Toaru Majutsu no Index:NT Volume17 Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Or Cutting Off Leads to Diffusion – Gray_City.
It was December 9 just before 5 AM.
It was impossible to know for sure with none of the clocks running, but that was probably close. The sun was finally rising and the midwinter weather turned one’s breath white. The heat wave was entirely gone and it had dropped below freezing. Kamijou Touma had been wearing a swimsuit to deal with the 55 degree heat, so he felt like his lifespan was being physically shaved away. However, he could not worry about that now. Just like someone would not be particularly bothered by being in a refrigerated warehouse when their back had been sliced open by a chainsaw.
Simply put, a much greater danger was approaching from directly behind him.
It was the 100 strange and bizarre girls of the old Kamisato Faction.
Kamisato Kakeru had wielded World Rejecter to save them all despite knowing it would destroy him. And he had asked Kamijou to “take care of those girls”. Their hearts had been bound by Kihara Yuiitsu stealing his right hand, so the owner of the hand ruled the girls, just as Kamisato had most feared.
Kamijou could not allow this to stand.
He could not let this happen to the boy who had saved his life.
So he would free those girls. He had to prove they could rescue Kamisato Kakeru without relying on Kihara Yuiitsu’s World Rejecter. He had no idea if that was even possible, but he had to cling to that idea.
As the first step, he had to lose his pursuers so he could relax and come up with an actual plan!!
He knew that.
He knew that, but the hoodie bikini girl named Fran sounded hopeless as she fled with him.
“We can’t escape them.”
“I’m not talking about how fast we are or how far away they are. …They have Ellen, a tracer who can use all sorts of cutting-edge forensic techniques. It can be sweat, saliva, hairs, shoeprints, or anything else. That chemical stalker can detect any trace left on the ground, so she can follow our every footprint. So she’ll definitely reach us sooner or later.”
“Then what are we supposed to do!?”
The hoodie, bikini, and rabbit-ear antennae girl snapped her fingers.
Immediately, something silently floated down above Kamijou’s head. It was an unidentified flying…
“We just have to avoid making any footprints. In other words, we just have to fly.”
Ellen, who wore a swimsuit and lab coat, and Elza, a delinquent girl who looked something like a shrine maiden in her red pareo worn over a white bikini, naturally knew this was coming.
So they called for someone else.
“Maya~? How are things up there?”
Something was swimming through the sky. It was a tall and translucent girl who wore a truly ominous kimono of pure white. She was curled up in the fetal position, her chest was alluring exposed, her forehead was adorned by a triangular celestial crown with a slight notch in it, and her very long black hair curled around her like a crescent moon. The observer in the skies faintly opened her eyes as she replied.
“Everything’s just fine. If they try to go up, my curse will snare them and bring them down.”
“There you have it.”
Ellen leaned against the railing of an overpass they had come across and lightly waved her baggy lab coat sleeves in the air overhead.
“We need to keep up the search on the ground. With Maya covering the sky, they can’t escape with Fran’s balloon. Thanks to the powerful microwaves Fran was sending out, all of the busses and trains have stopped and there are no running cars or motorcycles around here. As long as I find an obvious trail, we can catch up and take care of them.”
Ellen herself was not a fighter.
It was Elza, the eyepatch pirate girl named Luca, the cosplay girl named Olivia, and others with enough firepower to single-handedly break open a bank vault who crossed the overpass.
“You said Claire was fried by the microwaves, right?”
“…Kihara Yuiitsu. Will this kind of thing keep happening as long as we’re with her?”
“But we have no choice. We can’t give up on Kamisato-san. I don’t know what Fran and that boy are planning, but we can’t entrust Kamisato-san’s fate with them. Offering up that pointy-haired boy’s head is definitely the most certain way of keeping World Rejecter around.”
“Don’t worry. You know Claire. Before you know it, she’ll be up and fighting like nothing even happened.”
Below that overpass, Kamijou and Fran dangled from a UFO balloon as if clinging to the underside of the structure.
The UFO balloon was stopped less than 100cm away and Kamijou hung from it by a single wire. His forehead was soaked with sweat despite it being midwinter. Ellen had her hands on the railing and if she leaned dangerously forward, she would probably be able to see him. The extreme tension was too much for him to even breathe heavily.
He choked on his own breaths and his heart pounded so hard in his chest he thought it would break through his ribcage.
Fran hung from the same wire, but he still could not read any emotion in her eyes. She did not even look up. Her only movement was the occasional twitching of the rabbit-ear antennae on her head and the communications equipment stuffed inside her backpack.
She apparently adjusted the buoyancy of her handmade balloon by letting lighter-than-air gas in or out and she could freely move it in any direction, but that was no reason to relax.
Kamijou desperately held his breath, but he could not contain the internal pressure of his fear.
His lips began to move as if he were speaking a good-luck charm under his breath.
“(You have to be kidding me, you have to be kidding me.)”
They could not walk on the ground, but the sky was off limits as well.
They were entirely trapped, so the last space available to them was directly below the overpass. It passed over a steel track, likely used by the subway. The entrance to the subway tunnel was nearby and it looked a lot like the entrance to an underground drain.
“(That’s only 20 meters, shorter than a school pool. We can make it from here.)”
“(They’ll see us. They’ll see us and kill us.)”
“(Maya is only doing air-to-air surveillance and Ellen’s group believes they have everything on the ground covered, so they aren’t thinking about this lower altitude sandwiched between the two. But once she starts a more thorough search, Ellen might notice this area below the overpass, so we need to put as much distance between us as we can.)”
Either way, the decision was not Kamijou’s to make.
It was Unidentified Flying Girl Fran who controlled the ad-balloon of an unidentified flying object (which was an accurate description in this case). The round radar on her butt moved left and right a few times, and then…
She moved them out without asking.
Kamijou was along for the ride and he nearly screamed, but he just barely managed to swallow his outburst. They silently left the overpass and glided at low altitude toward the nearby tunnel.
A few of the girls were still on the overpass, so Kamijou felt a squeezing at his heart. He held onto the wire and pointlessly curled up his back to make himself look as small as possible. Luckily, Ellen called for the girls and they moved toward the end of the overpass. If they had turned their heads even slightly, it would have been game over.
The boy and girl continued into the tunnel.
Academy City’s power had yet to recover, so there was no risk of being hit by a subway train without warning. If they continued on and on through the tunnel without setting foot on the ground, they would have better odds of losing Ellen.
Kamijou quietly sighed, but then he felt something cold on his side.
He could not tell what it was inside the pitch black tunnel, but then the entire lower surface of the balloon glowed like a paper lantern on a construction site at night.
The balloon was well made. It may have had a theatre spotlight inside for making fake abductions, but with the wire hanging down from the round object, it looked like the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling of Japanese-style rooms.
Kamijou blinked his dazzled eyes until they adjusted and he could compare the scene in his mind with the actual one.
He saw what it was touching his bare side.
Rabbit-Ear Antennae Fran’s small hand held something through the baggy sleeve of her hoodie. It was a silver blade as long as an index finger. Kamijou felt a chill in his stomach when he initially thought it was one of the butterfly knives that delinquents swung around like nunchuks, but a closer look showed it was a part of a multi-tool. The handle of a pair of pliers contained a screwdriver, a gimlet, and other tools. Annoyingly enough, it was Swiss-made. The original craftsman had to be crying.
“I would like to make something clear before we go any further.”
“I am on Kamisato Kakeru’s side and not on Kamijou Touma’s side. I am only helping you here because I decided this was the best thing for Kamisato-chan.”
She sounded like she was reading off the important clauses of a contract.
There was no change in her eyes. They were the same when she blew bubbles in the kiddie pool, when she was on the run from all the other girls, and when she pressed a tool knife against his vitals.
She could stab him as easily as playing with the straw in a melon soda.
The pointy-haired boy was no more important than that to Fran.
“Please do what it takes to help Kamisato-chan. As long as you are doing that, I will assist you however I can. But if you prioritize Kamijou Touma over Kamisato Kakeru even once, it ends there. No matter what the situation, I will not hesitate to cut you away.”
“I know that,” spat back Kamijou. He did not pause at all. “He saved my life. I would be a piece of charcoal down underground right now if not for him. So there’s nothing in it for me this time. I’ll risk my life to rescue Kamisato.”
“Very good then.”
She pulled back the tool knife with surprising ease.
The rabbit-ear girl closed the knife inside the pliers with a single hand and then her lips finally formed a smile despite how out of place it was here. It was like a flower bud slowly opening at the start of spring after being frozen all winter. It may have been an expression of respect and affection for someone who was willing to act on Kamisato Kakeru’s behalf.
“With that settled, I’m hungry. Let’s find something to eat.”
“Hey, wait. You’re prioritizing yourself five seconds after saying all that?”
Directly below the Windowless Building in Academy City’s District 7 was a strange underground space with countless largescale rocket boosters dangling from the ceiling like stalactites.
In a lab coat and red bikini, Kihara Yuiitsu elegantly sat there while tending to her fingernails. Her left hand had nail polish, but her right hand was only quickly clipped without even being filed. In fact, the very shape of the hands was different. That was a certain boy’s right hand sewn on by a weakened Sample Shoggoth like a stuffed animal.
That was World Rejecter.
But at the moment, its tremendous power was less important than how it functioned as chains for those many girls.
“I see, I see, I see.”
After filing down the nails to give them the proper round outline, she tried to decide what kind of polish to use. She did not have a color that would match a high school boy’s nails. The same color as her left hand would look conspicuously out of place, but she could not have the right and left hands’ colors clash too much. Then again, it was strange enough for a single person to have mismatched hands.
“It’s been 10 minutes since I ordered them to kill Kamijou Touma. Around 100 of them left on this human hunt, but they’ve lost sight of him and are searching blindly. First they let him escape and then they almost immediately give up and report back to me. I get the feeling they have their feet on the brakes juuust a little, at least subconsciously.”
Yuiitsu crossed her legs and spoke while showing off a bit too much alluring white to be called a lady. Her gaze never left her fingernails. She did not even look toward the other person.
Her chair creaked a little.
Nevertheless, she let her weight bear down on it and casually continued speaking in her swimsuit and lab coat.
“The Kamisato Faction shook up Academy City so much, so I seriously doubt this is the best they can do. Or did I overestimate them? What are your thoughts on that?”
She heard a quiet groan.
Yuiitsu smiled thinly, raised her left hand’s index finger, and casually jabbed it into her chair.
No, that was the brown girl named Salome who was down on all fours and Yuiitsu’s finger jabbed into her back just below the neck.
Although the term “all fours” may not have been entirely accurate. The white school swimsuit and raincoat girl had lost an arm in the earlier battle, so she only had three legs as a chair.
But Kihara Yuiitsu rested her full body weight on her all the same.
If the girl tilted even slightly, the woman would not hesitate to jab her finger deep into that unresisting back. By tormenting the joints of Salome’s spine, pain exploded in her like lightning had struck her.
If Salome had not been a self-made cyborg, she would have long since died. Not from blood loss, but from shock.
“Pant, pant. Khah!?”
“You look displeased. Do you still not know your place here?”
Yuiitsu giggled and boldly crossed her legs again.
“Or would you prefer I did it with your Onii-chan’s finger?”
The incredibly fierce sound of clenching teeth filled the entire space, but Yuiitsu found it unbearably lovely. But not the brown girl. That mad scientist loved the situation.
“It really does feel rarer when it belongs to someone else, doesn’t it?”
She did not expect an answer, but that may have been part of the joy of stealing that burned in her heart.
She licked the boy’s finger as she spoke.
“It’s like I can feel his cries of suffering through what I’ve taken from him… Yesss, it isn’t quite like taking that first step in a field of fresh snow, but it’s nice in its own way.”
Kihara Yuiitsu had no real reason to so persistently pursue and kill Kamijou Touma.
Based on what she had said, she simply wished to indirectly take revenge on someone who was “no longer here” by dirtying the hands of those girls.
As long as it let her crush what Kamisato Kakeru cared about, anything would have worked. She could have torn off their limbs and chucked them inside a cheap hotel in some foreign country.
So why had she included Kamijou Touma in her revenge?
There was no strategic reason for it and she finished her self-analysis as an extension of her wandering thoughts.
“…Yes. If I am to take revenge on everyone who hurt Sensei, then Kamisato Kakeru alone may not be enough.”
She stuck her fingertip between the two shoulder blades and enjoyed how the chair jerked below her.
Kamijou Touma had no direct connection to Kihara Noukan’s fate.
But this too was a way of destroying someone’s possession to hear them scream.
In other words…
“Academy City and Kamijou Touma. I bet Aleister is screaming right about now as I ruin his precious collection.”
After floating two or three kilometers through the powerless subway tunnel, Rabbit-Ear Antennae Fran casually hopped from the wire to the ground. She must have decided they had traveled far enough to avoid being directly “traced” by Ellen.
The balloon was hers, so Kamijou did not argue the point. He simply followed her lead.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone around here…”
“This is a subway tunnel, so of course there isn’t.”
“No, not that. I’m just surprised how little sign of human life there is when we really aren’t that far away.”
During that 55 degree hell full of Elements, these underground spaces had been off limits for shelter. The Elements had preferred to hide in dark and cool places, so these spaces had become their dens. Even if the heat wave had had less of an effect, the spaces would have been far from safe with an endless stream of Elements rushing in.
“But it didn’t seem like the Elements ate normal food. A subway station soba restaurant or something might not have been touched.”
“Hey, we can check the fridge if you want, but make sure you leave some money on the counter. Everything that wasn’t vacuum packed will probably have gone bad, but it still belongs to someone.”
“I don’t know the market value of industrial ingredients.”
When he heard that nonchalant response, Kamijou just about held his head in his hands. She was right, but no one would be happy with a random guess due to ignorance. In fact, the way Fran waved her round tail-like radar antenna back and forth as she walked made it clear she planned on tricking him into thinking a dozen chikuwa or kamaboko were only 100 yen. But Kamijou Touma the supermarket sales connoisseur was prepared to see right through her lies.
As he thought about that, they started toward the closest subway station.
But they came to a stop when they saw what the UFO balloon’s abduction light brought into view.
It was white sand. No, it was more like the microplastic that was all the rage recently(?). At any rate, a pile of sand had buried the steel track as if it had poured into the tunnel. It was a small pile at only a meter tall, but they could not even imagine where it had come from. There did not seem to be an exit to the surface nearby.
Kamijou looked up at the tunnel’s ceiling.
“It wasn’t from a duct, was it?”
“I don’t see anything like that.”
They could not stop here, so they crossed it and continued on. They came across a few more similar piles, including another tunnel entirely filled where it branched off from theirs.
It looked like opaque white or silver sand, but that was due to the reflection of the light and it was actually a collection of tiny, nearly transparent granules.
After some thought, an idea finally occurred to Kamijou.
“Could this be the remains of the Elements…?”
Not even he entirely believed it. He and his companions had defeated a few Elements to survive that hell, but the Elements had always fallen apart at the joints instead of crumbling into sand like this.
Fran crouched down and scooped up some of the white sand in her hands.
“Is this a unique reaction when they self-destruct on Kihara Yuiitsu’s command?”
“Maybe, but we have no way of investigating it further.”
At any rate, they had to keep going. They crossed the white hills and finally arrived at the dark subway station. Fran placed her hands on the raised platform.
“Why are you wiggling your little butt around? Some kind of new diet exercise?”
Exasperated, Kamijou pushed on Fran’s soft butt from below until she managed to climb into the platform. The spiky-haired boy then pulled himself up like he was climbing onto the poolside and he finally breathed a sigh of relief. He had known no trains were coming, but walking along the track had still been nerve-racking.
They did not even need the hoodie bikini girl’s tool knife to enter the soba restaurant built alongside the platform. The shutter was not lowered and it was not locked. The first wave of Elements may have arrived while the manager was preparing it to open for the day. It was not clear what had happened to that manager, but there was at least no sign of blood stains.
Fran quickly got on all fours and lifted her butt’s radar antenna as she stuck her head inside the industrial refrigerator.
Kamijou was prepared for the green onions, beef, and such to be in such a tragic state that the hoodie bikini girl collapsed backwards like she had been hit by a gas weapon, but that never happened. The fresh foods were all black and unusable, but it did not stink all that much.
(…Hm? Oh, they’ve filled the fridge with deodorizers so ingredients don’t leave their smell behind.)
“Hm, hm, hm, hmmm. Oh, I found some vacuum-packed duck slices! I thought fish paste was the only thing you could eat without cooking it, so this is a nice surprise.”
“Wait, defenseless butt girl. Try eating that without paying and I swear I’ll give that ass a hard spanking.”
Then Kamijou Touma, the world’s great classifier, began his grand review.
“And wouldn’t duck be pretty expensive? Plus, it isn’t even raw. It’s precooked and then vacuum packed, so on top of the cost of the ingredients, you have the seasonings, the processing, and the labor costs.”
“But, but. It wouldn’t make sense for it to cost 200 or 300 yen. I mean, it says here that duck meat soba only costs 250 yen!”
“I need to remember this soba place!? Ahem… Also, these naruto are surprisingly costly. I mean, a single bowl of soba only has two or three slices, right? This old man isn’t going to let you have a whole one.”
“What is with you and that weird characterization!? And that doesn’t make sense! Kamaboko is made almost exactly the same way, but they barely cost anything! Aren’t you just worrying too much now!?”
“Shut up. We’re the ones walking in and rummaging through the fridge without permission. Standard market value doesn’t apply. Of course there’s going to be a markup.”
Despite what he said, Kamijou also began searching through the refrigerator. The power was out, but everything protected by vacuum-packing seemed to be fine. The two of them were trying to rescue Kamisato, one of the world’s most difficult problems, but they were taking a breakfast break that was one step away from being bandits.
It may have looked silly, but Kamijou could not laugh at it. The past few days had taught him all too well the importance of necessities like food, shelter, and clothing. Without the basics for his own survival, he could not react properly to help others.
As expected, no water came from the faucet, but a glass refrigerator case had some small plastic bottles of tea. The tea was lukewarm, but it helped to wet their throats.
“Hey, Fran, calm down a little. Do you want to eat the duck slices that badly?”
“It’s a shame they’re only flavored with soy sauce or mentsuyu, but I still won’t let anyone have them.”
“No one’s going to take them from you. Here, I’ll open the vacuum pack for you. In fact, I’m afraid of letting you keep it. I can already see it exploding like someone failing to open a bag of chips!”
“You say that, but you just want to steal my duck! Don’t make me laugh!!”
His vision proved to be prophetic.
Something burst and Fran toppled backwards on the floor.
“…Please don’t talk to me for a while.”
“This isn’t the time for that. Get up, Fran. The floor is clean, so you can still eat it if you use the three second rule. Plus there’s duck juice all over the place. Like your body.”
Kamijou quickly picked up the duck slices and Fran finally decided to crawl up out of the abyss.
“Isn’t this pure mentsuyu too salty? You should probably dilute it with something, but we don’t have any water… This paper package has…cooking sake. No, that would be a bad idea. If the gas was running, we could have cooked the alcohol out of it.”
The meat itself probably had not been seasoned very much, but it had been sealed in with the sauce. The hoodie bikini girl slowly got up while wrinkling her brow and she looked down at her modest chest.
“Mhh, this is going to stain my swimsuit.”
“There’s a rag here, but no water. Do you think tea would work?”
Kamijou stopped speaking and nearly choked.
Just as he heard the rustling of cloth, the rabbit-ear antennae girl grabbed the string inside the large V-shaped opening of her hoodie and pulled out her bikini top.
Still sitting on the floor, Fran began sucking the duck sauce out of her bikini top. Her hoodie was unzipped to the very bottom, so the view of her chest as she looked up at him and tilted her head was quite dangerous.
She did not seem aware of the problem, so she used her small lips to do battle with the top, removed it from her mouth, and stared at it. Once she was satisfied, she stuck her tongue out and licked the cloth.
“Nmh. Good, it didn’t get the flavor in it. …Hm?”
“What is it now?”
“I thought my hips felt restless, but it looks like the bottom is wet too.”
Her tone was so carefree that Kamijou had ignored what she said, but then he thought his heart had leaped out of his chest.
“Wait, you idiot! That’s going too far…!”
The Maginot Line had been destroyed.
After her silly cry, Fran pulled her bikini bottom from just above the thighs surrounded by her hoodie. The zipper only connected the very bottom of the hoodie, making it something like a miniskirt, but this was still dangerous. Extremely dangerous. Fran’s defenses were about as sturdy as a house of cards.
(O-ohh. So that’s what that triangle of cloth looks like when you untie the side strings and remove it…)
A distant look entered Kamijou’s eyes as he stared at the hourglass or H-shaped silhouette, but Fran simply prepared to suck out the duck juice like she had before. But this time she came to a stop and wrinkled her brow.
Yes. It was a poor mealtime topic, but that cloth covered her crotch.
The rabbit-ear antennae girl shook her head with her top and bottom protected only by a hoodie opened in a V-shape, but then she noticed the pointy-haired boy in front of her.
“If it makes you look that unhappy, then don’t hold it out toward me. In fact, don’t force your perversion onto me!!”
Kamijou Touma did not want to earn the insane trophy of “sucked on a girl’s bikini bottom at mealtime like it was pickled radish”.
“The standard way of getting out a stain is to tap it with a cloth. This dried rag should be enough for something this minor. Swimsuits are made to repel water, so it shouldn’t have gotten deep into the fabric.”
“Will it really be okay? I don’t have a change of clothes, so I’ll be in trouble without this.”
“If you get why that would be a problem, then at least put the top back on, Fran. This is the open world survival game known as Academy City, so you never know when a mischievous kitty is going grab the string and run off with it.”
It was probably already fine, but after that work, he wet the cloth with some of the bottled tea and wiped it down again. Tea had deodorizing properties, so he was pretty sure this would keep her from becoming the mysterious duck sauce girl whose crotch smelled like a soba restaurant.
“Here. All done, Fran.”
The rabbit-ear antennae girl moved her hands inside the hidden zone within her hoodie to put on the bikini bottom, but then she shivered like someone had traced their finger down her back.
“Th-there’s an indescribably unpleasant dampness…”
“Is complaining all you ever do!? Quit acting like a princess about the silliest things!!”
After they finished eating, Fran (who once more wore both pieces of her bikini) held her nose with the small hands in the hoodie’s baggy sleeves.
“Oh, yeah. It is December, isn’t it?”
“It’s because I got a chill.”
“Don’t blame me for wetting down the bikini! Wouldn’t it be because you stripped off the bikini!?”
Kamijou shouted back on reflex, but then he shivered too.
“Hey, Fran. Instead of switching the heat wave off altogether, can you weaken it just enough to keep us warm?”
“The station in orbit wasn’t designed to make microwave attacks. That attack was tricky to pull off at all, so I can’t make slight adjustments.”
“Just how tricky are we talking about?”
Kamijou had only thought of it like burning a piece of paper with a magnifying glass, but…
“That would be like frying an egg with a nuclear reactor.”
“And that doesn’t scare you? Why would you make something like that and put it up in satellite orbit!?”
“It doesn’t actually use nuclear power. It only creates similar levels of energy.”
“It’s scary either way!”
With Salome the self-made cyborg, Claire whose cells were closer to plant matter than human cells, and this, just how uninhibited was the Kamisato Faction? Kamisato had feared them losing control and going on a rampage, but that was looking like no laughing matter.
“At any rate, we need to find some winter clothing.”
“Nn. There’s no point in showing all this skin when…I can’t show it to Kamisato-chan.”
She briefly hesitated in the middle of her sentence.
She had likely not wanted to say herself that he was gone.
“Hey.” Kamijou intentionally changed the subject. “While I do want to get some winter clothing as soon as possible, do you think it would be okay if we stopped by my dorm?”
“Since you even asked, I assume you know how dangerous that would be.”
“Give up on that idea. Ellen and the others will be watching everything related to your school. That includes your dorm and the school itself.”
The conversation had taken a strange turn.
“I get where I live, but the school too?”
“Of course they would search out who your friends are.”
“You mean…people like Aogami Pierce and Tsuchimikado are in danger?”
A strange chill ran down his spine.
He was only an individual, so multiple simultaneous attacks scared him more than anything. How many people could he protect if the 100 girls with special powers attacked his friends and acquaintances in 100 different places at the same time?
But Fran shook her head.
“I doubt that.”
He would of course prefer that, but wasn’t she being naïve? Couldn’t their pursuers achieve checkmate much more easily if they took multiple hostages?
“First, the internet, phone, and the rest of the information infrastructure are still down from the microwave attack. Even if they have a hostage, they can’t let you know that.”
“And second, this city might seem normal to you since you live here, but it’s very strange for those of us from outside Academy City. Any of the boys and girls we see walking along the street might be an esper who could survive a hit from a nuke. I don’t know what the odds of that really are, but no one would triumphantly accept a game of concentration where flipping over a joker means instant death.”
She may have been referring to the #1 who had charged into the center of the Kamisato Faction or the #3 who seemed to have run into Salome. If so, those were extreme exceptions, but then something occurred to Kamijou.
Yes. Ellen, Elza, and the others did not know that.
There might only be one joker within the 53 cards or all 53 might be jokers. When the cards were already flipped over, it was the same as a dense jungle minefield. The number of mines was less of an issue than whether or not there were any mines at all.
“The safest option will be for Ellen and the others to monitor the places you tend to go and prevent you from regrouping with any of your friends. They have no idea who they might drive to action with a hostage, so I doubt they’ll choose to attack or imprison anyone.”
Of course, that was not an absolute guarantee.
If the truth was revealed and their analysis showed they were up against a Level 0, they would not hesitate to abduct them. And if they started to feel cornered, the opportunity might quickly outweigh the risk.
“But,” sharply added the hoodie bikini girl. “That changes if someone is already working with you. If a conflict is inevitable, they will likely try to crush that person in a short-term battle before the damage can spread.”
“You mean I would be putting them in danger if I tried to contact them or protect them!?”
“Depending on how you look at it.”
There was no absolute safety here.
That meant he had to look at it in terms of probability.
He narrowed his eyes, but then…
He heard a noise.
The sound of thick rubber tearing at the ground came from above the ceiling. With their stomachs full of precooked bird meat or fish paste, Kamijou and Fran exchanged a glance and spoke the question on their minds.
“A car is running…?”
It normally would have been drowned out by the countless noises of people’s lives, but with the many circuit boards of the vehicle control systems fried, the one moving vehicle sounded very, very loud.
Kamijou and Fran left the subway station soba restaurant, walked through the dark station using the UFO balloon’s abduction light, climbed the stairs, pushed up the girl’s small butt to get her and her huge backpack over the nonfunctioning ticket gate, and ran outside.
They noticed the oddity as soon as they left the subway station entrance.
Due to the previous chaos, thick wires were strung between buildings and the first floor doors and windows were barricaded, but some of the passageways and walls had still been destroyed. And just like the subway tunnel, there were piles of white sand located here and there. They were bigger than in the tunnel, some even reaching three stories tall. It looked like about a third of the street was half buried in a desert. The asphalt was still visible, but the white sand was much worse.
Kamijou doubted a car could drive through this, yet there was indeed something there.
He instinctually crouched down to hide himself.
He tilted his head when he tried to figure out why he had even done that.
The vehicle slowly driving down the road could only be described as a half truck. It was a truck with a large bed on the back, but the front wheels and back wheels were clearly powered in different ways. The back wheels had been made into steel treads, while the front wheels…what even were they? What looked like countless insect legs wriggled around as they dug deeply into the white sand to climb the hills. It worked entirely differently, but the movement was a lot like the mouth of an ammonite or a nautilus.
What was it?
And who was driving it?
Kamijou and Fran cautiously observed it as it moved. The exposed truck bed had several large speakers attached like it was an advertisement truck for a new song. A polite female voice spoke from those.
“We are from Useful Spider of Academy City’s Disaster Recovery Committee. We will now report on the present situation: Now that the enemy factors known as Elements are confirmed to have ceased functioning, the current time has been set as the beginning of the ‘48 Hours to Restore Order’. We urge everyone using an unofficial shelter to obey the instructions of any Useful Spider member.”
Kamijou sighed when he heard that smooth adult voice.
Academy City was finally moving toward recovery. He could return to his life of turning on the TV in his air-conditioned room, messing around on his phone, and checking on the contents of his refrigerator when he was hungry. The Kamisato and Yuiitsu problem remained, but this was still progress. He could feel his tensed legs and hips relaxing.
The adults had likely stored that half truck deep underground where the microwaves could not reach it. They might lose some points for waiting until now to show up, but recovery work tended to begin only after the typhoon had left. Looking at it that way, he could not criticize them for it.
But Fran remained tense as her antennae extended in all directions from her backpack.
As an outsider, she had no attachment to life in Academy City.
“How can they be so sure that the Elements have all stopped functioning? Only you should know what they are and how they got switched off since you ran into Kihara Yuiitsu yourself. Even I only heard all that secondhand. How does someone who wasn’t under that building know that?”
“There is one clear risk here,” whispered Fran while seemingly showing off her flat chest with her hoodie and bikini. “Those adults might be secretly connected to someone who knows the truth. For example, another adult like Kihara Yuiitsu.”
That was a horrifying thought.
Kamijou just about snapped back on reflex, but that may have been due to the fear of having this hope snatched away from him.
But then the half truck said more in the same calm woman’s voice.
“We also suspect the following people are deeply connected to this series of disasters: 1. Kamijou Touma. 2. Karasuma Fran. On our special authority, both of them will temporarily have their fundamental human rights revoked. If you see them in your shelter or elsewhere, do not speak to them and report it to Useful Spider. I repeat…”
Kamijou knew it was pointless, but he crouched further down and took a step back toward the stairs down to the subway station.
“Dammit, they’re after us here too!?”
This was very bad and he felt his stomach churning. The microwaves of Fran’s heatwave had almost entirely knocked out the internet and the phone system. And with that analog loudspeaker, whoever was loudest would win. If everyone obediently viewed Kamijou and Fran in a hostile light, their enemies could grow from the former Kamisato Faction to the city’s entire population of 2.3 million.
“Are they really connected to Kihara Yuiitsu?” wondered Fran. “But that doesn’t really make sense either.”
“What is it now!?”
“Your name is one thing, but they have no reason to give my name in Academy City. I don’t know anyone here, so they can’t get any information from friends of mine by mentioning it. So why did they need to use my real name?”
“Well, we at least know it was someone who knows your full name that ordered this. We only ever called you Fran, so who told Yuiitsu the Karasuma part?”
“…No.” The girl’s rabbit-ear antennae drooped a little as she brought a hand to her chin. “Yuiitsu might not be involved.”
“Very few people know my name is Karasuma Fran. But then how did that information get from those girls to Useful Spider? The phones and computers were wiped out, so…don’t tell me.”
After watching the half truck pass by with its strange combination of bug legs and treads, Fran slowly stood up.
She shook around the round antenna on her butt and spoke quietly.
“It might be best to check on this despite the risk.”
“Where are you going? And what are you checking on?”
“The closest shelter. And what data medium they are currently using.”
With the heat wave gone, he had thought they would be freed from the water problem.
With the Elements gone, he had thought everyone could walk on the ground without worrying.
With both problems solved, he had thought their normal lives would return.
But the world had gradually changed. It was just like repairing the fresco on a cathedral wall. Even when the same paint was periodically added to fix the damage, the original was gradually lost and it would eventually display an entirely different interpretation.
It was a strange sight.
Had he felt this great a weight in his stomach even when the heat wave and Elements had threatened Academy City?
“A park…?” muttered Kamijou Touma in the chilly gray city.
Even with the heat wave and Elements completely gone, the normal work and school schedule had not returned. If the nearest shelter provided signs of life to ensure people gathered, they would eventually reach that point, but Kamijou had to question that anew once he arrived there.
“I’m surprised people are gathering in such an open space.”
The park was of a far higher grade than a children’s park with some playground equipment and a sandbox built in the extra space of a residential area. Its trees and grass preserved the colors of nature even in the concrete city, it had a large lake, and it was probably used for fireworks shows and outdoor concerts. The trees had withered in the heat wave, but the lake had probably been an important source of water. But what about the Elements? If the people had gathered in that open space, wouldn’t they have been wiped out in less than half a day?
“Not necessarily,” readily answered Hoodie Bikini Fran. “Indoors and outdoors didn’t really matter. Even if you built barricades to protect your school or hospital, it was obvious what would happen if one of those 100 meter Elements was intent on breaking in.”
He had known that, but he shuddered hearing it from someone else. Aogami Pierce and Fukiyose Seiri had worked so hard to protect that school building, but it all could have fallen apart at any time.
“That means an environment where the Elements can’t find you would be better than thick and solid walls. Even if there’s only a thin layer of paper between you, you won’t be attacked if they can’t find you. Although I can’t say whether these people did it intentionally or lucked onto a spot like that.”
At any rate, they had to approach the shelter to gather information.
What had happened to Academy City without the heat wave and Elements?
Who was this Useful Spider unit strutting around the city? How had they decided Kamijou and Fran were enemies?
Just as Kamijou started to walk toward the large park, Fran stopped him by grabbing his hand through her baggy sleeve.
“Wait a minute.”
“What is it?”
“We may be something like wanted criminals here in Academy City. Unlike me, they probably have plenty of personal information on you, such as what you look like. The people of the shelter might surround you the instant you walk in.”
He realized she was right.
They only knew that Useful Spider was after them, but they could not imagine how far that information had spread and what level of hatred and disgust it had caused. They would run into trouble if the hostility was greater than they thought.
“I’ve got to do something.”
Fran (barely) wore a pajama hoodie over her swimsuit, but Kamijou only wore his swim trunks. Even if he was not after a disguise, he wanted some normal clothes. Even if this country was relatively fine with swimming in the cold, he did not want to wander around in a swimsuit during December. And a shirt and pants were not going to just fall from the sky if he wished for them, so he decided to approach the park and search for something on the outskirts.
“I feel like the hero breaking people’s pots to gather herbs. When can I get back to my normal life of withdrawing money from the ATM and running to the supermarket sale?”
“(Really, it’s kind of a mystery if the major bank databases are even functioning anymore.)”
Once they reached the park’s large parking lot, they found a ton of stuff they could probably use. In fact…
“That’s a lot of trucks.”
“Looks like a festival.”
Rabbit-Ear Antennae Fran was right. The heat wave and Elements may have arrived while they were setting up in the early morning a few days before. There were a lot of industrial trucks and a lot of metal pipes, plastic sheets, and small compressed gas cylinders were just sitting out. If it was all put together, it would probably become festival stands.
There was also a lot of music equipment. In addition to the standard guitars, drum set, and microphones, there were also large speakers, cables, and industrial lights. The computer music equipment and everything else electronic seemed to be broken, though.
As he checked through a few large cardboard boxes, he found an interesting banner.
“Kigurumi Rock Fes?”
He and Fran tilted their heads in unison. It was unclear why, but after that event had been canceled it seemed to have become a shelter. The date on the banner was December 4. Kamijou recognized that date. It was the unforgettable day when the heat wave and Elements attacked the city. It looked like the festival really had been attacked while setting up.
And whether it was a coincidence or not, the park may have been lucky. The water quality would be a problem, but the manmade lake had plenty of water and the metal pipes and plastic sheets for the festival stands would have been useful for building things. The gas cylinders and generators would also have been useful. More importantly, they had food. Festival stands tended to make things like takoyaki and okonomiyaki, so flour would have been plentiful. And during that heat wave, any food that could be preserved without refrigeration would have been truly valuable.
At any rate…
“Borrowing something from here would probably be best. Those costumes will cover my face and it would probably be nice and warm.”
It was unclear what things were like in the shelter, but due to the Kigurumi Rock Fes, it might not be all that unusual for a bear or rabbit to be walking around. Kamijou had no real preference, so he pulled a random costume out of a cardboard box.
“What about you, Fran?”
“Yeah, it wouldn’t work for you. Your backpack is too big.”
With that exasperated comment, Kamijou picked up a strange character that looked like a mixture of an alien and a rabbit. It may have been going for a creepy kind of cute.
But then Hoodie Bikini Fran’s eyes opened wide and she said something meaningless.
“Ahem. I-it’s nothing.”
He gave her a curious glance, but the expressionless rabbit-ear antennae girl looked away and blushed for some reason.
Kamijou could not deal with that. If the information about him had included a photo, it was dangerous keeping his face exposed in a populated area. He unzipped the back, climbed inside the torso that smelled a bit strongly of bug spray, and placed the head over his own head.
“Wow…I have no peripheral vision at all. It’s like staring through the peephole of the front door.”
Luckily, he would not need Fran’s help to put it on or take it off. Just like a sleeping bag, it had a zipper on the inside and outside. His vision was poor and his footing was unsteady, but it was nice and warm with his body heat gathering inside.
And before he could get used to the costume, someone hit him with a fierce tackle. He desperately worked to hold his ground in his surprise, but then he found it was Fran.
“Wafu! Wafu wafu! Bunny Grey!!”
She was not listening. The girl’s brain seemed to have been fried. The hoodie swimsuit girl squeezed her eyes shut and embraced him with her entire body like a small child. And while pressing up against him, she wiggled the round antennae on her butt back and forth. Kamijou finally realized what was going on.
“Bunny Grey is…standing and moving right in front of me…wafu.”
“Hey, stop! It’s me! It’s Kamijou Touma. Forget about this Bunny Grey thing!”
She must have come back to her senses because she shoved him away with both hands. He could not keep his balance in the costume and toppled right over.
“Y-you disgust me! How dare you use such a cheap method of gaining my trust!?”
“That was all you…”
“D-don’t think this is enough for me to…Bunny…don’t think…Bunny Grey…drool…”
This unidentified flying girl seemed to be prone to delusions, so she was the type that would forget all about her job and about gathering customers once she set foot in the magic kingdom. Fran fidgeted and could not calm down, so Kamijou remained 120% cautious as he slowly stood up.
“Anyway, let’s go look around the park shelter.”
The popular Bunny Grey began observing the scene with a rabbit-ear antennae girl clinging to his side. They walked around the lake at the center of the park.
A few comb-like barricades made of metal pipes tied together with wire were carelessly sitting around, but Kamijou and Fran could walk right through them. Instead of blocking the Elements’ way, there were shower-like devices in the manmade woods. They were made to produce a fine mist to cool people down during the summer.
“The Elements prefer dark and cool places…”
“Looks like they diverted them away instead of building strong walls.”
Just like an IV, the sprayers had their tanks set up above them so the water would pass through without needing any electricity. The branches of the trees also helped. It seemed to be made up of conifer trees that kept their leaves during the winter, so they had likely created a lot of shade in the sun.
The idea was fundamentally different from Kamijou’s school holed up in a reinforced concrete building. Of course, this method was not possible without excess water.
The shelter’s living space was strongly influenced by the Kigurumi Rock Fes. It was unclear what determined the grades, but there were houses built from cardboard, plastic sheets, and metal containers. And they were naturally removed from the darker and cooler places that would draw the Elements. The costumes lying around may have been used as sleeping bags.
None of it was perfect, so they saw some blocks that had been destroyed. Had that been an early period when they were still figuring out how to keep the Elements out, or had they screwed up and been attacked a few times after setting it all up?
“What? There aren’t that many people here. There should be far more given the number of houses.”
It was true the heat wave and Elements were gone now, so the people had no real reason to stay in the shelter. They could return to their homes and dorms just fine. But they did not know why the two threats had vanished. They might hesitantly observe things outside the shelter, but it would be hard to boldly walk around freely. The fear of the heat wave and Elements would be too fresh.
The groups of middle and high school students they saw had their arms around their own bodies to fight the cold, but they were still only wearing a coat or blanket over their swimsuit. They were uncomfortable, but they could not change. That may have been proof that their hearts had not caught up to the changing circumstances.
“They must still be inside the shelter, so are they mostly gathered in a single spot?”
“Grey, I hear some noise from over there.”
Hoodie Bikini Fran pointed into the distance while clinging to him (or rather, the Bunny Grey costume) from the side. They wanted to know what was happening in Academy City with the heat wave and Elements gone and they wanted to know what information was being spread. The shortest path would be blending into the biggest crowd of people.
But for some reason, Costume Boy Kamijou was reluctant to go.
He sensed something blocking his way. It was like a sinister and invisible miasma that he could not afford to be trapped by. It was like waving at a fishing boat passing by the bank at night only to find they were mixing chopped-up corpses into the bait and throwing it into the ocean.
“L-let go of me, Saten-san! I have to do something…”
“Even if you’re in Judgment, there’s nothing you can do on your own, Uiharu! With that many people, anyone would be in trouble if they get caught in the middle of it. So we need to gather an even greater number of adults!!”
They passed by two arguing girls. They were fleeing as if they had seen a giant gray hurricane rising above the horizon.
Strange warning bells were going off in Kamijou’s head: Don’t get involved. Leave. Nothing good will come of learning about this.
A miasma or a premonition were occult ideas, so he desperately tried to shake off the sticky feeling and spoke to Fran.
“Let’s check this out.”
That arrogant rabbit-ear antennae girl was unable to say anything this time.
With each step they took, the ominous miasma grew thicker. The strange sense squeezing at his heart turned out to be sound. More accurately, it was voices. The countless overlapping voices were all coming from one direction, but they could not make out what any one voice was saying. It may have been like a park speaker giving a warning about a tsunami or forest fire that grew incomprehensible after echoing again and again.
Whatever was being said, they could tell it was nothing good and the burning negative emotion came through all too clear. The crowd of people producing the voices came into view. It looked like some kind of ceremony being held near a few metal poles meant to raise flags by the lake. They were too far away to tell what was happening at the center, especially with all the people in the way.
“Don’t…! …acted like…dictator!! We…to…punish…!!”
“…your fault…so many…died. …not…slaves!!”
“Everyone…suffering…but you…like a king!! Kept the…for yourself!!”
At first, Kamijou did not understand.
But as he got closer, he could tell the people were shouting some kind of criticism.
His costumed legs approached the angry crowd.
Unlike Kamijou, Fran’s nose was exposed and she may have been able to sense the smell in the air because the round radar antenna on her butt twitched and she whispered to him.
“Grey, be careful.”
A moment later, he saw something between the heads of the crowd.
A man had his hands tied behind his back and a thick wire around his neck.
And the metal flagpole was being used as a gallows.
“How dare you call yourself our leader!? You acted like a king while taking everything from us!!”
“Kill the tyrant!! Execute the dictator!!”
“The heat wave and Elements are gone now. We don’t need to suck up to you anymore!!”
Kamijou felt a tremor run through his hands and feet and then up his spine.
The two threats were gone, but the people in this shelter had decided to do something other than check on things outside or return home: executing the ruler they no longer needed. All of their pent up frustrations had erupted once the disasters vanished.
Freedom had to be somewhat restricted to keep a shelter running. Even in Kamijou’s school, none of the students had been satisfied with the water rations they had been given. It would not have lasted otherwise. But once it was over, that was no longer necessary and only their simmering dissatisfaction remained. Just like boiling salt water until only the solid salt remained.
The ruler here seemed to be a man approaching middle age.
Kamijou did not know this man in a work uniform who had a wire around his neck. He might have been one of the people who performed inside the costumes, he might have been one of the people who put together the stands, and he might have been the park manager.
“Enough! Hang him already!! We’ve made our judgment, so kill him!!”
“You called this place a democratic Trial, so we’ll kill you the way you would’ve wanted. We voted unanimously for the death sentence!!”
“Like hell we had any free will after you drew in so many people by spreading our food and water around!!”
They were right on the limit, so their ruler was standing on his tiptoes. The wire was digging deep into his throat. His windpipe or arteries must have been somewhat compressed because his face grew unnaturally red and even swelled out a little.
Kamijou started feeling faint just watching it.
Bunny Grey staggered a few steps back, so Hoodie Bikini Fran supported him from the side with her small body. She whispered with her white breath while pressing up against him.
“(Yes, that’s what you need to do.)”
“(Our goal is rescuing Kamisato-chan. We came here to investigate our wanted status because that might get in our way, but this is clearly an unnecessary detour. It would be safest to leave while they’re all focused on that. It’s possible the excited crowd won’t be satisfied just with executing their ruler and will look for further victims.)”
“You can’t be-…”
Kamijou started to shout back on reflex, but then he heard a dull sound near his stomach. He was wearing a thick costume, so he could not feel much from outside and thus felt no pain. However, Hoodie Bikini Fran’s small hand held her tool knife and she had stuck the finger-long blade shallowly into Bunny Grey’s stomach.
“(Why are you making me stab Bunny Grey?)”
He gasped and the rabbit-ear antennae girl spat out her usual emotionless voice.
“(Did you forget what I said in the beginning? As long as you prioritize Kamisato Kakeru over Kamijou Touma, then I will help you out unconditionally. But if you break that contract, it ends here. I will give up on you and go elsewhere.)”
She was serious.
Fran was entirely serious. If something was going to get in the way of escaping the 100 girls and rescuing Kamisato Kakeru, she would nip it in the bud. And this was not something she had resolved herself to do; it came second-nature to her.
It was true this might be meaningless.
Rescuing this convicted ruler would not lead to Kamisato. Kamijou did not know how large the crowd was, but he would be making enemies of at least a hundred more people. It would be a serious problem if he was surrounded by that many unarmed people and a lot of them were armed with handmade weapons. Some had long metal pipes cut at an angle to make a spear, some had large hammers meant for driving stakes into the ground, and some had paint cans stuffed inside cloth bags. What looked like bazookas may have been the devices used to fire fireworks during a concert. The fact that it had nothing to do with esper powers made it even harder for Kamijou to get involved.
He would gain nothing from this. He would only end up with both enemy and ally after his life.
But Kamijou did not hesitate to reply.
“This is what Kamisato feared about all of you.”
“It’s because you care for him that you’re willing to take shortcuts. He was pretty twisted himself, but when you got down to it, he had normal sensibilities. After we rescue him, he wouldn’t want to know people died for it.”
Fran remained motionless while wearing her large backpack.
The blade stabbing shallowly into the thick costume repeatedly hesitated over whether to pull out or push in.
After a slow breath, the hoodie bikini girl finally made her decision.
The tool knife moved. It pulled out.
“(But what exactly are you going to do? There are at least 100 and they’ve gone mad with anger. You can’t break through them all without a giant laser or a bomber.)”
“Then let’s go the bomber route.”
She had meant that as a joke, but Kamijou’s reply was entirely sincere. The unidentified flying girl’s eyes widened, but Bunny Grey had more to say.
“It’s true they’re boiling with anger and could never be reasoned with. But what’s at the foundation of it all? If we think about that, we might be able to pull something off. …Come with me, Fran.”
The fact that the accident occurred while the Kigurumi Rock Fes was being set up may have been fortunate for them all. There had been plenty of materials at the park. The shelter residents had used those to effectively divert the Elements, secure a living space, and cook enough flour-based food to satisfy their hunger.
The materials were a blessing to Kamijou and Fran as well.
They only had to look around a bit to find what they needed with almost careless ease.
“A gas cylinder?” asked Fran.
The thick gray metal container held propane, but it was not as tall as he was like the ones behind buildings. It was meant to heat the grill at a festival stand, so it was about the size of a small Daruma doll.
Hoodie Bikini Fran must have been displeased with this development because she began toying with the tool knife in her hand.
“Are you planning to throw it into the crowd and let it explode? They’re surrounding their ruler in a donut-shape, so a blast at one end won’t reach them all and one in the center would kill the ruler.”
“I wouldn’t do something so dangerous. The less actual damage the better. As far as stirring up their shock and fear is concerned, anyway.”
Fran looked doubtful and Kamijou skillfully continued his work using the costume’s mitten-like hands. There were a few ways to bypass the metal container’s safety devices to make it explode. He recalled one he had seen in an old action movie playing on TV the previous Sunday night. It had been called Heavy something-or-other and he was pretty sure a remake had come out recently.
“Any way of starting a fire would work. Good, this one uses static electricity, so it should work even underwater.”
He made some modifications, tied it together with duct tape, and carried the dangerous object in one hand. His destination was quite near that crowd and he had no time. While everyone was focused on their ruler’s imminent fate, he chucked the gas cylinder toward the cold lake water where anyone could see.
A pillar of water rose vertically from the surface and the explosion sounded loudly.
Everyone ducked down and turned toward the lake, but that was not enough for them to call off the execution. At this rate, they would resume hanging the man, so Costumed Kamijou gave an extra push. He went right toward the old wound of their greatest fear.
“It’s the Elements! They’re here!! Don’t let your guard down just because you can’t see them! They’re translucent and they can use their mimicry to blend into the background!! They’re a lot closer than you think!! Everyone, run!!!!!”
But the look in their eyes was not one of doubt. This was simply too much for their minds to process. It was like suddenly finding a dump truck bumper approaching before their eyes.
After that one-beat delay, they were quick to react.
The crowd that had been so united in anger now scattered in every direction. They screamed meaningless things and fled with all their might. They sometimes ran into each other, tripped over each other, or knocked each other over. Kamijou wanted to cover his eyes, but they at least avoided any obvious death. The execution ground had fallen apart.
“But why did they react so sharply?”
“No matter how violent they’re acting, they didn’t leave the shelter. They were acting brave, but they haven’t escaped their fear of the heat wave and Elements. I understand how they feel. If I hadn’t been there with Kihara Yuiitsu and Kamisato Kakeru, no explanation would have convinced me to venture out of that school building.”
Some trauma was linked to a region or society.
It could be a bombing, a mass suicide, a derailed train, a serial killer, or a mass shooting. After a sad incident, anything reminiscent of it could trigger a large panic. In Academy City, the heat wave and Elements had reached that level. If someone found themselves in an unnaturally warm spot where the sunlight happened to gather after reflecting off the polished buildings, they might have trouble breathing. The metallic creaking of something blowing in the wind might sound like a monster and keep people up at night.
Kamijou had drawn out that fear.
Peeling off a half-healed scab could be more painful than the original injury.
And because they had been out of control, the fear had spread much more swiftly. No one had been calmly observing the situation, so they had all been thrown into the crucible of chaos.
He could do it now. He could remove the wire digging into the ruler’s neck.
“I didn’t think you could make up your mind that quickly,” said Fran.
“It wasn’t my idea.”
“I just asked myself what he would do. Although I bet Kamisato would have found a cleverer way to do it even without his special right hand.”
Regardless, they had to rescue the ruler from the gallows.
The panic would not last forever. Once the people stopped mistaking each other’s screams for further explosions, they would start to question it. Kamijou had to rescue the ruler and allow him to escape before that happened.
A few boys and girls in swimsuits were groaning on the ground after being knocked over near the metal pole, but Kamijou and Fran ignored them and continued toward the ruler.
The man’s eyes were filled with fear as he stood on his tiptoes.
“Hey, you in the costume! What do you mean the Elements are here!? I really don’t need this situation to get any worse!!”
“You don’t have to freak out. That was a bluff. They wouldn’t run away unless I said something like that, right?”
The thick wire around the man’s neck was not very flexible and the knot was relatively loose, so it was not difficult to remove.
The man coughed as he was finally able to breathe comfortably. He wobbled and Hoodie Bikini Fran expressionlessly sidestepped the sweaty man. That meant he collapsed onto the ground, but he was still entirely thankful as he rubbed his throat.
“Ugh, cough. Thanks, you really saved me.” He tearfully coughed a few more times. “As soon as they realized the danger was gone, they pulled this. And what is this Trial nonsense? I didn’t choose to become their ruler during that heat wave. They’re the ones that lifted me up and pulled away the ladder, dammit.”
“You can do what you want, but you’ll probably be safer leaving the shelter.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m getting the hell out of here. If the heat wave and Elements are really gone, there’s no point in staying and letting them turn me into a human sacrifice.” The man in the work uniform held his head in one hand. “But…dammit. How can they call this the 48 Hours to Restore Order? There’s got to be a better way of doing it. That piece of junk they call a Sphere is so poorly managed that it’s full of bullshit.”
“You don’t know?” spat out the ruler as he pulled something from his work uniform’s pocket. He tossed over a stick-like device that looked like USB memory. “I don’t need this since I’m gonna scram. That’s the key to the Sphere here in the Trial shelter. Those Useful Spider people gave it to me. You get full access with that, so it isn’t like the rest of those morons. I don’t know who you are, but you must not be from this shelter if you’re so calm. If you’re gonna sneak in, find a way to get back at them. Bye.”
Kamijou and Fran watched the ruler walked off on unsteady feet, but then they looked down at the stick-shaped device.
Staring at it was not going to answer their questions. The costume had no pockets, so he left the key with Hoodie Bikini Fran before they resumed their search around the lake.
Things were different from before. That was most likely due to Kamijou bringing back their fear of the Elements, but the people were not just running wildly around. The wandering swimsuit-wearing group finally started moving in the same direction.
“What the hell is going on!?”
“What does the Sphere say? Is there a warning there?”
“Should we stay in the shelter or leave? The Sphere, the Sphere!!”
The frantic group kept calling that name, so they could apparently calm themselves by going to check some device known as the Sphere. Kamijou and Fran tilted their heads and followed the people. They spotted some carrot and frog costumes in addition to the swimsuits, so some of them may have given into the cold and worn their makeshift sleeping bags since they had arms and legs.
“I am curious about this Sphere, but…”
“Is there something else?”
“Ellen, Maya, and the others will be sensitive to any changes as they pursue us. Once they hear about that explosion you caused, they’ll probably send in Elza, Salome, or the other fighters.”
They were still on the run, so they had to hurry.
Then they spotted the Sphere.
“What is that?”
It may have originally been a metal sphere two meters across, but it had opened up in one direction like a lotus flower. It looked something like a planetarium. A faint layer of chemical smoke rose from the top, and hundreds if not thousands of windows were projected on the smoke to form a dome with a radius of 20 or 30 meters around the Sphere itself. Each window displayed information on other shelters, the weather forecast, what roads were blocked off, the progress of recovery work on infrastructure like power and water, distribution points for food and water, etc.
“It’s a disaster communication infrastructure base,” said Fran as she waved around the round radar antenna on her small butt. “During a disaster that knocks out the internet or phones, a lot of misinformation can spread and relying on your own disaster radios or TVs doesn’t seem very reliable, so I’ve heard there’s been a rush to develop a device that doubles as a broadcast tower and information source.”
She would be talking about outside the city. Academy City’s technology was 20 or 30 years ahead, so that device must have already been developed here.
The costumed boy stated the obvious.
Yes, a few of the windows had that basic information, just like the corner of a TV.
“There’s a clock… Oh, so now everyone can know what time it is.”
Without their phones or the internet, all of the boys and girls were gathering here. They all looked malnourished on the nutrient known as information. It reminded Kamijou of the people watching a baseball or wrestling match on roadside TVs in old video footage.
And as far as he could see, the device was mostly made to receive news and administrative information, but the ability to send out their own information was extremely limited. They could only say which shelter they were in or post their own name on a simple message board.
The message board included the time of the post.
That was nothing special, but it seemed incredibly refreshing to Kamijou. He understood just how the boys and girls here had their craving fulfilled.
“This communication infrastructure is meant to avoid misinformation and confusion, so they’re preventing people from sending out whatever they want…”
The network did not seem to be connected freely like a spider web. It was more like a tournament diagram split into blocks. The thick line at the top had a mixture of information from all over, but each individual block had a strong local color.
But once inside a block, you could not avoid being colored by it and you would unquestioningly accept anything announced from above. A disaster environment functioned like an “open sealed room” where misinformation could easily spread. The boys and girls could only receive information and could not even choose which channel they watched. In a way, wasn’t this a dangerous situation too?
“…Oh, I get it.”
After watching from inside the Bunny Grey costume, Kamijou finally put his question to words.
“It isn’t anything weird. The system itself is a lot like a social media account, but it’s a broader framework. Instead of individuals, each shelter or school has a username for exchanging information. That’s why everyone is so obedient. It’s like having only one person with a phone on a running train: everyone is desperate to get a view of the outside world by peering over a stranger’s shoulder.”
“Ruler” really was an apt term.
That one account directly influenced the decision-making of dozens or even hundreds of people.
The hoodie bikini girl spoke in a somewhat muffled voice as she embraced and buried her face in the fluffy Bunny Grey costume.
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Having the approval of the ruler who controls the Sphere might be something like a TV key station securing a regional station to expand their broadcast area. That lets them directly influence the local opinion, and gathering together stations would lead to influence outside their individual areas.”
“Why does that remind me of the environment surrounding that right hand?”
And they had one special privilege allowing them to break free of that situation.
This shelter’s leader had given them that stick-like device that looked like USB memory.
Rabbit-Ear Antennae Fran and Costumed Kamijou approached the Sphere which was opened like a lotus flower. To reiterate, the Sphere mostly just received transmissions and its ability to send them was limited. The swimsuit boys and girls were at the 20-30 meter line where the information was displayed, so none of them were approaching the Sphere itself. They must have had no way to use it besides posting their names on the disaster message board, so no one was focused on those two.
Fran pulled the key from her hoodie’s pocket and checked around on the Sphere. Each of the opened flower petals seemed to be a control booth, but a closer inspection showed a small slot.
After inserting the device like an insect entering a flower in search of nectar, the stubborn screen changed. It looked like a normal computer’s normal browser, but that was enough to make Kamijou tremble. He felt like he was touching a piece of a lost civilization. It was a world of difference from jumping from building to building in search of water in that 55 degree hell.
Faced with the virtual keyboard on the monitor inside the lotus flower, Fran took over with her fingertips sticking out of her baggy sleeves. This was simply because Kamijou could not control it with his costume’s mitten-like hands.
They wanted to know the details about their wanted status.
They received an answer just by typing in their names.
“The heat wave was caused by largescale microwaves sent down from satellite orbit and this has been proven by investigation of the damage to electronics. The space station is owned by Karasuma Fran. She maintains control and can resume the heat wave at any time. Use caution around her.”
Kamijou held his head in his hands.
None of it was inaccurate. It was true that Fran had been ordered by Kamisato to bring down the city’s functions with microwaves, but that lacked some crucial information. Namely, why Fran had done it. This failed to mention how it had restrained the Elements and prevented Academy City from sinking into a sea of blood.
“Since the heat wave and Elements are thought to be closely related due to beginning at around the same time, we cannot overlook any accomplices assisting Karasuma Fran’s escape. That means Kamijou Touma. Both of them are presumed to be deeply connected to all of this. Both disasters have entered a lull, but since there is a danger of them eventually resuming, we have decided to capture those two individuals to prevent that possibility.”
On top of that, any inconvenient information was sidestepped. While there was a connection between the heat wave and Elements, Kihara Yuiitsu had been behind the Elements, not Fran. This malicious disinformation had no complete lies, so it had an odd credibility that made it so much harder to dispute.
And that information told them a few things.
“Those Useful Spider people couldn’t gather this information on their own,” pointed out Kamijou. “They might be able to discover that microwaves were behind the heat wave, but how could they realize you owned the space station when you aren’t even a resident of Academy City? And the only people who know we’re on the run together are the girls from the former Kamisato Faction who were underneath the Windowless Building with me.”
“Ellen’s group must control the key to one of the Spheres. They’re releasing information convenient to themselves to use the city’s people and Useful Spider to isolate us.”
Someone might have questioned it under normal circumstances. Was that information really accurate and where had it come from? But the phones and internet were not functioning. They could only receive the information coming in, so they could not argue with it or check over it. And when everyone was gathered together, group psychology set in much more easily. Even if the seeds of doubt entered someone’s mind, those seeds would never sprout after seeing everyone else agreeing with it. Then the seeds would be swept away.
And that could lead to losing control like with the attack on the ruler before.
“This is no joke. Are they using SNS information warfare at such an unstable time?”
“But if we let them continue their attacks, the false information will build up like in a puzzle game. If we don’t do anything, we’ll be in trouble.”
That said, they could not stay in the shelter. They had triggered an explosion to save the ruler, so the former Kamisato Faction’s fighter girls would eventually arrive to investigate.
They knew the problem, but they could not work to solve it. They would have to leave without doing anything. With her antenna-covered backpack on, Fran prepared to pull out the stick-shaped key, but then Kamijou’s costume hand stopped her.
“What is it?”
“We can communicate between shelters with this. With this normal browser, we might be able to send detailed instructions in an email instead of that disaster message board.” Kamijou chose his words carefully. “That means we can reach Index or Misaka. We’re trying to save Kamisato. We can run around if we need to, but it’s meaningless if we aren’t making preparations of our own. …It’s easy enough to say we’ll save him, but we don’t have any actual clues. I want the help of a specialist, whether it’s in magic or science.”
They needed to make a comeback from World Rejecter which could slay even Magic Gods. That was no easy feat. He wanted the help of Index with her 103,000 grimoires and Othinus, a legit Magic God.
But Rabbit-Ear Antennae Fran did not like the idea.
“Only the shelter’s ruler has these special privileges. It wouldn’t be easy sending a message to a specific person.”
“You don’t need to worry about that with my school. I don’t know if it’s the Jumpy Bunny or Akikawa Mie, but I know the leader there. If I send them a message, they’ll pass it right on to Index or Othinus. …Assuming their shelter hasn’t been caught in the same kind of chaos as here.”
“Either way, we can’t stay here for long. As I said, their fighters will be coming. We can’t wait for a response.”
He felt impatient.
They could not afford to wait even a second longer than necessary, but he had to stop to think so he would not waste any time. Should they continue on or move back? They would be surrounded by 100 strange and bizarre people at this rate. One wrong step and it would all fall apart.
The Bunny Grey thought, worried, and agonized over it before speaking.
“I’m still doing it!! If I leave this until later because of a more immediate problem, I’ll never get around to doing it. We have to stay focused on Kamisato!!”
To Index and Othinus. The World Rejecter issue took a turn for the worse. I want your knowledge. Let’s meet at the District 7 station plaza at twelve noon. Oh, and it’s a long story, but I’m being chased by 100 girls right now. It’s a dangerous situation, so if things look too bad, give up and escape to safety.
“You bitch! You run into me and you aren’t even going to apologize!?”
Some people continued walking even as they parted the crowd and ran into people.
After learning there had been an explosion at the Trial shelter, Elza with her bottle of 10 yen coins and pirate girl Luca with her black rose eyepatch arrived at the large park in District 7. They looked around, saw a crowd by the lake where the explosion seemed to have happened, and sighed.
“Looks like it wasn’t the Elements.”
“Let’s check over there too.”
The eyepatch girl wore a large pirate hat with a feather in it and a thick sailor’s coat. She wore a blue bikini below that and did not hesitate to speak. She swept back her curly blonde hair which fell to her shoulder blades and continued walking.
Then someone grabbed Elza’s shoulder from behind.
“What the hell is wrong with you!? I’m talking to you here!”
The girl with roughly cut hair silently narrowed her eyes to physically teach this guy what was “wrong with” her, but then someone cut in from the side.
A girl of about 10 wearing baggy clothing began wailing like a siren.
No, this was supposedly the previous girl in the eyepatch and pirate hat.
“Ubweeehhh!! Someone…shomeone help me! Thish weirdo is trying to take me away!!”
“Eh? Wait! No!”
As the strange boy panicked, he was surrounded by gazes that had cooled to absolute zero. As the overly energetic ape was grabbed on both sides and dragged away like a picture of a little grey being captured, Pirate Girl Luca stuck her little tongue out at him.
Elza watched as Luca’s body type changed from elementary school aged to high school aged.
Shapely curves filled out the bikini worn below her naval coat.
“That was cruel. You didn’t have to play the weak little girl card.”
“We don’t have time to deal with single-digit IQs. Let’s get going.”
Kamijou Touma and Fran at least knew that the heat wave and Element problems were gone. That meant they had no reason to be fixated on food, water, or weapons. If they had still visited a shelter, it had to be information they craved.
The two girls hurried toward the Sphere that Useful Spider had distributed to each shelter.
The former Kamisato Faction seemed powerful thanks to its 100 girls with various powers and abilities, but they were playing an away game in Academy City. Kamijou Touma had his own world, so if he had the option of contacting and gathering his friends, it was unknown who would have the greater numbers. It was unrealistic to think someone would have 100 friends willing to risk their lives at a moment’s notice, but the possibility was still there. Or perhaps it was the isolated “away game” feeling that made them think that way.
“Whatever the case, it’s all over for Kamijou and Fran if they’re carelessly relying on the Sphere here,” spat out Elza. “I hate this. I hate it so much, so let’s get it over with. For the boss’s sake.”
“Yes, before Yuiitsu uses a hammer to smash that right hand that’s binding us to her. …We only have to pretend to obey her. As long as we have that right hand…as long as we have World Rejecter, it might be possible to drag Kamisato-kun back.”
If Akikawa or the Jumpy Bunny receives this, please pass it on to Index and Othinus. We’re fine. But as I said, we’re being pursued by some dangerous people. I think Akikawa knows about Salome. This is going to be an entire crowd of people on her level, so don’t get involved. I can’t protect everyone right now.
And the pursuers arrived at the Sphere.
They first observed the donut-shaped crowd and then approached the lotus-shaped Sphere itself which required administrative privileges to use. They searched everything.
Finally, they sighed.
Eyepatch Pirate Girl Luca expressed her irritation by tapping her fingers on the hilt of the cutlass at her hip.
“Target not found.”
“Damn, all this for nothing. Had they already finished and moved on!?”
Only 10 meters away from that donut-shaped crowd, Kamijou wore the Bunny Grey costume and embraced the hoodie bikini girl with his curled up back facing the girls.
His heart pounded irregularly in his chest.
They might not recognize Kamijou in his costume, but they would recognize Fran right away. This plan was just like with the Elements. Even if there was only a thin layer of paper between them, they could escape even the most formidable enemy as long as they were not found.
“Slowly. We need to slowly move away, Fran.”
Fran nodded while wearing her antenna-covered backpack and burying her face in the thick fabric of the Bunny Grey. Meanwhile, the Sphere was active. Even now, it was sending the message to the school Kamijou had stayed at.
They did not actually need to stay with it.
Fran had been communicating with a space station in satellite orbit to emit the microwaves for the heat wave, so she had high-power communications equipment. After using the stick-shaped key to rewrite the Sphere’s privileges, she had established a link with her backpack’s equipment so she could continue sending data via the Sphere.
They had no reason to stay there.
They held onto each other as they left the crowd. Once they reached a certain point, they sprang up and took off running away from the park.
“The message was sent. Next we meet up with Index and Othinus!”
They knew the time, they had set a location, and civilization had recovered enough for a meetup.
The time for the heat wave and Elements was over. From here on, the humans were in control.
Between the Lines 1
This may have been what it meant to be beaten to a pulp.
Kamisato Kakeru was so thoroughly injured that he could not even get up under his own power. Magic God Niang-Niang, a sickly pale girl in a mini China dress with baggy sleeves, put her hands on her hips and haughtily looked down at him.
“Well, that should be enough playing around.”
The pain and bleeding were real. Apparently, he was not just going to be eternally tortured after falling into the abyss. Even in this world, he could die. That should not have been surprising, but Kamisato felt oddly certain of it now.
“C’mon, don’t give me that look. You’re the one that picked a fight with us. We were just taking you up on the offer now that we had the chance. Besides, if we really wanted you dead, you would’ve been blown to smithereens with the very first hit, right? We are the great Magic Gods, after all.”
Niang-Niang kept talking as she sat on a piece of metal sitting on the roadside. Kamisato could barely move as he lay on the ground, but he finally realized that was wreckage of the device known as the A.A.A.
“And we don’t actually have that much of a grudge against you.”
“Cough, cough. You can say that after everything you just did?”
“I never said there wasn’t any grudge at all.” Niang-Niang crossed her slender legs in a risqué fashion. “I mean, we’re the group that wanted to relax without causing any trouble for the world. In that sense, being sent to an isolated world with no one to cause trouble for no matter what wasn’t a bad option. It might even be worth thanking you. Right, Nephthys?”
That name confused Kamisato. But before he could gather his thoughts, Niang-Niang was answered by a silver-haired woman with her brown skin wrapped in bandages.
“That’s right. It wouldn’t have been my 1st choice, but it feels like settling for a 2nd or 3rd choice. It’s unfortunate the High Priest and Zombie aren’t here, but that’s about the only real complaint. We just wanted to tease you a little for not showing us the respect we deserve as gods.”
“Heh heh. We gave you a personal sparring session with the gods, so you should really be tearfully thanking us. This wasn’t true divine punishment. Didn’t I say we were just playing around?”
But Kamisato could not speak properly.
He forced out the name in bits and pieces.
He trailed off when it hit him.
He found the answer in the fact that the golden retriever was not here but the A.A.A. weapon was.
The 90% that had been torn away at the same time as Niang-Niang was separate from the 10% that had become Patricia Birdway’s body to save her. This was the 90% that had disappeared before making that choice. This was the arrogant and insolent god of magic.
And those two were not alone.
There were Magic Gods everywhere. On a rooftop, Proserpina wore her Western mourning clothes and hid her face behind a veil. Below a car, one-armed Nuada had tattoos covering his bare upper body. There was also a shadow at the entrance to an alley, countless eyes peering out at him from all of the holes on a manhole cover, and so on. Kamisato could not even tell if they were all real, or if his senses were malfunctioning from the powerful presence of the Magic Gods.
“Can I get down to business?” asked Niang-Niang. “We are perfectly willing to accept our situation here. We’ve even decided to accept this as a holy ground offered to us by human hands. But in that case, Kamisato Kakeru, your presence here is honestly concerning. We were just settling in here, but now it turns out we were only in the eye of the storm. It might only be our 2nd choice, but we had already found where we fit in here. …So we don’t want that overturned. That leaves two options for you.”
Two fingers that could transform into any weapon poked out of her baggy sleeve.
This Magic God was making it clear that, if she felt like it, she would instantly slice through Kamisato’s neck or torso.
“Either you leave or you die here. Choose one.”
“Which would you prefer?” Niang-Niang sounded cheerful. “Thou hast disturbed our slumber. To restore our peace, shall the gods lend thee a helping hand?”