Toaru Majutsu no Index:GT Volume1 Chapter2
Chapter 2: A Changing Academy City, the Night Before – the_24th,Showdown.
The death game rules had changed.
The poor bastard who went bust by dropping below zero would be punished in some way.
“Hey, wait! I can’t!! This is a reindeer costume, isn’t it!? There’s no way I can throw darts in this thing! I mean, look! The hands are like potholders!!”
“Then would you prefer to be the sleigh, Touma?”
“That’s not even a costume!! It’s just a rectangular box!!”
A player would only go bust just before checking out. Even if they screwed up, they would return to being only 16 or 32 points away from winning, so they might just finish it up next round. Thus, it was unsurprising that local rules showed up to trip up whoever was winning.
Fortunately, there were plenty of party goods here.
That gave them plenty of tools to mess with whoever was doing well.
“Heh heh heh.” Wicked laughter left a middle school girl. Misaka Mikoto was entering a slight demon king mode. “Keep tripping each other up this Christmas Eve, you fools. Yes, continue struggling while I throw three 10s in a row to check out!! It’s the exact same course each time, so nothing could be easi-”
“Oops, did these bulky reindeer antlers just hit something?”
When the strange stimulus rubbed up along her back, Mikoto jumped straight up.
But something was odd.
She blushed bright, flapped her mouth, and turned back toward him.
“Y-y-y-you. M-m-my b-b-bra…my b-b-b-bra hook.”
“Eh, what!? I swear I didn’t mean to do that!”
Her dart flew off course and actually stabbed right in the center of the bull’s eye. With 50 points taken from her remaining 30 points, she went bust.
Oblivious to what had gone on below the surface, Index checked inside the plastic costume box.
“Okay, short hair, you have to wear this one. It’s Santa Claus!”
“Ugh, really!? Well, that’s not so bad. A red coat and pants shouldn’t affect my movements too much.”
“That’s just a red bikini and miniskirt!! The worst part is I don’t think you’re being intentionally cruel!!”
Mikoto grew somewhat tearful as that costume set was shoved into her arms, but these punishments were nonnegotiable. It helped that Kamijou Touma had already transformed into a reindeer. After forcing him to do it, she could not back out herself. “Dammit,” she grumbled while disappearing into the back. Kamijou had told her where to go – a handmade dressing room seemingly made using curtain rails bought at a home improvement store.
“My turn now. It’s Kamijou-san’s time to shine!!”
“Ooh, what should I have Touma do if he goes bust again?”
Then he noticed something.
“Why is this dart all sticky?” He squeezed the dart in his hand. “Index, did you use it after touching the snacks?”
“Eh? I don’t think so.”
That sounded simple enough, but with her perfect memory, an “I don’t think so” meant she really had not done so. The white nun tilted her head and touched the dart herself.
“It doesn’t feel sticky to me.”
“No way. It’s definitely catching on my fingers. None of the other darts did this.”
He pouted his lips while opening and closing his right hand. However, both his hands were covered by the potholder-like gloves of the reindeer costume.
“Hey, Index. Is there anything on this costume’s hand?”
“Not that I can see.”
“Then are the two materials a bad match? This is really weird.”
Wiping them off with a dry handkerchief and tissues did nothing to solve the problem. He recalled seeing some wet tissues in the bathroom and he could not think of any other option, so he called timeout and made his way to the back of the darts bar.
After turning the corner, he saw the small space surrounded by a curtain.
That was the dressing room.
Something suddenly occurred to him.
(Oh, yeah. Misaka hasn’t come back yet. What’s taking her so long?)
He was not about to approach that curtain that was shut tight and fluttering slightly from the movement within. After all, it scared him. A lot. With his misfortune, that makeshift dressing room was a serious threat. What would happen if the curtain rails fell from the ceiling and exposed the person changing within? He could not hope to nimbly dodge out of the way in this reindeer costume and his right hand was covered by that mitten-like glove. Plus, this was Academy City’s #3, aka the Railgun. There was no surviving a “kyah, pervert!” attack when it packed the same punch as a battleship’s gun.
(Yeah, best to give this one a wide berth.)
With that, he safely slipped past the dressing room and opened the door to the unisex bathroom.
His memories vanished after that.
All he could remember was the color red.
The next thing he knew, he was lying in the hallway.
He truly had no idea what had happened.
There were clear gaps in the film of his memories.
He had simply found himself lying on his back while Misaka Mikoto mounted him with her face blushing bright red. Instead of her blazer uniform, she was dressed in red for some reason. Yes, she had transformed into that Southern Hemisphere Santa Claus. But…
“What was that? I think I opened the door and someone was chang-”
“Stop, no!! Don’t try to remember!! Forget it all!!”
She hit him with her clenched fists, but that was not enough to remove the memories from his head.
Then his eyes opened wide.
“Now I remember! Why were you changing in there!?”
“Because you told me to go change ‘in the back’.”
“There was an obvious dressing room set up right there!!”
“I was supposed to use that!? But it looked like a staff only thing!”
Hadn’t that shut curtain been fluttering from movement inside? But if she hadn’t been in there, then why!? Kamijou grew more and more confused by how unfair the world could be, but then he heard a rumbling sound from the ceiling. It was the air conditioning. That goddamn warm air had been blowing on the curtain.
“Hey, Misaka-san? Wow, wow. Thinking back on it now…wow, wow, wow.”
“No, I said forget everything!!!!!!!”
Santa shouted loudly while riding a reindeer.
Except there was no sleigh here.
“Phew,” sighed Misaka Mikoto.
She was back in her blazer uniform.
The heat gathered within her clothing was still hard to miss, though.
She decided she needed to think about something else or she would cross the 42 degree border and die.
(Ugh, I feel like that kitty keeps avoiding me. Is it because of the weak EM waves I passively emit? That’s always depressing.)
They had played a few more games of darts since then.
Not only had she started with more knowledge, but she was accustomed to the mentality of aiming and shooting. Her Personal Reality was tailored in that direction. When looking at the overall score, she had crushed the competition. And the limited number of male costumes had presented a problem for the special rule they had come up with. They had a penalty set up whenever someone went bust, but after that pointy-haired boy had done so several times in a row, they had run out of punishment costumes for him.
(Oh, god. And I can make a pretty good guess why he’s too preoccupied to play right, so I can’t even say anything!!)
She just about remembered what happened and felt her temperature starting to rise, so she fanned her cheek with her hand.
They were taking a short break between games, so she had snuck into the back to escape the main floor where the boy and other girl were. The door to the bathroom was here, as was a little shop with some custom goods to buy. They were of course darts. Those did not affect the score too much (and if special parts did influence it that much, the organization in charge of intentional matches would ban them), but people who were into the game could still be particular about it. Mikoto was fine with the rented darts, so to her, those looked little different from homemade parts for a bright and shining fishing lure.
Her Christmas Eve was passing by without incident.
Or so it seemed.
But at the same time, she kept feeling a tingling sensation along her spine. These were human eyes, not a machine. That would be why she had spent so long thinking before each throw during their last game before this break.
When she looked toward the exit right now, she saw nothing there.
But when she looked away, she once more sensed a presence there.
She doubted this was a figment of her imagination.
When she used the street security cameras or the security robot lenses to observe things outside, she could not see anything, suggesting whoever this was had chosen the perfect angle to hide.
She could tell where they were, but they would duck away and hide the instant she turned that way. They were clearly observing her.
She was enjoying her freedom while skipping out on Tokiwadai’s school event, but she doubted any of her schoolmates or teachers would behave like this.
(This seems more dangerous, doesn’t it?)
There was more to Academy City than the pamphlets let on.
There were real threats here.
Whether it was simple back-alley delinquents or the wealthy looking down upon the city from their administrative building, there were ominous shadows and villains here. And they were not all separated out into neat categories; it was a complex tangle of villainy. The adults would boss around the dropout students to have them do crimes or many researchers would serve a single dangerous genius.
In that sense, being Academy City’s #3 made it easy for her to get caught up in that sort of trouble.
She was not some sheltered girl who was afraid of the unknown darkness out there. She had seen a large project using her own DNA map.
(I need to check this out.)
This was why she had suggested they take a short break.
She hated how smoothly she could switch between being open with people to keeping secrets from them, but if this abnormal attention was due to her being a Level 5, it made no sense to get those other two involved.
“And on Christmas Eve of all days.”
She grumbled to herself, released the electronic lock on the staff only door next to the bathroom door, and walked in. The door locked automatically, so she let the door shut on its own and then opened the stainless steel smoke vent on the wall near the ceiling. It was about three meters up, but she could move freely up the wall by using magnetism to cling to it. She nimbly climbed outside.
The classic interior was gone and now she was looking at the exterior that looked like a few metal storage containers joined together. This was probably an application of plastic construction using large parts made with a 3D printer. She could cling to it via magnetism thanks to the rebar placed inside to increase its sturdiness.
And while she had not done much, freedom of movement was the best way to lose someone tailing you. Just like you could escape pursuit more easily with a helicopter or submarine.
(The main floor’s security cameras… don’t show anything.)
She used her power to send the darts bar’s security camera footage to her phone, but that did not help. In fact, the footage itself was frozen. It was hard to tell at a glance, but it had been modified so no one could tell if someone passed by directly below the cameras.
She would have to check with her own eyes.
She still felt the gaze piercing her as she used the rear emergency exit to return to the darts bar. She circled around to move back to the previous staff only door.
(The electronic lock and the smoke vent should stop someone who doesn’t have the same power as me. I don’t know why this person is after me, but now I can sneak up behind them.)
Of course, there was a risk of them feeling trapped and striking back. It would take a lot to bring down the #3, but Academy City’s darker parts could provide a lot. There were no absolutes in this field, so she felt a weight in the pit of her stomach as she approached the previous door.
The staff only door was cracked open.
The lock had not been broken. It had been electronically opened.
“Just like I did!?”
She jumped back from the cracked door as if she had seen a crocodile’s jaws there.
This should not have been possible.
She was the #3 of Academy City’s seven Level 5s. No one should have been able to use the exact same power as her.
Not understanding the situation could be deadly in a battle with an esper.
It was like looking at the shogi or chess board and seeing a mysterious kid’s meal toy on the board. No matter how much of an advantage your arrangement of pieces gave you, that piece could take your king in a single move depending on how it moved.
(This is bad.)
This was worse than she had imagined.
Before even considering the specifics of distance, direction, number, obstacles, and attack method, this mystery person had stolen the general idea of “the initiative” and that clutched at her heart. How many turns had she fallen behind in this one second? If they had maliciously set up the shogi board with the intent of robbing her of her freedom, they would already be in the perfect position to slit her throat at any moment.
The enemy had opened the staff only door’s electronic lock and moved within. But what about the other obstacle – the smoke vent? Instead of opening the door and checking inside, wouldn’t it be better to blast through the door and storm inside?
She considered using her Railgun.
She had enough firepower to warrant that name.
(This is bad!!)
She reflexively reached for her skirt pocket and confirmed the presence of the arcade coin there with her thumb.
She heard something through the cracked door.
It was a voice.
And to her surprise, this was no stranger.
“I see. I get that you were lost, but only the workers are supposed to go in here. Let’s head on out and I can take you to someone who works here.”
That word and the tone of voice took the edge off of her mood, but she also recognized the voice itself. It belonged to that pointy-haired boy she had been playing darts with not long before.
(What is happening here?)
Was this an esper who looked like him? Or were they using a next-generation weapon that could change what you looked like? Or maybe it was the voice itself that had been modified.
But this meant she could not fire an arcade coin through the door at thrice the speed of sound without any warning. She was too afraid to launch an attack without checking first.
While working to remain as stealthy as possible, she placed her hand on the staff only door. Then she gradually applied pressure to push it inwards. The crack between the door and doorframe widened.
That high school boy was down on all fours like a dog with a diminutive dominatrix of about 10 standing on him with her bare feet.
“Again, you can’t reach that hole! It’s too high up! If you want to head out back, then use the kitchen door or the emergency exit!!”
“But Misaka can deduce that the Original left through here, says Misaka as Misaka sees some magnetized metal and reveals how perfect a detective she would make! Misaka can’t reach the truth without passing through that smoke vent!!”
The pig boy receiving the blessing of her bare feet required no further explanation at this point.
The small girl, on the other hand, had shoulder-length chestnut hair, a triumphant expression, and a thick outdoor coat worn over a thin dress. That made her upper body very fluffy, but her legs were entirely bare, giving her an imbalanced appearance and making her blindingly bright thighs look all the more risqué.
Perhaps Mikoto should have considered the possibility once someone was using the same methods as her.
It made sense this girl could use her powers since she had the exact same DNA map as Misaka Mikoto. Although her actual power output could not match Mikoto’s.
Her apparent age was very different, but individual parts, such as the chestnut hair and lively face, were the same as Mikoto’s.
“What are you doing here?”
“Gasp!? I-is this a case of the culprit returning to the scene of the crime!? says Misaka as Misaka nervously turns around.”
“Get off of that barbaric boy first!!”
That was not any way to speak to a young girl, but it had to be said first and foremost here.
Except Mikoto’s frantic demand caused the barefoot girl to slip. Her hips fell straight down, causing her small butt to land right on the crawling boy like he was her chair.
“Oh, nice catch, says Misaka as Misaka gives you a perfect score while continuing to sit on you.”
The spiky-haired (pig) boy trembled and seemed unable to respond.
Mikoto could not imagine how much that would hurt, nor did she want to. That kind of experience was not necessary to live a full life.
Also, hadn’t that boy run into trouble with a different little girl just the night before? She did not really believe in fortunetelling, but was her joke about bad luck with little girls actually true?
(Was she the one I sensed watching me?)
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but should you really be out on your own? What is your caretaker doing?”
She put a hand on her hip and softly sighed, but then…
“You are correct, Original. That is why Misaka here was out searching for that runaway moron, faithfully reports Misaka.”
A voice spoke from directly behind her.
A quiet but solid sound soon followed.
Mikoto’s shoulders jumped and she quickly turned around to see a girl of about 14 who really did look exactly like her. That girl was looking to her with emotionless eyes.
She wore special goggles on her forehead and the metallic noise from before had been her slowly decocking the hammer of her handgun with her thumb.
But something surprised Mikoto more than that dangerous toy that should not have existed in Japan’s capital.
“Wait, really? How did you sneak up behind me?”
“It is true you have an anti-personnel radar that eliminates your blind spots by emitting faint microwaves in all directions and detecting the reflected waves, but it does have a weakness, explains Misaka with a smug grin. Electromagnetic waves are indeed waves, so as long as you know the frequency being used, you can negate them by sending out a reverse phase wave. Grin.”
Despite what she said about grinning, her face remained devoid of expression.
She was one of the Sisters, mass-produced military clones of the #3 Level 5 who were meant to artificially reproduce the Railgun but had not been able to match the original’s power.
Also, the 20,000 Sisters were linked by a weak brainwave network and Last Order, a special unit, had been created in order to control the network and prevent the Sisters as a whole from rebelling. Last Order had likely been intentionally kept younger than the rest so the researchers could more easily force that role onto her. Her purpose as a safety measure was meaningless if she led the rebellion herself.
Academy City had concentrated the negative side of science and technology like crazy.
But the fact remained that none of it would have happened without her initial foolish action.
She could easily identify Last Order as #20001, but it was hard to tell apart the other Sisters, so she asked a simple question of the girl with thick goggles on her forehead.
“What’s your serial number?”
For some reason, the identical girl opened the chest of her jacket and showed off the heart-shaped necklace there.
“Misaka is your #10032, says Misaka while showing off a slight monopolistic tendency.”
“Why aren’t you looking at me while you say that? Why are you staring at that pig boy who’s being that little girl’s chair?”
“Must Misaka repeat the part about a smug grin? asks Misaka. Because she will. As many times as necessary.”
The sisters formed a single giant brain through the network link, but Mikoto had also heard that the specific clones grew more individual the more they learned on their own. So was this a case where a clone was developing in a strange new direction? She gained the kind but pitying eyes of someone seeing a self-proclaimed genius girl who had been so fixated on memorizing pi or train station names that she failed to learn how to do anything other than that.
“Please do something about this extreme tomboy sitting on me. Any more of this and my hips…squeal…my hips won’t last.”
“Understood. This Misaka – your #10032 – shall rescue you from this crisis while the Original stands uselessly over in the corner. Grin, grin.”
“You weren’t infected by some weird virus, were you?” asked Mikoto. “Actually, acting like this without a virus might be worse.”
Some said that it was harder to fix an AI that had been unmaliciously taught mistaken things than one that had its code or parameters malicious rewritten by a virus. Mikoto stared into the distance while hoping she could treat this like an idiosyncrasy and not a weakness.
“Misaka hates being made to work for the benefit of that side of things, says Misaka to express her stance here. And while Misaka will respect Last Order’s free will and let her do as she wishes, this Misaka sides with the pointy-haired Level 0, not the albino Level 5.”
The tension ruling this place had vanished like it had been a mere illusion.
While making a mental note to look into how her anti-personnel radar could be negated, Mikoto was pleased to see she was not being immediately confronted with the dark side of Academy City which had found it hilarious to create 20,000 clones.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
She had been overly cautious here for the same reason that victims of burglary could never relax until they had checked over and over to make sure their windows and doors were locked before they went out. She did not like carrying around the scars of that old incident like this, but it could not hurt to err on the side of caution. The unit the boy had called Misaka Imouto was #10032 and none of the preceding number existed any longer. Mikoto never wanted to find herself in a situation like that again. Never ever.
Misaka Imouto placed her arms below small Last Order’s arms and lifted her up, finally giving the boy his freedom back. He placed his hands on the wall and slowly stood up before tapping on his lower back like an old man.
“I-I just about had my hips destroyed after an awfully powerful girl assaulted me on Christmas Eve.”
“Please rephrase that.”
“Silly Original. When an innocent boy unwittingly says something of that nature, it is in fact an intellectual puzzle where you replace the context in your mind for your own enjoyment, says Misaka while she lectures this rookie on how to properly entertain yourself. You must not interrupt this game for classy ladies and gentlemen. You simply remain silent and grin.”
They still had to find out why Last Order had left her hospital or apartment or whatever to wander the streets, but it was time to end this little meeting. It would look odd for them to remain in this staff-only office for too long and they would stand out even more with three girls who looked exactly the same (even if Last Order was a different age). They might be able to claim to be two twins and a younger sister, but clones were banned by international treaties. And since the researchers might coldly decide to kill the clones and eliminate the evidence if word of their existence got out, “might be able to” was too risky a gamble to make when not absolutely necessary.
(So I guess we can’t just enjoy playing darts together.)
She hated having to exclude the clones like this, but trying to force it to happen held the greater risk of ruining any chance of a happy and uneventful Christmas Eve. That was not what she wanted for the clones.
Someday, even they would be able to walk freely out in the open.
Buying time for that to happen would be the best choice here.
“Let’s get out of here. Who knows when an employee will come to this office during a break.”
At the very least, there had been no suspicious pursuers or attackers.
Confident of that, Mikoto let out a sigh and prepared to bring this to an end.
But that was when it happened.
Something slammed into the building from outside and the sturdy modern architecture of the office was fully split apart.
Someone somewhere casually placed a hand over their eyes to keep out the sun.
The shadow whispered.
An alluring tongue licked some cream from their lips, perhaps from a toxic-looking donut dyed in their lucky color.
“Didn’t quite hit the mark there. I need to be more careful.”
The entire scene slanted.
There was an obvious fault line.
The office had been a long, narrow rectangular room, but it had suddenly been split between front and back. Index and Mikoto instantly vanished from view. A giant cliff face towered in front of Kamijou. Had the two girls been launched upwards?
He realized it was the opposite when he noticed what that large shadow pressing down from overhead was. They were not rising up; he was sinking down. The walls, ceiling, and even ground had been sliced through and Kamijou and Last Order were plunging underground.
The entire room had tilted at a diagonal angle.
Everything seemed different now and the ground itself rocked like a small boat in a storm. This had been a reinforced concrete building built on flat ground, but now it was a steep slope. And Last Order had nothing to grab onto, so she was rolling around and falling away.
Pieces of the ground weighing more than 100 tons were powerfully smashing together.
The giant jagged edge of the slice was still moving. Touch that with an arm or a leg and it might bite down and tear the limb straight off.
But Kamijou’s fear never came true.
The mouth was opening.
But this was not a wall of dirt. There was an open space underground. Given the limited space in Academy City, the underground area was packed full of development. They must have broken into an underground tunnel connecting subway stations. They had sunk unnaturally deep, yet the sliced edge of the ground-level road could be seen here.
It almost seemed intentional.
After swallowing Last Order, the ground wobbled like a seesaw. Once the height difference levelled off, the underground tunnel’s mouth would close.
(This wasn’t an accident or a disaster.)
That was obvious enough. He refused to believe this was a natural occurrence. He was unsure how exactly it had been done, but human malice was plain to see here.
They were under attack by some kind of supernatural power, so he had no reason whatsoever to let it continue.
It was time to make up of his mind.
(I can’t leave her alone right now!!)
“You idiot! Are you insane!?”
“You go check on Index for me. Please!!”
Mikoto shouted down from the upper level, but she could not stop him while he was on the lower level. He in fact let go of his handhold and slid down the slanted floor to dive into the underground tunnel.
He just barely made it.
A moment after he was in, the great jaws of the ground snapped shut. If he had been just three seconds slower, the ferocious weight of more than 100 tons would have torn his upper body from his lower body like someone biting through a hot dog.
“Are you okay, Last Order?” he asked from the floor.
“Yes, Misaka is not hurt, says Misaka as Misaka looks around curiously.”
This would normally have been an entirely ordinary underground tunnel, but there were now cracks everywhere and dark soil spilling in from the fissures in the concrete. The power system must have been knocked out because the fluorescent lights were all dead and some electric sparks were sporadically pouring down from the walls and ceiling like fireworks.
Last Order brushed off her clothes with her small hands. She may have been particular about staying clean.
The tunnel was as dark as a movie theater and pieces of torn wiring and shards of concrete could be anywhere. If they were not aware of where the cracks were, they could be buried alive by dirt. It was dangerous in the dark, but they only had his phone’s LED light to go on.
The small girl raised her hands and hopped up and down.
“Misaka can make light too, says Misaka while Misaka holds her head high.”
“What? Can you send electricity to the surviving lights?”
“Misaka can send sparks from her hair!!”
He politely refused the offer. In the dark, a light source would be the first thing an enemy would target. Making that light source your head or hair was the most dangerous option.
She must have been worried because she clutched his clothes with her small hand and asked a question.
“What should we do now? asks Misaka while Misaka seeks advice.”
If they were free to move, where should they go?
What could they do to ensure their safety?
This half-broken tunnel was clearly dangerous, but the surface was not necessarily safer. The enemy might concentrate fire on them the instant they appeared in an open area.
So it would be best to come up with a plan instead of wandering at random.
The first issue was…
(If this was an intentional attack, who was the target?)
It could always be Kamijou himself, but he figured that was highly unlikely. He could not just blame his misfortune for everything. Since this was Academy City, headquarters of the science side, #3 Misaka Mikoto would be the top of the list. The cloned Sisters and Last Order, their command tower, would also be valuable.
(The most unique of them would be this one here.)
Last Order tilted her head as if to ask why he was looking at her.
He was starting to think it had been no accident that the earth had opened its jaws and swallowed only Last Order.
Meanwhile, there had been another important person in that darts bar, albeit important for an entirely different reason.
The magic side also existed. She was the grimoire library that had memorized at least 103,001 grimoires and apparently all the world’s outlaw magicians were after her knowledge. In that case, it was conceivable someone had used Last Order to remove Kamijou Touma from Index.
So was it science or magic? Whichever side the unseen enemy belonged to would greatly change what was to come. If he got that wrong, he would hold his shield in the wrong direction and end up being hit in the back or side by the enemy’s concentrated fire.
Assuming the entire building had not collapsed from that initial attack, then Index would have Mikoto and Misaka Imouto with her. Those two would not be defeated so easily.
He had two primary options here.
The first was to reach the surface as quickly as possible and regroup with Index, Mikoto, and Misaka Imouto. Whether Index or Last Order was the target, he would know where the enemy would attack if those two were together. And whether the threat belonged to science or magic, they could team up on the enemy and eliminate the threat once they showed themselves.
The second was to separate Index and Last Order. Seeing which one the attacker pursued would tell him whether they belonged to science or magic. And if he could contact Mikoto’s group, they could take advantage of being split up. While the attacker thought they were cornering their target, Kamijou or Mikoto could sneak up behind them.
After some thought, Kamijou Touma made up his mind.
“Last Order, let’s get away from here for now.”
“If you say so.”
When he started to move, the small girl followed while still holding onto his clothes. She apparently had no intention of letting go.
He had chosen the latter option.
He could only choose to split up because he trusted in Mikoto and Misaka Imouto’s skill. He was hesitant to flee or fight without knowing who the enemy was. From the moment of the attack, his group had been a step behind when it came to information. They could never escape this vicious cycle of attacks unless they filled in that gap.
Would he really find peace if he escaped back to his dorm room?
If he went to Anti-Skill and asked for protection, was there really no chance of the Anti-Skill station being destroyed?
At the very least, he wanted to know who this enemy was.
The former option of regrouping might seem safer since they could pool their forces and cover for whoever was being targeted, but there was a trap there. If the unknown enemy chose to hide and wait, there was nothing he and the others could do. Whatever this opponent’s attack was, it was powerful enough to split through a building and lift up the ground. There was nowhere they could safely hide from that, so he wanted to avoid holing up somewhere while that unknown assailant could freely walk around outside. That would be just like being adrift in the ocean aboard a lifeboat with a giant shark circling around.
He had to drag the owner of those fangs out of the water.
Finding safety could wait until then.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Why not run? asks Misaka while Misaka hopes to go faster.”
“My phone is our only light source, but the ground is covered with pieces of concrete thicker than a phonebook and shards of fluorescent lights. If we trip and fall, we’ll hurt ourselves pretty badly.”
If this tunnel did connect subway stations, where was the closest stairway back to the surface? Kamijou tried to remember that. He did not know how widespread the damage from that attack had been, so he could only hope the stairs had survived.
After less than 10m of progress after forming their new team down here, Kamijou and Last Order were hit by another powerful tremor.
“So they were after her, not Index!!”
Was the snapping sound he heard from concrete or metal? It was such an unusual sound that he could not even imagine what kind of destruction he was hearing.
But the low rumbling never seemed to end.
In fact, it was growing louder.
The deep sound was loud enough to shake the entire floor.
“Dammit. Run, Last Order.”
“Eh? But you just said-”
“They intentionally broke some kind of major water pipe down here!! Hurry! A ton of water is on its way!!”
His loud voice seemed to push her forward and she stumbled. He wrapped an arm around her skinny hips and scooped her up while running forward. He only had a phone’s LED light to go on, but not even that was much help with his arm pumping at his side. Last Order kicked her skinny legs while he carried her.
“The entire tunnel is shaking! shouts Misaka while Misaka explains what she noticed!”
“I know. I hope it doesn’t collapse. Well, put your hands over your head to protect yourself as best as you can!!”
The noise was growing louder.
No, it was drawing closer.
He felt the deep rumble more in his gut than his ears now.
How many seconds until it caught up and swallowed them whole? He could not see in the darkness, so his panic just about caused his feet to tangle together. There was no hope for them if he tripped now. They would be helplessly swallowed up and there would be no recovering from it. The fear of bringing about his own death squeezed at his heart.
Which was why he almost missed it entirely.
Once his bright LED light illuminated the icon for the stairs, he slammed on the brakes and dove in there. Still holding Last Order’s hips in his arm, he ran up to the landing two steps at a time.
Then his legs were nearly pulled out from under him.
The deluge had risen to their level in an instant and almost carried him away. It had stopped at less than knee height, but that was enough to throw him off balance.
There had been more than 10 steps to the landing, so the actual tunnel had to be fully inundated. There was no telling how long this stairway would last either.
He slammed himself against the cracked concrete wall to stop himself from falling. Then he ran up the rest of the stairs. He heard a muffled sound of destruction in the distance and the amount of water rapidly increased. Another major water pipe must have broken. He ran up the stairs to escape the water level that was rising in order to swallow up his hips.
His feet slipped at the end.
He curled up his body to at least protect Last Order from the cold and hard corner of the stairs. He clenched his teeth to bear with the pain and used both arms to push that small body up the last few steps to the surface. But instead of standing up, she stayed on all fours and reached out a small hand toward him.
“Hold on! Hurry up here! Nhhh!!”
Her efforts probably did not mean much.
If he had slipped down, he would only have pulled her down in the midwinter water with him.
That was why he made sure to hold his ground to the very end.
While focusing on not pulling her to her doom with him, he forced himself up the last few steps and to the surface.
He and Last Order rolled out onto a sidewalk paved with broken tiles.
The torrent stopped at exactly the surface level. The water level receded, much like a ferocious beast slinking back into the bushes after failing to catch its prey. Another crack or large hole must have formed.
Things were bad outside too.
All those sturdy buildings were now tilted and cracks formed ominous Xs in the reinforced concrete walls. Were those danger signs of a possible collapse? A drum-shaped cleaning robot had fallen on its side and could not get back up, leaving its tires spinning fruitlessly. A few of the three-bladed wind turbines had fully collapsed and crushed the guardrails and the cars parked on the curb. It would have been a disaster had any of those hit someone.
It was all made worse by the Christmas season. The cables of colorful lights meant to decorate the city had broken and were dangling down and scattering sparks. It was not as bad as old-fashioned power lines, but there was still a risk of people getting shocked or a fire starting. Especially when combined with that water.
The road glittered in the sunlight like the ocean surface.
Perhaps due to the damage to the buildings, the windows of the higher floors must have broken and sent glass shards pouring down. He was pleasantly surprised to not see bloodstains everywhere. As soon as they felt the shaking, the people of this country tended to hide in sturdy buildings or below cars. In stark contrast to matters of crime and war, he had seen on a trivia show that Japan was one of the best countries in the world when it came to disaster response knowledge.
Last Order opened her small mouth and looked up into the peaceful blue sky.
The airship gently floating there seemed cut off from all the chaos. The screen on its belly was not playing any kind of special news report.
“C-could it have been an esper who controls earthquakes? wonders Misaka as Misaka tilts her head.”
“I’m thinking no.”
That had been one hell of an attack, but he felt like the attacker had been trying to mislead them by limiting their own method of attack.
If their power simply shook things, then that darts bar should have collapsed. Instead of lifting up the ground, it had looked more like the ground had been sliced through where the building was. That was why the ground had shaken but the building had not collapsed. Since it had already been split in two already, it had not twisted and snapped apart.
And this was the more concerning answer.
If this was a general-use Telekinesis user, they would have a lot more options. They might even be able to directly target Kamijou or Last Order and tear their bodies in two. Just like a small child cruelly playing with a bug they had captured.
In that case, being locked onto meant death.
But on the other hand…
(They didn’t do that.)
If they really did have such a powerful ability, they would not have needed to make that bluff to fool their prey. That act was proof that they were afraid. They were afraid of being identified and of a counterattack. So the enemy was saying themselves that, whatever their power might be, if their trump card was identified, that alone would set the dominoes falling and they would lose their advantageous position.
He could not let the malice swallow him up.
He had to read between the lines and convert it into hope.
Real incidents did not have magic potions and spare ammo placed on the floor every so often so anyone could win. The enemy would have eliminated anything that would help him and cut off all paths leading back to them before making their attack. So don’t expect any help from the enemy. He needed to transform what he was given. Just like turning sticky sludge into a disinfectant, he had to find what information he could from the malicious words and actions sent his way.
“What do we do now? says Misaka as Misaka asks a question.”
“We look up,” he bluntly replied. “Where could someone see everything, from the initial darts bar to here? If they’ve been using a single power this whole time, then they must have been watching us.”
“B-but we were underground before.”
“Because they invited us there.”
Also, it was hard to think they had lost sight of Last Order after setting that up themselves.
“The attack underground seemed a lot less targeted than the initial one that split the darts bar office. They broke open an industrial water pipe in the distance to flood the entire tunnel, right? They knew where we were in general, but not specifically. And that was fine with them.”
He did not have any actual proof of this, of course. This was only guesswork based on what they had experienced and what he would have done if he were the enemy.
But he would lose sight of his destination if he did not set up a framework like that. If he let his emotions take over and simply ran at random, he knew exactly what fate would await him. Their lives were on the line, so he wanted to maintain enough freedom to open up the map and decide on a destination.
“So this might be our chance. The further away we are, the less accurately the enemy knows our position. If they don’t know if we’re in that flooded tunnel or out here, they’ll be open to attack. If we can work out where they’re hiding and looking down on the city, we can sneak up on them and strike back.”
The enemy used extremely largescale attacks, but wouldn’t that mean they could not use their full power if Kamijou arrived on the same building rooftop as them? If they used their power to destroy the very building they were standing on, they would be caught in it as well.
An esper could only have one power.
It would be difficult to protect yourself with this destruction-focused power. That would be like grabbing a raw egg with the heavy arm of some building demolition equipment.
“Eh, what? What’s going on here???”
A miniskirt Santa girl (probably a part-timer) had fallen to a sitting position on the curb while seemingly forgetting about her short skirt. Had she dyed that long blonde hair just for this job? She was apparently the type of person who would even now continue holding onto her handmade sign for 20% off if you bought a cake and turkey as a set.
“This is unbelievable, but I bet I’d get flamed if I uploaded a photo.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We need to provide accurate records of what happened!”
The couples who had evacuated into a ground floor café with broken windows were finally stepping out and taking a look around with a mixture of apprehension and annoyance. A café worker was scratching their head while looking at the glass-covered floor. The lucky color donuts must have been selling really well because they did not seem all that bothered by the idea of having to buy new windows.
Needless to say, this was Christmas Eve. It was a busy time even for winter break. This mystery esper could not be allowed to run amok any longer.
“Okay, Last Order. It’s time to begin the counterattack.”
“How are we going to find the enemy? asks Misaka while Misaka checks on your plan.”
It was obvious enough once you tried, but you could not see what was on the roof of a tall building while looking up at it. Running along the roads viewing the buildings would tell them nothing, but if they climbed to the top of the tallest building in the area to look down, the esper would only have to bring down that building. They would be caught in the collapse and lose their lives.
But Kamijou had an idea.
“It doesn’t exist.”
“There is nowhere that gives you a clean view of everything from the darts bar to here. To avoid drone collisions, modern map apps will show things in three-dimensions instead of just a flat map. One look on here is enough to tell me the other buildings would block the enemy’s view and make it impossible to target us.”
“But they have continued to target us, says Misaka as Misaka makes a rebuttal.”
“Correct. So there’s some trick at play here.” He lowered his phone to short Last Order’s eye level. “If you only look at the building heights, it does look like their view would be blocked, but that isn’t actually true.”
“The wind turbines.” He pointed his thumb toward that ubiquitous feature of Academy City. “They’re everywhere, right? When rotating so quickly, they can function like a large circular mirror. With the melted snow covering them, they can reflect light easily enough. So the direct line of sight might be blocked, but those temporary mirrors give the enemy a view around the buildings. Which leaves us exposed.”
Of course, not many buildings would let someone use that.
Kamijou had come up with his answer.
“Ragweed Real Estate’s office building is located 300m west of here. It gives you a direct view down on the darts bar and the wind turbine mirrors lets you see around the cinema complex in the way. That’s the only place they could be waiting to attack us!”
They had a plan.
Kamijou pushed on Last Order’s small back to hurry them along to the conclusion.
But then a small misgiving pricked at his heart.
(Wait a second.)
Hadn’t he just seen something out of place? The café with broken windows, the unconcerned employee, and the evacuated couples were all normal enough. Shards of glass had poured down from the skyscrapers, but they would have escaped harm as long as they took shelter inside before the windows broke. Kamijou and Last Order had been safe because they were underground to begin with.
But what about the other person?
Hadn’t there been someone who had been outside the whole time yet had not been hit by any of the glass for some reason?
“Well, I guess you can’t expect much more than that from an amateur’s deductions,” said a voice.
He heard a dull sound before he felt anything.
A merciless blow had hit him in the right side. What was that stabbing into him there? It was not a drill or an icepick. It was skinnier than a pen, but it was in fact a knife. It may have been designed for slipping through the gaps in an armored jacket to hit someone in the vitals.
But more than that, there was the person holding it.
The person who had snuck up close enough to feel the heat of their breaths was not an ancient ninja or an assassin squad that used electronic camouflage to blend into the background. This person had been in plain view from the beginning. They had been there, but he had overlooked them.
It was the part-timer girl.
The miniskirt Santa carrying a sign for a cake shop.
“No hard feelings, okay? I don’t have anything against you; this is only a job. If I screw this up, I’ll never hear the end of it from the higher ups.”
Her long blonde hair swayed as she whispered emotionlessly even in this situation.
During Halloween or Christmastime, extreme costumes were the best way of hiding one’s identity. Being the most conspicuous person prevented anyone from remembering much about you. You could be attacked head on yet only be able to remember that it was someone in red clothes and a miniskirt that did so.
(She wasn’t watching us from a distance.)
Something reflected the sunlight in the December sky.
It was an airship.
Those were seen all over Academy City and it had large screen on its belly. And the thick protective glass covering the screen reflected the light. But he never would have noticed that large mirror by viewing his map app.
There had been another point from which someone could view the entire area using reflected and refracted light.
(She was here the whole time waiting for us to emerge!?)
He gathered the last of his strength and shoved the small girl as far away as he could manage.
A crack ran down the road, but not in a straight line; it snaked along and clearly divided the Santa assassin and Last Order from Kamijou.
The ground rose up as if abducting the small girl and carrying her into the sky.
But Kamijou did not have time to just watch. Dirt fell down like a scattershot blast, sending him spiraling through the air.
He still had the knife in his side.
If he slammed into the ground now, he would not survive this. The shock would cause the knife to shred his insides.
Then it would all be over.
The pursuit would end and no one would know who had taken Last Order.
There was nothing he could do.
Once his feet left the ground, he had already lost all right to control his movements.
The object sticking into his body was already gouging into his soul before he even hit the ground.
Once he did hit, the impact would sever through it all.
Nothing he could do with his arms and legs now would help.
He knew only red-stained death awaited him in three seconds, but all his senses seemed to vanish.
In the final moment, his nerves seemed to misfire and he felt only a sensation as soft as feathers.
Between the Lines 3
The low tremor reached that windowless room as well.
“So it’s begun.”
“You must have known what this meant from the beginning, Yomikawa. Idealism is powerless against reality, so if you try to force your ideals onto reality, there is bound to be a fierce backlash.”
When Yomikawa Aiho had first learned who the new Board Chairman was, she assumed she had misheard.
But when she had heard what he said, she had been willing to follow him.
He had said he wanted to rid Academy City of its dark side.
He had said he wanted to eradicate all of those wicked and hopeless experiments.
That was what everyone in this city had wanted but no one had managed to pull off.
Also, things had changed once Accelerator had taken the position of Board Chairman. He had created Operation Handcuffs. He was a true monster who no one could touch with direct violence or indirect influence, yet that #1 had still said the right thing with no fear whatsoever.
No one wanted to create tragedy.
Perhaps even those men and women in white coats believed that as they dedicated themselves to their research.
With the exceptions of trueborn freaks like the Kiharas or the higher ups who were fixated on enriching and empowering themselves, people could not escape their own conscience. No matter how much they fortified themselves with logic to justify their actions, they would still be plagued with nightmares of the students they had sacrificed. Every single night.
So someone only had to create an opportunity.
A truly powerful leader only had to take their side.
“Everyone already knew what my Achilles heel was.”
“The people who are more comfortable in the corrupt darkness were bound to attack there first. If they can’t make any headway through official channels or backchannels, they only have one option left: take someone I care about hostage and use that to negotiate.”
But if Accelerator gave into his anger and rushed outside, he would only be repeating the cycle. The white monster had not called Anti-Skill Officer Yomikawa Aiho here to discuss that.
“Send me to the prosecutors and have me indicted.”
“Why do you think I turned myself in? This is your job, Yomikawa. You’re the only one I know who can handle the rest of this.”
This was not some secret base of the new Board Chairman’s.
Nor was it a mysterious lab.
This room belonged to Yomikawa Aiho and Accelerator was an uninvited guest.
This was an Anti-Skill station. Specifically, it was a secret interrogation room not displayed on any official diagrams, where a minimum number of officers would make a final check before beginning the actual investigation of largescale corruption, bribery, or other cases that required the utmost secrecy before law enforcement made their move.
She knew this was an emergency.
Still, she had been surprised when she saw someone she did not recognize in control of her usual workplace.
She was the one who had asked who that guard worked for.
She had assumed the rest of the Board of Directors had taken over and sent one of their pawns in as a guard. She had never imagined the man worked for the new Board Chairman himself. Even if he had the power of the #1, that seemed too careless.
The stage was not yet set.
No one was in agreement, so there was bound to be backlash once the confusion set in.
“I will rid Academy City of its dark side and I can’t leave any exceptions. I asked you to write up a charge sheet, didn’t I? I’ve killed more than 10,000 living humans, even if they were clones. And after that, I irresponsibly stayed in the dark side and fired guns all throughout this peaceful city while claiming to be helping. Someone like that can never be allowed out on the streets again. I must be placed behind bars no matter who tries to stop it.”
“The Board Chairman has complete control over Academy City. The 12 Directors below you are only for show. And whatever we might like to think, the rules never say the Chairman has to be a good person. I’ve never heard of someone that powerful just turning themselves in.”
“So what? That just means the system has always been broken. …Don’t make me laugh. If the rules differ from what everyone wants, then you’ve clearly found yourself a problem in the rules needing fixing.”
Who had been at fault? The answer was obviously Accelerator.
A Kihara had developed his powers and old Board Chairman Aleister had guided that monster down the path of murder for his own purposes, but it was still Accelerator who had actually done it.
But the #1 had been involved in far too much of the darkness.
How many people’s hands would be cuffed from this one boy’s testimony?
Of course people would be coming out of the woodwork to prevent this from happening.
Not because they were his good friends; because they had to protect their own future.
“You will never again leave prison.”
“I am aware of that.”
“Even if you are tried as a juvenile! Even if your sentence is reduced for cooperation with our investigations!! It just isn’t enough. The computer has already run some preliminary calculations. At this rate, your sentence will be for 11,000 years!!”
“Way too short. Around a year per murder? What kind of joke is that?”
“Why?” Yomikawa muttered under her breath.
The #1 did not look away.
“Didn’t I tell you? I can’t leave any exceptions. I’m the #1 and the Board Chairman, so I have to lead by example.”
Yomikawa Aiho was supposed to be a protector of the law.
But when she handcuffed an esper run amok, it was so they could be rehabilitated and have a second chance. That was why she would never aim a gun at a child. No matter how dangerous an esper they were, she had to create a situation where she could hear them out.
However, Accelerator would have no future.
This might be the right thing to do, but then who would save him?
“What about the clones?” she asked. “Once this is all investigated, their existence will come to light. That’s around 10,000 people who violate international treaties. Society might not accept them.”
Did clones have human rights or not?
Academy City had once answered no and repeated cruel experiments using them. And Accelerator was the one who had dirtied his hands there at the insistence of the researchers. They were undoubtedly the victims there, but the people in the outside world might not see it the same way.
If they too answered no and even saw the clones as a threat, they could be “disposed of”.
“That’s why I have to make sure they’re safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think they’re safe now? If they’re discovered, then that’s the end for them. How is that safe? I need to correct that unnatural balance and make sure they have solid footing to stand on. They were victims in all this, so why do they have to continue keeping their heads down and hiding? Unlike me, they deserve a free life out in the open.”
Accelerator had only one hope of accomplishing that.
The white monster pointed his thumb back at his own chest.
“I’ll be the villain.”
That was the natural result.
In fact, it was unnatural for it to have not happened yet.
“I’ll gather all the attention of the media and the scientific society and accept all of the criticism myself. I’m the ridiculous genius, I’ve got all the political power now, and I’ve even got money too. That’s exactly the kind of asshole people will just love to see go down in flames. All the news will be focused on me and they’ve only got so much space for info in their articles. They’ll aim for impact and focus on the guy who went around murdering clones instead of the clones themselves. And who cares about the people spreading rumors? A lot of time will have passed before the media is sick of attacking me. And then it’ll be like a flat soda. Focusing on the clones after that won’t move the masses to action. People jump on these bandwagons because they’re bored with their own lives. These are the people who find themselves bored even with all the excitement out there to find, so they’re experts at living boring lives. Once they grow tired of a topic, their interest in it is forever dead.”
That was why he could not cheat the system.
He could not use his special authority as Board Chairman to pardon himself after being found guilty and he could not live behind bars but emerge as a heroic Board Chairman whenever there was a problem needing solving.
There could be no exceptions.
The person most deserving of punishment had to be appropriately punished and that had to be shown off to both Academy City and the rest of the world.
They had to show that true justice existed here.
They had to show that they had moved past the absurd age where the evil laughed and the good were left in tears.
Otherwise, nothing would change.
If he tried to use any tricks here, that would create a distortion and those aware of the secret would eventually create a new darkness.
He had always spat on the self-serving acts of the adults. He had punched at the filthy concrete wall and shouted in rage, wondering how they could do things like that.
And now that child held the position of Board Chairman.
So it was time to show them.
He would let the world know he was not all talk.
He would walk a different path than Board Chairman Aleister.
“It all starts here,” whispered Accelerator. It may not have been obvious without paying close attention, but the #1 and new Board Chairman was clenching his back teeth. “This is also an issue of how much I can trust Academy City. If I get worried, can’t bear it anymore, and break through that wall to go save that brat, then it’s all over. That would create an exception and those shitheads from the dark side could have their way. So I have to trust that the giant system of Academy City will save that brat without me creating an exception.”
That may have been nothing more than a fantasy.
Accelerator himself had peered into the darkness plenty of times himself. He knew there were truly hopeless people out there and that it was absurd to think justice would win out in the end. Everyone knew it, but breaking the rules gave you an advantage. The shittier a person you were, the more technology you could surround yourself in and the more mercilessly you could fire on the good people who were bound by the rules. At the very least, it had always been that way in Academy City. There were times when the good guys did not arrive in time and the good guys who did arrive did not always win. If he wanted absolute certainty, then he could not rely on someone else; he would have to go rescue Last Order himself.
He was indeed a monster, so there was a violent part of him that was going wild inside him right now. It told him the rules did not matter and he should break out of here right this instant. Villains would always betray you in the end. Some eloquent speech about being reformed was not even worth listening to. He needed to pin them down, crush them, tear them apart, and grasp safety for himself. Even the greatest villain could not betray you if they were a corpse. And what other choice did he have if he was going to protect that young life? What could make a more beautiful story than dirtying his hands to allow someone he cared for to live their life out in the open?
“I will trust it,” said Academy City’s #1 and new Board Chairman. That incarnation of slaughter turned fearsome dictator spoke the words like he was suppressing bubbling magma within himself. “I will trust this city. I will trust that it is worth throwing out the rest of my life to protect. If I can’t trust the city I rule, then I don’t deserve to rule it in the first place.”
Was it Yomikawa who had said he had changed?
It was this monster who had said she was one of the ones who had changed him.
Which was why this monster had retaken a human form and could continue to fight like this.
Even if it meant clenching his teeth and bearing with it all alone.