Toaru Majutsu no Index:GT Volume3 Chapter3
Chapter 3: Academy City’s Greatest Taboo — Safety_Zero, Control_Free.
She would get her shot.
She would snap the photo of the century by any means necessary.
But a hibernating bear did not make for an interesting subject. An undisturbed hornet’s nest was just boring. If you wanted an exciting shot, you had to wake the bear, throw the hornet’s nest to the ground, and send them both into a rage.
That was all this was, but she knew too much.
She knew all the signs and courtesies that Anti-Skill and Judgment would overlook.
She had wrapped herself in the same scent until no one would question her presence there.
Benizome Jellyfish was an extremely skilled camerawoman, but this was why no publisher would hire her on full time no matter how consistently she provided photographic scoops.
This was a talent she could not go public with. And while she had learned how to live in that world, she too had become known as the dark side.
(It’s too bad this is the only way I could find to live.)
While she hid behind some bushes covered in hard snow and peered through her collapsible sniper rifle’s scope, her mind was focused on the hidden camera pen she also held. It hurt that her single-lens reflex camera had been destroyed, but since the technology in this was the same as in a phone, it would be high enough quality for a magazine. After all, this was the age of terrestrial television running two-hour specials created entirely by stringing together animal videos found online.
She did not think this was the most efficient way to make money.
She had preyed on entertainers, athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, and every other kind of celebrity who stood in the public eye. If she just wanted to make money, there were plenty of ways to do so without a camera.
(Maybe I’m like a rich kid who shoplifts. I just love the thrill of tearing down someone else’s life. They won’t want that to happen and they’ll resist in every way they can if they notice, but that risk only makes it more exciting.)
She would intercept radio transmissions, tail people, estimate their area of activity on the map, and stake out a location. The techniques of a freelance camerawoman were a lot like those of an urban sniper, so she could easily switch jobs just by trading out her camera for a gun.
She had a clear reason for choosing not to work as a sniper.
Her experience told her that a single photograph could be far more earthshattering than a single bullet.
A photo that terrified the people at the top could open a path for her. Targeting the center of the city was a better plan than blindly trying to climb the wall or acquiring a fake passport. The one and only safe exit was found there.
“So don’t worry, you silly student couple.”
Everything was in place. The two groups inside the tent were strangers. And they both wanted a fake passport for illicit purposes. Their temporary equilibrium would end now that the counterfeiter they needed was dead. That greatly increased the odds of something spontaneously going wrong.
She licked her lips from safety while tilting the pen camera and the phone synced to it on their side.
“I will capture your tragedy in the frame. I will negotiate extra hard with the editor-in-chief this time to make sure I get the highest price I can for this one☆”
This camerawoman remained freelance because every publisher wanted to keep her at arm’s length, but she also had the skill that kept them purchasing her photos. This was the moment she had been waiting for.
“Oh? Did you actually think you were hidden when you smell so strongly of gunpowder smoke?”
When she heard a voice behind her, she silently frowned below the cowboy hat with jellyfish decoration.
Her techniques were tried and true. Even if she had been focused on the pen camera in her hand, she doubted anyone could have snuck up on her like this. If they had approached using any normal method, she would have heard them treading on the grass or snow.
Since she had not, they must have used a non-normal method to approach.
She whispered behind her with her eyes still on the phone linked to the camera.
“A teleporter? Don’t give me that.”
“This is Judgment.”
A clear voice cut through the winter chill to rule this place. And it made an announcement no criminal wanted to hear.
“Gunpowder weapons lack the elegance of the Railgun. Care to explain the smell of gunpowder smoke lingering in this area? Specifically, how that might be related to the highly-specialized gun abandoned right over there?”
Loud gunshots rang from outside.
From surprisingly close by.
“Hamazura, let’s get out of here.”
Track suit girl Takitsubo tugged on his arm, but Hamazura’s hips had given out and he had pathetically fallen on his butt. She was actually pulled back toward him and collapsed when she tried to tug on him.
She was so light.
Even through her track suit, he could tell she was unnaturally warm.
He thought he might have tears in the corners of his eyes.
He frantically searched through the sling bag. The voice on the phone had gathered several runaway tools, like money, a counterfeit passport, and a first aid kit.
“Isn’t there anything of use in here!? I’d take a fever reduction sheet or painkillers at this point!!”
“I’m fine. We still have a long way to go, so keep all the medicine for you.”
Meanwhile, the young man in a safari jacket and rash guard did not run away or search for anything. He simply stared at those two. Hamazura could not even guess what that dark side man was thinking and he did not have time to worry about it either.
A face emerged from the bloody synthetic material forming the back wall. It was the ghost woman with long blonde twintails, a skintight dress, and a loose long skirt. Physical restrictions must have meant nothing to her because the waterproof tent was no obstacle to her.
“We need to leave here. It is dangerous.”
“And whose fault is that, Frillsand-kun?”
“I was not the one who began a firefight.”
The young man, however, did require a physical exit. Hamazura was seated over by the only zipper, so he crouched down and pulled out one of the metal spikes holding the tent down. After forcing up the bloody material, he turned back toward Hamazura.
“Search for Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.”
“That is your only option now that you can’t use District 23’s airport. Even if it is a vague rumor about something that may not even exist. Of course, all the surviving dark side will be rushing there, but if you want to safely escape Academy City, you have to make the attempt.”
Hamazura was only confused, so he must not have been of enough interest to keep the young man here.
He left the tent and the ghost woman passed through the bloody synthetic material once more.
Someone from the dark side would not give him a gift out of a spirit of volunteerism or simple benevolence. Since that man had given this information, he must have wanted to control Hamazura’s actions.
But to what end? He could not be cautious of something he did not understand.
It was time to make a decision.
“What is it, Hamazura!?”
The delinquent boy turned his back on the safe path. Instead of running away, he turned back toward the tent. Now that he thought about it, he could not figure out why Perfect Film had stayed here. His presence had been like a blessing from heaven for Hamazura and Takitsubo, but the counterfeiter could have used one of his own passports to board a plane and leave.
Why hadn’t he?
Did he have some insurance that meant he did not have to rush?
Like Academy City’s Greatest Taboo maybe?
Hamazura had no idea if that was a person, an object, or a concept, but he could not ignore it. His ignorance was not due to the poor quality of the information—he had simply not looked into it.
There was apparently some special rule in play during this clash between Anti-Skill and the dark side. Not knowing about that was like being wealthy but unaware of the revolution that was underway. Whether he could use this or would be used by it, he had to at least know what it was.
He wanted to know the complete set of rules even if that meant taking on some more risk.
He needed information.
A corpse with a shattered head lay inside a bloodstained tent. The many tools strewn about suggested this had been the old man’s workshop, but Hamazura searched all over and could not find a small memory device the size of a leather notepad or tube of lipstick. He grimaced and tried to face the corpse, but he ended up gagging.
The track suit girl stepped out in front of him.
She crouched down and quickly searched through the man’s pockets.
As harmless as she was, she had still been influenced by the dark side.
“He only has a wallet in his pocket. What should we do, Hamazura?”
Unsurprisingly, there was no medicine for Body Crystal here.
If it was that common, he would not have been relying on Pet Breeder.
Dark unease roiled in his chest once more. He was curious—extremely curious—but was this really worth investigating while his girlfriend was inching closer to death? Wasn’t there something better he could be doing with this time?
(No. I told myself I wouldn’t let her courage go to waste. Running away is fine, but I can’t lose sight of why we’re running away! I’m doing this so we can be happy. That has to be my focus throughout, so I can’t move from one thing to another and lose sight of that!!)
He shook his head to shake off the strange dizziness he felt and somehow managed to speak.
“This isn’t the only tent. Let’s search the others.”
He walked to the tent’s exit. That was a logical decision, but he also could not stand to be trapped in there with the rusty smell any longer.
Just as he lowered his head to duck through the exit, he bumped into something soft.
It was a girl’s chest.
The delinquent boy fell on his butt and looked up to see a hakama girl with long silver hair standing with her hands on her hips.
“Attention tent occupant!!” The curly haired girl actually spoke Japanese. “Are you the famous counterfeiter? I tracked down the location of your lab a while back. Because I lost a ton of money purchasing a book that turned out to be a forgery made by you, you could say I’ve already paid in advance, so I have the right to one of your passports!!”
“What the hell!? Can you not hear all that gunfire out there!? Besides, that old man is already dead!!”
“Eh? Oh…kyahhhhhhh!? Brains…a crushed head. What am I doing at the center a gory horror movie all of a sudden!?”
Hamazura nearly snapped back that she had walked into it herself, but he restrained himself. And not just because his face had been treated to those surprisingly jiggly boobs.
She was here tonight for a high-quality counterfeit passport.
She might be wearing clothing with a mascot pattern, but she was definitely with the dark side. She might be a few eggs short of a dozen, but it would be best not to carelessly antagonize her.
“Y-yeah. You’re right. This doesn’t change what we need to do. We need to figure out whatever we can about Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.”
The hakama girl made a weird “mhh?” sound while toying with the horns made by hardening her bangs. She was staring right at Takitsubo.
“Um, are you okay? Your face is red and you’re sweating a lot. You over there, doesn’t something look wrong with her?”
“Excuse me a moment. Yeah, I can’t help but look into something once I’m curious.”
She acted without asking permission and too quickly to stop her. At first, Hamazura mistook it for a wrestling move. She knocked Takitsubo over, grabbed at her leg, removed the shoe, and then began rubbing her thumb against the bottom of Takitsubo’s foot.
“Hmm, it isn’t your liver or kidneys. Is it in your chest? I think it might be more circulatory than respiratory???”
The curly silver-haired girl pulled something from her pocket.
It was a stethoscope.
“You can tell with that?” asked Hamazura.
“Tell what? Anyway, I’m going to take off your top and your boobs will be visible, but are you okay with him being here for that?”
“She’s 100% okay with—ow!?”
A kick from trembling Takitsubo expelled him from the tent.
Then the exit was zipped shut.
“Okay, let’s get that top off of you so I can get a look at your chest. Ohh, you’re the sexy type.”
“Th-that doesn’t matter here, does it?”
“I’m an expert, so don’t let it bother you. Okay, take in a deep breath…and let it out.”
“Okay, I’m going to press the stethoscope against you. Sorry if it’s chilly.”
Those voices really stirred up his imagination. What was going on inside that tent!? That place was bloody and there was an old man’s headless corpse inside, but he could only imagine it as pink right now! It was all transforming so much in his mind that he was afraid he would develop some weird new fetish!!
If that hakama girl was with the dark side, was she a beneficial?
Wait, wait, he thought while shaking his head. He could not let her kindness influence him. That was a bad habit of delinquents. Had he already forgotten what happened with Benizome and the ghost woma—
“How in the world do you get that reaction with a stethoscope, you perverted doct—bweh!?”
The instant he rushed wide-eyed into the tent, he was hit by a toolbox thrown by Takitsubo.
While his vision flipped around, he saw something placed on his girlfriend’s bare back. A flame similar to a cigarette was smoldering there.
And after a while…
Takitsubo’s expression was blank as she left the tent, but her soft cheeks appeared to be burning up. She moved her mouth some, but no actual words ever got out. Nor could she bring herself to look him in the eye.
But this meant she was feeling well enough to focus on these other emotions.
“D-did you save her?”
The hakama girl sighed while putting her tools back in a black cloth wrapper.
“All I did was use the heat to induce blood flow and cut off the excessive stimulation of her nerves, so I didn’t heal the fundamental cause. She might be feeling better, but only because I shut off the danger signals. She shouldn’t push herself because mistaking her limits could do real damage to her body.”
“Who are you?”
“A torture specialist. Oh, but only in Japanese torture. That’s why I know how to do moxibustion, acupuncture, and traditional Chinese medicine.”
She just casually dropped that bombshell. Hamazura was left speechless by the revelation that she was not a doctor. Especially because it came after everything was done. But that was just how the dark side worked.
“Moxibustion is a field that stimulates the blood vessels and muscles with heat to externally control the movement of the organs. It doesn’t actually extract the toxins from the blood, so if you do want to save her…yes, I would recommend starting with dialysis.”
Dialysis was a medical technique that cleaned the blood with a filter outside the body and then returned it to the body. Quality aside, that was an ordinary technique they could have done outside the city.
Academy City could do it too, but security was too strict at the hospitals here. On the other hand, he was hesitant to leave his girlfriend’s wellbeing in the hands of a black market doctor. So this was perfect. Technology outside the city was two or three decades behind, but they could trick their way into medical care at a hospital out there.
He had found it.
It was a very thin thread, but he had found a path toward saving his girlfriend.
“Hamazura, weren’t you looking for something? Until we were interrupted by, um, what happened.”
“Why are you so embarrassed about another girl seeing your boobs?” asked the hakama girl. “Yours are bigger than mine anyway.”
“Bring that up again and I really will hit you.”
Yes, the counterfeiter had a few other tents. They were probably divided up between living space and storage, but Hamazura had no way of telling which was which from the outside. While opening them each in turn, he found a sleeping bag rolled up next to a locked cabinet. It looked something like a somewhat fancy fishing case, but the plastic drawers were surprisingly sturdy. He doubted they would break even if he hit them with the metal kettle found in the same tent.
He did not have time to search around for the key since he could still hear gunfire from outside. He was not sure who was fighting who out there, but a stray bullet whizzing through the thin tent would be deadly no matter who it came from.
He tried sticking two metal clips inside the keyhole, but then he frowned. He could not feel them catching on the pins. Despite how cheap it looked, this appeared to be a fairly special analog lock.
(Damn, if only I still had my Coin of Nicholas.)
He regretted wasting it on that paparazzo. He should not have used it without thinking.
But then he had another idea.
“Hey, you with the tits.”
For some reason, both girls turned toward him, but Takitsubo was going to have to restrain her weird rivalry here. He had been speaking to the hakama girl.
“Do you have one of those coins?”
“I do. Why?”
Meanwhile, the track suit girl began pushing herself up against him from the side and silently puffing out her cheeks. It’s not a competition and I wasn’t choosing her over you! He just about lost his focus. She was larger than the hakama girl and that gave her unbelievable destructive power.
He had to empty his mind as he focused on this risky deal with the mystery hakama girl.
“Is it usable right now?”
“Heh heh heh. I’m a methodical Type A who likes to economize, so as you can see—hyahhhh!? Wait, don’t just steal my Coin of Nicholas!!”
“Open this lock, Coin of Nicholas!!”
He raised his voice after he finally managed to shove aside the hakama girl (whose hakama had slipped out of place in some crucial places during the struggle).
When he heard the click, he yanked the drawer open.
He found a card-sized hard drive inside. That alone was not enough to see what was on it. For all he knew, it was a collection of porn videos and links, but he chose to trust the embossed word on the label maker tape attached to its plastic surface: Lifeline.
“Is this it!?”
This was better than nothing, so he snatched it up. At the same time, he heard a gunshot from even closer than before.
Their time was up.
“Hamazura, let’s get out of here.”
But he heard some sobbing from the silver-haired girl who had two horns yet did not seem threatening in the slightest and who inexplicably appeared to have some red plastic tape below her hakama.
“I resisted using it all this time and then it’s all taken from me in an instant. Why does this always happen to me???”
He froze up. This was extremely awkward. He owed her for relieving Takitsubo’s suffering. The dark side way would be to abandon her and make a run for it, but could he really do that? Could he really stoop to the unspeakable level of Benizome and that ghost woman?
Could he really look his girlfriend in the eye if he did?
“Argh!! Okay, fine! We owe you twice if we include the hard drive, so hurry this way!! Unless you want to die!!”
“Wait, what!? Now you’re dragging me into the bushes to have your way with me!?”
Trapped between the girl’s misguided complaints and Takitsubo’s silent gaze, Hamazura awkwardly and nervously left the group of tents.
They could no longer hope to use a counterfeit passport at the District 23 airport.
They were left with just one final hope: Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
Whatever that was.
Shirai Kuroko teleported repeatedly in quick succession.
But this was a deterrent rather than an attack. Her eyes were still dazzled.
(I didn’t expect her to use her camera’s strobe light when she turned around.)
She was ashamed, but making an appearance now would achieve nothing. She calmly calculated out the time until she would recover.
(Another five seconds!!)
Her vision was returning.
And while she teleported, she noticed an odd crunch from the ground below her feet. Half-hardened snow would not make that sound.
The entirety of District 6 was an enormous amusement park, but it also had some luxury homes known as the Secret Residences. They were all based on a movie or fairy tale, so the large grounds for each looked very different.
This one had gravel, a bamboo thicket, a teahouse bench, and a large red umbrella, but it did not appear to just be a Japanese-style residence. The most notable features were a dilapidated torii and an unmanned train station without its roof. The rusted train track was buried by gravel and weeds and a rusted sign stood on the platform.
The sign said “Otherworld Capital Station”.
(What movie is this from?)
If it was a 3D movie featuring mascot characters, Mikoto would probably know a surprising amount about it. Just as Shirai Kuroko warped to another coordinate, she heard a strange metallic sound. There was now a thumb-thick bullet hole in the rusted sign. She could launch projectiles while ignoring all three-dimensional restrictions, so it was unusual for her to be stuck in a long-term battle. No matter what her opponent hid behind to cover the direct line of sight, she could send a metal dart directly into them and that attack would do its damage regardless of what kind of armor they were wearing.
She could hear the laughter of that reporter in a cowboy hat and China dress who had become one with the darkness after trading her camera for a sniper rifle.
“Ha ha, ah ha ha!! Incredible, simply incredible. My craft is all about distance, angle, and timing, but I’ve failed to get my shot after setting all that up three times now. Don’t give me that. You have talent, but watch out because it isn’t just stray dogs that can’t resist chasing a running target!!”
“Sorry, but I’m the chaser and you’re the chased. Your talent isn’t enough to flip that one around.”
Shirai continued her quick teleports to keep some distance between them while pursing that woman.
She launched several metal darts at once toward the slender leg she saw sticking out from a risqué slit, but…
“Not good enough.”
Over the course of a single second, several dozen lightning-like flashes of light assaulted her senses so she lost sight of the proper coordinates.
That was a camera’s strobe light.
The woman’s China dress was fairly skimpy and the stomach was see-through, but it apparently hid a surprising number of tools. That strobe light was no joke when combined with a bolt-action sniper rifle.
If a feint threw off Shirai’s timing, a bullet whizzing through the air might just hit her at a vital point before she could even teleport. And attacking toward the light source was not going to hit. The woman had thrown collapsible reflector boards around the area so she could reflect the light around.
Shirai naturally grew cautious, but not just because of that.
(I need to find a way.)
She clenched her teeth. She could not let the suspect pick up on this impatience she was feeling.
(I need to find a way to restrain her before the gears break. She might be part of the dark side, but I’m not letting another suspect die! I could never look Onee-sama in the eye if I did!!)
The woman in a bright red China dress dove behind a tall metal “missing person” sign that was attached with wire to an old wooden streetlight.
Shirai’s eyes naturally slid over to the other side of the sign where she would likely emerge, but…
She realized her mistake too late and heard a loud gunshot ring out.
The rifle bullet pierced through the back of the thin sign to fly her way.
She tried to twist her body around and out of the way, but she had begun far too late to succeed. The cloth of her uniform burst and burning pain pierced her side.
“Tch. Don’t give me that. I only caught your baggy uniform? That was a 7.62mm, so it would’ve torn you apart, organs and all, if it had even grazed you.”
The cowboy hat woman slowly emerged from behind the sign. That shot from behind cover had been awfully accurate and merciless. She must have been using a lens or device that could capture a photography target with something other than normal light—like microwaves or terahertz waves. Shirai tried to hit her with a metal dart while collapsed on the ground, but the woman carefully blinded the girl with a range-finding laser.
“We’re a lot alike☆ Just like Judgment satisfies their drive for justice using handcuffs, I’m driven by the draw of the camera.”
“What are you—”
“A single photo changed the world.”
Shirai could not hit.
The woman was walking straight toward her, but the strobe light and laser left several powerful afterimages on her retinas and her metal darts missed their mark.
“A single photo uploaded to a social media burner account corrected the mistakes nothing else seemed capable of stopping. Someone who thought the world revolved around him, spouted nonsense, and thought he could get away with as much violence as he liked was subjected to so much public criticism that he hanged himself. How could I not fall in love with it? Once I learned there was a way to tear down the walls that refuse to budge no matter how much I punched and kicked them, I could never remove my finger from the shutter button again.”
With a metallic click, the cowboy hat and China dress woman aims the sniper rifle's muzzle towards the tip of Shirai Kuroko's nose.
“That does not count as satisfying a drive for justice.”
“Did you think justice was on your side because you went viral online and so many faceless people on social media agreed with you? That’s just trading a small gang of bullies for a large one. Did you feel a euphoria when your revenge succeeded better than you had ever imagined? Well, that joy you felt was no different from the joy felt by the person you so hated.”
“You’re such a boring person. Don’t give me that. Anyone that pure and upright through and through isn’t even human. You’re more artificial than a mannequin.”
Was that why this did not feel real?
Shirai could sense no hesitation in the woman’s trigger finger.
She also heard a straining sound.
But it was the cowboy hat and bob cut woman who looked puzzled. That sound had not been the pull of the trigger. Because she had not pulled it yet.
Then what had it been?
The woman moved just her eyes to the side with her sniper rifle’s sight still pressed against one of them.
The dirt wall right next to her had been blown away.
A mass of muscle easily weighing more than 100-kilograms had crashed into it shoulder first.
This person was over eight heads tall.
The thick muscles had deep grooves between them, making them look like heavy armor.
And the head had a combover and glasses.
A camerawoman and a sniper used the same skills.
That violent paparazzo had optimized her technique for blending into her surroundings, so she may have been defenseless if an enemy destroyed all of those surroundings.
The middle-aged man gave a roar like a steam locomotive to accompany the crushing sound.
The woman had immediately raised her sniper rifle—maybe to strike back with a bullet and maybe just to protect herself with the hard metal.
The rifle was bent into a V-shape and exploded, but Rakuoka Houfu ignored it.
He slammed his shoulder into her.
She might as well have been hit by a large dump truck. The woman in a cowboy hat and China dress was launched more than 5m through the air where she slammed back first into the side of a decoration and stopped moving.
“A-are you okay, Shirai-san!? She is part of the dark side—Benizome Jellyfish. Although she seemed oblivious to it and only ended up that way while pursuing the dark side from the side of justice.”
“Who the hell are you and what is that red demon!!!???”
Shirai Kuroko briefly suspected this was an animatronic used for this Japanese horror train station, but the head was very clearly that middle-aged man.
His muscular body deflated as she watched. Just like the neck of a balloon had been opened. He eventually returned to his usual self. His clothing had torn away, but that was not appreciated in this case.
“A certain type of digestive enzyme is used to grow my muscle fibers. Although it’s really just a visual thing because it’s only vertically splitting the existing fibers. The total amount of muscle doesn’t change, but I can move them more precisely, which lets me use them more efficiently.”
“Academy City technology can already inject artificial fat into the body to change your body shape and this is the first step toward doing something similar with muscle fibers. Oh, but I end up tearing apart my uniform whenever I do this. Sigh, the lady in supply management is going to let me have it again.”
“W-well, that workaholic side tells me this really is you. But what in the world is this?”
Shirai forgot to even check the severity of her injury. She doubted this muscle fiber proportion management technology was supplied to ordinary Anti-Skill officers. The man bashfully scratched his head and then quickly fixed his combover.
“I’m an Anti-Skill Aggressor.”
Those were combat elites.
The middle-aged man who envied everyone else held a position that not just anyone could reach.
“Um…that means I usually play the bad guy during training.”
Hanatsuyu Kaai put on her lab coat decorated with toxic chemical stains and tightened her thick medical corset so the breasts unusually large for such a small girl rested atop it. She also wore a gasmask on the side of her head. Altogether, it looked something like she was dressed up in a yukata for a Shinto festival. Once dressed, she stretched both arms up, causing those large mounds to jiggle.
“Nhhhh!!” groaned the twin. “I want every last part of me defiled, yet the enzyme bath always leaves my skin nice and smooth. Ugh, life isn’t fair.”
“My head hurts…”
The Carrier rubbed her temples with her fingers and the Decomposer made a carefree suggestion.
“How about we get started, Youen?”
“We probably should, Kaai.”
The Carrier was just as uninterested in Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
They would crush anyone who opposed them.
They lived within the great stagnation known as the dark side, but they worked to keep everything in constant motion. If Anti-Skill and Judgment insisted on diving into the depths of the darkness, these twins would have to crush them into fertilizer.
They were undeniably harmful and they worked to protect their home here, not to run away. They would create a darkness to hide themselves even if it required destroying Academy City and filling the world around them with cracks.
“Where should we start?”
“With whatever we see first.”
For the time being, they decided to leave District 6, but Hamazura Shiage was already out of breath. His running legs came to a stop.
And as out of breath as he was, he still had enough left to shout.
“Gasp, pant. Th-this stupid district is too big!!”
“The amusement park is about the size of a small town. Maybe we should have rented a cart.” He wondered if the half-hardened snow was giving them a hard time, but the hakama girl did not seem at all bothered despite her attire being much less suitable for running than the other two.
His girlfriend called his name, so he moved to the far edge of the path. Several Anti-Skill officers passed by not far away. Their eyes might have met without the Christmas crowd.
Takitsubo’s temperate was noticeably high even through her track suit. Too high. The moxibustion had dealt with the pain and suffering to an extent, but it was not a fundamental cure.
Moving to the side of the street to hide brought them toward the food stands lining the street.
Confusion replaced the service industry smile on the face of the worker at the closest stand, so to make sure they were not reported to Anti-Skill, Hamazura pulled out his wallet without even checking to see what this one was selling. He ended up with paper plates containing donuts piled high with whipped cream. Those things were the current fad and this one had the amusement park markup. He had not wanted to spend much money, but it would have looked unnatural to order one donut for a group of three. He was forced to tearfully purchase three of them.
“Ahh, I can feel it soaking into my body. I know it’s bad for me, but nothing’s better when you’re exhausted☆”
The hakama girl smiled and used a spoon to make short work of the whipped cream.
Was she a beneficial after all?
Hamazura chose to view it like the tubes of condensed milk that mountain climbers carried with them. Otherwise he could never even attempt to eat something so absurdly sweet.
Takitsubo occasionally breathed a heavy sigh, but she did have an appetite. It was possible her condition could be improved using dialysis, which could be done in hospitals outside the city, so they could not give up yet.
“No way. You’re lying. I’ve never seen a mascot like that before.”
“I-it’s true, I swear. I really did see a blonde girl riding on a white rhino beetle! It must be a Christmas-only secret!!”
That conversation caught his interest, but by the time he turned around, whoever-it-was had vanished into the crowd.
“So what do we do now?” asked the mascot-pattern hakama girl.
“We run away.”
She may have been an optimist, but Hamazura had to sigh.
“But the question is where to go. We still don’t know what that Academy City’s Greatest Taboo thing is.”
The card-sized hard drive they had found in Perfect Film’s tent was in his pocket. It was labeled Lifeline, but Aneri said she could not read in the data or decrypt it. She instead sent his phone to an extremely niche online tool shop.
“A special screwdriver???”
He flipped the hard drive over to see that it did indeed have a few small screws at inconspicuous spots on the side. But instead of Phillips or flathead, these had a special design resembling a distorted snowflake.
And instead of being hand-turned, these apparently had to be loosened by exposing them to minute ultrasonic vibrations.
He had never seen anything like it.
“You could get screwdrivers to open commercial phones in the back alleys, but this is even more specialized.”
To decrypt it, they first had to get it open. The circuit board apparently had a special physical switch that would erase all the data until it was unrecoverable if the decryption process began without first flipping the switch. The necessary tool was not available in ordinary shops. And since it was so hard to get your hands on, anyone who had one would treasure it. Sneaking in and borrowing one would definitely end in a fight.
“Why not go to District 23?” asked the curly silver-haired hakama girl while using the edge of a spoon to slice apart the donut soaked in maple syrup.
Hamazura did an incredulous double take.
“Did you not see what just happened? A paparazzi named Benizome blew off the head of the counterfeiter! We can’t get a passport, so getting anywhere near a plane will get us captured by an army of Anti-Skill!!”
“Not for an airplane, dummy.” She shrugged with her twin horns of hardened bangs swaying. “Academy City is a mass consumption community. We put a lot of effort into recycling, but that isn’t perfect. So what happens to the stuff that can’t be recycled? There isn’t room for a landfill in the limited space within the walls.”
“District 23 has the airport and District 11 has a land route, so there’s a giant temporary storage area on the border between them. In other words there’s a giant pile of trash. I think they call it the Urban Mine, but there are a lot of people who dig through it looking for electronic trash they can sell. And from what I’ve heard, a lot of them will also extract whatever data they can get from thrown-out computers, so they would probably know a lot about the special tools needed to pry open the hardware.”
“Yes, yes. As you can imagine, that will most likely end in a fight. Those trash collectors don’t even want other people to know about the business they’re running. But since it’s a business, you might be able to settle it peacefully. As a well-paying customer, I mean.”
Gray metal was piled high.
The windows at the same level as the top of the pile were at least on the third floor. The original dividers made from metal sheets designed for construction had broken away and the scraps spilled out onto the asphalt road. But instead of clearing away the obstacles, more and more dump trucks arrived to add to the pile.
These were the ruins of a former system.
Academy City’s trash was generally shipped out of the city using either District 23’s airport or District 11’s truck bases, but they needed a system in place to ensure their technology did not leak out that way. But how many people were wise enough to spend massive amounts of money on throwing out unusable trash? The issue had been put off indefinitely while the trash continued to pile up.
Which created another opportunity.
A girl spoke within the piles of trash that resembled rolling desert dunes.
She had long crimson hair and wore something like a racing swimsuit with the orange and black coloration of an insect. She had a smartphone on either shoulder and a rolled-up silicone keyboard and a bottle of discharge machine oil in the belts on her thighs. She walked barefoot across the piles of trash with pieces of metal both dull and sharp sticking out.
She was an android known as Ladybird.
She had a small wound on her forehead. It was only a few millimeters, but her body did not heal itself like a human one did.
“The pile will not collapse if we follow this route, but watch your step in the snow.”
“Good grief. Why should I have to risk my life just to reach my own hideout? And this cold weather is terrible for my old bones.”
“It is improving my cooling efficiency,” said the expressionless girl as she pulled the bottle from her thigh and drank from it.
Air resistance and blast resistance were secondary concerns for her clothing. Although for secondary concerns, they did a decent job in those fields. Their primary role was to help her radiate heat. Wearing something to cool off was very different from what humans looked for in clothing.
An old man who was as skinny as a matchstick slapped his own hips from behind.
“You need to learn how to be more friendly.”
Ladybird blinked and stars danced in her mechanical eyes, causing the old man to sigh.
“Display stars dancing in your eyes if you wish, but please do something about the drool dripping from your mouth.”
“Your complaint is illogical. If you did not want me to do that, you should not have made me capable of it. Nhhh.”
That extended groan was a weird thing for a machine, but she seemed to have something wrong with her ear. She tilted her head to the side, placed a hand on her ear, and then hopped up and down on one leg like a girl playing at the pool.
A thick black liquid spilled from her ear.
“Ladybird-kun, maintenance can wait until we are back in the lab.”
“Hm, that artificial ghost was more incompatible with you than I would have thought.”
The old man sounded somehow delighted even though this was damage to his side.
Ladybird looked into the distance to view some men in raincoats and gasmasks. This must not have been enough of a threat to warrant drawing the machete attached horizontally above her small butt.
“The trash collectors are here again.”
She did not mention whether they were beneficials or harmfuls.
Because those categories were meaningless.
The name Kihara was enough. Those other categories invented by ignorant outsiders would not provide any more information.
The terminology seemed to have permeated the dark side of late, but just like with dangerous drugs and methods of fraud, the pursued would sometimes change what they called things to match the new terminology used by their pursuers.
“They won’t cause any harm as long as they find the fridge, washing machine, or whatever else they’re looking for in the trash. And if they did cause a major incident here, it would only bring greater scrutiny to this place. They will take care of this territory in order to protect their business.”
The android looked around with a troubled look. These piles of scraps were large enough to swallow up an entire person if one collapsed, so the place did not look very well cared for. Someone had even found a diamond-shaped yellow “!” road sign somewhere and stuck it diagonally into the trash to warn of some other kind of danger.
But there was value in this place. Even when there were gaps, most people would not want to shove themselves into them, so the piles of trash functioned as camouflage. Ladybird brushed off the hardened snow, grabbed a nearby handhold, and violently yanked something open.
There was a door there.
A door to a metal container. But with so much electronic trash piled up around it, no one would notice the rectangular box there. The stairs within led down to a labyrinthine secret base.
“Ladybird-kun, wipe your feet.”
“I doubt a doormat has much of a cleaning effect.”
She complained, but she still rubbed the bottom of her bare feet against a thick cloth.
Who would ever guess that someone had constructed a giant laboratory by stacking up several containers like a pyramid and then taking out the metal walls between them? Digging through the piles of trash and burying the containers had created a vast labyrinth. It was almost like an ant colony made of metal.
The girl lifted her perfectly straight bangs with a hand to show off the wound on her forehead, so the old man squeezed something from a tube and rubbed it on with a finger. Once the wound was covered, he attached a small piece of paper tape so it would not reopen.
Ladybird removed the entire sheath holding her machete and stuck the thick blade in a stand. She also set down the partially-empty bottle of discharge machine oil on a side table and lay face down on a maintenance examination table. She breathed in the rusty air from there.
She did not actually need to breathe or blink, but she still shut her eyes.
“It is calming in here.”
“Because all EM is cut off. With TV, radio, phones, microwaves, listening devices, remote-controlled toys, and all the other myriad EM signals flying through the city, it must be a stifling place for you.”
The old man explained that while sticking his hand down the back of her racing swimsuit.
There was a clasp at the center of the bands that intersected in an X-shape. One of his wrinkly fingers removed that, baring her slender back, but she did not even stir.
He had removed his special engineering gloves upon entering the lab and he used his bare hands to attach a few wireless electrodes to her bright skin. Then the dried twigs of his hands moved past her sides and beneath the swimsuit-like material to reach for her stomach and flat chest. The Kihara man continued the maintenance like it was nothing, but he also sighed.
Even though he was a filthy harmful.
No, those labels applied by outsiders really were meaningless.
“I know I only have myself to blame,” said the Kihara. “But I really should have hired a woman to do this.”
“There is no need.”
Ladybird rapidly replied, almost like she was trying to reject that way of thinking.
“But the different parts I have to touch makes this incredibly awkward.”
“If those parts only cause problems, you should not have given them to me in the first place.”
This was not the first time they had had held this discussion.
“Treating a mechanical product like me as a human will only reduce my performance. I am an android built without a human base, so I would appreciate a maintenance worker who properly treats me as a machine. And I do not see a better candidate for that than you, my developer.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“We failed to a acquire a counterfeit passport, so the next step will likely be a lengthy one. Do a thorough maintenance and inspection job, Sensei.”
After pulling his hands from the girl’s swimsuit, the old man pulled the phone from the band on her right shoulder and performed a few operations on its small screen to transfer the work to the large LCD monitor in the room. He grabbed the tube in the belt on her thigh, unrolled the silicone keyboard, and began the inspection.
His work was precise and treated her as a machine throughout, but at the same time…
“You know, Ladybird-kun, the term android signifies an artificial human built with an engineering approach.”
“This is a lesson. Based on that definition, it seems appropriate to me for a completed android to behave like a human. Whether you are natural or artificial, I say you still qualify as a ‘normal human’.”
Ladybird fell silent for a moment.
Eventually, she tilted her head while still lying face down on the examination table.
“Unknown error detected.”
“Is that so?”
“I do not want anyone but you to touch me.”
The old man wondered if he should be punished for rejecting that trust, even if it was the right thing to do.
“Expression of love.”
“Ladybird-kun, make your eyes sparkle if you wish, but please do something about the drool dripping from your mouth.”
The constructed girl was intricately designed, but she was too clever for her own good. Thanks to that, she lived in a very limited world.
A few large semi-trucks were gathered, but not for emergency transportation. The self-driving trucks functioned as a small village where people lived.
“I knew it! Sodate-chan, you really did take the ball!”
“What are you talking about!? It wasn’t me!!”
A failed stadium in District 10 was now known as a slum. The field within had been transformed into a shanty town crammed full of cardboard boxes and huts made from abandoned materials, but the area around the stadium was mostly left alone.
For example, the industrial parking lot that had been used to bring in musical instruments and training equipment. Places like that were often tucked away in some hidden location so fans could not wait there to catch players or celebrities as they left.
Once the semi-trucks came to a stop, boisterous voices could be heard from inside the containers.
The door opened to reveal children around the age of ten.
They were commonly known as Child Errors. Those were the children that had been abandoned in Academy City for whatever reason and had to be raised by the city. That alone was not that unusual, but they rarely had a happy ending when the dark side was involved. Especially when it came to illicit research.
But the children did not question any of it. Not even that they all wore short-sleeved gym clothes, with motion capture equipment on their arms and legs and around their necks.
“Now, now, children.”
A seemingly weightless woman clapped her hands twice in front of her chest.
It made no noise.
She was an artificially-created ghost with long blonde twintails, a skintight light blue dress, and a loose thin skirt over that. Frillsand #G spoke with a voice like a beautiful instrument.
Almost like the legendary piper who caused so many children to disappear in a region of Germany.
“You don’t want to ruin your Christmas over a silly argument, do you? I will search for the ball. Now, have you all washed your hands? You can eat once you are ready.”
“I washed mine!! And I’m starving!!”
“How, Sodate-chan!? Unless you stole the chemical soap too!”
More and more hands and voices were raised.
None of them thought it was weird to be speaking with an intangible ghost.
Frillsand #G knew it was strange for a lifeless ghost to be looking after children, but whether or not it was possible, it was apparently not that unusual a cultural concept.
Even this country had the stories of the Yonaki Ishi and the Kosodate Yurei.
They had several large semi-trucks, but one of them was by far the children’s favorite: the one fully remodeled into a food truck.
Frillsand #G passed directly through the stainless steel wall to peek inside, where she found the young man named Drencher Kihara Repatri dripping with sweat while stirring the contents of an enormous pot. The inside of the truck might as well have been a sauna.
The Western doll of a ghost woman frowned.
“That is unsanitary.”
“Pant, gasp. D-do you have any idea how many burners I have on? Preparing enough food for more than fifty is like fighting a war. School lunch ladies deserve a medal.”
“If you wanted help, you should have made it so I could hold things.”
But Frillsand #G made no attempt to leave either.
As if to say physically touching things was not the only way to form a connection.
Since it was Christmas, the menu was mostly Western foods. The kids could choose bread or rice based on their personal preference, but the big pot contained a beef stew, the oven contained a turkey and roast beef, and there were also hot vegetables, macaroni salad, and fries.
But Frillsand #G had to look after the children, so she had a criticism.
“They are not going to be happy without any cake. Maybe we should have left some of that for today.”
“Kids are honest to a fault, so they would have complained about leftover cake too. Besides, I have a secret weapon prepared for this special day.”
“Tah dah!! It’s foie gras. I’m going to sauté it in the frying pan.”
The ghost woman was unsure how to respond.
She was a proper lady, so she did know what foie gras was.
That was a delicacy made by burying a goose up to its neck so it could not move and force-feeding it as much as possible to fatten up its liver.
She sighed softly while listening to the children playing outside.
And she spoke to Drencher Kihara Repatri, a researcher who was investigating the field of ghosts.
“How can you do this?”
“I’ll do whatever is necessary.”
The counterfeit passport plan had failed due to interference. That cut off the best route, but that did not mean his entire plan had fallen apart.
He would have the last laugh here.
He smiled thinly while slowly stirring the stew he would be feeding the children.
“Do you think we would qualify as beneficial or harmful?”
“Yes, yes. I have secured the suspect. She is still alive, but she is unconscious and in critical condition, so she is in no state for questioning. Please send an ambulance.”
Shirai Kuroko toyed with her long scarf while listening to her phone and moving her eyes around.
(You really can find the dark side anywhere, can’t you? Onee-sama would be furious to learn they spilled blood in this amusement park with that…Gekota was it?)
“There are also a few tents on the scene. In addition to several wet footprints in the snow, there is a single victim of a fatal sniper shot in one of the tents. I will let Anti-Skill secure the crime scene, so please send a forensics team right away. The sniper shot was almost certainly the work of the suspect I have secured, but there is a lot I do not know about how this played out. I wish I could have questioned her, but—”
She frowned there and stopped talking.
She could have sworn she heard the person on the phone mutter something under their breath concerning the suspect.
…Why couldn’t she have just died?
That was when she heard something continuously beating at the air overhead. She took a deep breath to refocus her mind and then looked up to see a large transport helicopter landing nearby.
The powerful wind threatened to blow the snow from the ground and even tear up the tents.
“The forensics team hasn’t done their investigation yet!” She shouted while holding her head. “Are you trying to blow away all the evidence!?”
“C-calm down,” said the middle-aged man. “That just shows how much they trust your work.”
She was not sure if she was getting used to death or if she had simply gone numb from shock.
The ground was a mess. The large handguns, sniper rifles, and shotguns were coated with the scent of gunpowder smoke that said they had been fired. And the investigation would not be called off just because the victim had no face or teeth to identify him by.
“He is a 98% match for Koutawara Souta, a counterfeiter known as Perfect Film. Still, I can’t believe a dark side criminal in Outrank was in this fairy tale amusement park.”
“The lack of a permanent address may have made him harder to track down, but what in the world happened here?”
She also found one more thing. Someone had dropped some disinfectant and bandages inside the bloody tent, but she recognized them.
The bandages were identical to the ones wrapped around her own body.
There was a first aid kit that presumably belonged to the tent’s resident—the man with the destroyed head. It still had its full set of disinfectant and bandages. All of the products inside it were from the same pharmaceutical brand and that brand differed from the disinfectant left on the ground.
That meant those things had not come from this first aid kit.
(Could the person who treated my wounds have been here?)
She thought about it, but she could not stay here forever. She and Rakuoka were supposed to remain on standby up in the sky.
And once the dark side was located, they would rush in to attack.
Yomikawa Aiho slid open the door and shouted over the din of the main rotor.
“Get on!! The situation is already underway!!”
If they had a clear destination, then the next incident had already begun. The helicopter took off as soon as Shirai and Rakuoka were onboard.
“Where!?” was the first word out of the twintails girl’s mouth.
“The Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center in west District 18. All of Academy City’s forensic investigation work is concentrated there: fingerprints, blood, blade wounds, gasoline marks after a fire, and more. Those twins were spotted there.”
“That’s bad,” said the middle-aged man. “They’re harmfuls.”
Yomikawa briefly paused there.
She must have felt that was not something they should be saying about students.
“Anyway, we won’t be able to perform any kind of modern investigation work if that place is taken out.”
The man was already groaning and Shirai Kuroko breathed a heavy sigh.
“At this point, I take it the attack itself cannot be avoided?”
“Yes. The attack is already confirmed, so it’s too late to carry out the delicate analysis equipment. The most we can do is evacuate the people. So we need to at least use this to our advantage.”
This was the very definition of having a heavy heart. District 18 bordered District 11 and District 23. The land and air routes in those districts increased the risk of those twins escaping the city. Perhaps they needed to consider themselves lucky the dark side had not rushed those places.
“I hate creating an opportunity for crime, though,” said Shirai.
“It’s better then letting them use all that technology in the city streets.” Yomikawa looked down on the city moving by out of the open sliding door. Even now, she was carrying a transparent, bulletproof plastic shield instead of a gun. “We’re making an all-out attack. We need to take down at least one of them here.”
Hanatsuyu Youen was concerned from the beginning. She expressed her displeasure with a hand on her hip through the medical corset. The Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center had a twin tower structure. Their plan had been to attack an important facility so the pursuit by the grownups would fall apart, but they realized this target was split into two.
“What do we do, Kaai?”
“I call dibs on the lefffft one☆”
With that said, the Decomposer walked unarmed into the one building, unnaturally large breasts jiggling all the way. The Carrier was more reluctant, but she finally started toward the other building.
Kaai sighed once she entered the building.
The large lobby was lined with metal detector gates like the ticket gates at a train station. She only had to walk through those. What did a silly beeping alarm matter now?
The problem was what came next. There was more than just a reception counter and a security room lined with monitors. The entire space felt alive thanks to all the killer intent stabbing in toward her. Anti-Skill had been pushed passed the point of worrying about their ideals. But then the Decomposer realized one of her predictions had been dead on.
They had used the twin tower structure to split up the twins and then focused all of their forces on just one. That meant the tower the Carrier had gone to would be empty.
This realization made Hanatsuyu Kaai sigh.
Out of relief.
She then pulled several test tubes full of colorful liquids from her lab coat’s sleeves.
“I hope you’re ready for a show of just how grotesque the dark side can get!!”
First, two fully-equipped Anti-Skill officers emerged from behind columns to cut off her escape through the entrance she had used.
Then troops stood up from behind the front counter while multiple quadrupedal unmanned weapons appeared on the walkway surrounding them on the lobby’s upper floor.
More than a hundred guns were aimed at the one girl.
But what did that matter?
The harmful dark side never considered running or surrendering. It prioritized its own freedom.
The Decomposer held test tubes, but those were not weapons themselves. Unlike Anti-Skill, she did not move around with weapons and armor in tow.
She did not have to.
She only had to pop off a test tube’s rubber cap with her thumb and sprinkle its contents around her.
Scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch!!
The darkness moved.
In this case, it was tens of thousands of rats.
First, the reinforced glass of the outer wall shattered and the Anti-Skill officers blocking the exit were knocked from their feet and sank into a sea of rats. They fired their submachineguns wildly, but the rats did not care.
Screams erupted from that ocean.
There was a loud explosion, so either a rat’s small leg had pulled the pin from a grenade, or an officer had attempted to fight back after succumbing to the terror of the rats crawling into the gaps in their helmet or bulletproof armor.
“This is an attractant.”
She was a researcher of pure chemicals.
Shocked, the Anti-Skill group by the counter began to open fire, but Hanatsuyu Kaai did not even flinch. When she twirled around on the spot, the many rats tangled together and formed a gray wall as if to protect her from the bullets. Each of them was small, but when their wall grew more than a meter thick, the barrier of blood, flesh, and fur was enough to stop bullets.
“You can find them anywhere. And the simpler they are, the easier they are to control. Insecticide companies research this every day, so modern rat and roach treats are truly amazing things.”
Of course, they did more than just gather.
The busty young girl poured out the contents of several more test tubes to release different chemicals into the air, mix them together, send them out along the wind, and construct an invisible marble-pattern labyrinth. It was like the work of a drink factory rapidly sorting its products by switching them between a complex array of rails. The countless rats followed rules invisible to humans to create a gray world in here.
It barely took any time at all.
The space behind the counter was swallowed up by the furry ocean and other rats took a different route to pour down from the ducts and cover the quadrupedal unmanned weapons on the floor above.
Kaai giggled while wrapping her slender body in her arms and squishing her large breasts.
“And did you know that tanks experienced an unexpected number of malfunctions during a winter war long ago? The rats searching out a warm place to sleep kept crawling inside and chewing through the wiring.”
Once tens of thousands of rats had formed a carpet across the first floor, she calmly looked up. It may have looked like a sea of sulfuric acid to the Anti-Skill officers on the floor above. The Decomposer girl slowly walked around in search of stairs so she could take care of the leftover enemies who had nowhere to run.
She left the rats here.
She left them to ensure Hanatsuyu Youen the Carrier could not enter this building if she did realize what was happening.
This was not all the Decomposer could do. She could also use fleas, ticks, flies, mosquitos, leeches, slugs, centipedes, roaches, crows, and stray cats. She would make a weapon of most any creature that was crucial to the food chain but hated by irresponsible people.
(Now, how far until I reach the goal?)
She found a narrow stairway in the back of the building.
(Killing every last one of them is surprisingly exhausting. Going for 100% completion means checking in each and every hiding spot.)
A short burst of gunfire rang out from overhead, but no bullets hit her. They all veered unnaturally off course before they could. A great swarm of winged insects was gathered there. They created an unnatural resistance that altered a bullet’s trajectory much like if it entered a body of water.
The girl laughed, pulled a new test tube from her cleavage, and popped off the rubber cap with her thumb. When she sprinkled its contents, tiny bugs emerged from every piece of carpet to swarm their target. They almost looked like sand taking a humanoid form.
A bloodcurdling scream erupted from within.
“Hee hee hee. You might think you keep the place clean, but you miss a surprising amount. This is the result of you elite clean freaks defiling the world by thoughtlessly using up all the resources.”
A dark mass tumbled down the hellish stairs, but Kaai only stepped out of its way while sweeping back her black hair that nearly reached her ankles even while worn up. She then placed a finger on her slender chin.
(Yes, I can go with the watered down version here. They seem to want to trap me in here, but I can use that to my advantage. Maybe I should tear down all of the walls, floors, and ceilings to turn the entire building into a giant jungle gym. That will prove not even the sturdiest shelter can keep you safe. The rich should find that far more concerning than any number of lives I could take.)
She had a target now. She was more focused on the building’s structure than the muscular men aiming their guns at her, but that did not mean she was no longer taking lives.
Accurately killing them all in different ways helped spread the panic better, but that was more like an extra bonus and not an absolute requirement. People’s lives were no more important than that to her.
Fear could be conquered and despair could be overcome.
But cruelty was a different matter. People’s first emotional response to that was a lack of understanding, so their minds did not even try to process it correctly. It was a lot like trying to read a corrupted file. Hanatsuyu Kaai had learned from experience that this was most effective.
“Ah ha ha!”
She had to present herself as corrupted.
If she could be smoothly read in, she lost her advantage.
“Ha ha ha ha!! Ah ha ha! Wa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ah ha ha ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
Arms and legs were swallowed up by swarms of centipedes. An Anti-Skill officer and the wall behind him were eaten by snapping turtles. Stains that may or may not have originally been human spread out like melted cheese.
(Good, this is going well.)
She could tell it was working.
She leaned forward and placed her hands on her knees, squeezing her large chest between her arms, to observe it all. And if she was to trust her intuition…
(Not even I know what I’m doing anymore. Good, good. If I keep going like this, the place will reach the tipping point before long. Yes, I have to make myself a corrupted file that no one can read. You can’t call it the dark side if the destruction can be rationally calculated out and understood!!)
Then she sensed something like a quiet burst of static. She frowned at the sensation of something cutting away at a portion of the filthy torrent she had created.
There had been no one in the corridor a moment before, but now a girl stood there.
“I recognize you,” said the Judgment member with chestnut hair worn in twintails.
“I’m afraid I can’t say the same about you,” said Kaai because it was the most broken option.
But after that decision she froze in place for a moment.
Could the dark side be found in an action she had chosen for such a rational reason? That was no different than a well-made ghost story. Following a logical path to a satisfactory conclusion made it feel so fake.
Truly incomprehensible terror did not follow a logical path. Mind-breaking despair had no satisfactory conclusion. Cruelty had to be turned into a violent assault.
“What did you do?”
Her level had dropped. Just like a piece of unglazed pottery could be placed in the pot to prevent an explosive boil. So what had this twintails girl introduced to this filthy world?
The Judgment girl laughed off the question.
“Don’t ask me. I don’t remember.”
The clash between the two girls had begun.
Excited voices could be heard outside of the large semi-truck. Dinner was over and it was time for everyone to take a bath.
And at the same time…
“I knew Sodate-chan stole the ball,” said a voice out in the stadium parking lot where some hardened snow remained.
It belonged to Risako, a girl who wore the same gym clothes as the other children. She had slipped out of the truck at bath time and she was peeking underneath one of the trucks with her red hair done up like a piece of candy. She would have a harder time going out after her bath. She would feel too chilly for an adventure after warming up in the bath.
She had no real complaints with her life here, but she could not just ask for anything she wanted and have them buy it for her. When she got up to use the bathroom at night, she would sometimes see the man they called “mister” and the ghost lady whispering to each other. She could imagine they were talking about money. And since they did not want her and the other children to hear, they were probably struggling on that front. So they had to take care of the toys they did have.
Sodate, one of the boys she lived with, did not think about any of that and he had a habit of stealing things. That would be fine if he returned them later, but he would leave them hidden in some secret base he made and then forget where it was. Their trucks moved around a lot, so those things often ended up missing afterwards.
She was looking below one of the trucks because of her past experience with this.
Her intuition told her something here.
(Sodate-chan loves to hide prizes in his secret bases.)
An LED light came on. Instead of the cream color of a light bulb, the light that pierced the darkness was such a bright white that it hurt her eyes. They did not have enough money for all of the children to have phones, but mister made sure they each had a personal alarm. Those had a light on them. It was only a single small LED, but it was far better than nothing.
Sodate’s secret bases were always places the grownups could not go. But the ghost lady could pass through walls and ceilings, so a thick wall or locked door were not what mattered most. He instead relied on them thinking “surely no one would go there”. Only then could he gather the abandoned materials or cardboard boxes to make his secret base.
And Risako knew how to sniff out those places.
“Boys love making their bases underground.”
The trucks were situated high up, so a girl of her age did not even need to crawl. She only had to duck down to get underneath. The ghost lady would scold her fiercely if she was caught doing this, but that was why she had to do it. With only the light of her personal alarm that resembled an egg-shaped keychain, she continued on with a spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
She found something: a round metal manhole cover.
She sat down next to it, near one of the large tires that looked like an onion ring stood up on its side.
There was a small gap open, but she could not pull it open just by sticking her fingers in there. It refused to budge, just like a barbell, so it may have required a special tool.
Normally, her attempt would have ended there. There was no way a girl in gym clothes could open the manhole and climb inside. She should have given up on the heavy cover and reluctantly returned to the others.
“A tool,” she said like she had thought of something.
She reached her small hand into her gym clothes and pulled out something hard and round.
It glittered with a golden light.
“That’s right! I have my present from Santa!!”
The lever was pulled.
The track switched to a route that should not have been possible.
“Please, Coin of Nicholas, open that cover for me!!”
She heard a heavy metallic scraping as the barbell-heavy manhole cover slowly slid to the side like it was being tugged by fishing line tied around it. She jumped at the noise and aimed her light over, but she could not see what was moving the cover.
The hole now lay wide open before her.
She shined her bright LED light down and stared into it for a while.
“This must be the entrance to his secret base.”
In lieu of a ladder, horizontal steel bars were installed in the curved concrete wall at even intervals. They continued down and down, deeper and deeper. She hesitantly reached out and touched the top bar, grabbed it, and tugged, but it did not budge. It did not seem like it was so rusty it would break away as soon as she put her weight on it.
She was scared.
Something slipped from her hand: the very light she had been reliant on. The LED light fell into the manhole, bounced, and came to a stop. That appeared to be the bottom of the darkness.
Yes, this darkness had a bottom. It did not continue all the way down to hell.
She had found Sodate’s secret base, so she had to find the ball and chemical soap he had hidden. Before the trucks moved again.
Mister had scrounged together what little money they had to buy enough personal alarms for everyone, so she did not want to say she had lost hers. She had already used her Coin of Nicholas, so she could not make a wish on it to get the alarm.
Her only option was to gather what little courage she had in her small chest.
“This leads to where Sodate-chan hid the ball!”
Risako had never thought about why exactly the ghost lady got so angry when the children climbed under the trucks, but the answer was simple. If they failed to notice someone had climbed into the manhole, it could lead to a terrible disaster.
When the girl with several fluorescent-looking stains on her white coat slowly spread her arms, Shirai Kuroko felt like the entire Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center shook.
It was not quite a matter of the air.
The hallway of what looked like a tidy office crumbled away. Rapid weathering caused the floors to break through, the walls to crumble, and the bowing ceiling to collapse. This was technically a lab and it would be equipped with sensors to detect excessive levels of gases or chemicals, but none of them responded. They were far too damaged to function at this point.
(This is a Level 0!? She didn’t steal someone else’s identity or modify her Bank data, did she!?)
This was a technological threat, not an esper one.
Shirai Kuroko clicked her tongue and teleported away. With her power of instantaneous movement that ignored all three-dimensional restrictions, she could achieve results that overturned the age of guns, but she did have rules she had to follow.
She could only aim at one location at a time.
That meant she could not teleport herself out of the way while also teleporting in a metal dart to attack. In that sense, she preferred to choose a course of action herself instead of being forced to act by her opponent. It was a bad sign that she was already at that point.
She moved about fifty meters back to escape the collapse before pulling a metal dart from her thigh and sending it toward Hanatsuyu Kaai the Decomposer’s shoulder. The focus on evasion made the attack one beat too late. And with that much time…
Kaai made an oddly smooth movement. She slid to the right without moving her feet. She did not move faster than a bullet. In fact, she did not gain much speed at all. Yet the inhuman movement was completely unexpected, so it threw off Shirai’s aim.
It felt as weird as a rook suddenly moving diagonally despite only being able to move up, down, left, or right.
As long as Shirai was attacking from a distance, missing an attack was not fatal for her, so she focused on figuring out what had caused that, even if it meant missing several more times. She continued launching those useful missed shots.
The strange movement continued.
She sent out at least five more metal darts, but none of them hit. The Decomposer slipped past them like a leaf dancing in the water, so they simply appeared in the empty air and fell to the floor.
But she detected a hint of what this was.
The sound of the darts hitting the floor was softly absorbed.
“What is that?”
“Rats. I need an awful lot of them to distribute my weight enough to not crush them, but with around thirty-thousand, they’re indistinguishable from a carpet, aren’t they?”
(Okay, I definitely can’t let Onee-sama see this!!)
Unlike Shirai Kuroko, Hanatsuyu Kaai did not need to wield an actual weapon.
With a dull sound, the destruction spread.
The floor made with modern construction techniques sank down like an antlion pit, so the damaged walls and ceiling were swallowed up by the floor below. This floor had reached its limit, so the twintails girl teleported to the next floor up.
After jumping, she realized the Decomposer girl was looking directly up into her eyes.
There was already a hole in the floor up here. The walls and ceiling were badly weathered and falling toward the deadly surface. All that remained were the thick intersecting steel beams. The place looked like a giant jungle gym.
“You should hurry up.”
As soon as the other girl pulled an extra-special test tube from her cleavage and popped off the rubber cap with her small thumb, Shirai heard something beating at the air.
A pair of dark wings burst from the back of the white coat.
The pitch black wings took flight.
“Assuming you want to save Anti-Skill and their feigned philanthropy, that is. Did you think the inorganic materials were the only things that would rot away and collapse? Why would a villain of the dark side bother sorting her trash?”
“How dare you!?”
“Ah ha ha!!”
The rules of the battlefield had changed again. More and more of the building’s interior fell like it was caught in quicksand or a giant antlion pit. Voice analysis equipment, cell cultivators, electron microscopes, and other analysis equipment each worth tens or hundreds of millions of yen tumbled down like a great cascade. The high-pitched sounds Shirai heard on occasion had to be more than just shattering glass. Some of them were much rawer screams that lingered in her ears.
She could not even reach out a hand to help because there was so much wreckage crashing down that she could not tell where the people were. Meanwhile, the fall continued in real time.
Shirai teleported from steel beam to steel beam, moving ever higher, but someone managed to keep up with her. Unbelievably, it was Hanatsuyu Kaai. She shook free of gravity by flapping giant bird wings that looked more like they belonged to a crow than a bat. Shirai clicked her tongue and sent out a metal dart, but the girl avoided it with that smooth movement again.
Then she figured it out.
Those wings did not just look like they belonged to a crow. The Decomposer girl really did have a large creature on her back.
“Is that a crow!?”
“Ha ha ha. It’s called parasitic enlargement. A certain type of parasite can make a portion of its host’s body grow, so I’m just using that.” Kaai laughed while placing her feet on the side of a vertical steel beam and flapping those wings as her own to fly even higher. “And if you just look at their animal instincts, rats and crows are far sharper than us humans. None of your calculations can hit me. Your thoughts have been degenerated by civilization, so you can’t hope to approach their raw instincts.”
She finally passed her foe.
Shirai could move faster than the average sports car by repeatedly teleporting, but she could not keep up with Kaai in the field of pure aerial movement. The very roof of the Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center had rotted away. The Decomposer soared with the moon behind her back and black crow feathers scattered from her like a twisted form of snow.
“Everyone sees something different when they look to the dark side.” The criminal came to a stop in midair and looked down from above. “Some people think of it as the ideal research environment. Some people think of it as a bottomless underworld society. Some people think of it as a shelter for damaged people. Not even someone as soaked in the dark side as me has seen every layer it contains. Two members of the dark side can stand in the same place and never interact and we never question it if we end up opposing each other. That unpredictable incoherence is what makes it the dark side.”
“But it exists and it must be protected. Hee hee. You proved just how little you had seen from the moment you recklessly tried to sort this toy box into good and evil piles.”
All strength left Shirai’s knees. Her teleportation coordinate was a little off. Unlike Kaai, she had not conquered gravity, so it squeezed at her heart for her right foot to have shifted just ten centimeters off the side of the steel beam. She quickly reached up and grabbed another beam with both hands.
She noticed what had gone wrong a moment later.
“The crow feathers.” The spellbound Decomposer held her body in her slender arms while tremors ran through her. “Not to mention the rat fur and the flea and tick corpses. Do you want to know more? Because there are even nastier things floating in the air here. I am a Decomposer, not a tamer who specializes in using animals. They are just one method of transmitting what I do use: enzymes, humidity, mold, chemicals, bacteria, and anything else that causes decomposition.”
For one thing, it seemed doubtful that any number of rats or roaches could actually instantly eat through thick barriers made of tempered glass and reinforced concrete. That meant Hanatsuyu Kaai was not using their small fangs and claws. She was using the unseen threat found within those things.
Shirai moved her unsteady body to place her foot back on the narrow beam.
She had several beads of sweat on her forehead.
“Isn’t that the job of the other girl—the Carrier?”
The Decomposer girl laughed calmly.
She apparently had no intention of giving all the answers.
“You will die. Your death has already begun.”
“It may be closest to crushing a whole grape between your teeth. Can you hear the sound of your cells bursting? Acute deadly bacteria are even now eating through your cell membranes from within. There is no saving you.” Kaai’s eyes widened to the limit. “We do not kill those who get in our way. To us dark side researchers, obstacles are to be overcome and restrictions only make things more interesting. Yes, in that sense, you were entertaining indeed. Enough that I felt the need to enjoy you to the very end.”
“Be that as it may, I will defeat you first.”
A strange sound echoed out.
Shirai Kuroko had teleported a metal dart, but not at the Decomposer girl. It had pierced the glass of a window in this building that had become a single long tube now that the floors and ceilings had all fallen away.
“You aren’t actually speaking with those animals and insects. You can’t trust them like a pet dog or cat. Dark over light, wet over dry, and sweet over salty. You use your chemicals to guide them with those simple like-dislike or yes-no decisions.”
Yes, the attack that had caused the building’s interior to crumble away had been powerful, but why had she needed to do that? If she was only interested in finishing off Shirai, she could have made a more targeted attack.
What if it had been absolutely necessary?
And what if she had to keep that reason hidden?
“Ventilation.” Something blew forcefully across the building and the girl had to hold down her twintails against it. “Your marble-pattern labyrinth might seem incomprehensible because it’s invisible, but the solution is simple once you figure it out. Tear down that labyrinth and you lose your safe zone. And then you too are one of their targets!!”
The scenery shook.
Something else collapsed and a gray cascade poured down from above.
No, the things that poured down over Hanatsuyu Kaai’s right shoulder were all rats.
She tried to scream, but it was too late.
For one thing, the giant crow supporting her was beginning to leave her control too. The rats covering her body mercilessly crawled into the sleeves and chest of her white coat.
An unusually deep cry escaped her.
The color red sprayed out.
But unlike Anti-Skill, she did not stop moving so quickly. Several test tubes full of colorful liquid—presumably ones that contained the chemicals to control the animals—flew through the air to resist this.
Something glared at Shirai from beyond the rat fur.
A quiet voice pounded on the twintails girl’s eardrums from within the deluge of squeaking rats. Hanatsuyu Kaai the Decomposer spoke clearly.
“This – is – not – over.”
Shirai mustered all the strength she had left to send out three metal darts at once.
Red blood scattered through the air, but she grimaced.
The thousands or tens of thousands of rats came apart and lost their shape. She had apparently only torn into the rats because there was no sign of the lab coat girl there.
Had she been devoured beyond recognition?
“A stainless steel…sink?”
Shirai saw a silver shine between the giant jungle gym of intersecting steel beams. That spot may have originally held a kitchenette, but the metal pipe attached to the bottom of the stainless sink continued all the way down to the surface.
The drain pipe was of course thinner than Shirai’s arm, but she could not reject a normally unthinkable possibility. Especially when she saw several test tubes lying in the sink with rubber caps removed. She recalled the name that girl went by in the dark side: The Decomposer.
A harmful like Kaai might go as far as dissolving all two-hundred-plus of her bones.
Then Shirai Kuroko reached her limit.
She felt herself wobbling to the side and her feet slipped from the steel beam.
Shirai Kuroko had to have been more than ten stories up.
So she should have died after losing her balance. Her chances would have been slim even if the adults had a thick mattress ready to catch her at the bottom.
Yet something caught her with a wet sound.
It was the rotted remains of the building materials that the Decomposer had so thoroughly destroyed. How many people would have believed that pile that like cotton or dust had originally been reinforced concrete and tempered glass?
Someone called out to her before she could sink deep inside it.
Rakuoka Houfu, the Anti-Skill officer with a combover and glasses, reached out his hand. The resistance was strong and felt like countless tiny hands dragging her down, but then his arm swelled out unnaturally. He used the power of his enlarged muscles to pull her out.
She felt feverish. She had supposedly been saved, but she was too weak to get up or even brush aside her sweaty bangs.
Nevertheless, she moved her trembling lips to speak.
“The Decomposer is still celebrating her freedom. Hurry down and check the sewers!!”
“B-but, Shirai-san, you need immediate medical attention. I will call for an ambulance. Or we could take an Anti-Skill heli—”
She was still too weak to get up, but she managed to grab his collar.
If she was going to leave her life in someone’s care, she would prefer for it to be Misaka Mikoto. How had she worked so hard tonight without finding any sign of that girl? But right now, she had to give someone else some support. If she made the safe, reasonable, and passive choice here, she knew this man would rot away without ever opening his present.
She raised her voice while looking on the verge of coughing up blood.
“You wanted to be someone your family could be proud of, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you became a teacher and why you volunteered for Anti-Skill despite the risk!?”
“Then don’t let her get away. Prevent the next death and become someone you can be proud of. Hurry!!”
He glanced this way and that, bit his lip, and hung his head.
Then he gently laid her down and took off running.
No one would respect him.
But that teacher made sure to do his duty as an upholder of the public order.
Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
Hamazura’s group had no choice but to rely on that cryptic phrase.
They could only hope the answer was hidden in the data on the card-sized hard drive found in the counterfeiter’s tent.
“Are we taking an underground route, Hamazura?” asked Takitsubo while teasing her bangs.
The way her sweat plastered the hair to her forehead seemed to bother her. The moxibustion had partially relieved the pain and suffering, but she was gradually reaching her limit. She would not last long even with that treatment.
He was afraid to mention it.
He felt like everything would fall apart if he did.
“Y-yeah. I’m sure everywhere is being monitored, but that will at least keep the satellites from seeing us.”
They were walking through an underground subway station, but in overcrowded Academy City, it was not unusual to end up in another station altogether if you continued walking down a subway station corridor. In Districts 11 and 23, there had to be a terminal station leading to the airport nearby, so they would be able to reach their destination while staying underground.
“The others are already in the juvenile hall, so not even Anti-Skill can get to them and pass it of as an accident during an investigation,” muttered a girl walking past them. She must have been organizing her thoughts while twirling the military-looking flashlight in her hand. She was a high school girl with her midriff exposed and wearing her long hair in two tails. “So as long as I survive, I still have a chance of saving them. Damn that pedo Chairman. Does he think this mess is any way to repay his old friends? Anyway, maybe I can borrow an empty room in the morgue used by Anti-Skill’s coroner.”
Those piles of garbage had to be taken out of the city by land or by air.
If they could borrow a special screwdriver from the people who extracted personal information and other data from the electronic trash there, they might be able to get a look inside that hard drive labeled “Lifeline”.
(Assuming they’re still alive.)
Hamazura knew Anti-Skill was in the middle of some major operation, so the usual rules no longer applied. Whether or not Anti-Skill could fight against the deepest depths of the dark side, he had to assume the extremities were in tatters. They may have been destroyed already and they may have run off in a panic, so they might not still be running their usual business.
“Huh? Where did that hakama chick go?”
“I don’t know.”
He looked back, but only saw the crowd there.
He was curious since that hakama girl had treated Takitsubo’s symptoms. He could not do acupuncture of moxibustion himself. He was pretty sure you needed special qualifications for that. But on the other hand, that girl had no obligation to stick with them.
They were a sick girl and a useless Level 0, so they may have been too great a burden to shoulder on a whim.
“Let’s leave her be. She may have slipped away without saying anything as a kindness.”
They could not hope for further treatment now, so they had to get out of the city before Takitsubo’s fever came back.
“We’re almost in District 23, Hamazura.”
“We were right to go underground. They might have checkpoints set up between districts by now.”
They found some stairs leading up and climbed to the surface.
He never really thought about it, but the piles of trash were pretty awful. The gray hills were visible even from a distance. Most of it seemed to be metal, like electronics and car scraps, but it was piled up as high as the third floor of the surrounding buildings. From the look of things, the road might be covered too.
But once they approached…
“Where are the trash collectors?”
“They might be taking Christmas off.”
There were no flashlight beams to be seen. They could not guess where any of the trash piles would collapse. He was extremely reluctant to climb them, but he could only see so much from the ground. While looking out for any metal sticking out or glass shards, he moved on ahead to search out a safe route for Takitsubo.
The place was so quiet.
He looked out from atop the pile to see a silver desert.
He did not want to get in a gunfight with the trash collectors, but it also worried him to find no one at all here. The trash collectors probably counted as the dark side too, so he started wondering if Anti-Skill had already taken control of this place and had an ambush prepared.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“We can’t stop here, so let’s try to find whatever we can.”
Takitsubo’s calm composure was so reassuring at times like this. Yet she had to understand better than him how valuable each second was here. After all, the moxibustion had only provided temporary relief, so that shell could crack at any time, allowing the fever to return.
“If the trash collectors frequent this place, they must have a car or something they use. If one of them is parked around, we might be able to find out who owns it from the license plate. And if not, maybe there are tire tracks.”
Those precise instructions did not actually give them anything to do. The delinquent boy found nothing and resorted to opening the door of a refrigerator buried nearby.
Then he frowned.
He shut that fridge full of a brownish mess and took a deep breath.
(Is that how they scavenge for valuables?)
Their entire plan had been misguided. They had hit a dead end. Was there really nothing here? Surely there was at least one thing in all this garbage.
He gripped something solid in his pocket and pulled it out.
“Show me where the special screwdriver is, Coin of Nicholas.”
He heard a sound like someone had kicked a metal panel.
His girlfriend, Takitsubo Rikou, cried out in surprise.
They both hesitantly looked over to see something stabbed diagonally into the trash. It was a diamond-shaped yellow “!” road sign. It warned of some other danger here. But there were rumors that, if one of those did not have a secondary sign to explain the danger, it referred to some sort of unscientific threat.
(That wouldn’t scare me so much if I hadn’t already seen something like a ghost wandering the city.)
The denting sound had apparently come from the sign. Something was buried in the trash down at its base. It was a metal panel…no, a door. A pair of metal double doors.
“Hamazura, is this what I think it is?”
“A metal container?”
But not just a container.
It was embedded in the pile of trash to create an open space that functioned like a tunnel. And its floor had been cut away to reveal stairs leading down.
Rakuoka Houfu used his one arm to yank up a nearby manhole cover and jumped down into the deep, deep darkness within.
The stench stung his nose.
He pulled out his flashlight that doubled as a baton and shined it around. The place was surprisingly large. Sewers came in a number of designs, but this one was built with narrow concrete pathways on either side of the filthy flowing water.
The sound of the flowing water was joined by what sounded like a machine.
The low humming was a lot like a refrigerator running late at night.
Something reflected the light of his flashlight.
There was something transparent on the wall and floor of the pathway. It was the trail left by something slimy crawling through there. He followed that trail with flashlight in hand.
Something was lurking in the darkness.
At first, he thought it was a small person with a blanket over their head.
“Wh-who are you!?” he shouted while shining his light on them.
He was mostly driven by fear, so that may have been the wrong move. Peering into the shadows did not always eliminate your anxiety.
“Huh?” said a voice.
It had the color of flesh, but there was an entire pile of it. The slender hips and unusually large chest were no more. There was only a one or two meter pile of flesh resembling a clump of melted ice cream. A distorted face was attached to its surface, but the two eyes were at different heights. If it had just been flesh, he could have viewed it as no more than a monster or raw garbage, but the long black hair that had fallen out nearby made it look oddly bewitching.
“Huh? Wait, why?” the voice continued. “This isn’t right. I can’t go back.”
A squeak escaped the middle-aged man’s throat.
It should have been a scream, but his throat was trembling too much to get out his voice.
The blob turned back toward the light. She was too melted to tell which side was the front, but that movement was weirdly human.
Rakuoka heard some hard objects clacking together.
He assumed they were something creepy like teeth or bones, but a closer look showed something more inorganic reflecting the light. Test tubes full of colorful liquids were being absorbed by the cream-colored blob. Unlike the others, these had blue rubber caps on them.
She had apparently been dumping those on herself, but none of them would “fix” her.
(Is that some kind of medicine? I could save Shirai-san with that!!)
Despite her horrific state, the blob made that casual comment and tossed several test tubes aside.
Rakuoka desperately tried to avoid looking in that direction.
Even in this state, she was definitely part of the dark side.
If he showed any opening, he would be killed instantly. The sense of danger hit him like a solid wall.
“Hee…hee. My entire body fell apart after I dumped my own bacteria on me. Don’t you feel sorry for me? I’ve been defiled. Oh, so defiled. I can even hear my cells bursting: pop, pop, pop. Hee hee hee hee hee hee. Have you ever felt sorrier for anyone in your life?”
She twisted her body around.
But she continued speaking because she was pretty sure even she would forget what that meaning meant before long.
“C’mon, say you feel sorry for me. Frown and call me a poor little thing while secretly grinning on the inside. Then I can live forever as a dark side legend. Don’t worry. Life is an occult thing, so it doesn’t matter if I lose mine. I’ll live on forever as part of the dark side.”
The combover and glasses man sighed.
Then he faced her again and spoke bluntly.
“You get to ignore the flow of time, ignore all the world’s problems, and drift around for all eternity? I couldn’t be more jealous, honestly.”
The flesh-colored blob shrank a size smaller.
“Eeeek!! Wait, stop. I can’t move from here! My life is over! There’s no way to save me, so if you don’t insult me here, I’ll be forever stuck halfway toward my goal. I don’t want to be average! No one remembers average! I want to be more defiled than anyone ever was!!”
A wet and sticky sound followed. She must have either slipped or intentionally jumped in because the flesh-colored blob dove into the filthy water and disappeared from view. It looked more like she had dissolved into it than sank to the bottom.
Rakuoka Houfu breathed a soft sigh.
The girl had said there was no way to save her, but he had a hunch she would be like that forever. After liberating herself from all other bonds, he suspected she might not even have a lifespan anymore.
Whether or not that would bring her happiness was another issue altogether.
He gathered up a few test tubes that had fallen on the pathway with some clear sticky strands still connected to them. He did not know which of the colorful liquids was the antidote, but these ones had been designated as unique by their blue rubber caps. Blue meant safety and these were the ones that girl had tried to use on herself. It would be worth having them analyzed.
A voice rose from the filthy water.
He jumped and shined his flashlight that way, but he did not see a face emerging from the stagnant river. Yet the girl’s voice continued. The girl who had hoped to be defiled by all of the city’s filth seemed to have been dispersed throughout that filthy water.
“By the way, I forget to ask before, but are you a beneficial or a harmful? What level of the dark side are you from?”
He honestly had no idea what she meant by this. Small ripples ran through the filthy water.
“Ohh? Do you really think I’d be trying to pull some trick on you at this point? I couldn’t be more satisfied after being freed from all restrictions. Yes, yes. Like you said, I have been truly liberated. …The thing about being a twin is, it can be a real pain being around the other one all the time. I could do it all on my own. I separated off one piece and let Youen do it, but just me was enough to decompose all the city’s filth.”
The splashing noise grew louder.
The stench had been bad enough before, but now it felt like an invisible wall.
“I wanted to decompose everything. Including the illusionary bond between twins. Including myself. I wanted to be liberated from it all.”
He had trouble breathing. Beads of sweat poured down his face and head.
Nevertheless, she continued.
“I wouldn’t lie to you in this state. Why would I need to? So I’m asking what part of the dark side you’re from. Since we never ran across each other before, we must be from different levels.”
“Wait…wait a second.”
Her voice was weirdly persuasive.
It was the purity of a prisoner awaiting execution. Once they had nothing to lose, they had no need to lie to protect anything.
But in that case…
“I am Anti-Skill. No more and no less. Yes, I do work as an Aggressor for them, so I roleplay as a criminal in training. But that’s all I do. I’m not like you. I’m different.”
“Not possible. That excuse isn’t going to cut it. Do you not know where we are? Listen, can’t you hear the humming of a machine? What’s that for? This place is used to cover people’s tracks. It connects each camera spot together to make sure no one can be tracked. Before you commit a crime, you head underground and cover your tracks. Once you can’t be tracked, you head to wherever you’re going to be criming. That humming is from a machine that creates a magnetic field. Part of the high-tech countermeasures.”
“So this maliciously-made sewer labyrinth is designed so you can never arrive here just by walking around at random. Only the dark side knows of this place. And since you made it here, you must have used it before.”
No, he mouthed, but his voice did not follow.
He imagined an uncomfortable humidity while his vision gradually went white. He tried his best to remain conscious. He had no idea what she was talking about. Of course he didn’t. He had lived a boring life – no major ups or downs. He had just lived year after year, growing older and older. But he had wanted to become someone the mother and sister he lived with could be proud of, so he had become a teacher and then volunteered for Anti-Skill. So this had nothing to do with him. He had no idea how he could be part of the dark side.
His thoughts were cut off by a sticky laugh.
His flashlight still only showed the dark sludge, but he definitely heard it.
“You really were a good person. But that was exactly why you couldn’t abandon them.”
Someone who had become eternal worked to tear him down to stave off boredom.
“You came down here to cover your tracks before you dumped the body, didn’t you? Did you do it in the mountains? Or maybe below that subway station? All so someone’s crime would never come to light and so your happy little world would remain intact.”
- his sister
- his family red a stalker
creepy laughter no face no other choice deserved to die
- didn’t mean to
no one at fault standing there in a daze
They had all hugged each other while trembling, reached a consensus about what was right and wrong, and then tried to figure out what to do next. They thought and thought and thought and – stuffed inside a blanket compression bag – RE – the vacuum cleaner – KAGU – shoved – HIEUB – the suitcase – EBHN – but the smell was – NHRN – so many maggots – HE – had to make a choice – GGU – into the bathroom – OFBN – raised the machete – TU – into pieces – HRNP – inside – TU – bag – NHEPGNANSDIPJGNMD – JNPIGVNP – SDF
“Ah, ahh. Gwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!”
In that stagnant and oppressive underground space with no exit, Rakuoka Houfu unleashed a bestial roar toward the heavens. He tried to kick away the filthy water that refused to stop its incessant splashing, but only succeeded in falling into the river himself.
He got his head above the surface, but the source of the sticky stench was now plastered to his face. That he did not find it disgusting actually creeped him out. A warmth reminiscent of human skin stabbed into his brain. He had no such experience himself, but he guessed this was what it felt like to have your entire body surrounded by a giantess’s chest.
A girl’s breath reached him like she was whispering into his ear or like her voice was inside his ear already.
“Ah ha ha. Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Ah ha ah ha ha ha ha ah ha ah ha ha.”
“Ugh, shut up.”
“I thought you were acting weird. It’s like you have childish tastes or like you never learned how to act like an adult. You seemed to live in such a limited world for someone of your age, but this explains a lot. You were so terrified that adult society would demand you take responsibility for you actions that you never could leave the school. Hee hee hee. You’re as much a harmful as me.”
He heard a quiet shriek.
Half-drowning in the river of sludge, he turned his bloodshot eyes toward the sound. His flashlight shined on a small girl of about ten. The filthy sewer and her pristine gym clothes were such a harsh mismatch that it almost looked like a digitally altered photo.
She cowered down and he initially thought she looked like a terrified little animal.
But then he heard the whispering of that sticky being plastered to his face.
“Did you forget?”
He could hear it.
He could hear that smiling voice.
“No normal person could ever wind up here by accident.”
The water splashed as the combover and glasses Anti-Skill officer climbed out of the filthy river and onto the pathway.
He stood at an angle, putting his shoulders at different heights.
“I am with Anti-Skill. I am someone my family can be proud of.”
That alone may have been a deeply held wish. His mother and sister may have in fact been thankful for what he had done.
But if he admitted that he had done anything to deserve that thanks…
He was shaken.
He was falling apart.
Why was the truth so heavy a burden to bear? It never stopped pressing down on him, forever trying to crush him below its weight.
But he had promised.
While barely able to breath, Shirai Kuroko had told him to pursue the dark side. And he might still be able to save her with the test tubes he had found here.
It might be too late for him, but as long as he still had some strength left, he could drive out the dark side and deliver these to her.
The small girl broke free of her paralysis, turned tail, and ran.
Why would anyone run from Anti-Skill if they had done nothing wrong?
His silhouette underwent a transformation as he pursued his quarry. His Anti-Skill uniform was shredded from within, revealing a massive muscular body.
He had made his decision before the fight even began, so he moved his arms and legs to give chase.
Risako, the girl in gym clothes, did not remember how she had gotten here.
Her vision was mostly filled with the color white despite being in the dark sewer. She was out of breath and her chest hurt. Tears spilled from her eyes. Each time the small LED light on her personal alarm hit the walls or ceiling, the reflection was so bright it hurt her eyes. If mister had not given it to her, she would have thrown it away, completely forgetting it was her only source of light.
She ran and ran.
She had wandered into a place she never should have been. Maybe she should have realized something was wrong when she walked and walked and never found Sodate’s secret base, but she had unfortunately never given up and turned back. She just kept telling herself it had to be “just a little further” until she had wandered into a place that felt like it would tear her body and mind to pieces.
Something had allowed this to happen.
Something had placed her on a track she normally never could have found.
(What was that?)
She was too scared to look back. She ran down the narrow pathway and shoved herself through the gaps between thick pipes to get as far away as possible. Something terrifying was chasing after her.
She could not let him catch her. She knew something terrible would happen if he did.
(That man was talking to himself!!)
There was nothing sticking out from the ground, but she still tripped and fell. She forgot to even cry from the pain in her knees.
Her only light had gone out. She was surrounded by darkness.
(I need my light.)
She no longer felt the egg-shaped personal alarm in her hand. It must have slid along the floor when she tripped. She did not know if the switch had flipped off or if it had broken, but this place was as pitch black as a movie theater. She could not keep going without a light. She could still hear the quiet splashing of the sewer river, so she might fall in if she tried to continue on blind.
Down on all fours, she searched around with her small hand, but she could not feel anything like it.
Mister had given her that alarm and he sometimes seemed to be having money trouble, so she did not want to have to say she had lost it.
But she searched and searched to no avail. She was trying so hard, but she still could not find it.
The stench suddenly grew worse. From behind her.
That monster had been holding a flashlight before, so had he turned it off? Did that mean he could see her in the dark? But how?
Maybe she should have started running right away. Maybe she should have bolted into the darkness no matter what she crashed into on the way. But she could not bring herself to give up on the alarm. She bit her lip and patted around on the filthy floor with tears in her eyes.
She could not find it.
She could not find it.
She simply could not find the alarm mister had given her.
(No, where is it?)
She felt a great pressure like the ceiling was lowering.
Something may have been looming over her as she searched for the alarm on all fours.
It was too dark to see, but she still squeezed her eyes shut.
Then she heard a squashing sound.
The thick wall of pressure moved back as if flinching.
She opened her eyes in shock, but it was still too dark to see anything.
Or it should have been.
She heard a scraping sound and then she saw a light somewhat larger than a birthday cake candle. It was not a will-o’-the-wisp. Once she realized it was the flame of a lighter like the one mister had used when they were shooting off fireworks, she detected an animal scent she had noticed before.
“Oh, whoops. Not in front of the child.”
A creature had pulled out an object and started to put it in his mouth, but he stopped after seeing Risako.
She could not believe it.
The creature that spoke to her with a human voice was very clearly a large dog.
“Sigh, I would say I have a little more romance than that. But maybe most people would see me as something similar. It is better than being written off as some new form of technology, at least.”
She normally would have been afraid to find such a large dog so close to her. Especially one without its owner holding the leash. But this golden retriever gently walked right past her while she sat on the floor. Almost like it was shielding her from the monster pushing in from behind.
“Get going, miss,” said the bearer of light. “The side paths and rusted doors might draw your interest along the way, but ignore them all and continue straight down this pathway. If you can shake free of your doubts, you will find some stairs leading out of this place at the end of this long, long pathway. I give you a chance, but whether you use it or not is up to you.”
“But mister’s alarm…”
She was not given time to explain what she meant.
Something small was tossed her way and she caught it to find it was the egg-shaped device she had found so difficult to find.
How had the dog thrown it? For that matter, how was he holding the lighter?
Before she could ask, the golden retriever said one more word.
Strongly this time.
The girl in gym clothes started to run, but she soon stopped.
He had said it was dangerous here, but she still looked back.
She was not asking if he would be coming too. Realizing she wanted to ask his name, he sighed.
If a dog was capable of smiling, he might have been doing so.
“I am Kihara Noukan of the dark side. Dealing with this sort of person is my job.”
The darkness shook behind him.
After confirming that the small back really did vanish down the long pathway this time, the golden retriever slowly turned around in the darkness he called home.
He used a thin mechanical arm to toy with a quality cigar and brought the oil lighter’s flame toward its tip.
“Now I can smoke.”
His tone had changed.
“No need to worry about the health of someone who is about to die anyway.”
The wall of darkness moved. It had flinched back from the unexpected pain before, but now it was back with even greater pressure.
The pressure spoke with a human voice.
“Are you part of the dark side too?”
“Indeed I am. And if your bizarre logic says you can prove you aren’t by killing someone who is, then I can fill in for that child, can’t I?” The golden retriever gently blew out some cigar smoke. “And in that sense, I am the perfect target for you. After all, I am one of the most hidden Kiharas.”
“Shut up.” The giant took a merciless step forward, allowing the oil lighter to illuminate him from below. “If that last attack is all you’ve got, you can’t win. I’m not even bleeding.”
“Yes, I can’t deny that my original A.A.A. was made into a toy for those girls and my few spares were all destroyed during Handcuffs.”
All the golden retriever could do now was launch the containers and cases that had once been used to transport his ultimate weapon. They did not pack much of a punch while empty. And even if they were packed full of explosives, that monster could probably stop the blast with his muscles.
“I will now beat you to death,” said the man. “I refuse to let the dark side exist, no matter what form it takes.”
He had a strangely twisted appearance. Thick muscles surrounded him like armor, but his face remained the same as always. The Anti-Skill officer with a combover and glasses faced the golden retriever wearing a backpack but spoke to something other than the dog.
“And you seem willing to face me knowing that will happen. Makes me curious about that girl you’re willing to throw your life away to protect. She must be a dark side VIP. I can’t possibly let her escape. Chase her down afterwards and I can dig up all sorts of darkness along with her. I mean, nothing else makes sense. If she wasn’t with the dark side, she never could have reached this place.”
“Hey, listen.” Kihara Noukan sounded irritated. Not even his favorite brand filling his lungs was enough to help. “I have some bad news for you. Who is it you think you were talking to here? The Decomposer? If you mean Hanatsuyu Kaai, she is indeed floating around this area. In a way, she may have become something that can never die. Much like Yakumi Hisako. But do you really think she is in any state to create the vibrations needed for a physical voice? How could she do that after dissolving into the filthy water down here?”
“Anyone can reach this pathway. You don’t need to be with the dark side. That is the boring truth. I imagine that girl was so terrified because she ran into a greasy balding old man soaking up to the shoulders in smelly sewer water and talking to himself with a look of ecstasy on his face. That voice you heard wasn’t real. This place reminded you of a traumatic moment in your past, but you refused to accept that you had stepped on that landmine all on your own. You wanted to believe you had fallen for some clever trap as part of someone’s master plan, not that you had stumbled into your own ruin by accident. So when you heard the splashing of this sticky sewer water, you imagined you were hearing malicious laughter instead.”
Rakuoka Houfu came to a stop.
Not even Kihara Noukan could tell how he was processing this. Not that he cared.
“The more I try to look to the future, the more pathetic I feel. That must mean I’ve been corrupted too.”
“But that still doesn’t explain what that girl was doing here. She was dressed weird too. She had some kind of sensors on her arms and legs. They looked very high tech. She must be with the dark side.”
“I suppose this was inevitable. To be clear, I am not lying to you.”
Rakuoka reached for a nearby pipe. It was thicker than the average person’s torso, but he tore it away with a single hand.
Looking at a person’s weight and muscle fibers was enough to calculate out their general muscle strength. He would be able to wield it like a sugar sculpture or whip instead of a blunt weapon. Think of it as the difference between simply swinging down a thin tree branch or swinging it with a snap of the wrist. That would give it between five and ten times as much force.
But the dog did not fall back.
He narrowed his eyes as if to say enjoying the flavor of his cigar was more important.
“So I finally meet a member of the family that killed a Kihara and perfectly disposed of the body. I might have fought by your side were circumstances different.” The large dog sighed and whispered words of devastating importance. “Kihara Heikin. He called it taking a psychological approach, but he had a bad habit of leaving no boundary between his work and his personal life. I did warn him quite sternly that the techniques used for a stakeout at work would qualify as stalking when done for personal reasons.”
He seemed to be reminiscing.
Or maybe he was regretting his past actions.
“If all you had done was protect your family, I would have respected you. You might not think your courageous action was the right thing to do, but I sensed the light of great romance in it. You might have been expelled from the path of good, but my little corner of the dark side would have welcomed your arrival.”
The golden retriever stiffly spat out his next words.
“But none of that light remains now that you are chasing after a child for no reason. Not now that you have located a conveniently weak target to label evil so you can feast upon them. My little corner of the dark side must reject you. I am sorry, but I must eliminate you now.”
The atmosphere changed. The stiffness of his words seemed to affect the density and viscosity of the air.
Rakuoka Houfu was still not swallowed up by it, so as rotten as he had become, he may have still retained some vestige of the Kihara Killer he once was.
A good person who had been distorted beyond repair was far nastier than a bad person. Kihara Noukan made his blunt assessment…and the man did not stack up.
Yes, the dark side could be found anywhere. In the next apartment over, at the neighborhood supermarket, in the entertainment industry on TV, and even within the very Anti-Skill that fought to keep the peace. Did the current rookie Chairman really understand that sweeping the dark side clean was to locate all the stains and wrinkles you found unsightly and to slice them away with a knife, skin and all?
“You haven’t answered my question,” said Rakuoka.
“If that was all you’ve got, you can’t win. So what are you going to do about it?”
Kihara Noukan paused for a moment. He pricked up his ears while pretending to think, but he could no longer hear those small feet on the concrete. The gym clothes girl must have taken his advice and run down the long straight path without taking any turns. She would probably be arriving at the surface soon.
“I would ask if you know what romance is, but I doubt you could give me a decent answer as you are now.”
He had no weapons.
And even if Rakuoka Houfu had gone berserk—no, because he had gone berserk—his skill was very real and it was boosted to the point of changing the shape of his body. There were no rules when the dark side fought, so it was best not to think about what would happen if you lost.
Nevertheless, the large dog puffed happily at his cigar and spoke.
“Romance means to set aside efficiency and logic. Romance means to enjoy the pointless things in life. And that definition is what separates me from the strays.”
Vivana Oniguma was nearly in tears.
Her long, curly silver hair was at odds with her hakama and she was as benevolent as the dark side came. At the moment, she was completely lost inside a subway station she rarely ever used.
She felt there were two kinds of people in the world: those who could immediately find the exit they wanted inside a subway station, and those who would wander around until they found themselves in a different station altogether.
She had not asked for it, but she was part of the dark side. She could not allow Anti-Skill to find her here. Her only chance to survive and live out her life was to leave Academy City and that required searching out the secret of Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
Where had those Hamazura and Takitsubo people gone?
Had they coordinated together to lose her? Unpleasant suspicions like that kept spinning through her head. She needed to reach District 23 and she could always head to the surface to see where she was. Heading up was a risk, but it might be better than wandering around here forever.
Or so she thought.
If she had made up her mind just ten seconds sooner, she never would have encountered someone here.
A nearby door burst open. It looked a lot like a staff-only door and the person inside ran into Vivana. The person was so short that the impact was mainly to her hip.
It was a girl in gym clothes.
But Vivana did not have time to ask what this was about.
The wall swelled out from the other side. The wall and metal door exploded like a popping balloon and rubble flew out horizontally. Vivana immediately dropped her black and pink cloth wrappers and opened them. She grabbed the broken-tipped bamboo sword from her Japanese torture products and used it slice through the air.
The multiple pieces of the split tip made it like a multi-headed snake.
After easily knocking down the entire scattershot of rubble, she sensed something moving beyond the dust.
What looked like the head of a weak office worker sat atop a mass of swollen muscles, creating a unique silhouette. The few tatters of clothing that remained said he was from Anti-Skill not a corporate office.
He was covered in blood.
The girl clung to Vivana’s hip and trembled.
Shouts and screams spread around them.
The girl’s eyes widened.
But not from simple fear. Her trembling came from seeing the blood splattered on the man.
“Where’s the doggy? No, no… What happened to the golden retriever that saved me!?”
With a heavy thud, a piece of metal larger than a railroad rail was squashed longer like a sugar sculpture being made. How much force would be required to cause that? Vivana’s research into the history of torture and execution told her that could slice right through a midsized truck if it was a whip rather than a blunt weapon.
“I found you. I finally found you.”
He spoke in a deep voice that seemed to carry some terrible curse.
He may have been crawling through the sewer because a terrible odor pushed in when he opened his mouth. The mass of muscles attempted to take another step, but Vivana stuck out her broken-tipped bamboo sword.
The beneficial torture expert directly faced the harmful mass of muscles.
“Is that supposed to be a whip?”
“If so, I hate to say it, but I can’t let this stand. I enjoy researching the cultures of torture and execution and I take that seriously. I can’t have a casual like you causing a scene here using a half-assed version of the tools. It’s nothing but a nuisance.”
She had drawn the short end of the stick here.
She had hoped the gym clothes girl would run away while she stepped forward, but that had not happened. She still felt a pressure on her hips. She looked down to see the girl wrapping her small arms around her.
This seemed to be more than locking up from fear.
The girl squeezed her eyes shut and said something under her breath.
“No. Don’t you leave me too.”
Vivana sighed and patted the girl’s small head with her empty hand.
The man’s thin face squirmed in response.
“Dark side? Too?”
As a simple blunt weapon, that pipe was heavy enough to break through a metal shutter, but he also gave it the flexibility of a whip as he swung it down.
The girl squeezed tighter at Vivana’s hips.
But then she must have wondered why the pain and impact never arrived.
She hesitantly opened her eyes to look.
“In the East and the West, executions were held in public as a sort of show.”
The torture expert with two hair horns had enough time to support the girl with one hand and move to the side.
“The most well-documented of those would be the witch hunt. The furious people so wanted the criminals to die that they could easily riot if the executioner failed. So it was out of the question for the criminal to fight back or escape at the execution ground. In that sense, setting up a sturdy enclosure around the execution ground was a crucial task to ensure safety.”
Several dull impacts sounded as wooden stakes were driven into the hard floor. They were bound together with ropes in a structure similar to scissors or a tripod and those held down the metal pipe whip after it had crashed into the floor.
“This is known as a yarai. The term actually refers to the entire fence built around an execution ground with logs or bamboo, but the basic structure only requires two or three pieces. The people of this country are so clever in how they use trees.”
Next, there was a rubbing noise.
It sounded like rustling clothing, but it was actually the sound of a thick rope being wrapped around the pinned-down pipe.
“Bondage, whipping, pressure—the basic form of all torture is the distribution of weight.”
“After all, you can’t have the victim dying before you get the desired information out of them. So whether you’re tying them up in rope and hanging them from the ceiling or you’re seating them in a chair covered in needles or thorns, you have to be extra careful to ensure their weight is distributed evenly and not focused on any one point. Humans are tougher than you would think. We can build up a tolerance to pain, so there’s even a record of someone staying strong with a weight of more than two-hundred kilograms placed on them.”
Of course, her opponent was not just going to sit there and politely listen.
Fed up with all the talking, he used brute force. The mass of muscles gathered his strength and sent waves of force through the bent steel to tear through the partial restraints formed by the yarai and rope.
But that was all according to plan for the girl whose two sweet-smelling horns shook.
“But on the other hand,” she whispered with some red tape visible within her loose hakama. “Mess up that distribution and allow the weight to focus on a single point, and you have a tragic accident on your hands. Turtle shell bondage has a silly image thanks to its use in comedy, but just like professional wrestling moves, that is not something amateurs should try and mimic. ‘Rope master’ was originally used to refer to a martial arts expert, which should tell you just how dangerous ropes can be. Attempt it without knowing what you’re doing…and this can happen!!”
A dull snapping rang out. She had used her opponent’s momentum, but it was still unclear how she had applied so much force to the steel whip with the rope binding it. That pipe thicker than a human torso suddenly broke in half.
The mass of muscles staggered forward and Vivana actually licked her lips.
She still held a bamboo sword with the tip split apart. That torture tool took a safe weapon used for practice and modified it into something dangerous enough to tear through flesh.
She targeted his right arm on the outside of the elbow.
Even a child knew that was a weak point.
Instead of slicing, it sounded more like something being shredded with a giant file.
“Humans are funny creatures.” Time seemed to stop as Vivana grinned and spoke. “We have a set upper limit to how much pain we can tolerate. Torture is all about intentionally extending the pain and suffering as long as possible, so the trick is to stay just below that upper limit. And what happens when you pass the limit? That isn’t something you can change no matter how much you train your body.”
The mass of muscles wobbled to the side.
The two eyeballs behind his filthy glasses had rolled back in his head.
He did not even scream. His giant body simply crumbled below him.
“Of course, some people suggest that certain Eastern and Western execution methods were designed to provide too much pain in order to quickly knock the victim out in an age before anesthetics.”
She spoke to the monster as he fell to his knees and collapsed forward.
With that casual word, she swung the solid stick along a whip-like horizontal path. It struck that giant with a load roar and sent him flying back into the hole he had opened in the wall.
Vivana twirled the stick that had broken in half from the incredible destructive force.
“W-wow.” The girl gulped and then hopped up and down. “You beat that big muscle guy like it was nothing!”
“Yes, yes. Don’t look so excited about watching such brutal torture. Now I’m worried about your future. Also, where are we?”
“Oh, right. I need to get home!”
“Where are we???”
She fixed her slipping hakama and waved until the gym clothes girl was out of view.
Then she doubled over.
And Vivana Oniguma coughed up a lot of blood.
Her surroundings grew louder as she wiped her mouth with a handkerchief.
(Distributing the weight doesn’t make it go away. That isn’t a defense if there’s enough weight to be deadly even when evenly distributed. I’m lucky I wasn’t turned to mincemeat by the initial concrete scattershot.)
But she had been torn up quite a bit on the inside.
As a torture expert, she knew exactly how bad the injury was. She was in serious trouble. Anti-Skill would chase her down if she did not leave Academy City, but she had no idea if medical technology outside the city could heal an injury this bad.
(But I don’t regret it.)
She was unsteady on her feet, but she began to walk.
It had been a long time since she last felt she had been useful to someone like this.
She had started this strange research into torture and execution for a similar reason. She had thought someone might thank her if she gathered up all the research material this country turned its nose up at and made sure that history and culture was not lost to the next generation.
She had wanted her actions to put a smile on someone’s—anyone’s—face.
Getting a thank you would be even better.
At any rate, she had to reach District 23.
But where was Vivana Oniguma really meant to go?
“We can’t get an ambulance! I called, but all of them are being used to transport patients right now.”
“Way too much has been happening today, dammit!!”
Yomikawa Aiho clicked her tongue at her fellow Anti-Skill’s report.
Shirai Kuroko was breathing shallowly while lying on the ground where they had cleared the snow away for her. She was out in the biting cold of the late December night, but she was pouring with sweat.
And there might be more wrong on the inside.
Yomikawa pulled out her car key.
“Fine, tell them to have a hospital bed ready. I’ll shove her wherever there’s an opening!!”
Just then, something emerged from the other tower of the Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center in western District 18.
First, it was a voice.
Then the epicenter of that vocal earthquake staggered out of the main entrance.
Ankle-length black hair was adorned with a diagonally-worn gasmask, a white coat was closed on the front like a yukata, and unusually large breasts rested on a medical corset. It was a girl of about ten.
“The other twin!?” shouted Yomikawa.
Their plan had been to use the twin tower structure to split up the twins and then focused their attacks on just one. The Decomposer’s state was unknown, but it was also unknown what the untouched Carrier would do now.
Would she decide she was outmatched and make a run for it, or would she give into anger and attack?
Anti-Skill rushed behind their vehicles and readied their weapons, but that was more out of fear than duty. They all knew what had become of South District 7.
Only one of them reached for the gun at her hip and then used every last ounce of strength to stop herself.
It was Yomikawa Aiho.
“Wait!! Lower your guns!”
There was no need to tell the girl to stop. Hanatsuyu Youen fell to her knees and held her head, so it did not seem like she was going to attack right away.
In fact, could she even see them here?
She was yelling, but it did not seem directed at Anti-Skill.
“Why? Why, why, why did she remove her personal alarm? I gave that to Kaai so I could use the GPS to watch over her 24/7!! I even put it inside her gut and sewed her shut so she would never lose it!!”
She was definitely not speaking to the adults, but Yomikawa still felt a tingling pain across her entire body. The intense rejection was like being slowly crushed by a thick invisible wall.
That was not a word that should have applied to a person’s condition, but that changed with those twins.
This girl lived in a world where that was the first possibility that came to mind.
“Kaai dissolved herself!! Yes, yes. She’s flowing away. She decomposed, so I have to hurry! I have to be quick or my precious Kaai will be swept away!”
The subsequent bubbling sound was far more sinister than carbonation. Someone pulled their trigger out of fear, but no one even looked in the direction of the gunshot.
The bullet’s path curved in midair and broke a window nowhere near the girl.
Something hanging in the air around the Carrier was enough to corrode the lead bullet midflight and distort its air resistance.
The ground was torn through, but not by an incredible number of worms or earwigs.
Youen held something hard in her hand.
The glitter escaping between her fingers was golden.
“Open up the earth for me, Coin of Nicholas!!”
The track switched to a route that should not have been possible.
An unbelievably large human fist burst up through the ground.
That mass of muscles was all that remained of an Anti-Skill officer.
The filthy scraps of clothing and glasses were barely enough to identify this as Rakuoka Houfu.
She shoved him aside.
Weakened though he was, the Anti-Skill Aggressor meant nothing to the girl of about ten. She brushed away that mass of muscles with just one arm and looked down into the filthy water below.
Common sense had long since left this place.
A dark sludge erupted like a geyser from the crack in the asphalt. That liquid had the terrible stench unique to the sewer.
The Carrier spread her arms while down on her knees.
She looked up and opened her mouth wide.
Then something unbelievable happened.
“Gulp, gulp, gulp, gulp!!”
Yomikawa Aiho could not even move to stop it.
She spoke the words hoping someone would say otherwise, but Youen responded with a look of ecstasy.
She opened her mouth wider than seemed possible to accept more and more of the filthy water inside and used her unusually large breasts to catch what spilled out.
“Bioconcentration. No matter how wide and thin Kaai has been diluted, I just have to gather it all inside me. Once I have it all, I just know I can concentrate it back down in my liver, kidney, or whatever else and see Kaai’s smile ag—bff.”
Her nonsensical explanation was cut off as the color red sprayed out.
Whatever she had ingested, she doubled over and coughed while bringing up an unbelievable amount of blood. But she still did not give up. She used her convulsing arms to desperately gather back up the red and black liquids she was coughing up.
She did not manage to get them back into her mouth. She ran out of strength first. Only her fingertips continued to twitch like a bug sprayed with insecticide.
But she could still speak.
She kept repeating the same things like a broken toy.
“Nicholas. Hurry. Concentrate her. Concentrate Kaai inside me. Hurry, Coin of…”
(Coin of Nicholas.)
Yomikawa Aiho had seen some fantastical phenomena while pursuing criminals on this nightmarish Christmas. They would stare at the map and place a blockade along every route, but the suspect would somehow still escape. She had assumed it was due to an esper power or some kind of technology, but that was not enough to explain it.
She had not been jealous for a moment. That trump card was a double-edged sword.
“Nicho…Nicho…Nicholas. Lend me your power. Is it not charged? Oh, I used it for the wrong thing. I’m going to die now. Did I screw up???”
Without that coin, the Carrier never would have attempted this reckless plan.
And even if she had, she might have been able to escape after it failed.
But that was not an option after she used the Coin of Nicholas wrong. She had closed off her own possibilities by using it.
Were the people using the tool, or was the tool manipulating the people?
It felt like a curse.
(Come to think of it.)
An unpleasant sensation ran down Yomikawa’s spine.
(Didn’t Shirai have one of those coins? Is it not just the criminals? Was the Coin of Nicholas given to us too? Have there been so many accidental deaths from people unnaturally breaking the rules because some of us were secretly praying to these coins???)
She only had suspicions.
It was always possible that it all came down to mistakes on Anti-Skill’s part. Searching for this other cause before investigating it may have been her way of trying to avoid responsibility. She needed to be careful.
She cautiously approached Youen who had gone silent in a pose similar to an unnatural prostration. She grabbed the girl’s slender shoulder and flipped her onto her back. She could not let the girl drown in a pool of her own vomit.
Her teeth had dissolved away.
The surrounding snow was sizzling, but not from heat. Yomikawa could not figure out why the girl’s hair and skin were so untouched. That suggested this was more than just a powerful acid.
“One suspect secured. She’s still breathing, so someone arrange to have her transported.”
“Ugh,” someone groaned.
It was Rakuoka Houfu collapsed on the half-frozen road nearby. It was unclear how much damage he had taken, but he had been soaking in that filthy water that had dissolved human teeth.
His muscles rapidly deflated like a balloon, but he still reached a hand out toward Yomikawa.
That hand held one of the test tubes they had so feared.
It was filthy with sludge, but the seal of its blue rubber cap appeared to be intact.
As soon as she took it, his enormous hand fell to the ground.
“I don’t know what kind of chemical this is, but it might be an antidote,” said Yomikawa. “We might have a chance of saving Shirai, so someone get this to the molecular biology lab or the ultramicrochemistry lab for—”
She was cut off by a dry bang.
She ducked down and looked back, but this was not a case of an Anti-Skill officer firing on the unresisting suspect out of fear.
The officer had gone limp. The smoking gun was still in his hand while he lay atop the hood of the car. His helmet had shattered and a dark red liquid was spilling out. He had clearly shot himself in the head.
And he was not alone.
“I can’t take it anymore!! This…this isn’t what Anti-Skill—'sob'—what we’re supposed to do. Forgive me, please forgive me, just forgive me.”
Another one followed suit while pressing the gun against their chin from below. One adult slammed their helmet to the ground, turned around, and ran off into the darkness. One educator got down on their knees and held their hands together to ask to be handcuffed.
They were all teachers.
They had all been feeling the guilt. No matter how much the gears had shifted out of place and even if it had all been the result of unnatural accidents, dark feelings had gradually built up in their hearts as they saw more and more dark side children meet their doom before their eyes.
I want to protect the children.
I want to see smiles all around me as a teacher they can trust.
I want to bring peace to this city so everyone can enjoy their lives here.
Something invisible was shattering within them.
This had been the final drop. The filthy water had finally overflowed the cup.
And through the unseen connections of group psychology, it rapidly spread from a single individual to the entire group. Almost like an explosive trend. But it was not isolated to this one group. However it had spread, they could hear strange shouting and dry gunshots over their radios.
“Wait, calm down!! It’s over!! Take a deep breath!!”
Yomikawa’s cries did not reach any of them.
One of them even collapsed while foaming in at the mouth with a Coin of Nicholas held between hands clasped as if in prayer.
More and more of them were overcome by a desire for a way out, hope for an escape from the great pressure of responsibility, regret that any of this had happened, and a wish that everything could just be peaceful again.
Of course, Yomikawa Aiho did not have enough information to realize what this was.
It was a return, or a regression.
A hint of this had already been seen with Rakuoka Houfu when he was down in the sewer.
Mechanical static pierced Yomikawa’s eardrums. She grimaced and reached for the source of the noise: her phone.
The display was not functioning. She tapped it with her finger, but the data she wanted would not appear.
“What happened to Outrank?” She shouted into her radio and received no response. “We can’t pursue dark side without it!! Someone…someone please answer!”
She ducked down after hearing an explosion. She looked over to see a portion of the scene on fire. The operation command vehicle, a vehicle the size of a large tour bus with all the windows covered with armor, sat there in pieces. The many antennas told her that was definitely it.
The thin datalink they had recovered was down. That final hope had been cut off, presumably by one of their own going berserk.
This was the final attack by the Carrier. To the very end, she had acted as a carrier for fear and panic. Destroying her own body had spread chaos and the dark side’s unique form of gruesome destruction.
Outrank had been lost and they could not examine the evidence they did gather now that the forensics lab was destroyed. More than that, the adults had reached their limit. Their own consciences were crushing them, like their own immune systems were overreacting and destroying their bodies.
(I can tell the organization is collapsing. Anti-Skill is done for. Handcuffs can’t continue.)
Yomikawa Aiho could feel something breaking inside her.
She slowly dropped to her knees.
She knew someone must have flipped some kind of switch.
(We can’t play a role in how this ends.)
They found a strange place inside.
The mountain of trash decorated with hardened snow was like a giant ant colony on the inside. Several metal containers had been buried to create some open space and holes had been opened between adjacent containers. They could not tell how big the entire place was, but it was like a metal labyrinth.
If the Coin of Nicholas was correct, the special screwdriver needed to open the hard drive would be found in here. But that initial guiding noise was all they received. Evidently, it would not grant a wish for a billion yen every five minutes forever.
But Hamazura Shiage did learn something while looking around.
“This place feels like a laboratory.”
“Maybe for mechanical engineering.”
They had found no sign of the trash collectors, but this was an unexpected discovery. Further investigation found a section lined with computers larger than refrigerators.
It was concerning not to know what the lab was for, but that was not their main issue. A specialized tool set was spread out on a table. In a very unorganized way.
The support AI gave a long buzz. Not the two short buzzes for a no.
He touched the metal door to discharge any static electricity before grabbing the screwdriver. However the tool was something like a gas station pump. The screwdriver portion was smaller than one for glasses, but the rest was bulkier than a large handgun and had a thick tube for electricity or air attached. The head did not turn when he pulled the thick trigger. If he had not been holding the grip, he would not have even noticed it was vibrating. But it might have made a ton of bubbles if he stuck it in a tank of water.
He cautiously pressed it against the hard drive’s screw and pulled the trigger again.
“It’s turning. We can open it with this!”
The screw may have been so small that turning it normally would break the head off. Or maybe it was made so it would only open with a specific amplitude pattern.
Either way, the card-sized plastic cover slid open.
There was a delicate-looking circuit board inside. He could not afford to destroy the data on there. He was afraid to even touch it, but there was a small switch at one corner.
He was scared.
Very scared, but he still reached out his finger while looking away.
He heard a quiet click.
That was all. He attached the hard drive to his phone with a cable and then took two steps back. He made sure to look away from the exposed circuit board whenever he exhaled.
“Something is scrolling on your phone’s screen,” said the track suit girl. “It’s started, Hamazura.”
An estimated completion time was given, but it was fluctuating too much to be useful.
They both sat down on a bench.
She laughed and leaned against him from the side.
“What is it?”
“It feels like forever since we’ve been able to take our time like this.”
It was Christmas night, so whether they were busy or taking their time, it was wrong to be decrypting data inside a lab hidden in a pile of trash.
Nevertheless, he felt his own shoulders relaxing too.
Time passed without incident.
She rested her head on his shoulder and shut her eyes. Of course, she leaned so limply against him because she was sick, not because she was relaxed. He could not even imagine how much damage was being done inside her body right now. But she still seemed to be using this peaceful time to calm her overstimulated nerves.
As if to say this was more effective than any medicine.
He reached into his pants pocket while trying not to move his shoulder.
The gold coin he pulled out was shining bright. It did not have even a pizza slice missing.
It had finished charging.
“Hey, Hamazura. Will we know what that Academy City’s Greatest Taboo thing is once that’s decrypted?”
They had no guarantee. And even if it did, the answer might not be what they were hoping for. After all, this was the dark side. It was best to assume their naïve hopes would be shattered before their eyes.
Then he heard a noise from outside the room.
The track suit girl pressed against him.
“It’s going to take a while longer.” He gulped while listening to the scratching sound of the hard drive operating. “I don’t know who that is, but we need to draw their attention away from this room. The hard drive’s light is still flashing, so we can’t pull the cable out yet.”
His phone and the hard drive were both small, but he could not shove them in his pocket. The hard drive still had its plastic cover removed, exposing its circuit board. If rubbing against the cloth of his pocket or a bag caused some static, all the data could be lost.
The room was flooded with stuff, but surprisingly little that would function as a weapon. The tools were all as delicate as glasses maintenance tools.
Hamazura grabbed a folding chair in both hands and tiptoed over toward the room’s exit.
He poked just his head out to take a peek.
And his head was lopped off as casually as someone removing a radish’s leaves.
Or it would have been if nothing else had happened.
Takitsubo immediately yanked on his hand, dragging him back into the room with her full body weight. Thanks to that, a thick machete of an unknown material found only air.
A girl with crimson hair peered inside with a mechanical face.
He recognized her and that racing swimsuit colored with the toxic orange and black of an insect.
“The android!? Then…this isn’t just any harmful. Does this lab belong to that Kihara guy that Benizome was so scared of!?”
“You are the intruders, so why act like the world revolves around you? Did you think you were simply exploring an abandoned building?”
He heard a metallic creaking.
Her weapon must have been ridiculously heavy because the metal container seemed to bend with every barefoot step she took. Their relative positions were a problem. The room full of computers had only the one exit, so he and Takitsubo could not escape if the android stepped inside. That itself was a problem, but the delicate decryption work was also underway. If the android went on a rampage here, she could destroy the phone or exposed hard drive and they would lose their only clue toward Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
But just before she took that step, the android’s eyes turned to the side.
A casual swing of the ultraheavy machete sliced a split-tipped bamboo sword in two.
The sudden intruder did not seem to care.
Curly silver hair fluttered and air filled the large sleeves of a hakama. Vivana Oniguma switched to a different torture tool as she charged toward the android.
She forcefully grabbed the android’s entire face with her palm.
“Japanese torture developed in a unique direction.”
She forcibly shoved something into the android’s mouth even though it burnt her hand.
“I think this country might be the only one that used burning incense or pine leaves to send smoke into someone’s eyes and nose. Of course, this was used to punish runaway sex workers, so the point was to not leave any marks on the body they needed for their trade. But isn’t this especially effective against a delicate machine like you?”
That was as far as she got.
The hakama girl was hit by a ball of fire so massive it enveloped the android’s own body. It hit Vivana like a solid wall of heat, sending her soaring through the air.
Hamazura let out a meaningless cry.
Was that a flamethrower? No, she may have used some kind of pyrokinetic power.
Something was wrong with the android whose crimson hair swayed behind her. Her head creaked unusually loudly and she did not turn toward Hamazura and Takitsubo despite having eliminated the only obstacle standing between them.
The special smoke may have caused some kind of malfunction after getting inside her machinery.
A dark liquid dripped from her eyes and nose while she tilted her head. Although the head tilt may not have been intentional this time.
Trembling fingers reached for the bottle on her thigh, but she never got it to her lips. The clear bottle slipped from her fingers first.
She tilted her head more intentionally and stars danced in her eyes.
A dull thud followed.
She must have prioritized her own malfunction over dealing with the intruders. She had withdrawn to avoid a stalemate.
Hamazura and Takitsubo did not dare move for a while, but…
The groaning from outside the room brought them back to their senses. They would be dead now if not for her interference.
“Hey, are you okay!?”
He rushed out into the corridor to find the hakama girl collapsed on the floor. He could no longer tell where her clothing ended and her skin began. One of the horns made by hardening her bangs was missing. It took a lot of work to not grimace at the sight.
“Ha…ha ha. This is the dark side. You don’t have to worry about some stranger like me.”
“Why did you do that for us?”
“I already screwed up before coming here…so I wouldn’t have lasted long anyway. Yeah, I really shouldn’t have tried to look so cool for that kid.”
She was barely breathing.
She had to be aware of her own state.
“But still…” She managed to smile. “I wish I could have learned what that Academy City’s Greatest Taboo thing is.”
She was looking up toward Hamazura and Takitsubo, but she may not have been able to see them anymore. She sounded more like she was talking to herself.
“No, that’s not it.”
“If this is the end, then what I really wanted was to hear someone say thank you…”
“Shut up.” Hamazura shook his head and pulled the coin from his pants pocket. “Shut the hell up. I’ll fix this. I’ll fix this right now! Listen up, you goddamn coin!! Heal all of her injuries right this instant, Coin of Nicholas!!”
The sparkle around the outside edge vanished.
But nothing happened. The coin was not all powerful. It could open the vault, but you still gained nothing if the vault was empty. It could not grant the impossible.
“I…already tried that. Sorry for making you waste your charge. Ta ha ha.”
Yes, Vivana had one of the coins too. And after trying it with hers, she must have learned that her wounds were past the point of being healed.
But she had still come all this way to protect someone other than herself.
“You can have those.” She pointed at two cloth wrappers sitting on the floor. “They contain…well, a bunch of torture products and shunga books that would probably embarrass most people…but the moxibustion stuff is in there too. You’re supposed to have special qualifications for that, but let’s not get picky about that on the dark side. Check the diagrams in the old book I have and anyone can do the basics.”
She had chosen to use her final moments to deliver this to them.
Hamazura Shiage hung his head and clenched his teeth.
He stopped speaking.
Because when he looked up, he found Vivana Oniguma’s eyes were closed and she had stopped breathing.
What she really wanted was to hear someone say thank you?
No, she had been satisfied once the delivery had been made. She had never wanted anything in return. Seeing the recipient was happy had been all she needed.
Had she really been a part of the dark side?
What had gone wrong to send her tumbling down that slope? Why hadn’t this city given her a second chance?
Was running away really the right thing to do?
A quiet beeping came from his phone on the table.
“Yeah, I know.”
The phone was back in the room.
“I know, goddammit!!”
That card-sized hard drive had been hidden in a tent belonging to Perfect Film, who had stayed in his hideout instead of running away. The analysis of its contents was complete. Hamazura knew hopes meant nothing, but he still hoped that there would be something useful on there.
It was time.
They were finally approaching Academy City’s Greatest Taboo.
District 18 Anti-Skill Chemical Analysis Center:
Shirai Kuroko – Judgment
Hanatsuyu Youen – Harmful
Rakuoka Houfu – Harmful
Hanatsuyu Kaai – Harmful
Kihara Noukan – Harmful
Mobile Base (Parked in District 10):
Drencher Kihara Repatri – Beneficial
Frillsand #G – Beneficial
District 6 Amusement Park:
Benizome Jellyfish – Harmful
District 23 Kihara Hasuu’s Lab:
Hamazura Shiage – Beneficial
Takitsubo Rikou – Beneficial
Vivana Oniguma – Beneficial
Kihara Hasuu – Harmful
Ladybird – Harmful
Between the Lines 3
“What kind of person do you think makes the most frightening leader?” Anna spoke as gently as ever through the chilly metal bars. “Someone who is simply incompetent? An unabashed bigot? Personally, I would say it is someone who lets a machine do all the work without ever thinking for themselves.”
Her talk was cut short by a door loudly opening and shutting.
A large man walked in with shoulders trembling in anger. He was too large. You might suspect he was wearing bulletproof armor below his fancy suit, but that was really how he was built.
He had the shape of a round barrel and his black facial hair had some gray peppered in. His name was Valart Signal and he did not seem interested in the R&C Occultics CEO.
He walked right past her cell to the neighboring one.
In other words, to New Board Chairman Accelerator.
He held a VIP position shared only by eleven others in Academy City, so if he was alone, he must not have wanted anyone else to hear this. Or maybe he was smart enough to know it was meaningless to bring any bodyguards with him here.
“What are you thinking, rookie?”
“My, my. I really don’t think he’s the type you can provoke like that. I’ve been whispering to him all night, but—”
Was Valart aware what was causing that dull straining sound?
That legendary person truly detested people who cut her off without even trying to comprehend her words.
Fools could sometimes do brave things.
Valart was oblivious to his position here and he did not even glance in Anna’s direction.
“Handcuffs? That operation of yours has clearly failed. I’m not about to defend the dark side, but you went about this the wrong way. The light and the dark are both in tatters now. Do you have any idea how much work it will take to restore a bare minimum of law enforcement capability? …How will you make up for this loss? The entire city loses all purpose if no one can perform research here. And whatever your precious feelings might be, the dark side played an important role in developing your powers. If we economically isolate ourselves, we will only be strangling ourselves with a lack of resources!!”
He received no response for a while.
But instead of not knowing how to respond, this was the unpleasant silence of someone unsure if they should respond at all.
Valart was too pissed to stay quiet.
“You son of a—”
“You say you aren’t about to defend the dark side.”
But Accelerator cut him off like he had been waiting to do so.
When she saw the taken aback look on Valart’s face, Anna Sprengel cackled while leaning against the bars. She was well acquainted with that boy’s unpleasantness.
The head of the city ignored it all and continued speaking.
“Is that because you’re confident no one will ever find anything linking you back to the dark side?”
“Yes, Board of Directors. I made sure to figure out who would be my enemy and who would be my ally when I moved to crush the dark side.”
Accelerator was not looking for an answer. Because he already had one.
“Of course, the obvious answer is that every last one of you is my enemy. Pretty much everyone with significant political power is involved in the dark side to some extent. I’m sure you were all nervously gathering information from official and less-than-official sources to see how far I would reach—to see if I would reach you. And I was curious to see who would take the bait first.”
He was not driven by disappointment or panic.
The Board Chairman saw identifying his enemy as a hopeful thing. It was like seeing the light leading out of the darkness. That was how happy it made him to see the enemy he had to defeat. Because the #1 had long been in such deep darkness that he could not even see that.
“Like I said, you are all my enemy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t use you to my advantage. You’re like the drainplug. If I pull out someone with a lot of negative influence, all the stagnant water will start to flow in the same direction. Because no one else will want to meet the same fate.”
The dark side came in many forms.
It was a tangle of various factors creating very colorful shadows. The pieces forming it could be a strange chemical, a never-before-seen machine, mass-produced specimens, morally-bankrupt theories, or a large simulator.
But among all that, one field was the most influential of all.
“I thought this city had an abnormal amount of strange buildings and underground facilities,” spat out Accelerator. “Valart Signal, you’re the bastard on the Board who controls the field of construction. So you must have known from the beginning. You’re the one in charge of digging all the holes and pouring in all the concrete needed to provide the Kiharas and whoever else with their secret bases. Right?”
And how much had this man been reaping the profits?
That explained why he knew so much about so many different fields of research. He might not be involved in the research itself, but he could check through all the blueprints to make a good guess what each facility was for.
He would also know where all the secret bases were located.
He knew more about the city’s buried treasure than the newly-appointed Board Chairman.
“Tell me. Will Academy City’s Greatest Taboo keep you alive? If you think your secret is that powerful, then why don’t you head there right now?”
“I have worked myself to the bone to build a world of science.”
Valart did not attempt any secret plotting here.
He directly challenged the boy instead.
“Yes, it’s true. My own personal interests played a role. The entirely baseless concept of the occult can unfairly bring down the value of the real estate I manage. …Like a haunted room, for example. Some kids started talking about it online for fun and, next thing I know, we were close to bankruptcy. My entire family attempted suicide once. But I crawled back up and made it all the way here. Because I have to make my family happy no matter what.”
“So I will crush all those vaguely defined things. I will give out any amount of money to do so, even to dangerous people if need be. Like that family, even if one of them is researching something as ridiculous as creating an artificial ghost.”
Everyone had their reasons.
The only difference in opinion between these two leaders was about whether the dark side was a tool to reach their goal or a hindrance that prevented it.
Neither one was going to call themselves righteous.
They never could have climbed this high if they were worried about that label.
“But not even I understand this one. Sometimes you end up learning about something because you want to reject it. Academy City’s Greatest Taboo—Vanishing—is the one thing I cannot explain with the rules I know.” The bearded man shook his head and then glared at his inept leader again. Glared strongly. “You have pushed the dark side too far. Before, it looked like they wanted to remain within the category of science, but that has changed.”
“Don’t forget R&C Occultics☆”
Anna giggled, but Valart did not seem to know what she meant.
“I do not know what will happen this time. If any of them reach Academy City’s Greatest Taboo, I doubt the city will escape intact.”
“So what?” immediately replied Accelerator.
Now, did Valart really understand what he meant by that?
“Weren’t you listening? I will crush the dark side. Who ever said anything about the city being intact afterwards?”
It took him a while.
But the Board member finally realized he had been looking at this out of focus. Once he fixed that, the wrinkles of his brow grew deeper. He had discovered something he would prefer not to know. He may have looked more displeased than if he had seen a real ghost.
“Don’t tell me…”
When that embodiment of political power looked through those frigid metal bars, he clearly saw something else leaning against the white-haired red-eyed monster as if supporting him from behind. He saw a demon girl who looked like a cross between a bat and a marine creature and who wore a dress made by patching together English newspapers.
Her thick tail wriggled.
This was a line no one in a city of science was meant to cross. And that rule had been broken by none other than the Board Chairman at the very top.
Yes, what kind of person did make the most frightening leader?
“Were you…were you never even planning for Academy City to survive!?”