Toaru Majutsu no Index:GT Volume3 Chapter1
Chapter 1: A Scab Torn Away – City_Warfare.
Hamazura Shiage did not know much about the Coin of Nicholas.
On Christmas morning, he had woken up to find it in his hand. That was strange, but he had seen several similar accounts on message boards and social media. Some had even claimed to have taken it to a pawn shop and learned it was real gold.
That meant this was not just a surprise from Mugino Shizuri or Takitsubo Rikou.
After that, a detailed user’s guide had appeared on R&C Occultics’ official site and that had quickly spread across the internet. It happened fast enough that it took him a bit to realize it came from that side of the world.
As a resident of a city of science, he had been skeptical, but the coin had in fact opened that rusted-shut door. Whether years of rust had filled the gap or the door had itself had been warped, there had to have been some physical reason why the door would not budge, yet all of that had been ignored to grant him his wish.
Yes, he had been skeptical, but he had also tested it out before that.
While holding the coin in his hand and praying, his roommate Mugino Shizuri’s bra hook had come undone. As a result, he had been nearly killed by his girlfriend Takitsubo Rikou instead of Mugino.
The same method had failed to undo the hook on his other roommate Kinuhata Saiai’s bra. Not even the mysterious coin could unhook a bra that did not exist. He had nearly been killed by Kinuhata herself for that one, but he had learned that the coin could not do the impossible.
These were the rules as far as he knew:
- The Coin of Nicholas fixes an action’s success rate at 100%.
- After a use, it requires an hour to recharge. That time limit is fixed regardless of the quantity or quality of the action performed.
Those rules were straight from the R&C Occultics manual and he had confirmed them himself.
And he could add another rule to the list since he was from Academy City, even if he was a Level 0.
- Espers can use the coin without any penalty or side effects.
(I am curious why such a useful item was given out for free. Was this just a Christmas present from those magic people? Come to think of it, that weird kid I met during the day mentioned R&C too.)
A loud siren blared and the brown-haired delinquent boy cut off that line of thought. He hid behind a car parked on the road. Even he was disgusted with himself. He was outside during the midwinter, yet the paper bag containing the medicine seemed soaked with his sweat.
(It isn’t just a localized thing.)
Hamazura looked inside the Anti-Skill vehicle passing by. He saw a distinctive device in the back seat.
(An NB20 close-range arresting gun. Wasn’t that net rifle recalled for causing so many accidents? Shoot a kid with a handgun and it’s a big deal, but kill them with the weight used to spread out the net and they call it an accident. Anti-Skill is serious about this. They plan to tear down the dark side even if it means slaughtering us all!!)
“Hey, that’s Anti-Skill, Etzali!”
“That is not a problem thanks to our borrowed faces. Or it wouldn’t be if you would stop panicking, Xochitl. We need to get to the hospital to collect Tochtli.”
Hamazura waited until a boy and a girl walked past.
He pulled the Coin of Nicholas from his pocket. The brightness at the edge seemed thicker than it had been before. It looked a lot like a donut-shaped pie graph filling in clockwise, but it was not even a quarter of the way full yet.
It would take a while before it was fully charged.
(I can’t rely on its power for another hour. I’ll have to survive on my own. Wait, isn’t this first hour the most dangerous time!? Damn, maybe I shouldn’t have used it right off the bat like that!)
At any rate, he worked his panicked mind to try and think. He felt frustrated and angry, but he could not protect anyone by challenging Anti-Skill or Judgment head on. That would change nothing even if he could cheat with the Coin of Nicholas. He knew that much.
He did not have time to explain to them that he was no longer part of the dark side.
It was all or nothing.
How could he stand in front of them and talk when a single mistake would mean taking a bullet to the head? He had to pessimistically assume he would be taken out along with the others. That was the only way he would survive this.
His goal was to escape to safety. And that meant crossing Academy City’s borders to leave the city.
There was not a moment to lose, but running around blindly would also put his life at risk. He had already seen all too well what would happen to him if he did the wrong thing. He could not survive if he stayed in Academy City where so many cameras were watching everything that happened in the city’s limited space. He would be cornered before he could recover from even a single mistake.
He needed to meet up with the track suit girl named Takitsubo Rikou.
Then they could really get started.
He reflexively pulled out his cheap phone, but then he froze.
His fingers had moved on autopilot, but for some reason an error appeared on the lock screen.
He gasped in realization after seeing the cold error message.
That support AI had no real physical form. She had temporarily joined with the massive Bank database, but she was generally creating a connection back to her friend in England and moving freely between the devices around Hamazura. But now she had clearly rejected him.
(Oh, right. I can’t use this thing!!)
As soon as he realized how careless he had been, he held down the switch on the side. The few seconds it took to shut off stretched on for what felt like an eternity. Even loan sharks these days would steal a phone’s location data or social media’s facial recognition to track down a target who had skipped town. And he was up against Anti-Skill and Judgment who preserved order in Academy City. They would have full use of the city’s data infrastructure, including the unknown millions of security cameras, the cleaning and security robots, and the massive Bank database.
He breathed a sigh of relief once the thin screen finally went dark, but then a different sort of pressure hit him. He was cut off and overwhelmingly alone. Not even a child separated from their parents at a crowded amusement park would feel quite so much crushing pressure.
How could he let that girl know about the threat without his phone? Plus, he had no idea where she was and had no way of giving her a rendezvous point.
Aneri was not telling him anything. Which made sense since she had urged him to turn off the phone.
(Dammit, I didn’t realize how dependent on this phone I was.)
He cursed his own weakness. He started by thinking over what he could do. He could return to their apartment. If his girlfriend had not been caught in any similar trouble, she would be lazily waiting for him there.
He was unsure if that was a good thing or not.
He had to be swift and certain. If he could catch up to her before tragedy struck, she would not be harmed. He would make sure of it. He kept repeating that to himself like he was willing it to be true as he stepped out from behind the car.
He heard an odd sound from overhead.
Someone fell from the building and squashed the parked car to half its original height.
“Ahh, ahhh!! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!???”
He only now realized the odd sound had been someone screaming. He screamed himself and fell on his ass because all of the car’s windows had shattered. The person embedded in the steel roof did not seem to have it in him to get up, so he turned just his head toward Hamazura while lying on his back.
He could not open one of his eyes due to the blood flowing from a head wound.
He was a young man older than Hamazura.
He wore a thick coat and fancy slacks. What he wore below the coat was unclear, but the practical sneakers on his feet clashed with the classical outfit. He also wore a synthetic fabric sling bag over the coat. The mismatched look made it look like he was skipping town.
Who was that weak and cynical smile meant for?
“I might not look it…but I used to boss the likes of you around over the phone.”
Still down on his butt, Hamazura gulped. He had never met this man before, but he had seen someone similar when he was working as a dark side underling. Well, seen was the wrong word. The woman who had bossed Item around had ensured her own safety by only ever calling them over the phone. She had gone to great lengths to keep her appearance and real name a secret.
“The voice on the phone? This is reaching people on that level!?”
That meant there were no exceptions. The young man crushed on the car roof did not nod or shake his head. He may not have had the strength left.
“She lives…outside the city. Return it to…my little sister.”
“Wait, don’t say that. I have my hands full already!! Don’t give me another burden! I mean it!!”
The young man was no longer listening. After an especially large convulsion, he stopped moving altogether. He did not even shut his eyes like they did in dramas and movies. He simply stopped blinking and blood oozed from his unfocused eyes.
Hamazura sensed someone inside the building.
A little sister living outside the city.
“Dammit!!” he spat as he reached for the young man despite the risk.
He unhooked the sling bag that was too small to fit much more than a wallet and phone and he pulled it toward himself. Then he rushed into a narrow alley between buildings with the extra baggage.
The road was growing busy now, but he had to check something before blindly running away.
He checked through the small sling bag and found a few tools inside. A passport as a form of ID, a smartphone, some paper money carelessly balled up with some rubber bands, a Shinto shrine’s charm that felt out of place with everything else, and a handgun seemingly made out of plastic. Almost all of it was sketchy as could be. He started by powering off the phone and opening the passport. School Boy. That was very obviously a fake name. In fact, it was one that showed up on a lot of example documents in banks and government offices here in Academy City.
There was no Coin of Nicholas in the sling bag.
Maybe they had been handed out randomly so not everyone had one and maybe the young man had not believed it worked and left it behind. Hamazura had kind of been hoping for another one so he could shorten the lag between uses, similar to Nobunaga’s rotating three-line formation.
(So is this the charm?)
Vermilion fabric had the shrine’s name and the charm’s effect stitched in gold: wish fulfillment. He was surprised to see that category existed. If that would fulfill whatever wish you had, it felt like an almighty joker that rendered the academic achievement and prosperous business ones unnecessary.
Maybe he was sensitive to such things after seeing the Coin of Nicholas work so well, but he still doubted the charm had any special effects. It was only a local souvenir, no different from a keychain or phone strap.
(Are these mass-produced in a factory, or are they handmade? If they’re different for each shrine, I might be able to work out the general area where his sister lives and search for more personal information from there.)
At any rate, he was glad this had not fallen into Anti-Skill’s hands.
His own life came first, of course. He could not determine how much he would be able to do about the charm, but he still felt an obligation to search for that sister outside of Academy City now that he had taken it.
The handgun was only meant for self-defense, so it only had two spare magazines despite being full-auto. Hold the trigger down and it would last less than 10 seconds. Carrying that around would probably give the Anti-Skill officers flooding the streets an excuse to kill him, but he would be operating in the middle of the dark side from here on. Just like vitamin supplements and silver ion anti-bacterial spray, he felt like letting go of it would only make things worse.
Anti-Skill was supposed to stand for justice, but they were out of control. It was more frightening than a zombie outbreak.
(He doesn’t have a security buzzer, a mobile router, or anything else that could be used to track me. Good.)
There were no sirens this time.
He only heard the scraping of tires against the road. Those were probably electric cars, but right now they felt like assassination weapons that could silently sneak up on him.
“Another one. The suspect died at 4:10 PM. Send the paperwork to the prosecutor.”
“It’s just one surprise after another. I guess that’s the dark side for you. Our usual methods just aren’t working.”
Hamazura pressed his back against the filthy concrete wall and held his breath.
He could not believe what he was hearing. Based on their tone of voice, they were not being sarcastic.
(Does Anti-Skill not realize what they’re doing? But they’re hunting us down and killing us!)
What about what happened in that abandoned building?
He had not seen exactly what the man had done to kill Aoumi Karei when she should have been protected by the repellent…but what if he had not done anything?
But that did nothing to put his mind at ease. This was frightening in a way other than a serial killer wielding an axe or chainsaw with intentional malice. This was like a necessary gear was missing or like an automated process was running while malfunctioning. He imagined a bedridden old person being mercilessly folded up in a defective nursing bed while a faux music box melody played. If the people doing this did not realize their mistake, they would keep doing it. It was like a murder factory where Anti-Skill loaded the people up on the conveyer belt that carried them off to be folded up and stuffed in boxes.
The usual rules did not apply in Academy City today.
Anti-Skill would not protect them.
Both Item and the voice on the phone would die when the time came.
He put the sling bag diagonally across his chest, turned his back on the road full of adults, and continued further into the alleyway.
He had to reach Takitsubo Rikou.
He could not let her be swallowed up into this hell again. No matter what.
“What is the meaning of this!?” Shouted Shirai Kuroko after returning to the logistics vehicle the size of a large bus. “You’re just going to continue with the operation!? I requested an internal investigation to determine if my own actions there were inappropriate!! Whoever they might have been, a life was lost on the scene. If you refuse to thoroughly investigate that, you might as well be admitting we are doing something wrong here!!”
The combover and glasses man nervously called out to her from behind, but the cowardly and obedient teacher did not have the guts to grab a middle school girl’s shoulder.
The operators in front of the large computers spoke with voices colder than the machines they operated.
No one was even looking in Shirai Kuroko’s direction.
“For Phase 1, we have completed 1700 surprise attacks made on the targets’ hideouts and everyday spheres of activity. The neutralized dark side targets make up about 40% of the total in Outrank – less than initially hoped. We will now use Response B. Please correct the flowchart to make up for this delay.”
“Prepare for Phase 2. The targets will be on the run after abandoning their hideouts, so target their predicted destinations. While Phase 1 went after individual targets, Phase 2 will likely allow them to gather into groups as they rush toward the same few safe spots, but the dark side is not a monolith.”
“With more of them around, they might fight each other for the one plank. They will not attack with their apparent numbers, so show off the power of our high-level organization to bring us back on schedule.”
The same thing was happening all across Academy City.
The deadly operation was continuing without delay to cover all of Academy City with something like a giant invisible spider web.
“Was that really an accident?” quietly asked Shirai.
The man only tilted his head and wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. The large baby birds printed on it seemed unusually cutesy for a middle-aged man, so it may have been bought for him by a family member.
“The dark side supposedly has a beneficial side and a harmful side. The beneficial side is relatively pleasant and acts as a necessary evil for society to exist. The harmful side is rotten to the core and is filled with unmanageable villains.”
Rakuoka Houfu began to explain something she had not asked about.
It may have been more for his benefit than hers.
“But I believe that way of thinking is a trap laid by the dark side. We can worry about whether our targets are from the beneficial side or the harmful side after they have been arrested. Worry about that now and they will stab us in the back. What happened back there was unfortunate, but we were doing the right thing. Lose sight of that and you will never recover.”
(This would be so much easier if I had Uiharu with me.)
“Rakuoka-sensei, I have requested an internal investigation into myself. If you will do the same for yourself, I will continue to work with you.”
That thought was cut off by a shaking.
The logistics vehicle had started to move. The Pet Breeder case was closed thanks to the suspect’s death, so there was no point in staying here any longer.
“Where are we headed?”
None of the operators answered her.
When she looked to their cold faces illuminated by the glow of the flat screen monitors, she could practically see the message of “Your voice command was not recognized. Please speak more clearly.”
“W-we are probably on our way to a large Anti-Skill station,” said the nervous middle-aged man. “Because that will have a heliport on the roof. We will likely wait until Phase 1 ends at 17:00 and then rush wherever we are needed during Phase 2.”
The girl could tell a large gear was turning, but what lay at the center of that gear? Was it spinning fruitlessly because a neighboring gear was missing, or had it been linked with a malicious gear?
Did she simply need to blame the middle-aged man who had rushed in to save her?
Could she change this by hating the operators who felt they were in charge and scoffed at everything she said?
(Where are you, Onee-sama?)
“We have a report from Bizen in District 8. His suspect has died, so he is asking us to send the relevant paperwork to the prosecutor. We have accepted his request and HQ will send the paperwork over in short order.”
That cold report told of another life lost.
If she made her attack in the wrong direction, she would only waste her time while many more lives followed.
Hamazura Shiage had returned to the apartment building he normally stayed at.
It barely felt like home because he felt so out of place there. He shared it with his girlfriend Takitsubo Rikou, Level 4 Kinuhata Saiai, and Level 5 Mugino Shizuri, so they had ended up in a fairly fancy apartment. The new Item had gathered there. He could never have paid that rent himself. In fact, 80-90% of it was paid by the girls with money they had gotten from who knows where.
In other words…
(Anti-Skill will see this as just another loathsome hideout bought with dirty money.)
He entered through the main entrance’s auto-locking door and walked to the elevator hall like usual, but he stopped just before hitting the elevator button. After some thought, he used the emergency stairs instead. The floor he wanted was a long way up. He would normally take the elevator unless he had a very solid reason to think that was a bad idea, but he chose the stairs this time.
He suppressed his impatient heart as he climbed the stairs one at a time. It felt more like mountain climbing than sprinting. He did not want his legs to be too worn out to move by the time he reached the top.
Because he had no idea what he might find there.
He arrived at the floor he wanted.
He slowly took a breath and pulled the gold coin from his pocket to check. The previously dull outer edge had regained its shine all the way around. The Coin of Nicholas was fully charged. That also meant an hour had passed since he used it. This would help him tell the passage of time with his phone off.
A lot could happen in an hour.
He walked down the long hallway to reach his apartment’s door. He started to grab the knob but thought better of it. He instead picked up a vase sitting on a table in the public space and poured out its water.
As soon as the metal door grew wet, bluish-white sparks scattered.
Then the door flew open from within.
A muscular man dressed all in black and equipped with a helmet and steel toe boots burst out. He must have realized his surprise attack had failed.
Even Hamazura found it strange how little he hesitated. He slammed the vase down on the Anti-Skill officer’s head and while the man let his guard down due to his helmet aimed the handgun from close range.
The man must have assumed a vase was this best an amateur delinquent boy could manage, but then Hamazura repeatedly pulled the trigger while aiming at the center of his chest. With a deafening noise, the fully-equipped Anti-Skill officer was blown backwards. He must have gone limp because his bizarrely-shaped submachinegun fell to the floor.
Even after all that, the masked Anti-Skill officer only fell on his ass and coughed. Not that Hamazura wanted to have killed him. He kicked the man’s helmeted jaw from the side and then left the entranceway to reach the rest of the apartment.
This was his territory – a sort of sanctuary.
There was no more assumption of safety here now that he had seen a fully-equipped Anti-Skill officer inside.
The shoe box in the entranceway, the cabinets in the living room, the square trapdoor in the floor leading to who knows what, and everything else had all been opened. How could they call themselves the heroes? They were acting like burglars. He checked each room with the gun still at the ready, but he did not find anyone else inside.
Not even any of the girls who should have been here.
“Dammit!!” he spat while stomping his feet in frustration.
Demanding himself to calm down only made it worse.
(Anti-Skill works as a group, so I doubt that bastard would have come here alone. He must have been the last one left behind to check over things after the attack. They ransacked the place because they wanted information. That means they don’t know where their targets are.)
He looked around the disastrous state of the room. He tried to find any information he could. He and his roommates had established a way to leave messages in case of emergencies. Those techniques were part of the reason the stench of the darkness continued to cling to them, but he still checked above the bathroom ceiling and behind the sink’s mirror.
He found a few folded up notes.
“I’ll get some help from a makeup specialist. The plastic surgery route super scares me. -Kinuhata.”
“I’m getting out of here. Try to follow me and you’re dead meat. -Mugino.”
Nothing got those two down.
He was confident they were fine. The problem was the name he had not seen.
His girlfriend’s name.
(Mugino and Kinuhata weren’t here when Anti-Skill arrived. Whether they would have won in the end or not, the walls and ceiling would not be intact if they had fought here. That’s just how it is with a Level 4 and a Level 5. So nothing has happened yet. Anti-Skill broke into our apartment and found nothing, so they started opening all the drawers and gathering what data they could to make up for the delay. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Nothing’s happened ye-)
That was when he heard some static. He looked over to see the Anti-Skill officer lying unconscious in the entranceway. The static had come from the radio attached to his shoulder.
“We’re pushing the schedule up. Hatsuoka, forget that apartment. End your search early and rejoin the main unit. Meltdowner and Offense Armor are big names, but that means they’ll have stricter information management. I doubt you’ll find any data on their hideouts or escape methods just lying around.”
Hamazura breathed a sigh of relief. Big names like the new Item really were on another level. They would not be captured so easily. This told him Mugino and Kinuhata were okay.
Anti-Skill must not have imagined one of their targets was listening in because the voice on the radio continued.
“So we should consider this a success for arresting even one of the residents listed on Outrank: AIM Stalker Takitsubo Rikou. Let’s take her back to the station and get what information we can out of her. Head on back, Hatsuoka.”
His vision grew dark. He had not been shot or zapped, but he felt like he would pass out from no more than words.
But it was no use. He still had to face the reality before him.
If Takitsubo Rikou really had been captured by Anti-Skill, he had to find some way of rescuing her. After everything they had done in broad daylight, he hated to think what they would do in the privacy of their station. He had a feeling they would have a record number of “accidents” and “suicides” while questioning suspects tonight.
Especially because Anti-Skill did not seem aware how frightening they were. Almost like a small child that did not know how easy a captured bug was to squish. He was not going to let them look at a bloodied Takitsubo and wonder how that had happened.
(But what can I do?)
He looked down at the unconscious Anti-Skill officer.
Takitsubo was apparently in their truck, but he could not just run out and try to chase them down. Nor could he save his girlfriend by attacking a station filled with hundreds of fully-equipped Anti-Skill officers. Could he steal this guy’s equipment and pretend to be an officer himself? No, that would never work. They were bound to use facial recognition, a fingerprint scan, or some other biometric system when entering and exiting the station.
He checked through the officer’s belongings.
(A 9mm submachinegun, a .45-caliber handgun…why don’t they use the same caliber for both? Anyway, a bulletproof jacket, a radio, a drone…is this tablet to control the drone? And lastly, a first aid kit.)
He had no time. He had repeatedly fired a handgun without a suppressor during the fight in the entranceway and the other residents would have heard the gunshots. It would also rouse suspicions when this Hatsuoka man failed to return, so it was only a matter of time before more Anti-Skill came running.
Hamazura’s focus fell on the man’s notepad.
But it did not actually function as a notepad like the ones in old police dramas. It was a symbolic thing that proved one’s identity as law enforcement.
(We’re in south District 7, so they’ll take us to that station.)
This was not his first run in with the law. He had been thrown in holding cells plenty of times after stealing a car or getting into a street fight during his Skill Out days.
And if he knew the location, there was something he could do.
He pulled out the tablet, removed Hatsuoka’s glove, and pressed the man’s thumb against the fingerprint reader.
He did not have the skill to pull this off.
So he had to make up for the difference by putting his own life at risk.
“That was a yes to a bag? Oh, paying by card? Then just hold it next to the register until you hear the beep. How many chopsticks and hand towels would you like?”
“Oh, I’ll take two.”
“Two? Coming right up.”
Inside a perfectly ordinary convenience store, Shirai Kuroko stared at the middle-aged man’s stooping back in disbelief.
“They really should have thanked you. And that’s a stingy habit you have.”
“Y-you don’t understand, Shirai-san. An old man like me can’t ask for just one pair of chopsticks because that’s like admitting to being single and lonely. And it’s even worse on Christmas!”
“Also, this is your job, not school committee work, so are you charging that as a business expense?”
“Are you insane! I can’t get try to charge this!! Am I going to arrest a criminal with my bento!? Or defuse a complex time bomb with the chopsticks or a toothpick!?”
“Umm, I am technically a teacher, so my work is a public service.”
He muttered to himself for a bit. Just like with an ascetic monk, the old traditions about someone’s profession could make it hard for them to notice how modern people viewed them.
“By the way, um, why do you say they should have thanked me?”
“Sigh. It seems like the appropriate reception for one of our regulars.”
“Eh? Shirai…White Spring…a-are you serious? The entire holding company!? You’re even richer than I thought!!”
The glasses man gave a start after checking the name on the bag, but the girl in the Tokiwadai uniform wondered why he was making such a big deal about it. The unusual was the usual at that school.
(There are a lot of mysteries about Onee-sama’s family too.)
“Ah, but I do love the convenience store at Christmas. Ha ha. Seeing the people at the register tells me I’m not the only one alone on this holy night. Ah ha ha. Eh heh heh.”
“(Uh, oh. I probably shouldn’t tell him we’re running tests toward automated convenience stores.)”
The twintails middle school girl returned to the logistics vehicle while her kindness toward the man left her feeling a little gloomy.
Even fire trucks and ambulances used convenience stores and gas stations. It might seem rare, but it was common enough to still blend into the city background.
All of the large vehicle’s windows were covered, so once the automatic rectangular door shut, she could no longer tell where in the city she was.
The vehicle slowly began to move.
She stuck her hand in her skirt pocket in order to see where they were going on her phone’s map.
But she was interrupted by a dull crash like something had fallen from heaven to earth.
Something had landed on the roof.
It must have been a significant impact because the special vehicle swerved in an S-shape and slammed on its breaks. Shirai was thrown from her feet, but someone held her in place. She looked over to see it was that skinny but greasy man. She grimaced and then shouted a question.
“What just happened!?”
The operators did not reply. No surprise there.
She clicked her tongue and vanished into thin air. After teleporting outside the stopped logistics vehicle, she found the flat roof dented in at the center and the red lights broken. She appeared just in time to see something roll off from there to the asphalt.
It was a person.
She ran over in a hurry to find a brown-haired boy. She guessed he was high school aged. Given the situation, he must have fallen from a considerable height. She started to look up on reflex, but then she froze.
She had seen his right hand.
That arm was limply sprawled out at his side, but it held something that appeared to be plastic but was no toy.
It was a real handgun.
(Is he part of the dark side too?)
“Suspect detained. He is in violation of the Swords and Firearms Control Law. Someone look him up on Outrank!!”
She gulped and faced him again.
She also kicked the handgun aside.
“I will not let this one die! Someone call an ambul-”
Just as she shouted that, the boy gathered some strength from somewhere and grabbed at her while lying on the road still covered in some hard snow.
She elbowed him in the jaw on reflex.
The delinquent boy rolled along the ground and struggled even though he lacked the strength to get up.
(That was a clean hit. Wh-where did he get this abnormal endurance…or persistence, maybe? I hope he isn’t high on something or other.)
The middle-aged man hesitantly called out to her from the large vehicle’s door.
He was awkwardly moving his hands every which way on a tablet while walking over.
“I-is that how it works? Oh, no! The camera started up! Shirai-san, oh, it just found a match in Outrank. He is indeed part of the dark side. His name is Hamazura Shiage!! He’s flagged for extra caution needed!”
“Is that so?”
“A normal medical stretcher wouldn’t be enough to restrain him. We have a special one with belts to strap him down in the truck, so we can use that.”
“Whatever works!! Just hurry!!”
This had been his only option.
Every criminal arrested in a certain area was taken to the same station.
(I-I really thought I was dead.)
So he could not let them take him to the hospital. He felt terribly dizzy, but he had to stay conscious and struggle. He had to make sure this was an emergency arrest.
This way, powerless Hamazura Shiage could be reunited with arrested Takitsubo Rikou.
He was willing to jump out a building window if it would save his girlfriend.
“Phase 1 is officially complete. The final work was delayed, but please follow your instructions from central and redistribute your personnel for Phase 2. The real fight is about to begin.”
“Shifting to Phase 2 now. The individual dark side targets have now left their territories and are on the run. We will set up ambushes on the routes suspects are most likely to use and capture them all at once. We can make up for the previous delays here.”
Hamazura Shiage caught bits and pieces of those words while struggling to remain conscious.
He had been thrown into a small room surrounded by chain link fence. This area was divided into several such rooms. These were the station’s holding cells that he had become well acquainted with in the past.
He felt a tugging sensation on his forehead’s skin. There was no mirror here, but feeling with his fingers told him he had some hemostatic tape attached there. That meant he had at least been given the bare minimum of a medical examination and care.
Nevertheless, he did not feel remotely thankful. He did not sense any actual benevolence from the adults there. It was like the fish tank at a sushi shop. They did not want anything ruining his freshness before he was placed on the chopping block.
“So we meet again,” said a voice in the adjacent chain link fence room.
It was a girl in a gawdy and spangled dress with her blonde hair done up in a complex fashion.
“I’m not giving you my name. You can just call me the girl in a dress.” The slender and gorgeous girl laughed while seated on the bed by the wall with her legs crossed. “Are you beneficial or harmful? Not that it matters. Those are just some stupid categories invented by people outside the dark side. Did you choose the easy path to survival too?”
“Let yourself get arrested and you don’t have to worry about being caught in the gunfire, right? Of course, one wrong move here could get you invited to a secret torture party that violates all the transparency rules.”
(Takitsubo…isn’t in here. Was she given special treatment?)
His possessions had of course been confiscated. His phone in particular had to be a mouthwatering treat for the people pursuing the dark side. What was called stalking when an amateur did it was instead called a stakeout when civil servants did it. Those guardians of justice had no concept of personal information or privacy.
Anti-Skill would be satisfied after taking his wallet and phone, so he dragged his aching body to its feet and reached out through the familiar barred window.
He gave a quick wave.
“I’m in, so bring me my things, Aneri.”
With a sound like an electric razor, a multicopter drone shaped like a giant crane fly approached the window. That was the surveillance toy the Anti-Skill officer named Hatsuoka had been carrying around. Its cargo claws were gripping the small sling bag and Hamazura pulled that in through the bars.
It contained someone else’s fake passport, a charm, the man on the phone’s phone, a first aid kit, and some cash balled up with some rubber bands.
It also contained Hamazura’s own Coin of Nicholas.
He hated that he had needed to have the gun confiscated as “evidence” in order to get taken in here, but he still had the mysterious spiritual item.
He first grabbed the man’s phone, turned it on, and whispered to his support AI.
“Aneri, unlock this thing and take over. Also erase everything on my confiscated phone. Just brick it. Don’t let Anti-Skill get anything from it. Oh, but transfer over as many of the addresses and photos as you can first. For the mobile game save data…I just need two-factor authentication with my social media account, right!?”
The door made from a chain link fence was locked tight, but the light on the lock turned from red to green when he held the phone nearby. A buzzer would normally sound whenever it was locked or unlocked, but that was silenced as the delinquent boy left the holding cell. Same for the camera in the corner of the room, of course.
“My, my. How sad,” said the girl in a dress. “You’re a lot more capable than last time I saw you. But this also means you aren’t just an opportunistic beneficial.”
“What about you? Care for a ticket out of here?”
She shook her head. She was going to trust in this safe zone she had found for herself. Maybe interrogation with specialized equipment was no concern to her since her Measure Heart power could forcibly set her emotional distance with the interrogator.
Takitsubo, on the other hand, had no such convenient power. And Hamazura could not trust Anti-Skill right now. She was his one and only girlfriend, so he was not going to let them go “oops, got carried away” after stopping her heart.
“Aneri, help me out here. Where is Takitsubo?”
The request took less than a second.
A map of the station (only available to those in the department) was displayed on the 6-inch screen and one point was highlighted with a flashing red dot.
Shirai Kuroko was constantly wondering if they really had to take this so far.
She was inside the South District 7 General Anti-Skill Station. The floor used for data management was built just like a corporate office. There were no impressively large monitors or white boards covered in photos with arrows drawn between them.
The twintails girl was covering her face with her hands and taking deep breaths, so the combover and glasses Anti-Skill man seemed hesitant to speak to her.
“U-um, are you okay?”
“Did you report your return to the station?”
“Eh? If I did that, they wouldn’t let me work overtime.”
His workaholic side was showing again, but that meant he intended to continue working.
Maybe he thought his mind could not take it if he did not continue with his usual routine.
“What is this dark side nonsense?” muttered Shirai like it was some kind of curse.
She felt a weight in her gut and that man offered her a paper cup of cheap coffee of all things. It was a harsh black coffee with no benefit other than waking you up.
“We’re slapping that label on people without even knowing if it really means anything and then forcibly closing our cases on them using enough violence that people keep ending up dead. Almost makes it look like law enforcement are the real criminals.”
“The dark side does exist.”
Shirai looked up at that. The combover and glasses Anti-Skill man spoke earnestly while pulling his octopus and rice bento and salted chicken skewers from the plastic bag.
That did not go with hot coffee at all and he had not even bought a salad to go with it.
“Judgment only mediates conflicts between students in your schools, but Anti-Skill deals with a lot of cases outside the schools. That gives us a chance to see inside the labs and research institutes, so we have seen the vague outlines of the undefinable thing we call the dark side.”
She silently accepted the paper cup while he took a sip of his own.
“I do agree that our definition of the dark side is vague. It does not refer to a specific company or industry. The division between beneficial and harmful may not even be accurate.” The skinny man’s words had an odd weight to them. “Academy City’s darkness contains all forms of illegal work, from professional assassins to researchers deviating from their approved field of work. I think the ‘dark side’ name is accurate. It is like the shadows that inevitably appear when you shine light on a city full of skyscrapers. People might be led there to an extent, but I think that world is something that develops naturally.”
“Have you seen it for yourself?” asked the twintails middle school girl.
He did not provide a yes or no answer, but she still persistently asked more.
“What do you think of this abnormal situation we find ourselves in?”
He remained silent for a while.
He took three sips of his coffee before finally responding.
“I…approve of it. There have been several unexpected accidents on the way, it’s true, but Operation Handcuffs has still brought the outlines of the elusive dark side into clearer focus. I think this is our one and only chance to protect the city’s children.”
He finally made his real point.
“But we still aren’t doing enough. This farce is not enough to defeat the dark side.”
Just then, the entire floor was wrapped in darkness. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and even the computers on the desks all went dark. A second later, Shirai realized the backup power and emergency exit signs had not come on.
It was currently just past 5 in the evening. A blackout now would not normally mean complete darkness, but this was the same as a department store or electronics store. The windows were all covered by thick sheets, so a power outage would mean complete darkness at any time of day, just like a movie theater or planetarium.
(An attack!? Who would be crazy enough!?)
Shirai immediately pulled out her phone and used its small light to see.
“Break the windows!! We can see if we let in the outside lights!!”
“This was not to blind us,” said the man.
His phone’s light shined up on his face and then he turned the screen toward her to show her the “no signal” indicator in the corner.
“The surface-level communication network is out!?”
“Now no one can hear us scream. Unless we manage to escape this building alive.” The Anti-Skill officer had the look of someone recalling a failure from his distant past. “We were prioritizing the violent harmfuls and leaving the beneficials be since they are a necessary part of society, no matter how much we dislike them. But I doubt any of us will see it that way for much longer. Not once we see the true face of the darkness.”
Rakuoka Houfu said one last thing like he was making a prophecy.
“They have arrived.”
The darkness took human form.
It was concentrated down into a pair of twin sisters of about 10 years old.
“Hm, hm, hm, hm, hm.”
“Hm, hm, hm, hm, hm.”
They were humming an improvised tune, yet their breaths were in perfect sync.
The girls had unusually large chests for their age and height. Long black hair swayed down at their ankles. Their hair was that long even while done up at the back of their heads, so it was abnormally long. They wore the white coats of a doctor or researcher, but the front was kept closed and they wore a thick medical corset around their hips, making it all look vaguely like Japanese clothing.
Maybe a yukata.
Maybe burial garb.
Their only accessories looked something like the masks at a Shinto festival. Both twins had a humorous-looking gasmask worn on the side of their head. The white coats covered in colorful stains provided no defense against the cold. They stood out from the snowy late-December city, so it almost looked like an unnatural ghost photo. They were simply not the type to care what people thought of them.
They would never be attacked.
They could cover up their presence if need be.
That arrogance could be seen in the complete lack of self-preservation found in their clothing.
They walked right up to the station’s main entrance. Anti-Skill had announced their intent to make a complete sweep of the dark side, but the fully-equipped guards must not have put up their guard when they saw the young girls.
One of the officers guarding the entrance smiled and crouched down to their eye level.
“Are you lost? If you don’t need anything here, then hurry on home. There are some scary people out in the city.”
If you could not accurately recognize your enemy, you would not survive.
The disconcerting sound that followed was a lot like something being dissolved in sulfuric acid.
But this was something else.
Inside his helmet, the officer looked puzzled by the odd sound reaching his eardrums. It took him a second to realize it was coming from his own body.
By then, his bulletproof and blade-resistant glove and the fingers within had already dissolved away. The mixture of organic and inorganic may not have given him time to perceive it as an injury.
“Nbh!? Gyah, what!? Hot…hot, hot, hot, wait, get it off, I can’t get it off!?”
He swung his right hand around to try to get the glove off, but his entire hand came off instead. And the changes did not end there. When he doubled over and turned toward his partner for help, he found the other guard and been fused to the wall.
Unable to even fall over, the man was plastered to the wall by a sticky goo the same color as his flesh.
“Hm, hm, hm.”
“Hm, hm, hm.”
The twins with their large breasts resting atop their thick medical corsets slowly walked between the two dissolving pieces of art. Their extremely long hair swayed side to side like a grandfather clock’s pendulum and they pulled several test tubes full of colorful liquids from their baggy sleeves.
The large door was made to resist explosions and stop a head-on collision from a large truck, but they did not even need to hold out their small hands for it to turn black, melt away, and become no more than another stain on the ground. As they continued on, the black stain actually altered how it spread to avoid their out-of-season beach sandals.
They entered a large lobby.
There were rows of benches and a long reception counter divided into several numbers, so it was reminiscent of a bank or city hall. Even armed Anti-Skill had ordinary administrative work to complete. They had plenty of less-serious departments, like for lost items and payment of traffic tickets.
The twins walked right into the center of the lobby.
This was an Anti-Skill station, yet they made no attempt to hide their faces with those gas masks decorated with toxic-colored paint.
“What should we do, Kaai?”
“Good question, Youen.”
Time had already stopped by then. Things may have played out differently if they were a violent criminal carrying a handgun or bomb, but no one knew how to process this surreal sight. They were faced with an undeniably deadly threat, but everyone just watched it happen without intervening.
“Pet Breeder was only at a shallow level, but she was one of our regular customers.”
“And we wouldn’t want to sit idly by after they challenge us like this.”
It took five more seconds before the place grew as busy as a disturbed hornet’s nest.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Decomposer?”
“I think I am, Carrier.”
Kaai was the Decomposer and Youen was the Carrier. Both twins winked.
And they spoke in unison.
“The only appropriate punishment is a total slaughter, don’t you think?”
The lobby was soon filled with the bizarre sound of human flesh, metal, plastic, and all other materials rapidly breaking apart.
Screams echoed up from the floor below.
Something like gunshots rang out a moment later and those continued on and on without end. That meant whatever was wrong remained wrong even after concentrated fire from the professional Anti-Skill officers.
“Wh-what in the world is happening!?”
Someone grabbed the girl’s hand as she reflexively started in that direction. It was that middle-aged man who had been working at his heated bento until a moment ago. The light in the eyes behind his glasses was much stronger than before.
“If you are going to make a choice here, do so with care. You only have one life. We are now in a world where a single wrong choice can mean death for anyone. That Teleportation is yours. You have the right to escape the building to seek help and safe shelter. No one will blame you for whatever choice you make here.”
“What are you-?”
“This is how the dark side works. These are probably harmfuls. You can’t assume one of the seven Level 5s would survive here or that children or the elderly will be spared. There are no safe zones here. This is already dark side territory. It doesn’t matter if we move in on them or they come to us. Once we are in their territory, any of us can lose our lives at any time!! And when I say any of us, I mean no exceptions!!”
What had he seen in the past? It may have been something so shocking it had broken his spirit and entirely changed his value system. Shirai Kuroko shook her head while he still held her slender wrist.
She looked that experienced one in the eye to give her answer.
“I still choose to fight!!”
Her Teleportation allowed her to break free of the three-dimensional restrictions, so she leaped to the floor below. She could move more than 80 meters at a time with her power, so moving straight down to the first floor was a simple task.
But that may have been a mistake.
Her vision blurred.
Something was wrong with her eyes and nose. A powerful stench was physically wearing down her mind.
(Is this…a gas!?)
The floor was dark from the blackout, but what she could see was badly distorted. She assumed the unidentified odor was messing with her senses, but she finally realized that was wrong.
The walls were rotting.
The ceiling was bowing down. Rats were running around on the floor, which was full of holes like in an abandoned building. The modern reinforced concrete building looked like an abandoned home that had soaked up plenty of moisture at the bottom of a dam.
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
She heard laughter from further in, but it was the fake and wooden laughter you might find in a bad stage play. That actually made it hard to tell what emotion it carried.
The figures Shirai could see were twin sisters of elementary school age.
That itself was not malicious, but they were as badly out of place here as small mascot sandals lined up on the edge of a rooftop or a stuffed animal floating down a muddy river.
“This is Judgment!!” shouted Shirai to shake off her dizziness. “Who are you!?”
They were not listening. Their world was so closed off they may not have even seen her as human.
The young girls pulled each other close, pushing together their large breasts which were horribly imbalanced with their height, and they spoke in a singsong voice.
“Hey, Kaai. Someone’s still alive.”
“Oh, dear, Youen. But don’t worry. She’ll be dead soon enough. I don’t feel like waiting, so how about we ignite this floor and move on to the next one?”
“Do you think she’s familiar with the dark side etiquette to survive our initial attack? I wonder how deep in she is. A corrupt Judgment member, maybe?”
“Even if she is on the dark side, she’ll only be one of those opportunist beneficials. We can’t expect much from her.”
Shirai still did not know what these twins were up to, but that word was bad news. She focused her mind so she could send in a metal dart the instant they pulled out a lighter, a match, or anything of that nature.
“I mean, it’s not like we can even count the bodies when they all rotted away like that.”
Shirai Kuroko’s soul was pinned in place by words that should have had no physical power whatsoever.
“And even if someone did survive somewhere on this floor, we can blow them away easily enough now that the others have rotted enough for methane to fill every nook and cranny.”
Bodies, rotted, blow them away, methane.
Only then did Shirai realize the source and identity of the odor entering through her nose and mouth, passing through her windpipe, and filling her lungs. It was not just the walls, ceiling, and floor that were falling apart. What was that the squeaking rats were stepping on? What had happened to all the Anti-Skill officers who should have been here? What were those dark and sticky stains splattered everywhere? The answers to all those questions hit her at once.
Those twins had caused the people here to rot away while still alive.
Shirai Kuroko had been breathing in the flammable gas that caused corpses to swell out from within.
Efficiency and logic did not come into play. When she held a hand over her mouth and doubled over, the twin sisters grinned sweetly while holding each other close and squishing their chests together.
The Decomposer and the Carrier pulled something out like a magic trick. The twins held a pencil-sized electric candle lighter like the bride and groom at a wedding.
Their small fingers reached the trigger and produced a solid “click”.
The stench and gases of death had transformed the first floor into a single giant bomb, so it all exploded.
A deep rumbling shook the entire reinforced concrete building.
“Shit, what is it now!?” cursed Hamazura Shiage with the borrowed phone in hand.
He heard several people running around in the darkness. Aneri, his one ray of hope, had gone silent. A look at the phone said it had no signal. Communications must have been cut off when the power went out.
He was alone from here on.
He used his memory to make his way to the room with the red dot on the map.
It was dark and all the security cameras and sensors were dead, but this was still hard to believe. If the Anti-Skill officers moving around were just a little more cautious about their surroundings, they would have found Hamazura curled up in a corner and holding his breath.
Something major had to be happening.
Someone had chosen to play the “direct attack” card that he had immediately rejected. That was convenient for him, but he doubted the monster would take his side. He had to keep in mind that he was effectively attempting to rob a burning building in the middle of a major urban riot.
Once the adults’ footsteps left, he moved out into the dark hallway.
The room he wanted was not far away.
The instant he opened the door and stepped in, a powerful impact hit his right wrist. By the time he groaned, someone had already grabbed his collar and slammed his back against the wall. The phone’s screen shined light up from where it had fallen to the floor.
His assailant was a professional Anti-Skill officer.
He could not breathe.
Had this man been waiting in the dark room without lighting up his flashlight or phone to catch any intruders by surprise?
He had close-cropped black hair and muscles thick enough to look like armor. He had the stereotypical look of an authoritarian gym teacher. The delinquent boy would never have wanted to get anywhere near him even under ordinary circumstances.
His feet were already lifted from the floor. Nothing he did with his hands could dislodge that thick arm from his collar. Nevertheless, his world seemed to expand endlessly when he heard that girl calling his name.
It was Takitsubo Rikou.
He had been searching this entire time for that shoulder-length black hair, those vacant eyes, and that pink track suit.
Maybe Anti-Skill had simply not wanted to move a suspect around while security was so unstable, but the fact remained that his girlfriend was still alive in this shitty world!!
“Agh!! I swear I’ll save you. So don’t worry about a thing, Takitsubo!!”
“Another dark side punk?” asked a deep voice directly in front of him.
They had to do something about this man before they could have their emotional reunion. Hamazura briefly focused on his Coin of Nicholas, but he was unsure if he should use it here. It worked for things like “open this door” or “win me this roulette round”, but he did not know if it would work for something like “let me defeat this guy”. He wanted to avoid wasting a wish and having to wait another hour for it to charge.
“Anti-Skill will not give in to anyone. We will drag all of you out into the light, dark side. Handcuffs allows for no exceptions.”
Just then, something landed on the man’s arm.
Its surface shined even in the darkness, but…was that an earwig?
And it was not alone.
The next thing Hamazura knew, the man’s right arm was completely obscured by all the bugs covering it.
Once the Anti-Skill officer finally noticed, he let go of Hamazura’s collar and flailed his right arm. But the earwigs would not let go. In fact, Hamazura heard a sound like pouring sand as more of them dropped from the ceiling like a waterfall. They enveloped the man’s upper body and then crawled into his bulletproof jacket, gloves, and other equipment.
Hamazura could not bear to watch any longer. Once the dark silhouette was covered from head to toe, it began to crumble from within. It was unclear if he was being torn apart, eaten, or dissolved, but he was no longer in one piece. Hamazura was presented with an obvious death without ever seeing a corpse or an injury, just like he had watched a metal drum crushed inwards with someone stuffed inside.
He could not even run over to try to help.
Those were not just earwigs. They had something else to them – maybe a chemical and maybe a pathogen.
“Get away from there, Hamazura!!”
He had fallen to the floor, so Takitsubo called out to him. He had come here to save her, but here she was saving him. If she had not pulled him back toward her, he may have been destroyed psychologically rather than physically.
He detected an odor that stung his eyes. It was like something rotting, but not like kitchen garbage.
He heard a quiet thunk and then saw someone else standing in the room. Even though he did not recall blinking. It was a girl with twintails. The middle school girl had appeared out of thin air, but all she did was move over to the wall and then slide down to sit on the floor.
She was the one who had handcuffed him.
The armband on her right arm said she was an esper from Judgment.
He noticed she was bruised all over and there were scorch marks on her uniform from some school or another.
She was burned and battered.
She had the look of someone who had narrowly escaped a fire or an explosion. He had been in his fair share of fights, but he could not even hazard a guess about any possible internal damage.
“I couldn’t…teleport away…in time.”
“Hey, what’s going on?”
She did not answer his hesitant question. She appeared to have passed out.
“Don’t just pop in here and then die! What happened!? Aren’t you Judgment people supposed to protect us at times like this!?”
He heard some quiet footsteps.
He had no idea what was happening, but this sudden visitor had apparently brought a new threat along with her. She had apparently been teleporting out of danger, but he really wished she had chosen any room but this one.
He heard some giggling laughter as a pair of twins casually peeked into the room.
They were short, yet had weirdly large chests.
“Kaai, there’s some people in here. Why not get them bitten to infect them?”
“No, Youen, this is an interrogation room. We need to be careful in who we target. That boy there has a pretty stupid face, but I don’t think he’s Anti-Skill or Judgment.”
“Hey, Decomposer? Why bother discriminating after coming this far?”
“Well, Carrier, the more careful your aim, the more they will despair at their chances of escaping.”
He did not dare even breathe.
He could tell his life was in their hands. If this room was full of the methane gas use in lighters, then a single spark from them would fill the room with an explosive blast.
The unconscious twintails girl was apparently their target, but he could not predict what they would do in this situation.
Why should they care if they accidentally killed him or Takitsubo? There was no penalty outside of whatever rules they were using to score their own performance. They might just take those two lives as casually as they would kick a small stone along the way to school.
One of the twins grinned over at him while playing with a rat at her feet.
“Do you want to live?”
He planted his knees down on the dark stain spreading across the floor and folded his hands in front of his face. The twins grinned in satisfaction while he looked like a loser with a gun’s muzzle pressed against the back of his head.
“And please don’t kill the Judgment girl either. I don’t want to see anyone else die.”
The twins looked taken aback.
The flow of time stopped.
One of them burst out laughing while they pressed their cheeks together.
“Ah ha ha ha!! If you want, mister. You’re hilarious!!”
“Are you sure, Kaai? What happened to having careful aim?”
“It’s fine, Youen. We do need to leave a few of them alive to spread word of the fear.”
It all changed there.
The girl called Kaai put on a meltingly sweet smile and blew a kiss toward the pathetic boy.
“I quite like people who go out of their way to defile themselves.”
Youen sighed, giving the impression that her sister did this a lot.
“Tell everyone of this fear.”
That was a command. In a school society, school years created an absolute hierarchy, but this little monster looked down on him.
She explained the only way he and Takitsubo were going to survive.
“Tell them the dark side will not go away. Tell them what happens when they so foolishly try to shine a light on the darkness. Tell them what becomes of every fool who even thinks of it.”
He could not even nod, but the girl narrowed her eyes in satisfaction, pulled her head back out of the room, and walked down the hallway with her sister. The light sound of their beach sandals was joined by intermittent eruptions of shouts and screams.
And infectious disease.
The darkness controlled by Kaai the Decomposer and Youen the Carrier was on another level altogether.
“Looks like nothing’s actually broken. Okay.”
“Hamazura, I’ll apply pressure here, so you tie that on tight.”
After tightening a bandage using the light of the phone, he attached a metal clasp.
Since runaways could not visit the doctor, that simple first aid kit was a valuable asset for them, but he could not just leave that twintails girl there to die.
She did not wake up even when he poured disinfectant on her wounds, so she must have been out cold. He had covered up most of the wounds he could see, but he did not know what things were like inside her. She was breathing, though, so he would have to hope Anti-Skill could take care of the rest.
Assuming any of them were still alive.
“There’s nothing more we can do. Let’s get out of here.”
He had not expected this now.
Takitsubo Rikou expressionlessly puffed out her cheeks.
“By the way, Hamazura, did those twins do anything to you?”
Did he have some weird mold or bug on his back? He doubted he could have missed anything with how powerful that infection had been, but now he was worried.
“When the one blew you a kiss.”
“Bff!? That was an accident, a surprise attack, a force majeure!!”
His flustered shouting only made his girlfriend act like a grumpy cat.
Anyway, he turned off the phone’s light and cautiously exited the interrogation room. A few explosions erupted down the hallway, but those were not the work of the mysterious twins. He was throwing burning pieces of paper into the darkness to intentionally detonate the gas up ahead and create a safe zone for them.
Methane gas was dangerous, but it could be contained to a single space. By dividing things up with a door or shutter before detonating it, the explosion would remain small and it would safely “use up” all the gas.
It worked, but nothing else happened either.
He clenched his teeth and had to stay focused lest his feet stop moving.
“Is there really no one else left in here?”
There were sticky strings stretched across the entire floor.
The stuff dangling from the ceiling looked like natto, but he doubted it was such an ordinary type of bacteria. There was no sign of anyone here anymore. The place had been packed full of fully-equipped Anti-Skill officers, not to mention the communication operators and administrative workers.
All that remained of those people was the disturbingly sticky and dark slime staining the floor and walls.
Hamazura had said he wanted to live and that may have sent the twins in this direction instead. What if they had killed someone else here because they had chosen to spare the twintails girl on a whim? He had nothing to prove that, but he still felt a great weight in his stomach.
And he doubted this was over. The dark side had made a show of force, but Anti-Skill controlled all 23 districts with its military might. Things would only escalate from here. Anti-Skill was sure to pull out something even more bizarre next.
“What do we do now, Hamazura?”
“We escape outside of Academy City.”
“Anti-Skill is serious about this. I’ve personally seen them kill two people and I’m sure they’ve killed even more that I didn’t see. The adults really are trying to crush the dark side. I don’t know what standards they’re using to purify the city, but I do know that the two of us are on some list called Outrank. So they’ll get us if we don’t leave. For today, hiding in some deeper and darker place will not be enough to safely lose them.”
Even in the darkness, he could tell she was frowning.
“But I doubt we can cross the outer wall so easily,” she said. “The four gates will be on max alert, so trying to break through will only get us killed.”
“I know that, but I do have an i-”
He stopped talking because he saw someone blocking the way ahead in the long hallway.
The voice he heard meant someone had escaped harm.
That was a relief, but he could not relax yet. He was not supposed to be here and, based on how Anti-Skill had been acting today, they might just gun down any suspect without giving him a chance to explain himself.
But that was not what happened.
They spoke to him instead.
“Is that you, Hamazura!? What are you doing here!?”
He recognized the voice.
This was not his first time here. He had been thrown into this place’s holding cells plenty of times after stealing a car or getting into a street fight during his Skill Out days.
So he knew some of the officers who worked here.
That teacher had her long black hair tied back. She normally wore a green track suit, but she was in a sinister black bulletproof jacket today.
He was scared.
He was, but while they did not get along, he knew she was not a bad person.
He briefly considered abandoning all his plans and asking her to save his girlfriend, but then he remembered the reality he was living in. Or maybe he just did not know the difference between a jinx and a wrong assumption.
Regardless, he held an arm out to the side after only a slight delay. He guarded his girlfriend with his body and raised his voice.
“Outta the way. I can’t trust you!!”
“Do this and you’re a criminal, Hamazura. Just tell me why you’re here and the grownups can handle it if necessary!! That’s how it’s supposed to work!!”
‘You’re not the only one I would need to trust!” he shouted back.
It was unusual for him to be able to overpower her with words. She always had the right thing to say and used that to crack down on even the smallest crimes.
Yet he was overpowering her.
That seemed to show the hesitation within her.
“Yomikawa, you’ve seen it yourself, haven’t you? Something isn’t right today. Something is preventing your ideal of justice from working like it’s supposed to. If I don’t figure out what’s causing it, leaving this in your hands will only bring death!! I’ve already seen it happen for myself!! At least twice!!”
“Then what are you going to do?”
It took her a bit before she got out that reply.
She really had lost her edge. But there were types of pain that could only be produced with a blunted edge.
“Are you going to justify picking up a gun and committing more crimes you know are wrong just because you needed to protect someone you care for? Only you will accept that justification. Society won’t. They’ll check the laws and judge you guilty!”
“Operation Handcuffs isn’t an evil thing. The idiot standing at the top of the world is tearing apart his own life to accomplish this, so I won’t let it go wrong!!”
She was not just trying to keep up appearances.
He could not ignore the words of someone standing in the same field as him.
“You have some vision for the future, don’t you? You wouldn’t have come all this way to save that girl otherwise.”
Yomikawa stepped forward.
It was just one step, but it was a heavy one.
“Then don’t destroy that ideal future with your own actions here!! It’s the dark side that justifies their own actions with exceptions like that! So leave all the pain-in-the-rear fighting to the grownups! I promise you we’ll treat you well!!”
He was not moved by her words.
He had already seen that kind of promise fall apart.
But could he really force his way past Yomikawa when she was saying this? His mind focused on the gold coin in his pocket. That was the only real move he had left. It would give him 100% odds just once here. If he used that, could he get Yomikawa away from him without hurting her!?
He thought about it and raised his lowered head.
He opened his mouth.
Something hot and hard crashed into the center of his chest.
He had no idea what had happened.
The deafening gunshot seemed to come after a short delay like thunder. But he did not have the presence of mind to actually figure out what had happened. The powerful blast launched him backwards into some glass protected by a thick sheet.
With a loud shattering sound, he was thrown outside the window.
Shirai Kuroko awoke to a sharp gunshot.
She found herself in a small room instead of the first floor lobby. Was this an interrogation room? She briefly had trouble remembering how she had gotten here, but then she noticed someone peering down at her face.
It was an overbearing middle-aged man.
“A-are you okay, Shirai-san?”
“Thanks to you.”
Seeing a combover and glasses was not how she liked to wake up. Only after sitting up from the floor did she realize she had been lying down. She felt an odd tugging at her skin. She checked in the interrogation room’s large mirror to see bandages and gauze all over her.
“I guess I have to thank you for treating my wounds.”
“Oh, um, that wasn’t me.”
Then who had done it? Rakuoka Houfu showed no interest in answering that question. It seemed like a long shot, but was the camera in the monitoring room on?
She stepped out into the hallway to find a horrible stench and lots of dark stickiness.
She saw two surviving members of Anti-Skill out there, but they were staring at a broken window for some reason. Some pink fabric was caught on the jagged edge. It was the synthetic material used for track suits and the like.
“The girl fell with him?” blankly muttered a young Anti-Skill man carrying a battle rifle that could be used at long or close range. “Anyway, we’re safe now, Yomikawa-san. Are you hur-”
Yomikawa’s trembling lips moved.
The next thing Shirai knew, the woman had grabbed at her subordinate’s collar.
“Did you aim your gun at a child, Namino!? What were you thinking!?”
The brown-haired man looked puzzled by her question.
“H-he was only some dark side punk. And if he snuck into the general station, he’s clearly a harmful, right?”
“Only…only!? These kids’ lives are our responsibility!! Their parents are trusting us to protect them!!!!!”
Her words did no good. The man appeared to shrink down, but he showed no sign of learning his lesson. It was like he had no interest in why she was angry and was only trying to weather the storm.
Shirai could tell just from watching that common sense had broken down.
She chose to approach them and the short walk was enough to wind her. The skinny combover and glasses man was not sure what to do. He may have wanted to lend her his shoulder, but was unsure if he should really carelessly touch a middle school girl. He was such a strict rule follower that he would overreact at times.
“Are you the only two still standing?” asked Shirai. “What happened to all the others???”
No one responded.
They were hesitant to speak the accurate number of losses out loud, which was why they had only received the numbers from a report over the radio. The young Anti-Skill officer holding the battle rifle shook his head with Yomikawa still grabbing at his collar.
And he gave the answer.
“South District 7, District 8, District 17…and District 1 are all down.”
Yomikawa was speechless despite yelling so much earlier.
That was understandable. District 1 was the government district where all the city’s administrative functions were gathered. The general station there also functioned as the central station that connected all the others. In terms of the police outside the city, it was like the National Police Agency’s headquarters.
Yet it had fallen so easily.
They were lucky to even have an accurate list of fallen stations with the top of the command structure broken off. Anti-Skill could easily cease to function as an organization unless they reorganized to bring their network back up.
“I told you,” said a voice. It was Rakuoka Houfu, the Anti-Skill officer with a combover and glasses. “We aren’t doing enough. If we really want to clean up the dark side, we have to treat it like a war.”
Something had gone terribly wrong with Operation Handcuffs.
Yomikawa Aiho bit her lip as one of those who had set this in motion along with the new Board Chairman.
His consciousness flashed in and out.
Landing on a pile of snow removed from the road had apparently cushioned his fall. Without that, the fall would have killed him. Falling from a great height was far more deadly than it was depicted in movies and dramas.
Yes, Hamazura Shiage was alive.
He heard his girlfriend calling out to him from nearby. She must have jumped out of the same window, but she was clinging to him instead of checking on her own injuries.
“Are you okay? Hey, Hamazura, you’re scaring me. Please wake up. Don’t leave me behind.”
He moved his trembling fingers to unbutton his jacket.
A smooth metal panel lay below. It belonged to the bulletproof jacket of the Anti-Skill officer he had knocked out in the apartment. He had known things were bound to get bad, so he had taken a precaution against that negative prediction.
And he had been proven right.
Asking anyone in Academy City for help would only get them killed. The adults were a threat, no matter what any individual one tried to do. The back alleys, the depths of the dark side, and every other loophole would be filled in. If they wanted to survive, they had to move outside the walls. He had no idea when Anti-Skill would return to normal, but for now, they had to leave.
They had to find freedom in the world outside.
Still collapsed on his back, he rubbed his girlfriend’s head and made a suggestion.
“Let’s go to the airport.”
“We can’t try to climb over the wall or try to get through the gates. Security will be so tight we’ll never get close to it. All of the low-level dark side people going for that idea are probably being torn to mincemeat by machinegun fire from unmanned helicopters or the robots on the wall right about now. Trying to be clever won’t work here. There might be hundreds of options, but they all lead to dead ends. Trying to climb the wall, trick the gate, or hide inside a long-distance truck will only end in failure.”
“But.” Takitsubo shook her head to reject his idea. “Security will be tight at District 23’s airport too. There are several layers of security and I doubt we can get on a plane while hiding our faces.”
“We just have to find a way to not rouse suspicions while showing our faces.”
He pulled a key item out of the small sling bag.
The passport was printed with a blatantly false name: School Boy.
He had no idea what about it was so impressive, but maybe it was impressive because an amateur could not explain it. If that voice on the phone was using it, it had to be a quality product.
He powered off his phone with a trembling hand and then held up the passport. He held it up within range of speeding sensor set up along with a traffic light.
The paper glittered.
The infrared produced a rainbow light thanks to the cutting-edge imperfect crystal printing. It looked simple enough, but the crystallographic defects creating irregular gaps in the thin layer of artificial crystal was a counterfeiting protection method that no one could ever reproduce. Supposedly, anyway.
But that had been proven wrong.
“The dark side must have a technician capable of making perfect counterfeit IDs. We’ll go talk with them and get our own. Then we have a free pass onto a safe flight out of here.”
South District 7 General Anti-Skill Station
Shirai Kuroko – Judgment
Rakuoka Houfu – Anti-Skill
In Front of South District 7 General Anti-Skill Station
Hamazura Shiage – Beneficial
Takitsubo Rikou – Beneficial
District 15 Luxury Hotel
Hanatsuyu Kaai – Harmful
Hanatsuyu Youen – Harmful
Between the Lines 1
“Your silence tells me it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
She was not wearing any real clothing.
A girl who looked only about 10 was pulling a red cloth thinner than a bed sheet up to her flat chest. Her long strawberry blonde hair was divided into several fried shrimps and had rose decorations woven in.
She was standing and leaning against the cell’s hard and cold bars.
The Level 5 with white hair and red eyes was seated on the floor in the adjacent cell.
Accelerator was Academy City’s #1 and the new Board Chairman, but he was now awaiting trial.
R&C Occultics CEO Anna Sprengel grinned.
She continued the conversation between two who were in position to take the world for themselves.
“I would love to hear how it was supposed to go, but maybe that’s irrelevant at this point. Hee hee. The fund you secretly gathered for the children taken into custody is going to go to waste at this point. Same for the new life you had prepared for them.”
“Did you get yourself thrown into that cell just so you could say this?” His voice was icy. If voices carried a literal temperature, this one might have frozen the average person to death. “Is that why you let yourself lose?”
“Didn’t I tell you? My main experiment is already over. This is no more than gathering some data in the time leftover.”
Anna, however, sounded carefree. The chill of his words bounced off of her like water on youthful skin.
“Isn’t that what giant IT companies do? There is no such thing as too much when it comes to big data. Are the people who obsess over yesterday’s weather forecasts fools? Is it all wasted effort? No, there is so much you can learn by poring over all the weather maps from the past century. The true fools are the ones who mock those efforts without putting in any work themselves.”
“Hee hee. Now, which one are you? Those who laugh at other’s effort often don’t realize the value of those efforts. You have chosen to cut away the dark side and take a different path, but do you truly understand their value?”
The chief executive officer continued smiling at the silent Board Chairman.
Her expression was so uniform it was creepy.
“Yes, there is a reason it turned out this way.”
Her long hair gave off a rosy scent as she waved her small hand through a gap between the bars.
“If you don’t discover what it is soon, it will all fall apart. The horrific tragedy you see playing out now will seem like nothing compared to what happens then. …By the way, I notice you haven’t revealed your name even as Board Chairman. Why not take it a step further and wear a mysterious mask whenever you make an appearance for the cameras?”