitsuari’s Mental Stinger!!”
It felt like having her heart shattered.
Kamijou Touma meant no harm. His words contained only the pure and innocent hope of someone relying on a friend.
But that was the problem.
Mitsuari Ayu did not entirely lack power and she did not have too much power.
She was stuck in the middle.
Forever trapped in between.
She was like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. The bucket was so close to running over, but no matter how much water you poured in, it would never cross the rim. She had just enough power to inspire hope and expectations. Just enough to feel like it would be a waste to give up and stop trying.
But she would fail in the end.
She would fail no matter how hard she tried, so why did they have to turn those hopes and expectations her way?
The stolen mobile device slipped from her fingers and rolled down the slope.
Would it be them next?
Would she have to see that look of disappointment from them too?
Defeating a powerful foe was not guaranteed to save someone.
If the problem they faced and the hurdle you cleared did not match up, clearing it would not save them.
They parted the underbrush and arrived at the former location of the log cabin.
But no one was there.
Rikuri’s drone had seen her passed out there, but once they arrived, she was nowhere to be found.
Had someone taken her away? Unlikely.
Matsuo Ryuusuke’s lifeless upper body was lying nearby and they doubted there was any further villain here. Kamijou knew you were not supposed to disturb a crime scene, but when he saw a swarm of small ants gathering, he shooed them away with a stick.
Amazora used a hand to fan at the opening in her dress’s chest and spoke up with the unique cruelty of a child.
“Leave him like that. It’s what he deserves. It’s fitting for someone who toyed with life.”
“Amazora,” said the girl in a dress to cut off any further discussion.
Kumokawa Seria sighed.
“If she isn’t here, she must have either panicked and fled after seeing this or ended up rolling down the slope by accident. Except…”
They had of course tried calling her phone, but she did not answer.
And it did not seem to be a case of having no signal in the mountains.
Kamijou clicked his tongue and put his phone away.
“Then we need to go find her. We have no idea how many L.S.S. creatures are out here!!”
“You want to find a single person on this mountain with only the five of us? She might not be on the usual route up the mountain, you know?”
The girl in a dress argued against his plan.
Meanwhile, the oldest sister, Gokusai Rikuri, pointed overhead, causing her gaudy dress’s shoulder strap to strain.
“I sent out a drone, but nothing yet. Also, the map of the mountain is far from complete. If she’s hiding in a cave or something, I might overlook her while viewing things from above.”
“Then what can we do?” asked Kamijou.
“Nothing here on the mountain. But there is only so much my drones can check. They miss a lot inside the complexity of the city. You know her well enough to want to save her life, right? Then do you know where she might go?”
“Are you suggesting she left the mountain without telling us?”
“It’s a possibility. Maybe she was only focused on escaping the creatures or maybe she went into the city to get some help from the adults. Besides, she’s probably safest off the mountain now that Matsuo is gone.”
Matsuo Ryuusuke had destroyed himself.
They had somehow managed to stop the Beginning Child.
But he still had a bad feeling about this. No matter what they did, it never seemed to end. Still, he knew they had to end it somehow. This did not feel like a place a normal person could stay for long.
“Then let’s split up and search. Senpai and I will head to the city, so you three-”
“My drones are enough to search the mountain, so my cute little sisters can drive off the creatures that L.S.S. left behind.”
They really haven’t found me, thought Mitsuari Ayu while finding herself capable of an unusually detached analysis of her situation.
Or maybe she had just numbed over.
She did not really know what it was she wanted.
No, she did know.
She wanted to be a Level 5. She wanted to break free of the rules placed on her by the grownups. She wanted to believe that she could accomplish a come-from-behind victory at the last second, no matter what any of the data said.
But that would not happen.
On the verge of death, Matsuo Ryuusuke had said he had failed, that Mitsuari was the reason he had failed, and that it all would have worked if he had only gone to Shokuhou instead. His opinion was thoroughly self-righteous and sinister, but that was why it rang so true. That must have been the unvarnished truth. Some people were chosen and some were not. Mitsuari Ayu happened to be in the latter category.
Her hopes and dreams would not come true.
Her efforts would not be rewarded.
This was not her first time facing this. And she had seen others face it as well. She had somehow survived in that lab, but those other children had not been so lucky and met bloody ends.
She had thought it was over.
She had believed she had escaped that.
But failure had a firm grasp on her life and would not let go.
It whispered in her ear that she had not been blessed with talent.
It smirked and tripped her up over and over.
So what would it be next time?
Since she could walk around like this, L.S.S. President Matsuo Ryuusuke’s infectious stun weapon had to have worn off, so she was no longer under the effects of that fever-like delirium.
These thoughts were hers.
She had guided herself here out of a reluctance to face the despair.
A symbol of death lay before her eyes.
It had not been created for that purpose and she had first seen it only a bit ago.
But now she stared quietly at it.
And some words spilled from her mouth.
“I wish I could just disappear.”
They no longer had to worry about Matsuo Ryuusuke or L.S.S.
Kamijou Touma and Kumokawa Seria made their way to the paved mountain road and descended the mountain from there. But that did not immediately take them to the city below. The mountain was relatively small at only about 200m, but the twists and turns of the winding mountain road still ate up a lot of time.
Taking a direct path down, it would only be 200m, but that was as reckless an idea as saying you could travel 200m in an instant by jumping from the roof of a 200m building. That path would have been tough even with well-maintained stairs.
“There aren’t that many places Mitsuari could have gone,” said Kumokawa while walking alongside him. “She’s one of those rich girls who spends all her time in the luxury of the School Garden and Tokiwadai Middle School, so even with all of Academy City open to her, she would only think to visit a limited number of places.”
“Like the places we took her?”
“I have my doubts she knows much about Academy City aside from those places.”
It had still been morning when they attacked the L.S.S. HQ and peeked inside their server, but after being hit by the infectious stun weapon, entering the mountains to rescue Mitsuari, and descending the mountain once more, the sun was already starting to set.
He used his phone to search the news for anything about Mitsuari and Tokiwadai, but he found nothing of note. Her name might not be reported since she was a minor, but he decided she must not have been caught up in any major accident or incident.
But that meant it had not happened yet.
It could still happen now.
“God, first that honey girl and now this. Why are younger girls so much trouble? Let’s split up and search. I’ll check Tokiwadai, the School Garden, and anywhere else a boy like you can’t go.”
“Got it. I’ll check all the places we went with her!!”
Mitsuari Ayu wanted to be useful to someone.
She had said as much inside that burning parking garage.
But here she was turning her back on the others and running away. Even though they wanted the help of her power. They had not said so to her, but she knew.
If the Beginning Child was not temporarily restrained, she might spread magma and ice in every direction the instant she awoke.
Mitsuari heard a sound like an electric shaver.
She might not have head it in the noise of the big city, but even a phone’s ringtone or a car’s engine sounded horribly out of place here in the mountains. That motor was the same.
She had seen one of those three sisters using drones back in the School Garden.
So she ducked down below an overhanging rock wall that acted as a roof and slipped past along the shortest route. She could feel her own heart growing stagnant as she went to the effort.
She wanted to disappear.
She wanted to disappear and go away, but how could she do that?
She could hide, she could run away to some distant place, and she could change her name and appearance to start a new life as someone else, but this pressure would remain.
What was even the point of her life?
Was this all it was good for?
After others had paid the price for her to survive this long?
Not a single person was blaming her of anything, but she was still terrified. She kept begging people to not have any hope or expectations for her because she was terrified of disappointing them.
There was no going back now.
She did not dare power on her phone. She knew there had to be plenty of phone numbers and email addresses in its address book, but she could not bring herself to choose any of them.
She was too scared to make any kind of decision.
She was too scared she would have the answer shoved in front of her face like bisected Matsuo Ryuusuke had done earlier.
(If only…yes, if only time would come to a stop.)
That was not going to happen.
“I can make it stop.”
When searching with drones, efficiency was key.
First, you searched the entire field while taking note of any sort of blind spot: behind rocks, in caves, small cabins, and other places that the drone could not see from overhead. Then you would focus your search on those locations to find any evidence that someone had been hiding there.
Any footprints or tire tracks would act as the next hint.
It was nothing fancy. Just an efficient way of filling the gaps.
Rikuri’s large chest rose and fell with a sigh.
“This may not work.”
It was not that she had found something.
Quite the opposite.
She searched and searched and found nothing. Time passed, yet nothing at all changed. No, something did change. If the situation was still underway, then Rikuri’s side was falling further and further behind.
It was like tickets for an event with an extremely limited number of spots had gone on sale, yet she could not find the site selling them.
It felt like some kind of crucial game piece was moving further away with every passing second.
Next to her, Kaibi looked up at the sky.
It would be night soon.
No one knew what had become of the creatures released by L.S.S. They had been so dangerous during the day, but the risk might grow even further once it grew dark. If any of the creatures were nocturnal, they might behave entirely differently.
And even if the adults of Anti-Skill learned what was happening and worked to exterminate the creatures, that would introduce another risk. Anti-Skill would be fully equipped and out hunting in the mountains. Assassins with a criminal past did not want to be out in the mountains then.
“Time to withdraw?”
“I’m afraid they’ll try to get out of paying us if we do, but we can’t stay here any longer. I would rather not lose my life out of greed.”
They could imagine two different scenarios here.
First, Mitsuari Ayu had already left the mountain.
Second, Mitsuari Ayu was intentionally hiding herself on the mountain.
It was also possible she had been eaten by a creature such that not even her bones remained, but the best course of action for the sisters remained the same either way.
They would gain nothing by sticking with this any longer.
They had gotten along well with that boy.
It almost seemed a shame to cut ties with him.
(I’m not sticking around if it means putting my adorable little sisters at risk.)
They belonged to the deep darkness of this city. They were not soft enough to stick around to the end only for emotional reasons.
Everyone had something to protect.
And following through on that had led Gokusai Rikuri down the path of an assassin.
Psychology apparently came into play with suicide as well.
They said the method people used was dependent on age, gender, occupation, status, mobility, family structure, family relationships, possession of a car, wealth, number of friends, and more.
Mitsuari Ayu blankly stared at something.
For hours and hours, she let time pass her by while she simply stared at it.
Light was brightly reflected before her eyes.
It was a large body of water.
That was District 21’s reservoir and the metal tower of Ground Geo stood up from its center.
The biggest connection she had to that place was seeing it from Matsuo Ryuusuke’s car when he drove her into the mountains. But when she saw it now, she had a vague premonition telling her she would die there. That fixation may have been the result of her fear fusing with the resistance within her that was trying to tell her where her home was. Alternatively, it may have simply looked like a giant gravestone in the mountains.
Was there any particular reason she had chosen water?
Was there any difference between that and slitting her wrists or hanging herself?
She thought about it.
And thought some more.
Finally, she laughed quietly. To some, it might have looked more like she was crying.
Of course she was.
Everyone had that emotion, yet it made her feel horribly filthy.
(Yes, that’s right. Of course I’m afraid of dying.)
She was afraid of quickly moving past the point of no return by injuring herself and bleeding or by snapping her neck and dangling from the rope. So she chose a form of death that was harder to picture. After all, she would only be entering the water. That was no different from her daily routine of washing her face and bathing. So it would be fine. There was nothing to fear. If she just tried it a little, it would not break her body or leave any permanent scars. So it would be fine. Just fine. She could manage it like this.
She understood that.
And she understood she had nowhere else to go.
Yet she just stood there. She stood there until the midsummer sun had set. That may have been what she really wanted to do. Not standing – waiting. She had been waiting for hours and hours. But waiting for what? Only after her thoughts finally reached that point did her fingertips move.
She had been stiff and still for so long that bending her wrists and elbows made her feel like a doll needing an oiling.
She slowly and awkwardly pulled out her phone.
She finally powered it on again.
The email and call histories were full.
There were people worried for her.
She could contact them at the push of a button. If she heard their voices directly, she might find a reason to abandon this idea.
She could not bring herself to choose anyone, but if someone called her, she would leap at the chance. Her logic was broken and incoherent. She simply wanted to pass the decision on to someone else.
In her current state, she could not bring herself to make a decision, to break through, to brush it aside.
But if she only had to wither away.
If something would change as she drooped and dried up, then she could give up.
Give up on dying.
Normal people might not even realize that was a decision that needed to be made, but she needed something to push her in that direction.
She felt like crying.
She could only think of one person.
She had not understood anything at all when they first met.
Not what she had gotten caught up in and not whether she could trust the older boy and girl talking in front of her. She had only known she had to make herself useful. She had not known what that dragon was or anything else, but if she said she had no clue and if she overturned her empty bag of knowledge and shook it to no avail, she had been certain they would sigh, give up on her, and leave her there to die.
But when they had burst into that fiery parking garage, she had felt certain of something else. She did not have to prove herself. That boy had not come there because he was seeking something from her based on self-interest. He had simply defeated all the formidable opponents standing in their way, both the giant creature and the professional assassins. She had learned that was just who he was.
But there was more to him than fighting too. In fact, he seemed to know more than her about how to get by in that vast city.
He probably had no idea and had failed to notice, but Mitsuari had been the less sensible one.
He had taught her that it was easier to get to know people if you did not start from a point of suspicion and doubt.
So they had fought alongside each other.
She had been no help whatsoever and ultimately been captured by the villain in L.S.S.
But he had not uttered a word of complaint as he rushed into danger for her.
She had not asked him to save her.
She had been at the center of it all, but she had no idea why Matsuo Ryuusuke had wanted the original esper badly enough to abandon his own giant company.
But that did not matter.
It was irrelevant.
Even if it brought misfortune on himself, that boy would never allow that misfortune to reach anyone else. He was willing to clench his fist and rush into any disaster, apocalypse, or hell if it would accomplish that. That was just who he was.
She had run away from that.
She had left while pathetically tripping and falling.
She could not bring herself to throw out that hope.
What about him?
It was not an issue of logic or reason. Nor was it about interest or benefit.
She was a truly terrible person who had run away from everything.
Would he still reach out and grab her hand?
She had a strange look that could be seen as smiling or tearful.
A misguided application of courage.
Conviction was a powerful thing. She now knew how it felt once the pillar supporting you broke.
She spoke under her breath as if admitting defeat.
She placed her thumb on the phone’s call button.
“I’m so weak.”
Kamijou ran into someone at the intersection.
He felt no pain himself, but he had knocked the other person to the ground. Her belongings were strewn all around: a phone, stationery, makeup, and various remote controls.
“I’m really sorry, but I’m in a hurry. You aren’t hurt, are you? Bye!”
“Eh? What? Wait!!”
He quickly gathered up the scattered stationery, mobile device, and whatnot, shoved them into the honey-blonde girl’s arms, and bowed while making a quick exit. She had been wearing Tokiwadai’s summer uniform, but she was not the one he was looking for right now.
He could not find that other girl.
He could not help but feel like he was making no progress at some crucial moment.
He wanted to check to see how those three sisters and Kumokawa Seria’s searches were going, but he felt nothing in his pocket.
His phone was gone.
When he ran into that girl earlier, he had gathered up everything scattered on the ground and pushed it into her arms.
What if his own phone had been among those things?
“Wait! Wait! Dammit!!”
He ran back the way he had come, but there was no one there anymore.
He looked all around but saw no sign of that blonde girl. He had never actually given her a good look and he did not know her name, so he had no way of searching her out.
What if something horrible happened now?
What if some slight failure to communicate delayed things just barely enough?
Danger signals filled his mind, but he could not even pass on this information without his phone. He ran around until he found a payphone, but he froze after lifting up the receiver that was half buried in spider webs.
He did not know Mitsuari Ayu’s number.
He had always used the address book, so he had no idea what to dial into this phone!!
A lot was done to combat suicide.
At a train station platform or train crossing where suicides were common, they might install blue LED lights to produce a calming mental effect. They might post suicide hotline posters at payphones. They might put up tall fences and gates to make it physically difficult to reach a suicide spot. It might not sound like much, but installing security cameras all over was apparently effective too.
However, there was one important rule when enacting those preventative measures.
There could be no flaws in the installation.
What if there was a hole in the fence meant to keep out suicidal people? What if the payphone meant to call a suicide hotline was broken? When someone felt suicidal but was looking for something to stop them, seeing those flaws could send them in the complete opposite direction.
Luck is turning on me here too?
Fate must be telling me to do it now.
The pendulum would swing back in the other direction.
All because of a bit of misfortune.
Whatever the situation that had led them to that point, it could be those small things that gave them the final push. At times, they would finally make up their mind because of no more than a tiny coincidence, a miniscule miscommunication, or a wholly preventable tragedy.
The ringing stopped and hope leaped in her chest.
And then the mechanical voice of the voice mail service began to play.
She wilted, her head drooped, and she finally laughed. He had reached out his hand, so she had worked up her courage and hesitantly decided to grab it. But the instant she entrusted her weight to his grasp, he let go.
So she fell from the cliff.
She did not know why. Maybe one of them had a poor signal and maybe his battery had run out. Maybe he had just so happened to be on the phone with someone else. Maybe he had run into some other trouble and could not answer the phone at the moment.
But really, that was not why she was doing this.
She thought with oddly emotionless clarity while silently gathering rocks and filling her pockets with them to increase her weight.
That had been no more than a quick test of her luck, like someone pushed to their limit flipping a coin to decide whether or not to actually take their own life. It was no more than the weak action of someone faintly hoping god would reject their resolve so they could maybe live just one more day.
Yet she could not help but draw a conclusion from it.
She could not help but think this proved that she truly had not been blessed with any luck at all.
A heavy weight splashed into the water somewhere in the dark mountains.
This is the story of a girl who was not saved.
But it is also the beginning of another story. She would truly be saved during the summer of the following year.