Toaru Majutsu no Index:NT Volume11 Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Blank Paper >> Labyrinth — Broken_road.
Shokuhou Misaki pulled out a thin ribbon. She passed it through the emergency whistle’s fastener, formed a large loop, and wore it as a necklace. She then pushed it inside the chest of her uniform as a hidden treasure.
She could not even trust that treasure, but whether it was real or false, it was her one physical connection to those summer days. If real, it was a connection to that boy. If false, it was a clue to the truth left by the mysterious culprit.
Either way, she could not let it go.
She could not have it stolen while disguised as pickpocketing or purse-snatching.
With that done, she had to go back over the information.
The scenery that formed the foundation of her heart was nowhere to be found. At its supposed location, she had found a completely different structure. She had tried to search the area with her mind-reading ability, but she had not turned up any residual memories from that time.
Then what was the scenery in her mind?
What were her memories with Kamijou Touma that had started there?
She was the #5 of Academy City’s seven Level 5s and she possessed Mental Out, the strongest purely mental power.
No matter what power, technique, or device someone used, it should have been nearly impossible to outdo her and manipulate her mind. It was no different than challenging Misaka Mikoto, the #3, to a hacking competition or picking a fight with her using only a stun gun.
She would not say it was absolutely impossible, but unless one had a tremendous amount of skill, facing a Level 5 with her own special skill was suicidal.
But if someone could have pulled it off by force, who was most suspicious?
Who could use pure “skill” to take on a monstrous Level 5 and yet smile fearlessly the entire time?
“That’s right,” groaned Shokuhou Misaki in the nighttime mountains of District 21. “There is one, now that I think about it. That brain of the Board of Directors stands on almost equal footing with me despite not using any kind of power!!”
That relationship may have been similar to the one between Misaka Mikoto and Uiharu Kazari.
She was a close approximation yet also a sort of natural enemy.
She was someone who shared the same past yet also possessed the concrete techniques needed to abuse that fact.
And her name was…
Shouting out may have sounded dramatic, but she was still in the mountains of District 21 and she would have to walk down the path she came on to reach her home ground in District 7.
While breathing far too heavily for an elegant lady and dripping sweat, she made her way down the winding mountain path.
Like peeling back the metal plating on an object, the fear and determination that had shaken her upon seeing that changed scenery was worn away by simple exhaustion.
“Just you wait!” she shouted in desperation. “I swear I’m going to punch you with my own hands!!”
Most likely, even the mastermind behind this was not prepared to handle an outburst like this.
Simply hearing that term might bring an image of dairy products to mind, but the exhaustion filling Shokuhou Misaki’s entire body left her in no state for that.
She had completely forgotten that Academy City’s public transportation stopped running once the curfew hit. She had been at a loss once she saw the shutters covering the entrance to the subway station.
While trudging between districts on foot, she pulled her cellphone from her skirt pocket.
Devices like this were not her forte, but she logged onto the simple SNS she had done nothing more than join.
And she posted a short question.
“//Queen Bee: Are you familiar with the artificial lake on a District 21 mountain?”
Not even a minute later, a disappointing triple digit number of responses reached her.
She was the Queen of the largest clique within Tokiwadai Middle School and she had plenty of connections outside the school as well.
This was just how many people were still clinging to a dead SNS account she had left empty after being urged to join.
“//Shigu-nyan: I am sorry I cannot live up to your expectations, but I am not.”
“//Matsu: Do you mean the experimental geothermal power station named Ground Geo? I searched it and found this official site.”
“//Cat Claw: Is this for homework? I can look into it if you want.”
“//Bunny 44: Hawa!? Queen, have you decided to become a factory field trip girl!?”
“//Eternal Beginner’s Luck: If so, the factory district in District 17 is the more traditional choice.”
(No good, huh?)
She sighed and looked away from the phone.
It had been such an important place that she had never told anyone about it, but that had completely come back to bite her. All of them either said they did not know or had only just then searched for it. Also, all of the information they found did not match her memories. It simply cornered her even more as she fought on her own.
She rethought her plan and asked a different question. This time, she attached a photo she took with the phone.
The photo was of the cheap emergency whistle that was painted silver.
“//Queen Bee: Do you know what company makes this?”
Again, the comment field filled up in no time.
It grew as busy as a beehive.
“//June Bride: I just searched it and it is made by PM General Security, a company that makes police batons and stun guns.”
“//Blatant Lie: Looks like it isn’t sold in stores. They cooperate with Anti-Skill to hand them out at schools or public facilities.”
“//Chiffon: There are apparently many different variations. Just looking at the colors, there are twenty-three different types. The silver ones are distributed in District 7 and some collectors try to get their hands on a complete set.”
“//Red Riding Hood: But putting that paint in your mouth does not look good for your health.”
“//Bamboo Leaf Panda: And Queen, our school’s faculty room has some in a box labelled ‘please take one’.”
(No useful clues here either.)
Hearing the silver color was distributed at District 7 schools sounded important, but both Tokiwadai and that boy’s school were in that same district. In the worst case, it was possible she had been made to think he had given it to her when she had actually picked it up at her own school.
None of this allowed her to relax.
She logged out and placed the phone back in her skirt pocket.
She felt as if she had needlessly increased her weariness.
By the time she made it back to her home ground in District 7, she felt completely exhausted, both physically and mentally.
She sat on a park bench and gasped for breath while massaging her thighs with both hands. The sight of a middle school girl with such a nice body doing that might have seemed a little inappropriate, but she could not avoid that right now.
Her lack of exercise may have been catching up to her because her thighs and calves were twitching unnaturally.
“I-I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die before this conspiracy can do anything to me.”
After spending a good twenty or thirty minutes, she finally got over that “mountain” of potential cramping and hesitantly stood up from the bench.
“Uuh… Now, then.”
(Kumokawa Seria will be moving from stronghold to stronghold for safety, but is she still in that last place?)
As far as Shokuhou knew, Kumokawa Seria was the only person who could outdo Mental Out and manipulate her mind, esper powers or not.
(Is she the one behind this, is she working for someone, or did someone learn or steal her techniques? At any rate, it looks like I need to speak with her.)
She left the bench and headed for the park’s exit, but she passed a brightly-shining drink vending machine on the way.
She recognized a few of the soda bottles in it.
They were the ones that pointy-haired boy had always tried to drink, but she had always stopped him. That thought nearly brought a smile to her lips, but it never arrived.
She could not rely on that when she still did not know if the memories were even real.
After deciding that, she left the vending machine.
Instead of visiting a student dormitory in District 7, Shokuhou made her way to an apartment complex meant for school faculty. Kumokawa Seria often used that method when choosing a hideout.
However, a slightly unexpected voice reached her from the side.
The voice belonged to the gorgeous ringlet curl girl from Shokuhou’s clique. She was another elite from Tokiwadai.
“I do not believe I gave you any orders.”
“There is no need. We have our own independent information network. And of course we are going to think something is amiss when you suddenly ask cryptic questions on an account you have not touched in over three months. Around ten other volunteers are waiting for orders. You need not explain the details and we can go without knowing the big picture. …Can you simply tell us what to do?”
She was not opposed to receiving “orders”.
Shokuhou was surprised to find how common such praiseworthy people were.
For an instant, she thought of the boy who now only existed in her memories. Were those memories real or not? She still did not know, but she smiled a little.
“I will if I need you, but now is not a good time. The more people with me, the greater the danger of being controlled.”
“I see. When you need us? Then how about we at least create an alibi for you leaving the dorm, Queen?”
“That I will ask you. Please, please do!”
After that honest plea, Shokuhou took a step away from the clique girl.
The ringlet curl girl perceptively frowned.
“This is a request and not an order,” said Shokuhou Misaki with a gentle smile. “Leave me alone for now. The person I am about to meet is just as dangerous as me. The more people with me, the greater the danger from her manipulation ability.”
This clique girl was not so crass as to protest.
“Just be careful.”
Shokuhou entered the faculty apartment building on her own. She got through the lock by controlling the dorm manager to get her hands on the master key.
She reached her destination floor with the elevator, stopped in front of Kumokawa’s door, and prepared to stick the master key in the lock. But that was when she stopped. She removed her glove, traced her fingertip along the surface of the door, and pressed a digital recorder remote against her own temple.
“Category 044 / Extract the past twenty-four hours’ worth of memories from the object I touch with my right hand.”
“I was right.”
She removed her hand from the door and opened the door to the neighboring room.
She circled around to the balcony, climbed over the simple divider that could be destroyed with a tackle in case of fire, and broke into Kumokawa’s room through the balcony window.
She looked toward the entrance from the empty living room and saw the same information she had obtained a moment before.
A few sensors were attached to the inside of the door. They could have been simple alarms or they could have been rigged to blow up the entire room, but either way, she was not about to touch them.
(Now, there’s no sign of her even after breaking in like this, so is she not home? Or is she hiding in the closet hoping to make a surprise attack?)
That was when her cellphone vibrated.
She answered it and heard a familiar voice.
“C’mon, isn’t this visit a little sudden? Are all Tokiwadai girls like that?”
“I would rather not hear who you are comparing me too, but can I assume you have something to feel guilty about since you made such quick use of your escape ability?”
“I can’t understand why anyone would want to be anywhere near you when you can use all those remotes of yours.”
“Then how did you predict I was coming?”
“Because I’ve scattered cameras around the area to make a personal security network. You’re ridiculously powerful when it comes to the human mind but weak against machines. Although at this rate, you’re going to turn into the foolish college girl who has to ask for help wiring up her video system.”
Then something else happened and it happened silently.
A red dot smaller than the tip of her little finger reached the center of her chest.
(A laser pointer!? But I didn’t find any information on this.)
“Oh, c’mon. You weren’t completely relying on your mindreading, were you? That’s easily fooled by temporarily overwriting your own memories and going around touching everything.”
The girl sounded both mocking and surprised.
The clique members who were all high level espers of Tokiwadai would be waiting outside, but they would not make it in time even if Shokuhou contacted them now. The finger on the trigger would be faster.
She naturally looked out the window.
“I’m pretty sure you had no sniping ability. Do you have a new pet?”
“A foolish assassin in sunglasses had some misguided suspicions about me, just like you now. A beast I’d thought I was done with was still hanging around, so I’m using him in exchange for a peaceful school life. Oh, and he’s about as uncomfortable a chair as you can find.”
Kumokawa Seria did not sound the least bit amused as she continued.
“By the way, the sensors on the entrance activate a detergent bomb that will scatter chlorine gas and the hot water heater is modified to fill the place with carbon monoxide if you so much as touch it. I’m fairly certain Academy City’s #5 can’t disarm all of that at once.”
If she had wanted to kill Shokuhou, she could have done so at any time.
But despite announcing that, she did not go through with it without warning.
“Are you saying you are at least willing to talk?”
“I could say the same about you. If you had given yourself as many pawns as you could without worrying about who you sacrificed, I wouldn’t have escaped unharmed.”
Kumokawa’s composure never wavered.
“Now, how about we get down to business? What exactly do you want to discuss? To be clear, I’m a little ticked you entered my place with your shoes on. Depending on your answer, I may just have a new chair.”
“The summer of last year,” began Shokuhou Misaki. “It was between him and me, but you played into it a little. I want to hear about all that again.”
Kumokawa Seria briefly fell silent.
Shokuhou hated how very similar they were. Especially how the gears so easily fell out of place when he came into the picture, despite how perfect and powerful they were.
Finally, the girl gave her response.
And it came in the form of a new figure standing directly behind Shokuhou.
Sensing a presence behind her, she frantically moved away.
Kumokawa Seria ended the call on her phone, erased the smile on her lips, and spoke.
“In that case, let’s do this in person. Not that this is a casual topic.”
“D-didn’t you say you don’t want to be anywhere near me.”
“I don’t, but I have no choice. Not once his name has been mentioned.” Kumokawa sounded utterly annoyed. “By the way, I’ve given orders to shoot immediately if I start acting oddly. And he doesn’t seem to like me, so that trigger will feel really light. Just know that using me as a hostage won’t do any good.”
“That doesn’t matter. Not until I’ve heard what you have to say.”
Kumokawa gestured to the sofa and Shokuhou fell so heavily into it that she bounced.
The room’s owner sat on the opposite end.
“Now, what about him?”
“Everything. Embarrassingly enough, I have lost my ability to say for sure if my memories are accurate. But if I have some evidence from someone else who interacted with him back then, it might help me make that judgment about my past.”
“I see. So that’s why you suspected me.” Kumokawa crossed her legs in annoyance. “But that question is meaningless. We spent the same time with him in the past, but we only had him as a common acquaintance. We never set foot in each other’s private affairs.”
“You don’t know anything about my incident and I don’t know anything about yours, so we can’t exactly compare notes here.”
Shokuhou clicked her tongue and pulled the silver whistle on a ribbon from her chest.
“Do you recognize this?”
“They hand those out everywhere in District 7. And not just at schools. You can find them at libraries, hospitals, and any other kind of public facility. They pass them out every year during the disaster training, so there are just too many of them everywhere. They’re a lot like pocket tissues, but there’s no use for anything past the first one.”
This was further confirmation that the whistle did not qualify as material evidence.
Anyone could get their hands on one if they wanted.
“That means the only other person I can rely on is him himself. But…”
“Yeah, that won’t work. You must know perfectly well what’s happened to his memories.”
Kamijou Touma had lost his memories.
She could not rely on Kamijou or Kumokawa who had shared that past with her and she could not trust her own memories, so she was beginning to think there was no way of proving that past had existed.
“How about trying this from a different angle?” asked Kumokawa. “I don’t know what exactly has happened to you, but this would be something that got the better of Academy City’s #5 and kept you from noticing for quite a long time. That would require a high level of technology.”
“I had thought you were the one behind it.”
“What would I gain from messing with your head?”
“You would get him all to yourself,” immediately replied Shokuhou. “Of course, that would only make sense if I was still in contact with him.”
Kumokawa fell silent.
However, she was not trembling in rage over a false accusation.
“You’re right. I could’ve done that. Damn. Why didn’t I ever think of it!?”
“But about this.” Kumokawa held her head in her hand. “It had to have taken quite a bit of technology to pull off, so whoever it was must have something to gain that’s worth that. Do you know what memories were falsified and what they’ve led you to do? And if so, who benefits from that? If we knew that, we could narrow it down a good bit.”
“Who benefits, you say?”
The Kamijou Touma in her memories had become a spoiling and kind support for her.
Had someone set things up so she would help him?
He himself did not have the high level of technology needed, so was some third party trying to control both of them much like in the Agitate Halation Project?
“The only other hint I can think of is the actual technology used. Whether an esper power, a technique, or a device, it had to have been something highly specialized if it fooled you. If there’s any kind of trace left, I might be able to find where it came from.”
Shokuhou shook one hand back and forth.
“It couldn’t have been an esper power. No one could ever outdo me there.”
“You’re probably right about that. And I already pointed out your biggest weak point…or rather, blind spot. Do you remember what that is?”
Shokuhou looked confused, but Kumokawa continued immediately afterwards.
“As I said earlier, you’re powerful when it comes to the human mind but ridiculously weak against machines. What would happen if someone used a machine that manipulates the human mind?”
This caught her off guard.
She was left speechless and Kumokawa gave an exasperated sigh.
“Some espers with high basic specs can get by on pure strength alone, so they get lax in checking the small loopholes in their powers. That’s the type that tends to get beaten up by him.”
With that said, Kumokawa stood from the sofa.
For some reason, she urged Shokuhou to stand as well.
“Okay. I’ll help, so come with me.”
“Help with what?”
“Like I said, we might find a trace of the device used on you. There could be something embedded inside you or a wound where something was injected into the skin. C’mon, you can use my bathroom, so it’s time for a thorough examination.”
“Wait! The bathroom!? Wait, wait! I can do this on my own!! I said wait!!”
“They’ve already messed with your head, so it might have a security system that makes you look right past the oddity. Honestly, it’s not like I want to see you naked.”
The red dot in the center of Shokuhou’s chest vanished.
At the same time, Kumokawa Seria dragged her toward the changing room with a surprising amount of strength.
They closed the door from the inside.
“Just to be sure, would you rather remove your clothes on your own or do I have to do it?”
“Oh, honestly! I can do it myself, so look the other way!!”
Shokuhou’s face and then entire body turned red as she shouted back, but Kumokawa did not comply.
Half in desperation, Shokuhou removed her blazer. She just about stopped with her hands on her white blouse, but pursuing the mystery of her memories was more important now. With that in mind, she quickly removed it.
Now wearing a fully-exposed white bra (with a lace spider web pattern that just barely covered everything) and a pleated skirt, she asked a simple question.
“Th-the skirt too?”
“I said it was going to be a thorough examination, didn’t I? Personally, I’d find it creepier that some unknown person had messed with my body and some trace might still remain.”
She lowered the side zipper and the skirt fell to the floor.
She finally wore only her underwear, long gloves, and knee socks.
“Um, the underwear too?”
“Fine, fine. I’ll spare you that for now. But if this turns up nothing, you’ll have no choice but to remove that as well.”
For some reason, Kumokawa was acting irritatingly superior.
Standing in her underwear, Shokuhou pulled her hair up with one hand and stared into the distance.
“Sigh. If I think of this as art using my far-too-radiant beauty ability, this isn’t all that bad.”
“Sounds like your brain has been nicely fried. Think what you want, but face that way so I can check your back.”
“By the way, are you really in middle school?”
“Can’t you do this digitally!? I can feel all sorts of heat gathering inside me!!”
Even as she shouted in protest, Shokuhou somehow managed to carry out the “businesslike” work.
Specifically, she looked back down at her body and touched around with her palms to see if anything felt off.
(There really isn’t anything.)
“Hm. Your skin is a lot shinier than I was expecting.”
“What do you use? It isn’t oil. Is it a type of mud?”
“Wai-…! Don’t run your finger down my back like that!!”
She shouted in anger and tried to turn around, but Kumokawa tightly grabbed her neck, ignored the #5’s look of surprise, and spoke.
“Here it is.”
“H-here what is?”
“Something’s attached to the back of your neck. ...No, is it sticking into your neck? Don’t move.”
With that, Kumokawa grabbed something, or at least it felt that way.
Was something sticking into her?
After hearing that, Shokuhou imagined a small hook like an insect leg or an IC pin was digging into her skin.
However, the long pulling sensation that came afterwards froze her spine.
It was long. Very long.
It was like a hair had burrowed into the back of her neck.
After hearing Kumokawa’s confirmation, Shokuhou turned around.
She held the object between her thumb and forefinger.
The main body was made of plastic and only a few millimeters long.
But something else continued below it.
The single fiber was thinner than a hair and she estimated it at more than twenty centimeters long. Had it extended up or down from the back of her neck? Neither option did anything to mitigate her fear.
“Put on your clothes. That’s indecent.”
Kumokawa gave that disinterested comment as she glanced down at the bizarre object between her fingers and she began to leave the changing room.
“W-wait! That’s an important clue to solving the mystery of my memories!!”
“And I’m saying I’ll look into it with all the power of the Board of Director’s brain. Besides, what can you even do from here on? Perform an amateur online search? Do you think posting it on a question site will get you the answer right away?”
With that said, Kumokawa Seria truly did leave.
Shokuhou wanted to pursue her right away, but she could not in her current state of undress. She hurriedly put on her uniform and practically tackled open the door.
Kumokawa had already connected her handheld device to the living room computer and finished some sort of authentication process to access a database normal people were restricted from.
“You sounded pretty confident, but can you really figure this out?”
“Most of the time, people use illegal modified equipment. Killing someone with a registered weapon will get Anti-Skill knocking on your door right away, after all. But there’s always a technology it’s based on. If I check through the research that matches the materials, appearance, and functionality, I should find something.”
She sounded proud of herself, but her fingers did not race across a keyboard like a hacker in a movie. She was apparently using some kind of program as an agent. When Shokuhou thought about it, Academy City was a collection of countless research institutions, so it would have a massive number of patents and academic papers. Rather than just let them pile up, they would need a specialized system for quickly searching for and finding them.
“Here we go.”
Even with the automated selection of papers, she had over thirty given to her.
She rejected the ones that did not match and displayed the final remaining one.
“This is probably it. It’s called a Strobila. The name apparently comes from one of the stages in a jellyfish’s life cycle. This gives basic research theory on highly-accurate mental control of a human without interfering with the brain that is so closely related to esper development.”
“Oh, so that’s it.”
“People’s minds do not consist solely of the brain. In addition to the chemicals released there, your mind is influenced by the various hormones secreted by your other organs. In the Strobila’s case, it stimulates the heart to alter the balance of secreted hormones and thus manipulate your mind without ever touching the brain. In that case, that fiber must have run all the way to your heart.”
The very end of the paper suggested it could be used as a new restraint for out-of-control espers or a method of efficiently controlling the espers in juvenile hall, but those uses had likely been tacked on later. Researchers generally gave no thought to making compromises with society except when it came to getting funding.
“See? It really wasn’t me.”
“That’s your fault for always sneaking around in the background. Even he called you a mysterious and creepy old woman who wore too much makeup and had disgusting lumps of fat.”
“What!? H-he didn’t, did he? You just tricked me, didn’t you!? Not to mention that I thought we couldn’t trust your memories!!”
Kumokawa Seria was brought to tears far more easily than anyone would have normally thought possible.
She just barely managed to recover from the shock and resumed explaining the specs of that strange device.
“I-if you look into the people connected to the research institution that developed the Strobila or anyone who could have stolen the data, you should reach the culprit behind this.”
“Probably. I truly thank you for this,” said Shokuhou.
However, her tone contained almost no ambition toward having something to do or anger at being used.
“But when was this attached to me?”
“Yeah, I don’t like saying this kind of thing, but…”
“Since you had a Strobila or a derivative device attached, it would be best not to trust your memories and actions too much.”
Shokuhou took a small step back and brought a hand to her head.
Why had she wanted to search out the truth? It had not been to hunt down the creepy culprit and have them punished. It had been to find out that her memories with that boy were accurate and that the warmth inside her was real.
But that path had been cut off.
The memories inside her heart were all lies.
Her past with Kamijou Touma had never existed.
It was possible she could find the person behind it, reveal their conspiracy, crush the entire incident, and ensure those who had trampled all over her memories experienced a living hell.
But what would that accomplish?
Were her feelings so trivial that this would erase them or replace them?
“What will you do? Now that we’ve removed the Strobila, you’ve left the culprit’s expectations. They might target you again, but for now, you’ve escaped the greatest threat. Will you continue on or turn back? It’s up to you.”
Shokuhou Misaki sounded weary and wilted as she replied.
“I’ll decide what to do from here on.”
By the time Shokuhou Misaki left Kumokawa Seria’s faculty apartment, the night was growing late.
She had been unable to stop sighing for a while now.
A member of her clique silently appeared and spoke to her.
It was the ringlet curl girl from before. Shokuhou had only asked for her help when the time came, but she had apparently been waiting all this time.
“You do not look very happy. Is something the matter?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“If you are in some kind of trouble, you only need to tell us what to do.”
“Yes, but unfortunately, working alone is best for now. If I really do need you, I won’t hesitate to give you an order.”
With that, Shokuhou disappeared into the dark streets.
The memories that had supported her more than any other had been created for someone else’s benefit. Continuing to pursue the truth would only increase the risk and she would not find what she wanted there. Her hopes would be completely sidestepped.
She had left the Strobila with Kumokawa Seria.
That had surely been enough to tell that girl that Shokuhou was burned out.
(Really. What should I do now?)
That question was not only directed at her immediate situation.
On a much larger scale, where was she headed now? Would she continue to drag around those nonexistent memories of Kamijou Touma or…
The handbag hanging from her shoulder by a thin chain was her armory filled with remote controls, but it felt awfully heavy now.
Was there any point in holding onto false memories?
If someone had created them to manipulate her, wouldn’t it be best to throw them away?
It would only take a single press of the button.
She only had to place the remote against her temple like committing suicide with a handgun.
It would be a simple reset.
She felt as if an unavoidably and hopelessly cold wind was passing through her body.
As she stood there, she felt as though, this time, she truly would lose sight of it all. With her greatest support and reference point lost, she did not know what to base her decision on.
Why not do it?
If it was a lie, why not make it a lie?
And if she could throw that away, was there anything in her own memories that would be even harder to part with?
She thought of her position as Tokiwadai’s queen, the largest clique, her strongest mental powers, Dolly, the former ***** Project, before she came to this city, and her own birth.
Even if any of that was important, was it really important enough that she would not be able to throw it away if something like this happened?
And in that case, did she really need to keep those memories?
Wouldn’t she be happier if she erased everything that fell into the category of “unnecessary”?
She normally would have laughed off that question, but now she could not deny it.
She no longer had what it took to do that.
She stood perfectly still for a long, long time.
Not even she knew how long she had been there.
However, a change finally came from outside.
She heard the sound of tires screeching along the ground and a white station wagon stopped nearby. The roof had red flashing lights attached, the back door normally meant for loading and unloading luggage rose straight up, and a few men in white coats exited while pushing a stretcher.
It reminded her of…
“Are you Shokuhou Misaki of Tokiwadai Middle School?”
One of the men in white coats spoke to her while she watched in a daze.
“I am Yamakawa of Emergency Aid. Do I need to explain your situation and our duties?”
“Emergency Aid?” she repeated while thinking on the term. “Oh, you’re those civilian ambulances. 119 was overburdened with all the pointless reports, so your service was started to take on some of the work. Have you expanded into transporting out-of-control espers who the school infirmaries can’t handle? After all, if the school doesn’t call 119, there won’t be an official record of the esper being taken to the hospital.”
“We do not use the term ‘out-of-control’. When drugs, electrodes, suggestion, and other methods are used to stimulate the brain for esper development during the already unstable hormone balance of adolescence, it is expected for a certain number of incidents to occur.” The man calling himself Yamakawa mechanically rattled off this explanation. “We were unsure if we should head out in your case, but given the type and scope of your powers, we decided we could not ignore this. We have contacted your school and you will be transported to a facility inside the School Garden, so do not worry.”
“Just out of curiosity, what triggered this?”
“When you trespassed on someone else’s residence. All the wandering around you did earlier was also a hint of danger.”
When she heard that, she gave up.
It was even possible Kumokawa Seria had noticed the abnormality and set this up.
“At any rate, please get inside. We would prefer not to strap you to the stretcher if at all possible.”
“Thank you for your concern.”
Whatever the case, she had to do something about the memories implanted inside her by the Strobila.
It did not matter if she erased them with her remote control suicide or through high-level treatment by the specialists at Emergency Aid.
It was time to say goodbye.
This was the perfect time.
She was not enough of a romantic to drag around false memories and hold onto a baseless admiration.
Pushed on by those thoughts, she prepared to enter the white station wagon.
But something occurred to her just before she did.
“Yamakawa-san was it?”
“Yes. What is it?”
“You said the trigger was my trespassing and how I was wandering around several hours ago.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
She kept her head lowered as she spoke.
“If you knew I had trespassed, it means you knew from the beginning where I was going or had the ability to detect my location. But after sneaking into her place, I spent several hours of investigation before leaving. Just look how late it is.”
“That means you should have shown up earlier than this☆ Since you didn’t, I can only assume that trespassing was not the trigger. Perhaps it was-…”
“Shokuhou Misaki-san. Conspiracy theories and delusions of persecution are a common symptom. We truly do not want to strap you down like some kind of spectacle, so please calm down.”
“Perhaps it was this right here. You lost contact with the Strobila embedded in my neck here, so you came rushing out here. That way you could embed a new one while disguising it as treatment.”
A loud sound of impact filled the area.
One of the men in white coats had snuck up behind Shokuhou Misaki, swung his long flashlight up like a baton, and slammed it down against the back of her head.
Or so he believed.
He had actually knocked out the man named Yamakawa.
She had altered his perception of the people around him.
In fact, all four or five men who claimed to be from Emergency Aid had been made to think a different person was Shokuhou Misaki.
She spun a remote around and muttered in annoyance.
“Well, I’m not going to make this easy for you.”
With several sounds much like beating a bag of wheat with a bat, they reduced their own numbers. After confirming they were no longer moving and that no reinforcements were coming, she stuck a hand in her handbag.
(I really don’t want to dive right into these dangerous people’s minds. I guess I’ll start by asking from the outside.)
“Category 081 / Shokuhou Misaki is Direct Superior A.”
“Get up. C’mon, get up. Hurry.”
She spoke slowly and kept her voice low, but that was enough for the man (supposedly) named Yamakawa to force open his own eyes. He could not stand up from the road, but he groaned and worked to look Shokuhou in the eye.
It seemed his superior had thoroughly trained him.
“What are you doing there?”
“S-so-sorry! Shokuhou is… Damn, where’d she go!?”
“This is no time to be looking away. What did I assign you to do? Repeat it back to me.”
“Of course. I was told to quickly contact Shokuhou Misaki and attach a replacement for the Strobila that ceased functioning.”
“And what was that for?”
“I do not know. You said I did not need to know.”
Simply holding this conversation made her feel empty inside.
Her memories of Kamijou Touma really had not existed. The deeper she dug, she only found more of some lowly villain’s plan and was dragged further from her lovely memories with him.
What was the point of this?
A bitter feeling grew in her chest and she considered ending this, but he continued just before she did.
“But there was one odd fact about the Strobila you supplied. Are you sure it was set up right?”
“And what was that?”
She asked that question almost on autopilot.
And that was when the man calling himself Yamakawa dropped a bombshell.
“There was no data inside the Strobila. Even if we manage to attach it, I don’t think it will function.”
This time it really happened.
The situation really and truly surpassed anything she had imagined.
The Strobila given to Yamakawa and the others disguised as Emergency Aid had not contained any data. Even if they had secretly attached it, it could not have altered her mind or memories.
Then what about the one Kumokawa Seria had removed?
Their objective had to have been to return the situation to normal, so it made no sense for the new one to be empty when the original one actually did something. That meant she should assume the one Kumokawa had retrieved had been empty in the first place and they were returning the situation to normal by attaching another useless Strobila.
But what good did that do?
Why had they disguised themselves and contacted her only to attach a useless device to her?
“W-wait a minute! What do you mean? Why didn’t the Strobila have any data inside!?”
“Eh? So it really was a major mistake!?”
“Tell me the facts as plainly as you can!”
“O-of course. The Strobila you gave us had no data and neither did any of the backups. I sent a message asking if this was a problem, but the mission began before I received a reply.”
It had not been just one without data and his question had gone unanswered.
(It wasn’t a mistake. It was set up that way from the beginning?)
Shokuhou brought a hand to her forehead.
Filled with a certain type of conviction, she changed her question.
“In your opinion, what were the odds of success in this plan to manipulate Shokuhou Misaki using a Strobila? Can Mental Out be fully controlled with the power of a simple machine?”
“As long as you give the orders, I would even-…”
“Tell me the truth.”
“The preliminary calculations suggested the odds were less than 30%. And even if it succeeded, it would have difficulty lasting long-term.”
(I knew it.)
She reached her conclusion with the expression of someone who had just swallowed a mass of pus oozing from their own body.
(The Strobila was a decoy and their plan was to trick me into thinking those memories were false so I would erase them myself. That was how they would manipulate the mind of the most powerful mental esper. I can’t think of any other reason to give me a Strobila with no data inside.)
Knowing the enemy’s objective meant nothing to her.
A much more important fact lay before her eyes.
(My memories with Kamijou Touma really were real. Otherwise, no one would go to this much effort to have me erase them!!)
Something welled up within that girl’s heart. It initially felt like a tiny, tiny point of light, but it quickly exploded and she found herself unable to control it.
First, she felt the muscles of her face tremble unnaturally and then relax.
The tremble tried to run down her spine and spread to her entire body, but she held her body in her arms to suppress it.
However, she failed to do that and she ended up lying on the ground and rolling back and forth.
She writhed around like a girl holding a stuffed animal in her bed and thinking about her crush.
“Ha ha ha. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
She pulled out the silver emergency whistle she had turned into a necklace using a thin ribbon. She wrapped the cheap plastic in her palm to ensure it was there.
It had indeed been given to her by that boy.
His request for her to use it if she was in trouble had actually happened.
The mind had no real form.
From a purely physical perspective, it may have been nothing more than electrical signals and chemical reactions.
However, people would do anything for it.
They saw great meaning in it.
“Now, I’ve overturned two major assumptions and circled 360 degrees to end up right back where I started♪ But what does that mean exactly?”
Also, this completely changed the overall picture.
The issue had started with the difference between the scenery in her mind and the actual artificial lake and geothermal power station tower on that District 21 mountaintop.
Such a large facility could not be rebuilt or demolished so easily. It would have had a large effect on the dam and observatory on the same mountain. Shokuhou had naturally assumed she was wrong and her memories with Kamijou Touma had not existed.
But what if she was right?
What if her memories with Kamijou Touma had existed?
(That means the current artificial lake is wrong.)
She did not know what that meant, but she felt as if the conspiracy surrounding her was directly connected to that unnatural power station and lake.
She turned to the man in a white coat who went by Yamakawa.
“Who am I?” she asked.
“I do not know your name,” he immediately replied.
“Who are you?”
“Wait. I am your immediate superior, so we should see each other on a daily bas-…”
Once his ability to speak broke down, she frantically reached into her handbag, pulled out a variety remotes for televisions or air conditioners, and lined them up on the road.
She would look after the people she controlled. That was a rule she had set for herself.
She checked the back of his neck, but he did not have a Strobila attached. However, his unnatural reaction made it clear he had some kind of “bomb” installed that had activated at a set keyword.
And if it was not a machine…
(Was it an esper like me? I can’t recommend peeking inside a contaminated mind like this, but I have no choice.)
“Category 005 / Locate the ‘bomb’ set in the indicated individual.”
For about ten seconds, she read his mind as if tracing her hand along its surface.
“Category 401 / Return the indicated individual’s mind to its state just before the ‘bomb’ activated.”
She restored his broken mind like using a computer’s recovery system.
“Category 030 / Leave the indicated individual unconscious for twenty-four hours.”
“Uuh, ah? What? You’re Shokuho- gwah!?”
“Thank you for your cooperation.”
He was then safely rendered unconscious with no lasting effects.
Mental Out’s greatest weapon was its overwhelming power and number of applications. Of course, its great strength left even her unable to grasp its full scope without dividing it up using the remotes and her other personal rules.
“Helping someone who will never thank you feels so empty.”
She did not know how much his mind had been contaminated, so she wanted to avoid diving deeper to search for the name of whoever was behind this.
But even though she did not investigate with her powers, she still made some guesses based on her knowledge and experience.
Yamakawa…no, all of those claiming to be with Emergency Aid may have been controlled by a single individual. They were given false identities, they had received false orders, and they had taken false actions.
That meant Yamakawa’s observation about no data in the Strobila lost any credibility. Everything was reverted to a blank state.
Even so, the world seemed to have changed from before.
As before, the situation was 50/50. Her memories of Kamijou Touma were on the borderline between existing or not, but she had found something to investigate regardless.
(That geothermal power station and artificial lake in District 21.)
She had a clear objective and she faced forward once more.
(That is the center of the entire distortion. If my memories are accurate, there has to be something there. And if there isn’t anything there, it will prove my memories are wrong. Either way, if I check there, I can settle this once and for all.)
She would use everything.
She would go all out.
With that in mind, she pulled out her cellphone.
She called a member of her clique. The gorgeous ringlet curl girl did not sound remotely irritated despite how late it was.
“Do you need us now, queen?”
That queen bee and #5 monster of Academy City did not hesitate to answer.
“I will now be using you completely and utterly for my own benefit♪ Can you gather together only those who are willing to be my pawns?”
That was all.
Nothing more was needed to set in motion a group of individuals who each had powerful and dangerous abilities.
Between the Lines 2
Overview of Ground Geo (For external PR)
Classification: Experimental geothermal power station.
Output: 2,027,000 kW.
Method: Deep magma heat conduction.
Location: District 21’s New Mountain.
The facility far surpasses the output of a nuclear power station, but as the energy is directly extracted from the magma deep underground, it has no effect on the environment and is extremely clean.
The power is extracted using a method that has previously been considered in theory. Namely, a 1000 meter heat-conducting rod is placed vertically down from the mountain peak and the magma’s heat is transferred through the liquid flowing within the rod.
We will only achieve what is perfectly natural. We hope you will view this as a high level of trust in the design and construction.
The primary problem is the production of extremely faint earthquakes that are too weak for people to feel, but they should not affect everyday life in any way.
The plan to place a heat-conducting rod deep underground was primarily seen as an experiment toward the future construction of a space elevator, but we assure you this will be even more valuable in a way.
The facility’s greatest peculiarity is its high level of computer control. Normal operation is fully automated.
Every part of the facility is naturally monitored by a total of 32,000 sensors and the slightest abnormality will be immediately reported.
However, the fact that it has been running for more than three years without issue may prove just how flexible it is.
While previous geothermal power stations had to be constructed on active volcanoes that could grow unstable in the future, the heat-conducting rod method allows these facilities to be constructed in flat urban areas or even the ocean floor.
Just like the wind turbines that are Academy City’s primary method, these facilities can be freely constructed anywhere and their applications are endless.