Toaru Majutsu no Index:Biohacker Chapter5
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 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?