Toaru Majutsu no Index:GT Volume3 Chapter2
Chapter 2: Dark Side — Ghost, Android, and…
Tires scraped against the asphalt as they slipped to the side.
Academy City’s District 1 was a government district and that loud noise seemed out of place in such an orderly and coldly inhuman area. Especially when it was mixed in with screams and sounds of destruction.
“Hey, wasn’t that one of our prisoner transport vehicles!?”
“It didn’t just slip on a snowy road! Something’s happening inside it! Move, get down!!”
The 20-ton mass of metal swerved along a large S, broke through a makeshift barrier, knocked away the special vehicle on the other side, and crashed into the front gate of the general Anti-Skill station. After coming to a stop in front of the building, an eerie silence hung over the prisoner transport vehicle, but that did not last long.
Everyone assumed the sound of sparks was from the side door being cut away.
But in fact, the bulletproof and blast-resistant armor was cut through a centimeter out from the door.
The door collapsed outwards and a strange girl emerged from within. She looked to be 13 or 14. She had long hair colored an inhumanly bright red and she was not at all dressed for winter. The colors covering her undeveloped body were orange and black. She was only wearing something like a racing swimsuit with the toxic coloration of an insect. Surprisingly, she was barefoot.
Her bangs were cut cleanly across, she had a smartphone on each shoulder and she had several skinny tubes in the belts around her thighs. Some were rolled-up silicone keyboards and others were clear bottles full of some kind of thick liquid that definitely did not look like a drink.
Her pupils mechanically expanded and contracted without any other change to her expression and she held a sixty-centimeter blade that was much too large and thick to call a knife. It looked lot like a machete used to clear one’s way through the jungle, but it may not have belonged to any existing category.
She had used that to cut through the armor.
The vehicle’s wall was designed with bullets and bombs in mind, but it had been like gelatin to her.
The atmosphere froze. Everyone stood still like they had failed to read in these new rules, triggering an error. They had never imagined anyone would make it this far toward Anti-Skill’s center.
“The dark side!?” someone shouted.
A skinny old man wearing a lab coat over a dark blue jumpsuit followed the girl out of the vehicle.
He could have been a researcher or a mechanic. The glint in his eyes felt like it would fit either profession.
Sparks flew as his handcuffs were cut through. Not the chain, the two loops.
“Ladybird-kun, there must have been a gentler way to handle that.”
“You were captured before I could hijack a vehicle, Sensei, so I used the Anti-Skill prisoner transport vehicle to bypass the need to fight at three checkpoints. That has saved us 250 seconds.”
“Unlike you, I am human. Crush any one of my organs and I die.”
“I complied with all safety standards. If you wish for even greater safety, you would need to replace your body with carbon muscles and a heavy metal skeletal frame. I recommend depleted uranium.”
“Now I’m worried what your idea of safety standards are. Really, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.”
When the girl known as Ladybird spoke, there was a mismatch between the movement of her lips and her actual voice. Almost like she was a ventriloquist’s dummy.
The paralysis finally wore off for the surrounding Anti-Skill officers and a few of them drew their handguns.
“What are you doing here, dark side!? You damn harmfuls!!”
“Oh?” The old man looked legitimately puzzled. “Have you not heard what is happening outside? The confusion among your ranks must be worse than I thought. Maybe there was no need to pay you a visit and cripple your network after all. If so, I do apologize.”
A dry “bang!!” rang out and an Anti-Skill officer was pushed back by the recoil.
Everyone assumed the old man would collapse, but he did not.
A few of the officers pulled their triggers half in a panic, but for some reason, it was Anti-Skill who had someone collapse from a bullet wound to the head, chest, or other vital point each time.
Ladybird had expressionlessly raised the machete in her right hand.
That was all. When a bullet came whizzing in, she would accurately detect it, raise the thick blade in its path, and use the deflected bullet to attack Anti-Skill.
Yes, she redirected it toward someone other than the person who had fired it.
Anti-Skill had been a united front at first, but now their eyes turned toward their companions.
None of it seemed to bother the old man as he toyed with his own gloves.
“Kill them all. We have no other option.”
Screams continued for a while after that.
The old man known only as “Sensei” walked deeper into the building with the pace of someone strolling along their usual walking path. A storm of red, black, and orange raged around him. Anti-Skill was firing handguns and submachineguns to try to stop him, but not a single bullet hit him. Hitting him was not possible in a world where Ladybird could take control of a flying bullet with brute force and send it back the way it had come. That was like trying to fight a stealth fighter using a hot air balloon.
Their cutting-edge bulletproof and blast-resistant equipment was meaningless.
They could not break that thick machete with bullets or even with artillery-sized heavy weaponry.
“It is made of Saintium. That element’s metallic bond strength is fifty-six times greater than depleted uranium, so it can easily stop a warship’s armor-piercing artillery. Of course, only Ladybird-kun could hope to pick it up. As for your equipment, I am grateful that prisoner transport vehicle had plenty of horsepower.” The old man sounded like he was just having a casual chat. “Now, you won’t find it mentioned in any chemistry textbooks because it’s an artificial element that doesn’t exist in nature. A speck of it large enough to see probably costs more than any of the cars driving around out there. It was not easy running the accelerator at full power long enough to get this much. I would have been in trouble if it hadn’t shown the results I wanted.”
Anti-Skill must have shifted things up to the next level because a grenade was thrown from around the corner.
Ladybird accurately detected the flying explosive and swung her machete horizontally toward it. She hit the grenade back like a baseball and the blast and fragments shredded the Anti-Skill officer.
But then she heard a solid sound at her feet.
The officer had thrown two grenades just to be safe.
She tilted her head, making her red hair flutter, but she did not hesitate to act.
She got down on top of the grenade to suppress the blast with her own body.
A muffled boom range out, but that was all.
She slowly stood back up and stood by the old man’s side like nothing had happened. There was no red of blood. Her racing swimsuit and soft skin were both entirely unscathed. Blast resistant equipment was not enough to explain that.
“A-a machine?” The officer who had been badly injured by the first grenade moved his lips while down on the floor. “Is that one of those cyborgs we’ve heard about?”
“That term is about two generations out of date. You need to update your thinking if you hope to talk about a Kihara like me.”
Ladybird’s pupils mechanically expanded and contracted as she walked barefoot from the entranceway to a hallway. She made sure to end the life of an Anti-Skill officer reaching for a gun with a trembling hand.
She pulled one of the bottles from the belt on her thigh, drank some of the contents, and then dumped the rest over her head as if drinking it was not enough. The thick clear liquid dripped down her hair and skin and gave her outfit the unique sheen of a racing swimsuit. That was a room temperature superconductive fluid that allowed her to safely release all her excess energy, but it was also a discharge machine oil that reduced the frictional wear on her joints. That sounded simple enough, but combine that with an outer space nuclear reactor and building a manned space probe was within reach.
However, the old man was more troubled by what he saw in front of him.
“Ladybird-kun, you could really stand to be more tactful.”
“Explain to me why you equipped me with parts that trouble you when they show through my clothing.”
The old man brought a hand to his forehead when the girl did not bat an eye while fixing the butt of her racing swimsuit with a finger bent like a hook. They had no business with the elevators or emergency stairs. If they only wanted to slaughter the people here, they would have simply brought down the building from outside. Ladybird’s specs allowed her to keep up with rifle bullets using that Left Arm sword that was 56 times tougher than depleted uranium, so it was curious why she had even bothered to enter the building.
They had business deeper inside. That was when his outdated phone rang. He pressed the small button with a finger inside thick engineering gloves. That model protected against injuries and the cold while also allowing for precise movement. That sounded simple, but even professional snipers had a hard time finding one they liked.
“You’ve done it now, Kihara-kun,” said a voice on the phone.
“I would really like to throw those words right back at you. Your silly betrayal here has already brought down three Kiharas.”
“This is all the newly-appointed Board Chairman’s doing. The twelve of us did not agree to it.”
“Such arrogance. Did you really expect me to accept that? My life is on the line here. And there is no need to hide the fall of Neoka Norito. It changes nothing here, but hiding it does make it harder to trust you, Board of Directors.”
The racing swimsuit girl kicked down a metal door deep inside the building and escorted the old man toward the stairs leading down. They led to a dimly lit room of bare concrete. In addition to the boiler and plumbing, there was a metal box larger than a refrigerator. That was the fiber optic communication control box.
“Do you want to be deemed harmful?”
“They were already calling us that here,” said the man. “And I’m not so sure the categories invented by those in the light really mean all that much.”
“Do you think you can escape just because you are a Kihara?”
“If you have no plan, you should really shut up now. Your threats are sounding less concerning all the time. Now, do you have any more stupid questions?”
“Do you think it’s paradise outside the city? This city is the only place you can survive. No matter what form that survival might take.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Really, I find it strange that all of us were ever contained to a single city at all. Former Board Chairman Aleister has left the city. Without the Archetype Controller to reinforce our presence here, won’t the Kiharas naturally spread out across the world?”
The old man pulled a floppy disk larger than a tablet from his business bag. He inserted it into a special reader and then used a large device to hook it up to a fiber optic cable.
Ladybird expressionlessly tilted her head.
“Sensei, isn’t there a more efficient way of doing that?”
“When the world grows too convenient, people forget the value of a single byte. People can do anything with just one meg. If you forget that feeling, your creativity dies.”
“If you say so. I do not understand it myself.”
“Yes, yes. It may be hard to grasp for someone who is made from a flowchart of 1s and 0s. But restrictions bring inspiration to the human brain. Unlimited storage space is the same as a drug addiction.”
And in fact, a grinding sound filled the room as a horrific change occurred. The Anti-Skill general station’s network was infected through the communication control box and the ill effects spread to all 23 districts from there.
Hacking in from the outside would be difficult, but it was so much easier from the inside.
The old man smiled as he poured a fine powder into the large device.
Another nightmare took form.
“These nanodevices directly attach themselves to the signals traveling through the fiber optic cables to move around. Even light has a force capable of pushing objects, so it can actually carry devices of such a miniscule size. And the antivirus software searching for other software cannot detect this hardware, so the nanodevices pass right on through.”
“If you want a general term for software that removes malicious programs, sets up firewalls, detects suspicious activity, manages data traffic, and otherwise defends against cyber attacks, the term you are looking for is security software.”
“Good grief. We didn’t bother making all those little distinctions back when I helped build the foundation of the internet. And I’m still young, so that couldn’t have been all that long ago.”
“Unknown error detected.”
“Ladybird-kun, I am trying to do everything I can to compromise with you here, so do you have to tilt your head like that whenever I say something? You aren’t getting a correction out of me because there’s nothing at all inaccurate about calling myself young. Hey, wait, wait, wait. Not so close, Ladybird-kun.”
At any rate, the administrative network was in tatters now.
Anti-Skill communications, data sharing, and access to the cameras and sensors around the city had been brought down.
(Not that a little prank like this is enough to get past the wall.)
It was unlikely a single attack would actually be enough to bring down all of the online services, but to determine otherwise would require inspecting all of the hardware with an electron microscope, not just doing an automatic search with a program. A single drop of poison would require those in charge of water safety to clean everything down to the bottom of the dam. This was the polar opposite of a single megabyte floppy. The total amount was so great that inspecting it all was extremely difficult.
The old man had bought himself the time he needed to think up his next move.
After he left the basement, the conversation on the phone continued.
“Our reinforcements must not have arrived on time,” said the phone.
“Just give up.”
“You will die here, so enjoy this present from us, harmful.”
The call ended. The overly skinny old man stuck out his tongue and slipped the phone back into his lab coat’s pocket.
“Sensei,” said the girl in the orange and black racing swimsuit.
The walls and ceiling were sliced through at the same time.
Several silhouettes covered in black armor broke into the building. Their equipment was different from the previous Anti-Skill officers. If an ordinary human fired those giant guns, the recoil might break their spine, but these silhouettes were wielding them with ease.
They said nothing, but the text on their right arms indicated they were different from the others: Anti-Skill Aggressor.
These special personnel had been trained to reproduce the movements of the enemy – that is, the brutal criminals of the dark side – during training. These elite of the elite had been created by training specially chosen Anti-Skill officers to the limit and providing them with equipment that could not be used openly. They had been intentionally made to stand on the borderline between justice and the dark side.
They were the Board of Directors’ trump card.
The old man known as a Kihara gulped when he saw them.
The look on his face was of legitimate surprise.
“I was looking forward to whatever secret weapon you had in store for me and you send out equipment I designed myself? Worse, this version sold to ordinary Anti-Skill is at least two generations out of date.”
A stir ran through the Anti-Skill Aggressors.
The hostility and killer intent meant to overpower the old man felt like no more than a ripple to him.
In fact, the multiple Aggressors were forced back by a creaking and cracking sound. Almost like they were being crushed by a thick wall.
The space itself seemed to cry out as those collections of heavy armor and advanced tech staggered back.
“Wh-what?” The Anti-Skill Aggressors broke their silence as their control of the scene crumbled away. “Can that hunk of junk use Telekinesis!?”
The old man ignored it all.
The Kihara spoke to the girl who was toying with her swimsuit’s shoulder strap because the slipping material was bothering her.
“You have two minutes. Teach them the value of a single byte.”
The snow had stopped a bit ago.
A sticky sound seemed to defile the icy air. Sherbet-like snow remained on a main road in District 17 where many unmanned factories ran.
An Anti-Skill officer wearing a bulletproof and blast-resistant full-face helmet actually clawed at his thick helmet with both hands, but he was too panicked to perform the simple task of removing it.
He doubled over, collapsed to the snow-wet road, and began to convulse.
Almost like he was drowning inside his own helmet.
“Everyone, check your helmet seals!!”
“I’m not getting any gas or bacteria warnings, though.”
“We can’t see it, but that harmful must be using some kind of tech. If we just protect ourselv— gah!?”
After feeling a bubbling sensation from his dominant hand to the shoulder, another Anti-Skill officer collapsed to the road.
“It’s no use.”
A woman stood there. She had a light blue silhouette with long blonde twintails. She wore a tight dress that showed off her figure, but a thin cloth was worn loosely around that like a fairy tale princess’s skirt, looking something like a hanging flower. Overall, she looked like a Western doll, but her curvy figure was at odds with that.
She was known as Frillsand #G, but no one here was familiar with that development code.
“If you would stay away from here, I would have no reason to attack you.”
She was all alone, but this standoff had been going for more than an hour. She stood in the center of a six-lane road with no cover to protect her from bullets.
“What I am doing is not the question. What you need to dodge to survive is not the question.”
She actually sounded sad.
Frillsand #G spoke quietly while exposed to the gunfire.
“From the moment you see me, I hold your lives in my hands.”
“My aim…” A surviving Anti-Skill officer clenched his teeth in his helmet. “My aim is off! I can’t seem to aim at her!!”
Their target was not moving. Frillsand #G remained entirely motionless. Yet they could not hit her. When they tried to aim their guns, their arms would shake. Even when they forcibly steadied their weapon on the hood of the special vehicle they were using as cover, they could not stop the shaking.
With a dull rumble, thick cracks ran through the asphalt road.
An unmanned weapon had separated from a transport helicopter passing by overhead and landed on the ground. The quadrupedal machine was larger than the average van. It was known as the Dangerous Bull.
Gas and bacteria meant nothing to that bull-shaped unmanned weapon.
Or so everyone thought.
It was Anti-Skill that screamed while a loud boom shook the area. The sides of the bull opened up, allowing rockets and missiles to stick out like an attack helicopter’s weapons, but none of them were launched. Inexplicably, the unmanned weapon ran right past the motionless woman and trampled Anti-Skill as they tried to scatter.
The color red burst out, the car being used as a shield slid to the side, and endless groans left the officers who were not killed instantly.
“Can it…not see us? What happened to its facial recognition!?”
Frillsand #G’s thin blue skirt fluttered as she spoke quietly.
“It’s no use.”
A dry bang rang out. It was probably pure coincidence, but when an Anti-Skill officer crawled along the snow-wet road, grabbed a submachinegun in trembling hands, and fired it, the bullet flew straight toward the doll-like woman’s forehead.
He scored a clean hit.
He smiled within his helmet, but then the despair hit.
Frillsand #G’s forehead was unharmed. Not a single drop of blood. But not because her body was absurdly sturdy or because a barrier in front of her had deflected the bullet.
Yes, the bullet had entered her forehead.
And passed right through her.
The officer saw sparks flying from the factory wall behind the woman with the silhouette of a fairy tale princess. He had not wanted to see that and it acted like a toxin physically eating away at his nerves.
Then he noticed something.
His tablet showed the footage coming from the Dangerous Bull that had trampled his allies, but something was wrong. The autofocus was not working and it was full of the glowing artifacts known as orbs.
The woman was standing right in front of it, yet the facial recognition cursor was flashing at a different point altogether.
One of his fallen colleagues’ face and hands were weirdly erased from the footage. Almost like some form of lock-on symbol.
He did not have the guts to see what he looked like through the lens.
It was not possible.
He wanted to reject this possibility since it should never have even occurred to him in a city of science.
“No, that’s just not possible. This must be a hologram using a mirage.”
“No, I am not that.”
“Then you’re using ultrasonic waves outside the audible range to exhaust our brains until they malfunction!!”
“No, I am not.”
“Symbols on the wall are messing with our view of three-dimensional space!!”
The helmeted Anti-Skill officer shook his head in protest.
Every scientific approach he could think of had been denied.
So he had to accept it.
“It is best to let sleeping dogs lie,” whispered the doll-like woman whose long double skirt hid her legs from view. “Leaving here is always an option. If you give up on entering this place, I need not bring further harm to you.”
She was an unknown. But this was Academy City where science worship thrived, so instead of sealing it away and leaving, the residents here reflexively chose to challenge the unknown.
The woman appeared to breathe a quiet sigh when the man raised his gun.
“You damn harmfulllllllll!!”
“Hello, this is Frillsand.”
The man’s hands stopped unnaturally while holding the gun. And the bizarre song of the lifeless determined his fate.
“Next stop: mincemeat. Repeat: mincemeat.”
An unpleasant sound followed.
The woman had not moved a finger, but the human silhouette inside the bulletproof equipment crumbled away.
“I was only supposed to buy enough time to transport the children away, but Anti-Skill is not going to last at this rate.”
The Anti-Skill officer could not even scream as he drowned in his own blood. Frillsand #G watched that as she spoke to herself and her long twintails fluttered with movement entirely disconnected from the wind.
“Are you safe, my Drencher Kihara Repatri?”
A ghost could not hold physical objects, so she could not even wear a communicator on her ear.
Thus, these words were entirely meaningless.
But she had mentioned a certain family of researchers. Anyone with any contact at all with dark side research would be familiar with that name.
District 8 was a dreary place with very little lighting even on Christmas. A schoolgirl with long and unruly silver hair and wearing a hakama was being chased down a narrow alley lined with used bookstores. The path was narrow enough already, but there were also piles of snow getting in the way. She pressed her back against the filthy wall and slid down onto her butt where she protected her head with both hands without worrying about how wet with snow the ground was.
She looked like she would wet herself if left like this for long.
“I-I haven’t done anything, so please help me! Don’t kill me!! Gasp, pant. Why does everything bad always have to happen to me!?”
Two fully-equipped Anti-Skill officers had her surrounded, but even they seemed taken aback by this.
“Hey, is she one of them?”
“She’s in Outrank. Vivana Oniguma, a dark side researcher.”
“Not what I meant. Is she a gentle beneficial or a brutal harmful?”
A simple flashlight caused the hakama girl to jump like she was on the receiving end of a laser attack. Afterwards, that girl, whose silver bangs were hardened into two decorative horns, actually looked confused, like someone who thought they were having boiling water poured on them from a tea kettle only to find it was room temperature.
One of the officers sighed in his helmet.
“What did you do?”
“N-nothing! It’s all a big misunderstanding!”
Vivana sniffled and answered honestly. A closer look showed the pattern of her hakama was made up of mascot characters, but if that was special-ordered, it had to be expensive. It may have been something like a red lacquered guitar or phone case.
“I don’t know about this beneficial or harmful stuff, but the dark side can refer to all sorts of people. My field of research just so happens to – eh heh heh – get some disapproving looks from most everyone in the educational field, so the next thing I knew, I had fallen down to this level. But I’m really not doing anything wrong, I swear.”
Anti-Skill was merciless to criminals who resisted to the bitter end, but there was nothing they could do with someone who fell onto her butt and confessed everything. The two of them exchanged a glance in the silly atmosphere they found themselves in.
Two large pieces of luggage sat near the girl: one black and one pink. But instead of suitcase or sports bags, they were large cloth wrappers stuffed full of things.
One of the men casually picked up the pink one.
“We can discuss this further at our car. This is your stuff, isn’t it?”
“It’s pretty heavy. …Wait, it’s full of old Japanese books. Um, is this shung-?”
She frantically snatched the thick book away from him before he could open it.
The other man snapped back at her.
“Stop it, you idiot! This is fine! Don’t pull out your gun!!”
The two Anti-Skill officers started arguing. Vivana remained entirely motionless with the old Japanese book in her arms. She had even placed her butt back on the damp ground.
She was too panicked to get back up, but things were taking an unusual turn.
“I’ve had enough! Dark side is dark side. She’s a harmful, so we’ve got to do this!!”
“Are you insane? She’s clearly beneficial. She hasn’t even tried to resist!!”
“You never know where a harmful has a deadly weapon hidden.”
“She’s beneficial, so she isn’t hiding anything!”
“Get out of my way!!”
“Why should I!?”
Several dry gunshots rang out.
For a while, the silver-haired hakama girl squeezed her eyes shut and covered her head as if grabbing her two horns. But…
When she hesitantly opened her eyes, it was already over.
The two officers must have accidentally pulled the trigger while fighting over the handgun because they were both collapsed on the ground with dark red holes in them. Strangely, Vivana found there was an unmistakable difference between a living person and a dead person. They seemed separated from their surroundings, like the color had faded from the background in that one spot.
When she noticed the red stain spreading toward her luggage, she quickly picked them up. That caused both cloth wrappers to come undone. They nearly spilled their contents of rare shunga books, rope, candles, a bamboo sword with a broken tip, tatami needles, incense, and a collapsible water wheel and wooden horse, but she shoved them all back inside.
When her hakama slipped down from her shoulder, cheap red tape could be seen within. That was an even more familiar bondage material than ropes or leather. The taping techniques developed for sports medicine could also be used in more inappropriate ways.
(Why does everyone find this field of research so strange? Almost every country stops you from researching torture and the history of execution methods. They probably just don’t want me stumbling onto past cases of false charges. All I ever wanted was to do some ordinary, wholesome research, but the next thing I know, I’ve been shoved all the way into the dark side for it.)
Vivana Oniguma tearfully pouted her lips like a child while holding one of her favorite books in both hands.
“It’s not lewd.”
“How far did you wander off?”
“Ehh? You were the one that got lost, Onii-chan!”
Children’s voices could be heard on the Christmas streets. The little sister had emerged from the labyrinthine back alleys with her arms around a large dog that probably weighed more than she did.
“The doggy showed me how to get back to the street!!”
The golden retriever was wearing a thin backpack and he calmly looked up into the chilly sky.
The snow had stopped earlier.
He wanted a smoke, but he would wait until the children were gone.
(So after benefiting from our work for years, the Board has finally decided to cut us loose to save face. Not even this upheaval can dislodge those at the top. It is a reasonable choice on their part, though.)
He was helplessly petted by small hands while he thought in human language.
(Still, I know the one way the dark side has any chance of victory here.)
“The snow will still be here in the morning, so you can wait until then for your snowmen and snowball fights. Head home for today, children.”
The young siblings stared wide-eyed at the talking dog.
His name was Kihara Noukan.
He was unusual even for a Kihara and his very existence was near legendary. He was a researcher who loved both logic and romance. He was not a hero. If someone actively stepped into the darkness to gorge on the profits within, he would make a guinea pig out of them no matter who they were, but he would not go out of his way to intrude on a peaceful family.
Was he a gentle beneficial? Nonsense.
He was a Kihara. He understood that illogically drawing that kind of dividing line was the way villains thought.
“Make sure you’re home before even the moon is swallowed up by the darkness.”
A click sounded in one corner of the darkening city.
It came from an old coin locker next to a capsule hotel. In such a rundown area, the lockers had no shortage of plausible rumors about babies or spirit tablets being found there.
Hamazura pulled out a small paper bag of medicine.
He had gotten himself intentionally arrested to enter the Anti-Skill station, but he could not have them confiscate all of his possessions. He had especially wanted to keep Takitsubo’s medicine safe.
(But this is amazing. I just left it with Aneri’s drone and here it was inside a locker. With the locker locked and everything.)
“Enjoy karaoke with all your friends on Christmas!! Studio Enjoy Singing has a collection of more than 700,000 Christmas songs. And a full menu of food to enjoy too. Skip the chicken this 25th and feast on a real turkey! The full bird is cooked nice and long in the oven, so if you want food that tastes good and looks good on social media, head on down to Studio Enjoy Singing!!”
The LCD billboard on the capsule hotel’s roof would not shut up, but he could not glare up at it in protest. Even that carefree ad was equipped with a facial recognition camera to determine the favorability of the ad’s reception.
The city appeared peaceful even as the sun set.
Witness accounts of the “accidents” had to be out there, but most people only saw that as no more than a hint of excitement coloring their everyday lives. Yes, other people’s misfortune was only something to film with your phone and get likes on social media and views on video sites.
A strange buzzing came from his pocket.
He frowned and pulled out the phone to find the screen had lit up.
It was powered on despite him powering it off earlier.
Support AI Aneri had urged him to turn off his phone so Anti-Skill and Judgment could not track it, so he had done the same with the borrowed second one. But if Aneri had turned it on, had she come up with a way of preventing that?
She had probably used hacking, an anti-tracing program, or something else he did not understand.
Nothing major had happened, but it still felt significant. Seeing the light on that 6-inch screen felt just like seeing the lights in a mountain cabin window when lost on a snowy mountain at night.
Of course, he had no way of knowing the truth.
Aneri had decided the risk of being tracked was minimal because powerful dark side members had been attacking Anti-Skill stations and the network needed to search for him had been brought down by a brutal program or nanodevices.
“We’ll be fine now that Aneri’s here. Aneri, there’s so much I want you to look into! I’m counting on you, Aneri!!”
“You worry me, Hamazura.”
Takitsubo Rikou’s mouth formed a small triangle as she glared over at him.
Anyway, he had gotten a phone from that man who had worked as a voice on the phone, but he had not been able to get past the lock screen. He also did not know how to access any data or apps that were not openly displayed with square icons.
Aneri solved it all in three seconds.
The voice on the phone had possessed a counterfeit passport even more fancy than a normal one, so he must have found the address of a skilled counterfeiter who had created that passport for a fee.
It turned out that counterfeiter was known as Perfect Film.
Passports could have even more anti-counterfeiting methods woven in than paper money. It was generally best not to trust someone if they claimed they could counterfeit one, but if that voice on the phone had used this person, their quality was all but guaranteed.
You might think a passport was unnecessary for a domestic airline. That was true, but what was needed and what hurdles were set up could change on a case by case basis. It was actually easier to predict the hurdles with an international airline that always required a passport.
“Do we have enough money?” groaned Hamazura.
The voice on the phone’s small sling bag had included money crudely balled up and wrapped in rubber bands. Any activities that had to remain clandestine would require a fair amount of money. He did not know the going price for counterfeit passports, but this was a lot like flea market. Only suckers went ahead and paid the named price.
He looked down at the golden glitter in his hand. The shine had filled the entire outer edge of his Coin of Nicholas and the shadowy part was gone. The donut-shaped bar graph still had its full charge. That coin was apparently pure gold, but he felt using it for money was a bad idea.
(Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be able to explain to anyone what it is.)
It scared him.
It was creepy, but he was also reluctant to let it go at the moment.
He had more than just money troubles. You would normally contact a counterfeiter like this online first, but the situation was too pressing. Contacting them in advance might even cause them to flee, so rude as it was, it was best to head straight there and try to negotiate in person.
Once he had the email address, searching out the physical address was simple enough.
And Academy City was a large place, even if it was surrounded by walls. When they were being targeted by the city’s own system, slowly walking from one end to the other would be a bad idea. Plus, they did not know how long the Perfect Film counterfeiter would remain at their hideout.
They needed to act as soon as possible.
“The train will be arriving soon. Please keep your distance from the platform doors as you wait to board.”
“We’re taking the train, Hamazura?”
Takitsubo Rikou looked around at their surroundings, but Hamazura kept his eyes dead ahead as he quietly answered her.
“We could also steal a car, but anyone can see inside one of those ‘sealed rooms of glass’. That means crowded public transportation like a train or bus is best. If we act naturally, all the other people will hide us from view.”
“Acting normal now feels like the hardest thing, though.”
Once the train arrived, it spat people out and swallowed up the people waiting to board. Since it was the 25th, it felt busier than normal. Thankfully, there did not appear to be any delays due to the earlier snow. He felt a small hand grab at his jacket, so Takitsubo may have been afraid of them being separated by the crowd.
“Don’t push, please don’t push! We’re running on a special Christmas schedule, so there will be trains running after the usual last train. You don’t need to force your way onto this one, so please just wait for the next one!!”
Other passengers pushed on their backs as they boarded the train while a puppy-like station worker shouted from the platform. The station worker did not show any obvious interest in them. Even if the train system was half-public, the station workers were company employees, so they had no obligation to risk their lives to assist in the crackdown on crime. That may have been why their gears had not broken as badly as Anti-Skill’s.
“Bear with it, Takitsubo.”
He had no idea if it helped, but he pulled his girlfriend close in the crowd.
“This is incredible,” she said while helplessly squished against him. “Is everyone here going to the same place?”
The thick automatic doors closed and the train began to move. With this crowd, Anti-Skill could not walk from one end to the other searching for people.
The train shook as it started to move, but that was when they heard an announcement from the opposite platform.
Train and station announcements were known for being dull and flat, but this was more than that. It sounded like the synthesized voice from music software where a text was given to the computer and the intonation was provided by altering the wave line.
“The next train is a commuter express headed to Katasu Station. Repeat: to Katasu Station. Please move behind the yellow line as you wait to board.”
Hadn’t this station been fully equipped with platform doors for a while now? Hamazura frowned at that strange announcement.
Just then, he heard a loud impact and then the glass of the nearby door was dyed red.
It happened just after the arrival of the train on the next track over. Screams erupted from the opposite platform along with the screech of steel on steel as the train rapidly applied its brakes, but this train continued to accelerate away from the station platform.
“Wait, did it hit someone?”
“I saw a severed head flying through the air. That’s what hit the glass like a ball.”
Hamazura and Takitsubo were surrounded by whispering voices while everyone was packed in too tightly for them to move.
The meaning of that crowd had suddenly changed.
“I saw who it was. It was Hikami, that loan shark on social media.”
“Eh, Ryougo-kun? The blond who’s always getting flamed for his videos? Like the one where he set a fan of cash on fire or the one where he sold some weird gold coin to a pawnshop?”
“Serves him right, but how’d he even fall onto the track? Aren’t there platform doors in the way???”
“Hamazura,” groaned a quiet voice. Someone else from the dark side appeared to have died, but it barely seemed to bother any of the other people here.
“What, some loan shark ended up like the Teke Teke?”
“There are worse ways to die. I fell asleep on the train after school one day and dreamed I was on a train full of gorillas.”
“You know how they never seem to finish those huge station expansions? I heard they’re having trouble with the rumored Platform 13. They dug too far and hit a spring, so they can’t stop the water and it’s been a swamp down there for years now. You can dump bodies or guns there and no one will ever find them, so there’s supposedly tons of people who sneak in there during the night.”
It did not matter what had actually happened. They had seen it happen for themselves, but it had quickly blended in with baseless rumors they had heard. It was no different than some thirty-second video they would watch to pass the time. Hamazura felt like they lived in an entirely different world despite standing right next to each other here. He felt a gaping hole in his heart growing even wider as he realized they would respond in the same way if he and Takitsubo died.
(I won’t let that happen.)
He clenched his teeth while holding his girlfriend even tighter in his arms.
(We haven’t lived lives we can share with just anyone, but we were doing everything we could to survive. I won’t let us be just one more passing curiosity for these people messing with their phones while munching on a snack in safety.)
The advertisement monitor at the top of the door was displaying a few headlines likely taken from some online news site.
They could have been showing a list of tomorrow’s victims, but instead the top story was about Mont Blancs passing shortcakes in sales. Almost like they were trying to give the impression that nothing of incident had happened on the 25th.
“We will soon arrive at the station.”
A flat male voice gave an announcement.
This one was not a strange synthetic voice talking about Yami Station or Katasu Station or whatever.
“The train may shake without warning, so please be careful. Next up is the end of the line: District 6 Amusement Park Main Gate Station. The station is likely crowded, so if you purchased your tickets in advance, we recommend getting them ready now.”
They could not remain here.
Shirai Kuroko parted the putrid air to reach the underground parking garage.
“Can you drive?” she asked.
“Eh? I only have an assisted driving license. You know, the one where you sit in the driver’s seat and the self-driving car handles everything for you.”
Combover and glasses Anti-Skill Officer Rakuoka Houfu’s answer irritated the twintails middle school girl. Her image of adults was crumbling even further.
“That’s a same-day issue license like one for a moped, isn’t it? But I thought it didn’t qualify as ID. So do you normally use your insurance card?”
“Hm, do I even have insurance?”
“How do you function!?” the first-year middle schooler shouted at the middle-aged man.
For a civil servant, insurance payments would be automatically taken from their paycheck, so he would have insurance whether he knew it or not. Where his insurance card had gone was still a mystery, though. If he also lacked a passport and identity number card, then he may not have had any real ID. Had that never come up as a problem?
Yomikawa Aiho, another survivor, gestured the two of them over.
“You two can ride with us since we have room for four!!”
“Thanks,” said Shirai Kuroko while brushing her hair from her shoulder. “And do not forget about my internal investigation. I don’t want that being put off until later due to the emergency!!”
She could teleport faster than the average car, but after that surprise attack, the enemy might still be hiding nearby and they might have left a web camera or drone as a present. She wanted to keep her cards close to her chest for now.
She climbed into the back seat of a large and thick four-wheel-drive vehicle that was practically an armored truck. It actually looked inconvenient outside of the jungle or desert.
Rakuoka took the seat next to her like it was to be expected.
“Where are we headed?” she asked.
“Going south and crossing the district border would be faster than heading to North District 7 from here. And District 2 specializes in firearms and vehicles, so the station there should have plenty of equipment.”
That answer came from the brown-haired Anti-Skill officer in the passenger seat…Namino was it? The snow was more of a danger after it stopped falling, but the adults did not seem concerned about solid ice on the road.
(Where are you, Onee-sama?)
It was sunset.
The enormous four-wheel-drive vehicle left the parking garage. Shirai’s thoughts turned to her phone, but Mikoto was the kind of person to cut off contact when things got dangerous. She was the strongest electric esper, so it was best to try and outmaneuver her.
And something else was bothering Shirai anyway.
“What has become of the Outrank database of the dark side?”
“The datalink is undergoing an unknown form of cyber attack. From what I heard, we’re lucky to have noticed there’s an attack underway at all.”
This was a much bigger deal than she had thought. She had heard District 7 was not the only place under attack, but without Outrank, they had no way of arresting the people on that list.
“So we can’t rely on any of the stationary servers inside the building. As an emergency measure, we have put together a temporary network using an operation command vehicle and an aircraft. It’s a terribly thin line, but—”
He was cut off by an explosion.
Shirai looked out the window to see an aircraft had fallen into the city somewhere. A shout identifying it as a tiltrotor reached her ears through the thick bulletproof glass.
“Only one left,” groaned Yomikawa Aiho in the driver’s seat.
“They have to constantly send out powerful signals to wirelessly support the datalink, so as valuable as they are, we can’t hide them deep underground,” explained Namino. “We need them on the scene to maintain the network, but the very equipment they use gives away their position.”
“So with that tiltrotor down, only the operation command vehicle on the ground is left?” Rakuoka Houfu gulped. “If it comes to it, w-we will have to protect that mobile server ourselves.”
Shirai could not stop picturing the disaster at the general station. Were more people going to die in ways that left nothing resembling a human body behind?
She pulled a laptop from the pocket in the back of the seat in front of her and tossed it onto the middle-aged man’s lap.
“We can’t let those twins escape. Rakuoka-sensei, you write up my description and work on summing up everything that we saw. However you define the dark side, they had to be using either technology or esper powers. We can learn everything there is to know about them if we gather enough information. I don’t want to arrive at the next station asking for help with nothing to offer in return, so let’s make sure we have a gift ready.”
“Fine, but I don’t know how to use computers.”
Anti-Skill was supposedly made from volunteers among the teachers, so how did this guy make his handouts for class? Surely he did not still write them out on manuscript paper with a fountain pen.
“Handwrite it if you have to, but write up a report! Before this raw data I risked my life to obtain fades from my mind!!”
“Urp, I would love to, but…I get carsick and the scent of air fresheners only makes it worse. Ughh.”
“How did you ever get a teaching license!?”
Shirai finally grew wide-eyed and shouted at him, but then she handed the pale-faced man a motion sickness bag with an exasperated look.
“Geez, are you okay?”
“I really am sorry about that. Ugh, I’m losing the fight.”
“Vomiting on the job counts as a work-related illness, doesn’t it? Anyway, I will put together a digital report, so-”
“I will resist!!!!!!”
He showed some actual willpower for one.
And he smiled in a self-deprecating way as Shirai watched him.
“Pant, pant, sigh. I didn’t have a real reason for choosing to be a teacher.”
“Is that so?”
“I just couldn’t leave the familiar framework of school after I graduated. Having a teaching license saved me when my search for other employment failed, but that’s kept me bound to schools ever since. I know it’s weird, but I never have managed to truly ‘graduate’.”
“And I’m still single at my age.”
She was not sure how to respond to that confession.
But he had started this conversation himself, so she could not silence him now.
“Nothing went anywhere when I tried marriage interviews and dating apps. I just keep searching for a true love that may not even exist. Ha ha. It’s like I’m still a kid in school deep down. Maybe things would have gone differently if I’d been hired by a company.”
He had never worked for a company and he doubted he had ever put any real effort into getting married.
He had less than fifty thousand yen in savings and he had never moved out of his childhood home.
The internet was connected to every part of the world, but he was connected to fewer than 10 people on social media.
“Ha ha.” He laughed after explaining all that. “But I still wish I could be someone my mother and sister are proud of. Which is why I’m here in Anti-Skill instead of just a teacher. That’s a pretty impure reason to be out here fighting, isn’t it?”
Shirai Kuroko sighed softly.
The combover and glasses man looked surprised by her response, so she explained.
She waved her phone to show she was willing to friend him on social media. It was not like it would hurt anything.
“Whatever your reasons are, you still chose to make your way into the outside world and try to help people, right? That’s enough to qualify as a public service if you ask me. Besides, it’s not like Uiharu and I had some grand reason for joining Judgment.”
Yomikawa and the other Anti-Skill officer in the passenger seat were smiling back at them through the rearview mirror.
They were not great heroes or powerful warriors.
They could not hope to solve everything on their own, so they preserved the peace by gathering together as an organization capable of handling powers much greater than their own.
Shirai was not going to let them be crushed by the dark side where everyone was convinced they were something special.
“I really can’t thank you enough. It’s been months since my tiny account has gotten a new friend. …Hm? No, wait a second!”
Just as the middle-aged man remembered something, Shirai tapped the link full of numbers he had sent her. “Will you be my friend?” That message popped up on the multifunctional phone’s small screen and it was followed by the screenname.
Defiant School Swimsuit Ascension Teacher @ Sending All Shitty Games and Dramas to the Graveyard
Shirai Kuroko placed the motion sickness bag over his head and beat him with her fist.
“You filth!!!!!! Give them back!! Give back the emotions I was just feeling!!”
“Bgh, gh, gwah! Stop, I’ll die!”
“Coin of Nicholas, please give me another partner!!”
“Wait! What is this!? Some mysterious ritual!? If that really activated some supernatural power, I’d be erased! I’d be transported to a world filled with elves, dancers, and elf dancers! No, I’m not ready! Is it finally my turn!? If so, I want to be reincarnated as a Demon Lord who successfully destroyed the Hero, so he masters the more boring skills to live a peaceful life in a rural village where he finds a poor unfortunate girl he can help out! Give me my new life as an overpowered self-inserrrrrrrt!!”
Shirai breathed a disappointed sigh, but she had not really expected anything from a sketchy good luck charm. Nothing could do the impossible. Being first in line for one of those trendy new donuts was pointless if the shop was closed.
“Sob, sob. I should have known the gate to another world wouldn’t open for me.”
The middle-aged man muttered darkly to himself with the plastic bag still over his (drooping) head.
After revealing his tastes and having them thoroughly rejected, he began to yell (inside the bag).
“It’s not fairrrrrrrrrr! Even unpopular guys like me have a right to enjoy a strong drink late at night while writing harsh reviews of those shitty Western games and streaming dramas that the Hollywood elites pour so much money into!!”
“This is for writing reviews!? Then why the horrifying screenname!?”
“You need something to grab people’s attention! And why can’t I cut loose when I’m online anyway!?”
Academy City’s District 6 was a special area where the entire district had been made into a giant amusement park. That was used for research and experiments into the service industry and the field of amusement and it had all the necessary facilities: the amusement park itself, pools, hotels, and theaters. There was no end to the suspicious rumors about the place: there was a secret casino hidden below it, seeing an unfamiliar mascot meant a kidnapper was lurking, and more.
Today was December 25, Christmas Day.
Night had already fallen by 6:30 PM. Given the crowds, Hamazura assumed the line might stretch all the way outside the district (so he was considering finding some way to sneak inside), but once they arrived, he found there was not much of a line at the ticket counter across from the ticket gate.
The hardcore fans would buy their tickets online or have a full year pass, so very few customers actually approached the counter on the 25th. Unlike a restaurant or café, there were no services at the counter that required the customer’s physical presence, so things moved quickly.
“Welcome. We have a couple’s discount, so you get 20% off the standard rate. Make some lovely memories, you two.”
The receptionist smiled from behind the thick plastic barrier and Hamazura blushed a little. It felt different when someone else said it.
“By the way.” Takitsubo held his jacket so he would not get lost while they passed through the silver revolving door. “This is the land of miracles where dreams come true, isn’t it? Why would a counterfeiter be hiding here?”
“That might be exactly why one would be here. You expect delinquents in the back alleys, so the investigators would never think to look for someone hiding here.”
The world changed once they were through the gate.
The sun had set, but the amusement park was aflood with all sorts of lights: lightbulbs, LEDs, glow-in-the-dark paint, fireworks, etc. The lit-up merry-go-round and coffee cups were like something directly out of a child’s dreams. The large Ferris wheel and roller coaster track seemed to be directly overhead. The entire district must have qualified as private property because children were cutting across the large spaces with electric scooters and carts that were not allowed on public roads. There were far too many attractions to see them all on foot.
Clearing the snow from this place could not be easy.
But that snow was piled up where it would be out of the way and children were playing in it. They were building snowmen and igloos. The people running the place knew how to turn a spontaneous weather accident into another attraction.
“It’s Christmas,” said Takitsubo with her breaths visible. She was holding onto his jacket and pouting her lips. “So I really wish we could have come here just for fun.”
Some weird gentleman frog mascot and an alien-looking rabbit mascot had gotten into a fight, but when a clown tried to stop them, they both ganged up on him and sent him tumbling across the ground. An overeager child then tackled the frog after the spirit of justice awoke inside him. The frog doubled over and groaned.
“(Ugh!? S-stupid kids. Show them a moment’s weakness and they attack.)”
“(Just bear with it, sister. We can survive tonight if we stay in these world’s smallest hideouts, remember?)”
Takitsubo gave the mascots a puzzled look before asking a question.
“Hamazura, where is this person?”
A brass band arrangement of standard Christmas songs was playing while several parade floats moved slowly down the main street. A bear with horns was waving from one of those. Hamazura slipped past the crowd holding balloons coated with glow-in-the-dark paint and stepped into the shadows with his girlfriend at his side. They were on their way to an area different from the resort hotels.
These were known as the secret residences.
Obsessive fans would often ask to stay long term in one of the park’s luxury hotels, but this was an even more extreme version of that. The fans who did not want to let the magic die could rent a villa or residence in the park along with their full year pass. And after seeing the prices on the drink vending machines, you could guess just how inflated the price of a house here was.
Hamazura and Takitsubo walked to the address they had found using the contact information recorded in that borrowed phone. As large as the park was, very few buildings were clearly designated as residences.
So they walked to the ultra-luxury residential area illuminated with indirect lighting. The residences came in various styles from around the world, but they were probably each based on the setting of a fairy tale movie. They were interested in a gawdy Western mansion made of red brick.
Or more accurately, the few tents set up alongside the metal fence surrounding its yard.
“This is a surprise. I thought craftsmen like this were really picky about temperature and humidity.”
"It might be so they can pack up and make a run for it at a moment’s notice.”
“Living out here can’t be easy even if they’re using tents and sleeping bags meant for snowy mountains. What if the snow didn’t let up all night?”
“Humans can endure anything…as long as they can imagine something even more frightening.”
One tent was a living space, one was a lab, and then there were a few others. They all belonged to the counterfeiter known as Perfect Film. He could be contacted through the metal box next to the large residence’s grounds that had been tampered with to get access to the fiber optic network. If the signal was traced, they could escape while suspicions were still on the scapegoat. And the pursuers would have a hard time making their move when the decoy was a giant amusement park or one of their VIP guests.
However, this defense was the same as for neuroptera and uropyia meticulodina.
They remained undamaged because no one could find them, but damage was unavoidable if even a single person did find them. There were no solid defenses when using a synthetic tent as a hideout. If Perfect Film refused to cooperate and holed up inside, they could always break down the tent from the outside.
That was lucky.
Hamazura forced himself to see it that way. Not everyone on the dark side was an embodiment of murder like those twins in the Anti-Skill station. If their negotiations did not work out and they ran into trouble, they would at least not cause any trouble for the other guests.
“Let’s go, Takitsubo.” He looked ahead to their destination. “We both need a passport.”
She did not respond.
Puzzled, he looked over to find the track suit girl had collapsed onto the snow-wet ground.
He did not even have time to shout her name.
With a dull thud, the world flipped around more than once.
He had no idea what had happened.
Something inexplicable was happening, but his breath was knocked from him and he could not even get his voice out.
Once the bizarre weightlessness left him, he slammed down onto the hard ground. A hand covered his mouth before he could unclog his throat. Someone had climbed on top of him. He understood now what had happened and his fear had caught up with reality, but this person’s weight had him fully pinned down. She was a young woman and he was bigger than her, but he could not even budge. He had a bad feeling about this. His experience in the back alleys told him she knew what she was doing.
She was a sexy woman in her early twenties. She wore her black hair in a bob cut that fit around her head like a helmet and she wore a gawdy cowboy hat over that, but below that she wore a red China dress with the stomach replaced by a lace material that let her navel show through. She had Japanese, Western, and Chinese elements all in one outfit. A duralumin case containing who-knows-what hung from a belt she wore diagonally across her body.
The boots woman casually spoke to the boy whose hips she was straddling with no sign of shame about the large slits in her skirt.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Don’t give me that. I can’t have someone intruding on my hunting ground while I stake the place out. I turned down all my wonderful Christmas plans for this, so let the birdwatching club have this one, okay?”
Hunting ground. Stake the place out.
Those short terms sent a very bad feeling down Hamazura’s spine.
“Wh-what!? Are you Anti-Skill? Or the dark side!?”
“Huh? Don’t give me that. All Anti-Skill ever does is put up wanted posters and then find every little nitpicky excuse they can to not pay up. To be blunt, that’s not a stable business. And the dark side is even worse. Once they have the information they want, they come back to silence you!”
She grinned and accurately adjusted the position of her hips to render his resistance useless. And she continued speaking while squirming in a way that would like highly questionable to anyone who happened across them in the darkness.
“What you need are some old-fashioned connections. Weekly Mind’s Eye, Emanating Light, and that sort of thing. Selling your best shot to a magazine like that is the most surefire method. Even if that just gets it used in some gruesome show for housewives.”
Something about this seemed off to him.
That woman with a jellyfish decoration on her hat was not like Anti-Skill who had turned into murder machines after some crucial gear went missing, but she was also not like those dark side twins who had destroyed an entire station together.
He gulped and asked a hesitant question. If he was wrong about this, he would not survive. Nor could he save his girlfriend. That thought was enough to tear his heart apart.
“What are you doing here?”
She winked below the brim of her cowboy hat.
That sounded like a normal enough thing to do at an amusement park, but…
“After all, I’m not after just any old part of the dark side—I’m going deep. Hey, don’t give me that. This is more than some silly infidelity story that no one will care about in two weeks’ time. A single snapshot here could have me set for life. But I wouldn’t arrive in time if I intercepted Anti-Skill’s radio transmissions and came running. I can’t be playing catchup. For a real scoop, you have to make a gamble and lie in wait.”
“That counterfeiter will make such delicious bait. Don’t give me that. A shot with just him in my finder wouldn’t earn me squat. But you’re here because you’re in a bind right now, right? I just know some major dark side figures are gonna be drawn to this plank of Carneades.”
“What? Don’t tell me you don’t know what the plank of Carneades is. You know, that thing where there’s a single plank floating in the ocean and killing the other guy for it doesn’t count as murder. So I’m leaving him be. That way I can get a scoop that makes history.”
This was it.
Hamazura played a verbal game of tug of war as carefully as if he were removing the fuse from a landmine.
“You’re a paparazzi that targets the dark side?”
“Don’t give me that. I don’t like that word.”
The red china dress beauty sighed and lifted her hips.
But even as she freed the boy, she moved her face in close to speak.
“The name’s Benizome Jellyfish. You’re still small time, so if you promise not to get in the way of my miracle shot, I’ll let you go☆”
Hanatsuyu Kaai and Hanatsuyu Youen – the Decomposer and the Carrier – were brutally violent twin sisters.
One of the pair had stripped off her white coat and medical corset and looked down into a large tub in the nude. This one was Kaai the Decomposer. Her black hair nearly reached her ankles while worn up, so now it was fully dragging on the floor behind her.
The place smelled sort of like a rhinoceros beetle. And it should have because the jacuzzi was filled with sawdust instead of water. She had of course not asked the hotel for permission.
She popped the rubber cap from a test tube and sprinkled in its contents.
That produced a bubbling sound and steam really did rise into the air. The small girl turned toward the bath’s large mirror while she waited for the reaction to stabilize.
She used her small right hand to lift one of her breasts up from below.
Her breasts were abnormally large for her height, but she did not believe in the urban legend of people who sent everything they ate to their chest. The fat that entered the body would build up equally everywhere. When your entire body grew fatter, your breasts would grow. When you got skinnier, your breasts would shrink too. In that case, it was obvious how to make only your chest grow.
You let the fat cover your entire body and then you cut away only what you did not want.
That was possible using the bizarre science of this city.
The bubbling died down.
However, she was not cultivating some type of biological weapon. She stuck her own slender foot into the sawdust and then sank her entire body into the tub. While it was finer than the sand at the beach, it was still not water, so she had to dump it over herself.
The power of fermentation was causing the sawdust to steam.
It was an enzyme bath.
“Hm, hm, hm, hm.”
She frowned after noticing a solid sensation in the bath.
“Oh, there’s a weird coin leftover.”
She flipped the coin away without leaving the tub and it landed in a plastic waste receptable located a short distance away.
An infamous Hungarian countess had supposedly kept her skin beautiful by bathing in blood, but the Decomposer’s way was more efficient. She used every last part of her victims.
“ ‘I’ll help you escape with me?’ I hate those big muscular men who think they’re so righteous. Besides, I don’t plan to escape, so you’re nothing more than a thorn in my side.”
There was no preventing the smaller pieces of sawdust from sticking to her fingertips, but she did not mind. While pretending to be a rhinoceros beetle larva, she grabbed a large tablet from the edge of the tub, turned it on, and went through a bit of setup. The tablet’s own camera was too wide-angle for her liking, so she made sure to link it to a cheap web camera to give things a really underground feel.
Hanatsuyu Kaai spoke with a smile while using the sawdust filling the tub to hide her body up to the shoulders.
“Okay, let’s get this stream started, shall we?☆ Is everyone ready to finally enjoy a lonely Christmas that smells faintly of squid?”
She knew that adjusting the narrow-angle lens to keep her eyes just out of frame gathered more attention.
She was of course part of the dark side. And a legit harmful at that. Making an appearance online was a major risk for her.
But at the same time, the people who ended up on the dark side were not the type to actually follow the rules of whatever world they lived in.
“Attention, everyone. Tell me what part of my body you want me to wash first. Yes, yes. Christmas only comes once a year, so why not enjoy it, right? Hee hee hee. And if your request happens to be in line with what I have in mind, I might just make a show out of it.”
But the show did not last long. The screen froze before she could even get started.
The stream was down. She poked at the tablet’s screen with a puzzled frown and then the door burst open with the intensity of a nearby lightning strike.
An identical but blushing girl stormed into the luxury hotel suite they were using as a hideout.
“What are you doing, Kaai!?”
“Ehh? You can’t tell, Youen? I’m using this camera to give the lonely people out there a bit of excitement in their lives.”
“You promised you wouldn’t do this kind of thing anymore, remember?” Youen gave that reminder while Kaai did up her hair that was spread out in the bath. “You looked me in the eye and swore you would stop taking off all your clothes and going for a stroll around the park at night, taking off all your clothes, riding the elevator, and seeing if someone would get on at another floor, taking off all your clothes, closing yourself in the train bathroom, and leaving the door unlocked to see if anyone would carelessly open it, taking off all your clothes, taking off all your clothes, just always taking off all your clothes!! You promised!”
“But how else am I supposed to defile myself?”
“There’s something wrong with wanting to be filthy!!”
“Not filthy, Youen. Doesn’t it sound so much fancier when you use the word defile?”
Youen was trying to talk some sense into her sister, but for whatever reason, Kaai the Decomposer placed her hands on her cheeks with a spellbound look in her eyes.
She was breathing heavily despite not having a cold and she kept talking while giving off the scent of a rhinoceros beetle.
“I’ve tried all of things you described – and more – but no one ever finds me. No one notices and no one does awful things to me. It all turns out fine. This world is a surprisingly safe place. And don’t you think that’s a problem? I’m supposed to gather up the city’s impurities and cleanse them within me! That’s my job as the hated but necessary Decomposer, but how can I do that if nothing ever happens!?”
A Decomposer was like the flies, roaches, and rats that ate all the leftover scraps in a city. People might hate them, but without them, the food chain would fail to create a full loop and everything would simply be absorbed from top to bottom. To create the proper loop, the dead lion or shark had to be broken down and returned to the soil or water. This girl was a researcher of that process.
But that did not really matter.
The biggest problem for the Carrier – the girl who used the small animals that carried all forms of pathogens – was that the two of them were identical twins.
So when Kaai the Decomposer did these things in public, Youen the Carrier was affected too.
I saw that girl in the boutique the other day. Yes, she went into the dressing room and was doing something behind the flimsy curtain for an entire hour. I wonder what she was doing in there for so long. Ah ha ha.
The memory was enough for her entire head to boil over. Why did she have to take the blame for things her sister had done!?
But the twin who was already drowning in brain chemicals was in her own little world.
“So I had the best idea for this stream. I thought long and hard on this one. Wouldn’t an accident during a livestream fit the bill perfectly? Heh heh, eh heh heh. As a little gift to my viewers, I can have the camera ‘accidently’ set up at an angle that reveals my face in a reflection. Framing it as an accident is what will really get people’s attention, if you ask me. Then the video will spread like wildfire until everyone in the world has seen it and I can’t walk outside without people pointing and laughing and I’ll have so many stalkers exchanging my personal information on sketchy websites. And once they all know everything about me, it won’t be long before I’m abducted into a van with all the windows covered up. Eh heh, eh heh heh.”
“Please just stop this!!”
Youen ended up strangling her sister on reflex, but Kaai was still lost in her own fantasies while her sister shook her head back and forth. If anything, she liked it.
“Yes, defile me more.” Larva-mode Kaai smiled while soaking in the enzyme bath. “Cover me in rotting stench, sticky goo, disgusting filth, and even more unspeakable things. Yes, yes. This world doesn’t need order. All order does is absorb everything until it tapers off and hardens. The world needs some planned fluctuations that will cause the peak to break off and tumble into the depths. And in that sense…Academy City is so stifling right now.”
“Then we’re really going to do this?”
“Yes, let’s cause much, much more trouble for them. Let’s make sure those bright and shining tropical fish don’t die due to lack of enzymes.”
The grinning Decomposer remained true to herself from beginning to end.
All she wanted was to have fun in this city, so she had never even considered running away like all the others were doing.
"Academy City’s Greatest Taboo? Why would I care about that?”
The old man named Kihara Hasuu was skinny as a matchstick and wore a lab coat over a blue jumpsuit. His arms were like dried branches, but the muscular young man with hair dyed blonde was powerless against him.
The young man should have been the hunter here.
He was indeed a brutal criminal known as Vacuum Piece.
He had visited the amusement park on Christmas night because of all the people there carrying valuables. Nothing was as fun as targeting a stupid couple that thought they were safe once they paid for a ticket and passed through the gate, having his group surround them, and dragging them to a gap in the security camera coverage.
This was supposed to be a profitable night for him, but…
“Please forgive me. I beg you. I’ll do anything.”
He was alone and he knew exactly why. The rest of his team had been dismembered in one of the gaps in security camera coverage that he supposedly knew better than anyone. Strangely, none of them had even managed to scream while that thick machete went wild in front of them. It was like they had been hit by a paralyzing curse. The work was done in no time and then the mincemeat had been shoved into an automatic processor for kitchen garbage.
“Is this the place?”
The old man looked around, showing no interest in the young man’s desperate pleas.
The young man nodded over and over with tears and snot staining his face.
“Yes, yes, it is. That whatever-you-called-him counterfeiter is in that tent up ahead.”
The young man must have realized that there were no set rules in place here.
It was all up to the old man’s whims, so he was only vaguely hoping he would be freed if he did as he was told.
“I can’t believe those were false footprints meant to take down a rival team. You should show some respect for his skill. I don’t want to hear another bad word about such a skilled craftsman.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“Forget it. It was your ignorance that saved you anyway.”
The kindness in the old man’s voice only made him more frightening.
The tone of his argument would change from one moment to another and his emotions were like an irregular wave. The young man could not hope to guess when he would explode, so he had to be extremely careful if he hoped to survive.
But by then, he had already been decapitated by a strike from behind.
He had been working so hard to survive, but he failed to even notice the moment he was killed.
A girl in an orange and black racing swimsuit held a machete too heavy for an ordinary person to lift. She caught up to the old man from behind and stepped up alongside him. She did not seem bothered by stepping on the cold snow with bare feet.
The old man caught the severed head in his hands and stared at it.
“Hm, his mouth is frozen on an ‘uh’ sound. I wonder what he was trying to say.”
“That line of thinking is a waste of time,” mechanically replied the girl while tugging the chest of her racing swimsuit forward and dumping a thick discharge machine oil into the gap opened around her neck. The oil that was not absorbed into her skin was pulled down by gravity to drip down her inner thighs.
Kihara Hasuu gave her a troubled look.
“Now, Ladybird-kun, do you have anything to say?”
“Outputting response: Old man, quit sneaking glances over at me and just admit you want to see this. Why are you even so interested in leering at the details of a body you created yourself, you dirty old man?”
“Someone help! This girl is mercilessly gouging into people’s hearts with her words! And she thinks she can get away with it because machines don’t age!!”
“My machine parts deteriorate with time and from wear and tear. Even my electronic data must be defragged periodically.”
They spoke like one of them was not holding a severed head in his hands.
“Well, whatever. Crush the corpse and stuff it in one of those garbage cans so it can be turned into fertilizer.”
“I doubt the soil bacteria can break down the bones and hair. The thick bones are the greatest risk.”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect. Once you’re done, keep an eye out for anyone else.” The old man exhaled a white breath and stared off into the distance. “There are a few other groups here. Kill them on sight.”
What am I doing? wondered Hamazura Shiage while hiding in the bushes, but Benizome had him beat in terms of skill. He knew this was not the time, but she had made it very clear what would happen if he messed with her plan. This was the dark side—a world where strength was king.
“Once I’m done here, you’re free to do whatever you want.”
The woman in a red China dress with a see-through stomach opened her duralumin case and pulled out a single-lens reflex camera, a bazooka-like lens, and a tripod. The way she crouched down pushed the already risqué slit of her dress to the limit.
Then she pulled a gold coin from her thigh and kissed it.
She had a Coin of Nicholas too.
“So stay put until then. I’ll capture a dark side superstar with this bad boy. I’m not letting someone use Anti-Skill or Judgment to eliminate the darkness. Don’t give me that. Good and evil aren’t what decides what information should be sent out into the world—it’s all about the price tag and newsworthiness.”
“Wait, you’ve realized Anti-Skill is going wild? Then why don’t you-”
“It was an accident.” Benizome cut him off. “It was only an accident. Every last detail was set up so it would only ever look like an accident no matter how deep you dug. Like I said, it’s about the price tag and newsworthiness. No one’s going to buy a photo that won’t bring them a profit, so there’s no point chasing after one.”
“D-did it never occur to you to run away?”
“To where? Don’t give me that. If you want to survive, you have to make the attempt. I know time is limited, so before they catch up, I need to get such an undeniably scandalous photo that I can threaten the unseen people at the top with it.”
“You can do business by directly negotiating a deal with the people connected to your photo. It’s generally frowned upon, but I can decide whether or not I’ll sell the photo to a publisher. But it’s a crime and the risk of death goes up considerably when you threaten someone with a shady past, so I wouldn’t recommend trying it if you can avoid it☆”
He could not believe this. He had seen a lot of different people in the dark side—twisted researchers, powerful espers that saw no value in the lives of others, and high-ranking soldiers—but she was clearly different from all of them.
She would not be an esper since she was an adult, but she also showed no sign of any bizarre weaponry. Using a camera as her weapon sounded unusually civilized for the dark side. He had not met someone this reasonable in a while.
Was she part of the beneficial dark side that those twins had mentioned? Or maybe she did not qualify as the dark side at all.
He did not have to fight her.
And even if he did, they could do it in a nonviolent fashion.
It really had been a long time since he had seen someone so wonderfully reasonable.
“Use them,” whispered track suit girl Takitsubo. “You said someone was using Anti-Skill. So do you know what is making them go berserk?”
Benizome almost sounded offended.
But she was not saying no. In fact, she sounded confused why they would ask something so obvious.
“Don’t give me that. Are you testing me? Do I even have to say that it’s—”
She started to answer but then held down the top of her cowboy hat with a hand. She held her breath and further lowered her already lowered head.
Hamazura’s eyes widened.
“(Is someone coming?)”
“(Don’t give me that. Quit asking stupid questions. You’re in the way!)”
They were out back behind one of the Secret Residences. Normal guests would have no business in this area and the rich people who had spent great sums of money to live there would have no reason to walk into the shadows behind the homes.
No one would come here unless they knew about the tents there.
Now that he was seeing it from this angle, Hamazura could not believe how conspicuous people were when taking that route. He was lucky the person waiting here was a paparazzo because a sniper could have shot him and Takitsubo both. That possibility should have occurred to him before. He could no longer laugh it off as ridiculous.
This time, it was an old man walking down that path. He was as skinny as a matchstick. He almost looked like he was using his jumpsuit and lab coat to disguise some wires as a human silhouette.
“Who is that?” asked Hamazura.
He had not expected that answer.
Even Benizome Jellyfish was trembling a little.
“He’s a part of that researcher family. This is bad. I was hoping for a dark side bigshot, but don’t give me that. Kihara Hasuu is too big!!”
Takitsubo grabbed at his jacket and called his name, but she was not looking his way.
He could also hear a metallic creaking sound.
When she called his name even more forcefully, he looked the direction she was.
The tall metal fence in that direction had what looked like sharp barbed arrows or spears at the top, but they were probably more for decoration than security. Those spikes were too sharp for a lightweight stray cat or wild bird to stand on, much less a human.
Yet two bare feet were standing atop one.
A girl was crouched up on the fence looking down at Hamazura and the others with a tilt of the head.
This was not right.
If she were a normal human, she would have been 13 or 14. She was a short girl with long hair and bangs cut straight across, but even those ordinary things looked wrong to him.
Her blinking and visible breaths were too regular.
A quiet sound could be heard in the silence like the humming of a refrigerator late at night.
Even on this winter night, she wore something like a racing swimsuit colored a toxic orange and black like some kind of insect. The technology within and purpose for her clothing was clearly different from that of Hamazura or Takitsubo’s clothing. The bands on her shoulders held phones and the belts around her thighs held a rolled-up silicone keyboard and bottles of some kind of liquid. The long hair spread out behind her was inhumanly crimson. The pupils in her widened eyes were expanding and contracting even more mechanically than a security camera’s lens.
The atmosphere had changed.
He might not know the details of the tech, but his heart froze. His instincts told him the answer without even needing to see the brutal machete attached horizontally atop her small butt.
She was from the dark side. And she was probably a harmful. The paparazzo was not the only one laying a trap. That Kihara man had used himself as bait to reveal any threats. And this mystery girl had been launched as an attack.
She made no attempt to hide what she was.
Raised middle finger symbols appeared in the mechanical eyes looking down at them.
A strange noise echoed out, but the emotionless girl had not said anything. She had kicked off her unstable footing and that had caused the metal fence to loudly creak.
And where was she jumping?
Benizome Jellyfish was slow to react because she had been peering through her camera.
Her soft body and specialized photography device were noisily knocked to the ground.
Hamazura did not even have time to reach out a hand toward her.
“Wahh!! Ahh! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
He only managed to grab Takitsubo’s skinny wrist and back away after falling onto his butt. Every centimeter between them and that girl felt valuable. Benizome’s skill was real, so if she had been taken down so easily, he did not stand a chance. It was over if he was caught.
The attacking android actually looked puzzled. The machete she had drawn from the back of her hips had slipped from her hand. It hit the ground with the same crash and tremor a boulder would have caused.
“Ferromagnetic quick-drying paint, 256-times concentrated.” The paparazzo held a spray can, but it did not seem to contain pepper spray. “Analog film is dying out, but the manufacturers have made a vast fortune with chemicals and cosmetics. Haven’t you heard of film companies making health supplements? And there are chemicals out there that cause corrosion in high-power machines!!”
“So this chemical will not harm my carbon skin but will melt away my synthetic clothing and underwear? Sensei would love this.”
Hamazura definitely heard a lovely voice, but the actual voice did not match the lip movements. He could not imagine why they would do that intentionally.
“But I will do what I can. Sensei said someone would try to interfere and he was correct. Which is why I was waiting here.”
Hamazura immediately shoved Takitsubo Rikou away.
He heard a dull swoosh of air, similar to the swinging of a metal bat.
That came from Benizome.
The mystery girl planted her bare feet firmly on the snow, grabbed the woman in one hand, and swung her around. Benizome had to weigh forty to fifty kilograms. You might think of women as soft and light, but an axe customized for battle would only weigh two kilograms and a ball-and-chain only three. Forty kilograms might be light for a woman, but it was a devastating weight for a striking weapon.
Hamazura could not avoid the attack to his torso and was sent flying along with the China dress paparazzo. It knocked the breath out of him and he did not have time to even move his limbs before he started rolling across the cold ground. This was his limit. A single hit and he had already hit his limit. Dark shadows were encroaching on the edges of his vision and he felt a great temptation to let go of his consciousness.
He and Benizome had unintentionally managed to put some distance between them and that dark side girl.
That meant the closest person—and thus the likeliest target—was Takitsubo Rikou who had been left behind.
Benizome Jellyfish was lying limply on top of him, so he pushed her aside and forcibly got up from the ground.
Just before the mechanical girl leapt at the closer target, she turned her head around toward him.
The slow movement of her head looked less like a conscious act and more like a targeting program keeping him in its sights.
He had drawn her attention.
But what did he do now? How could he survive this unidentified enemy?
“Hey, don’t give me that. Do you even think before you act?”
He heard a voice. It came from Benizome Jellyfish who he had just pushed away. Still lying unnaturally on her side, she reached into the slit of her China dress and drew something from her thigh.
It was not quite a handgun.
It was a stun gun that used compressed gas to launch the electrodes.
“No biological reflexes, abnormal strength, and night vision? I bet she’s stuffed full of machines. So this might work better than a plain old bullet.”
Hamazura Shiage felt like he had narrowly avoided death here.
But it had slipped his mind that he was still being swallowed whole by the world known as the dark side.
When the woman pulled the trigger, the electrodes stabbed into Takitsubo Rikou.
The track suit girl looked down in surprise. She did not seem to understand what was happening even when she saw the electrodes and cables attached to the center of her chest.
But once the dry crackling sound started, she arched her back.
“Ha ha ha!!”
It was a mystery how she still had so much strength left, but Benizome hopped up from the ground, let go of the stun gun without switching it off, and slid herself away. She also pulled a thick metal pen from her large cleavage. It had a two millimeter hole at the top of the grip, so it was probably a hidden camera. Its photos could not compare to the specialized single-lens reflex camera, but it would have the same quality as a phone camera.
Yes, she had been after one thing this entire time.
It was almost refreshing how dedicated she was to her goal.
“A mechanical brain will always go for the weakest target first, right!? Now I can escape and get my shot from a safe location. A shot of a Kihara-built secret weapon is sure to change history!! Don’t worry, she might turn you to mincemeat, but your deaths will allow me to set the world in motion!!”
(They’re all garbage! Is she a harmful too!?)
He glared at her while wishing he could kill her with his thoughts, but no one had ever said Benizome was on his side. She had merely let them live before, so it had always been on her terms. If she decided to cut them loose, there was nothing they could do to stop her.
However, he did have one thing he could use. Using it would leave him defenseless for a full hour afterwards, so it was best left unused until he absolutely needed it. There may have been a better way to use it, like to save his girlfriend suffering from that high-voltage current.
But he acted on reflex.
He did not have it in him to think rationally at the moment. His mind was boiling with rage. He could not let her get away with this. He could not let Benizome Jellyfish escape after using Takitsubo Rikou as bait for her own survival.
He stuck his hand in his pocket and grabbed the hard and cold coin within. He did not know how much power it had over humans who acted with a will of their own, so he chose to target something inanimate.
One option immediately came to mind, so he raised his voice.
“Make Benizome’s shoes slip, Coin of Nicholas!!”
“Keep my shoes from slipping, Coin of Nicholas!!”
He grimaced as soon as the words had left his mouth.
It had failed.
“Ah ha ha!! Don’t give me that. Your eyeline was so obvious. Don’t underestimate a pro photographer!”
She was laughing.
The cause of his girlfriend’s pain calmly jumped into the bushes. All while a shotgun, a large handgun, and other weapons of various sizes spilled from the silver case she held.
He wanted to curse himself for thinking even for a second that she was a reasonable person.
She gave one last parting comment from the shadows.
“I knew something like this might happen once these things were being spread around! Don’t give me that. I can survive without its help, so I knew there was only one way to use it: To negate anyone else using one!!”
He had not done any detailed research into how the coin worked. He had never tested to see what happened when two people used the coins on the same thing, but he felt so worthless now.
He had accomplished nothing and had to wait an hour for it to charge again.
He could not get back at her now.
The only people left were powerless Hamazura, Takitsubo who was still exposed to the high-voltage current, and the girl who moved through the cold like a piece of construction equipment. If she could swing a forty or fifty kilogram person around with one arm, she might be able to break through a concrete wall with her fist.
(What do I do?)
Leaving Takitsubo and running was out of the question.
He could never leave her to be the victim in a snuff film.
But that only told him his objective.
He still needed the realistically achievable means with which to achieve that.
(What do I do!?)
Just then, the heavy machinery girl’s eyes passed right by him as her head turned slowly like a swiveling fan.
He did not understand. It was not quite like she turned from right to left, ignoring him along the way. Once she turned to the left, her gaze moved back to the right. Since she was repeatedly turning her head side to side…had she lost sight of him?
He had no idea what was happening as he tried to catch his breath in front of her.
Given how much stronger she was, he doubted she would need to use any bluffs or feints, but he was through with rejoicing when he did not understand why something had happened. He had learned his lesson about that with Benizome Jellyfish.
“Pick it up.”
When he heard a female voice, he reached toward the ground almost on reflex.
He grabbed the pump action shotgun from the weapons Benizome had spilled on the ground.
The blast knocked him onto his butt. That thing was clearly packed with too much powder. Benizome must have customized it herself, but he was pretty sure that increased the risk of it blowing up in your face. The racing swimsuit girl had also fallen onto her butt.
He did not have time to feel guilty about shooting a girl at point-blank range.
There was a small scratch on her forehead and a miniscule trail of red liquid, but the wound of only a few millimeters revealed a bundle of something silver on the other side. That was clearly not a human wound.
“Y-you’re kidding me. That was an overpowered shot and I think it was a slug based on the way it hit!”
“Now is your chance.”
He finally spun around toward the voice that had been whispering in his ear.
A woman stood behind him and he could not even guess how long she had been there. She wore a formfitting light blue dress with a loose translucent long skirt worn over it and she wore her long blonde hair in twintails. But she looked around twenty and had the figure to match, so that dress-up doll attire looked weird on her.
She seemed inhuman in a different way from the girl whose pupils mechanically expanded and contracted.
It was like she was not really there.
He was afraid his hand would pass right through her if he reached out to touch her.
The word had no place in this city of science, but it still floated up in his mind.
Her tight and loose skirts hid her feet…giving the impression that she might not have any.
She was looking to the monster that had lost sight of her target. Of course, saving him did not mean this woman was a beneficial. She had not hesitated to order him to fire that gun and he never knew when that decisiveness would be directed his way.
“Pick up the stun gun if you wish to save your girlfriend. My nature affects mechanical senses such as cameras and sensors. Just like ghost photos and videos have not died out in an age of free image editing software. Just like phones lose their signal or have their location data or facial recognition malfunction during stories of paranormal encounters.”
Hamazura sprang into action.
Now was not the time to analyze what this ghost woman was saying. He snatched up the stun gun lying on the snow-wet ground and switched it off.
Takitsubo fell to her knees like he had switched off her power as well.
But the trouble was not over for her. That had been an illegal high-voltage current that did not adhere to any safety standards. Her cheeks were flushed and beads of sweat dripped from her forehead. Hamazura recognized these symptoms. She had suffered just like this from the Body Crystal drug extracted from the bodily fluids of berserk espers.
He recalled the contents of the paper bag he was keeping safe: bC-96/R. What had Pet Breeder Aoumi Karei told him when she gave him that?
“The temperature and humidity should be fine if you keep it in the fridge, but watch out for electricity leakage. Electrolysis can easily break down the medicine’s components.”
It had been destroyed.
The medicine currently circulating through Takitsubo Rikou’s body had been destroyed by this attack.
“Are you kidding me!?” he shouted.
But someone pressed their finger against his lips. It was Takitsubo herself. She was suffering from a high fever, but she still gathered what little strength was left to warn him.
Yes, that was right.
What had happened to that attacker?
His mind went blank. He had to have had his eyes off of the enemy for a full twenty seconds. She could have slaughtered him many times over in that time.
So why hadn’t she? The attacker slowly got up on her bare feet. For whatever reason, that heavy machinery girl wearing something like an orange and black racing swimsuit could not find the targets right in front of her.
She slowly turned her head side to side a few times to observe her surroundings, but then she pulled a bottle from her thigh and drank from it. Once she pulled the top of the bottle from her lips with a wet popping sound, she dumped the sticky clear liquid over her head.
He could hear electricity escaping from her head down to her feet. Something was happening.
“What is she?”
“She is not a cyborg that replaces human parts with machines.”
That whispering voice reminded him someone else was here too: the mystery ghost woman.
He would have fallen back on his butt if he had not been holding Takitsubo close.
“With that Kihara involved, she must be something even more grotesque.”
“I imagine artificial parts were built up one by one until they formed a full human. And with enough quality to be indistinguishable from a human on the outside,” explained the ghost women with the silhouette of a princess. “Android would be the most suitable term. The word robot is more closely associated with the metal drums flooding the streets of this city.”
With a metallic scraping, the android girl pulled her thick machete out of the ground. She placed it in the sheathe directly attached to her swimsuit so it essentially lay horizontally atop her small butt. The undeveloped girl kicked off the snow with her bare feet to jump backwards and vanish into the darkness. Instead of running away, she seemed to be searching for the targets she had lost sight of. Not even she seemed to be aware what had happened.
Time passed, but Hamazura still did not feel any relief.
This was more than he had imagined.
He had known the dark side had cyborg parts that looked identical to biological ones, but this was a much greater taboo. If the ghost woman was right, that Kihara man had created something like thoughts and emotions from a machine.
For that matter…
“Take your girlfriend and leave this place,” said the ephemeral ghost woman who he would have believed was a hallucination or hologram. “She has only lost sight of you. This seems to have placed a burden on her circuits, but not enough to damage them. I do not know when she will return. I cannot control where she searches and she would still smash your body to pieces if she happened to run into you without seeing you there.”
Her blonde twintails fluttered in a way disconnected from the blowing of the wind.
And she continued speaking to Hamazura who had been forced to confront just how deep the dark side went.
“There is more than one way to escape the city. Several dark side members have set their sights on this one, so this is now an extremely dangerous area. If you are not confident you can survive the deadly battle over this plank of Carneades, you should search for a different loophole. Before you lose everything and regret your choice.”
The large four-wheel-drive vehicle arrived at the District 2 General Anti-Skill Station.
While the vehicle was navigating the parking lot, Shirai clicked the send button for the report she had compiled. However…
“Huh, so even kids these days get it wrong sometimes.”
The combover and glasses man was not trying to tease her— he sounded more like he had spotted a four-leaf clover. There appeared to be some trouble with the network, but they were already at the station. She could hand the laptop itself to an administrative worker there.
“You’ve turned a major corner in your life once you start proudly talking about ‘kids these days’,” she said while stepping out of the unnecessarily large vehicle. “Your students won’t like you if you draw that line between yourself and them.”
“Eh? But I’m still a virgin.”
“Why would you reveal that information here!? And to a middle school girl no less!?”
What connection did that have to what she had said? She did not like how that had been a follow up to discussing his students. The Personal Information Protection Law needlessly weighed down on her shoulders. Did she really have to carry that information with her until the day she died?
This was District 2.
That district specialized in the research of gunpowder and vehicles, so its Anti-Skill station was very well equipped. It was now acting as their new headquarters.
They could not give up just because they had lost one base.
Shirai’s feet felt heavy as she walked. The scope and gruesomeness of the damage caused by the dark side was part of that, but she also could not wholly endorse what Anti-Skill was doing. She felt like a heretic, but things changed once they arrived at the Anti-Skill base.
There were very few people there.
The few adults who remained seemed listless. They were leaning against the wall or sitting down on the floor. The lack of conversation allowed a heavy gloom to hang over the place.
“What is this?”
“Half of us are no longer responding,” replied one of the officers waiting in the station. He at least seemed to still have a will to fight. “I really don’t want to believe all of them were taken out by the dark side, but I can’t deny how powerful those dark side freaks are. And they must have hit us with some kind of cyber attack. That means we can’t get an accurate count, allowing our imaginations to run wild.”
“You mean…they got away?”
“I hate to admit it, but yes. A lot of us are starting to think it was a mistake to dig up the dark side.”
None of them wanted their entire force to go down fighting.
A lot of Anti-Skill would have believed this job would only entail chasing down the criminals and taking them into custody.
But the reality they found was quite different.
Not even the murderous dark side would slaughter 2.3 million people to protect their throne, but Anti-Skill would not want to lose their own lives during a war of attrition. Not everyone thought saving the world was worth it if they or their family were killed in the process.
The problem was the ratio. A small minority would not have caused much of a problem, but once a majority of Anti-Skill had lost their nerve, the entire organization could fall apart. Especially if some of them started betraying their colleagues in the hopes that the dark side would spare them in exchange. And in truth, this base was badly understaffed.
It was an issue of morale.
Once morale dropped far enough, they could collapse despite outnumbering their opponents. And that did sound like a method criminals would prefer to use.
“This is worse than I imagined.”
Shirai breathed a heavy sigh. The “attack” had already begun. She felt a weight on her own shoulders, but she could not back out now.
Not after seeing those young twins smiling in that rotting world.
After meeting up with some other Anti-Skill officers, they guided her to the heliport on the roof.
“Phase 1 was less successful than hoped, but we did do some damage to the dark side’s hideouts and labs.” Fully-equipped Namino spoke over the artificial gale produced by the main rotor. “In Phase 2, we will strike at the dark side remnants trying to escape. Possible escape routes include the walls surrounding the city, its gates, the airport, the heliports, and the bases for loading shipments into the long-distance trucks. The brutal harmfuls are our top priority, but I also want to actively hunt down the gentler beneficials if we have the chance. At any rate, the remnants should be concentrated in the more popular spots, so we should be able to round them up if we attack there.”
“You got a problem with that?”
He seemed awfully sure of himself for someone who had been accused of excessive force earlier.
It made her want to ask for her own internal investigation right away.
The combover and glasses man tugged at her uniform from behind.
“(Sh-Shirai-san, you should go along with this for now. You can’t do anything if they refuse to let you join them.)”
“(And anyone would have a hard time taking the suspects’ side after the slaughter at the other station. You have to prove on-site that it is possible to arrest them normally without killing them.)”
“Understood. But stay away!! I have an anti-man barrier in place! Back up until I can’t detect your old man stink!!”
Meanwhile, the helicopter’s engine had warmed up.
She reviewed what information was available while boarding it.
Namino spoke on behalf of Anti-Skill as a whole.
“We will generally remain on standby up in the sky and rush in when a request comes in, but it would be best to make some predictions where we’ll be needed. District 23 in particular is a crowded airspace with more than five airplanes flying through every ten minutes. We would have a hard time making last-minute adjustments there even in an emergency.”
“Um.” Shirai raised her hand as was proper. “The point of Phase 2 is to cut off the dark side’s escape routes, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Then what is this?”
She pointed to the northeast of Academy City, but not toward a district bordering the wall and not toward the airport or any heliports.
Even she frowned as she asked about it.
“District 6 is an amusement park, but this says gunshots were heard there. What is that about?”
Hamazura Shiage remained dazed for a while afterwards.
He had been hopelessly outmatched, so he had no idea how he had survived.
Since he had…
That question was already mixed in with some unnaturally heavy and heated breathing.
Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes unfocused as she looked up at him.
He was anxious as could be. It was worse than having a powerful poison injected into his neck.
“Wh-what about the medicine? We still have a week’s worth from what Pet Breeder gave me, so you can take that!”
“I’m only supposed to take one dose a day and I think that means it’s a powerful drug. Speeding up the dosage on our own would be too dangerous.”
Then there was nothing they could do.
If amateurs like them could not make any decisions here, their only option was going to a doctor. But that was not an option while they were on the run. As a delinquent, he knew the protocol. After a crime, the wanted information was sent to hospitals and hotels first and foremost.
“Let’s find a black market doctor.”
“We have money. There was a whole bunch balled up in the sling bag! And only someone in Academy City can deal with a Body Crystal issue. We can’t get you healed if we leave the city!!”
She called his name stronger this time. She was woozy with a fever and her strength was draining from her along with the sweat, but she spoke clearly.
“Running away is fine, but why are we running away? It isn’t to turn our backs on hope, remember?”
“It’s true technology outside the city is two or three decades behind, but we have me and the medicine used to treat me. With both of those, a doctor outside the city might be able to fill in the blanks. There’s still a chance.”
How much strength had she gathered even as the core of her body looked ready to break?
“But there is no chance if we stay here and get arrested. Then our chances drop to zero. So which would you prefer? Remember why we’re running away.”
The sick generally became weaker and more selfish. Especially when the details of and treatment for their disease were unknown. But she worked to encourage him like she always did.
He had to reward that courage.
He suppressed the urge to rush forward and instead turned back the way they had come.
That was the only correct answer here.
“Wait, Hamazura. Where are you going?”
“That ghost woman saved us.”
First, he stated the facts so he could use that as a foundation for speculation.
“But why? What happened with Benizome is enough to know we aren’t going to find anyone who saves us out of a spirit of volunteerism or simple benevolence. If she saved us, then it benefited her to do so. She spared us from a position of superiority.”
For that matter, how long had that ghost woman been there? She had appeared in the nick of time to save him, but it was possible she had waited until after Takitsubo was hit by the stun gun before intervening. Maybe she could have helped sooner, but she wanted to play the savior to take control of the situation.
“The ghost woman manufactured a draw between us and the android. That Kihara guy the android was protecting will notice something is wrong soon enough. If someone escaped the trap he laid for them, then it’s their turn to hunt him down. Once he senses danger, he’ll run. And we left on the advice of the ghost woman. So who has uninterrupted access to the valuable counterfeiter now?”
“Now you get it. She got both sides of that fight to leave at the same time, so Perfect Film is wide open. She can ask him for a job without having to worry about anyone intervening.”
He doubted that inhuman ghost woman would fear Anti-Skill’s ordinary bullets, but she may have had something she wanted to protect. Like the researcher who had developed her or her real body she had left as an astral projection.
At any rate, Hamazura layered speculation on top of the facts to fill in the blanks like he was solving a crossword puzzle.
“The ghost woman doesn’t want anyone interfering.”
He continued walking.
His pace had picked up.
“She might win a direct confrontation, but I bet there’s someone there she didn’t want caught in the middle of our fight. That’s why she pushed everyone else away. There must be something even losers like us can pull off here.”
They were not far from the tents now. He chose the tent that had some light escaping it and pushed his way in without knocking.
Inside, a stubborn-looking old man—presumably the counterfeiter—was facing a young man Hamazura had never seen before.
Was he a friend of the ghost woman?
He was dressed in something not quite like a plain-colored jumpsuit. His version had shorts and short sleeves. Was it called a safari jacket? It reminded Hamazura of a TV adventurer whose show kept getting brought back. Although this young man wore a black long-sleeved rash guard below to deal with the winter temperatures. The headband around his forehead had an outdoor webcam attached to the side of his head.
This tent appeared to the be the lab rather than the residence. Before anyone could say a word, Hamazura stuck his hand in a toolbox and pulled out a nail gun.
The young man was unfazed.
“Really? Frillsand-kun needs to do a better job.”
“Quick question: do you think a ghost created with science can be exorcized with two-yen-a-pop nails?”
That was not the question here.
Hamazura Shiage did not hesitate to aim the nail gun at Perfect Film.
The stubborn old man’s eyes widened, but Hamazura was in no position to accept complaints. This was the dark side, so everyone was racking their brains to survive and choosing whatever option they could trust with their life.
He was through relying on uncertain promises or convenience.
“You need this greasy old man as much as I do, so you can’t have me killing him, can you? So let’s calm down and talk this out. We both want out of Academy City, but I’ll break our plank of Carneades if I have to!!”
“Okay, okay. I get it.”
The young man casually raised his hands.
Hamazura had the upper hand, but the young man was as calm as ever. Hamazura had come up with this plan, but he was shaken by this. He started to wonder if he was really doing the right thing.
“You want the same thing I do, don’t you?” asked the young man.
“A passport even better made than a real one.”
“Indeed. But neither of us has much time. And from the look of things, you need two. FYI, I coughed up a cool five mil for my plank.”
Five million yen. How thick would that be? He had the balled-up cash inside the voice on the phone’s sling bag, but not even that would be enough for this.
The young man grinned while verbally going on the attack.
“But you’re still a student, so how much can you pay for the plank you need to stay afloat? Per person, I mean. Oh, and this is precise work that can’t be done if the craftsman’s fingers are trembling from a threat to his life, so you can’t exactly ask for his help until you lower that weap—”
He never finished his sentence because something else happened first.
Hamazura heard something whizzing through the tent and then the counterfeiter’s rock-hard head burst.
The entire interior of the tent was dyed red and Hamazura fell back onto his ass. He had not done this. A nail gun was only meant to drive the nail into a piece of wood, so even if he had accidentally pulled the trigger, it would not have been powerful enough to crack open the old man’s skull, sending pieces flying everywhere.
“Man, Frillsand-kun really needs to do a better job,” lamented the young man.
He sounded like someone whose brand-new lightbulb had just died.
Yes, the ghost woman had overlooked something.
She may have thought this young man was free to negotiate once the Hamazura/Takitsubo team and the Kihara/Android team were diverted away from Perfect Film, but there had been someone else there.
Hamazura Shiage found a certain name spilling from his mouth.
That woman could use electron beams, terahertz waves, and other special photography equipment to accurately aim through the tent, she had carried powerful weapons, and she was willing to lie in wait for her target just like a sniper.
She was part of the dark side and a goddamn harmful at that.
She did not care about the fate of the entire world or the life of a single person.
That freelance camerawoman had no morals whatsoever, so she was willing to spread chaos if it would help her get the shot she wanted.
District 2 General Anti-Skill Station:
Shirai Kuroko – Judgment
Rakuoka Houfu – Anti-Skill
Somewhere in District 8:
Vivana Oniguma – Beneficial
Somewhere in District 7:
Kihara Noukan – Beneficial
District 15 Luxury Hotel:
Hanatsuyu Kaai – Harmful
Hanatsuyu Youen – Harmful
District 6 Amusement Park:
Hamazura Shiage – Beneficial
Takitsubo Rikou – Beneficial
Drencher Kihara Repatri – Beneficial
Frillsand #G – Beneficial
Benizome Jellyfish – Harmful
Somewhere in District 18:
Kihara Hasuu – Harmful
Ladybird – Harmful
Between the Lines 2
“Aren’t these things so convenient?”
A girl who looked only ten leaned against the cold bars.
Her long, long hair gave off a rosy scent as she whispered into the neighboring cell.
“Smartphones, I mean. Now, computers will have plenty of software preloaded onto them when you buy them at the electronics store. Too much, really. But isn’t that the real difference between a smartphone and a computer? You have to read through all the manuals if you want to know how to use a computer, but you can just intuitively pick up how to use a smartphone just by touching it. That seems simple enough, but it’s actually incredibly hard to pull off. Masking the work that went into it is the trick to getting your new service to spread.”
Anna Sprengel received no response, but she did not seem offended.
She welcomed having an audience who would listen. What she could not stand were the fools who interrupted her with stupid questions while acting like they knew what they were talking about.
Self-proclaimed experts were a cancer on the world. They would end up destroying themselves, but the problem was how they spread their so-called expertise to others beforehand.
“Oh? But don’t you have firsthand experience with this? You inherited Academy City, after all. After the old Board Chairman squeezed out every last drop of its power, he handed it over to you as a bunch of codes. And what kind of hardware did that use? Hee hee hee. Wasn’t it a smartphone?”
She slowly breathed in and out before continuing.
“But human psychology is a strange thing.”
Most likely. that was something not even she had an answer for.
The human mind.
If she had a perfect grasp of its illogical and incomprehensible actions, she would not be here doing this in the first place.
“When you find something convenient and comfortable, do you ever get an urge to take a look behind the curtain? I know you do. For example, maybe you were curious about how exactly R&C Occultics managed to spread so quickly?”
Maybe she could control the masses as a single large group.
Maybe she could hold the reins by placing them in the category of “monster” and understanding them that way.
But now, Anna smiled thinly.
“But is that really what you should be looking into? How much do you understand about the workings of that phone you carry? Why is the internet a fixed fee while calls are charged by the minute? How does it connect while out on the ocean, up in the mountains, or anywhere else? Cross talk used to be an issue with phones, but why doesn’t it happen anymore? There probably isn’t a single person out there who can explain every single thing that goes on inside that card-sized case. The internet has no shortage of self-styled experts, but if they really could do what they claim, they would be filthy rich. The real experts tend not to let anyone know about the valuable knowledge they have.”
Why did people suddenly find the word Kirarazaka in their phone’s dictionary?
Why would a phone’s AI assistant respond to questions about aliens with the word Zoltaxian?
Was it a simple input error, was it a joke by the developers, or was it something secretly added in for some definite purpose? There were so many unexplained blind spots in the devices people carried with them every day.
“You inherited this city in the form of a smartphone, but how much of its functions do you actually understand? A normal user should be commended if they use even thirty-percent of what their phone can do.”
What was she hinting at with these questions?
This was a dark lullaby meant to drag the listener into a nightmare world.
Anna Sprengel quietly said one last thing.
“Let your guard down and you might just have your feet swept out from under you. That thing might be filled with undiscovered vulnerabilities you aren’t even aware of.”