Toaru Majutsu no Index:NT Volume19 Chapter 1
Chapter 1: A Small Light Beginning with an L – Lost_Princess.
A simple Christmas song reached his ears.
Come to think of it, what had he been doing?
Hamazura Shiage blankly wondered that as he lay sprawled out on the ground and stared up at the sky which was changing from orange to purple. His memories were a mess. Where was he and what had he been doing? To fill in the gaps in his memory, he started by going back over what memories he still had. He had been busy all day.
To fix the infrastructure damaged in the heat wave, he had been working part-time to install and wire up ATMs around the city. He must have been influenced by Mugino’s tastes because he had eaten a 580-yen salmon and roe seafood convenience store bento for lunch. The middle-aged man site manager had gotten mad at him because he ate it while sitting on a block in the parking lot. He had continued working for a while after that, but since the connections to the banks were still unstable, he had been given an envelope with the day’s pay inside.
Huh? That was where it started.
Everything got a lot less clear.
(Oh, no. Was it about money? Did someone attack me from behind with a metal pipe to swipe my pay?)
Academy City had never been as peaceful as the pamphlets claimed and some people might still be in survival mode after the heat wave. Whatever the case, he had been careless. 15,000 yen was a decent sum for a middle or high school kid.
This was going to break his spirit, so he decided to keep his thoughts positive. For example, this was better than waking up in an ice-filled trash bucket after some back-alley doctor swiped his kidney and roughly sewed him back up. Yes, he had to stay positive. Always positive.
At any rate, he tried to get up.
Something seemed slightly off as he did so.
He was wearing something. It was a lot like a motorcycle riding suit, but he could tell it was supported with electric potential elastic tape and motors. He felt over his body and then reached his face and head. He found a smooth and hard sensation there. His entire head was contained in something like a full-face helmet and a special visor covered his face. He could sense light, sound, and smells exactly the same as always, but that seemed to be handled with cameras, microphones, and the like. No, it was possible he could change modes to view gasses, electromagnetic waves, and other things beyond the human five senses.
(What the hell…?)
He spread his hands near his face to look at them. He checked the palms and then turned them around to check the back. The shiny black armor was polished like a mirror, so it reflected the cold visor. By adjusting the distance of his hands, the torso came into view too.
It looked more solid than a riding suit.
Instead of metal, the light armor appeared to be made from some kind of petroleum product and that armor created a beautiful streamlined human figure.
The gaps in the armor were filled with a sticky-looking pale blue light. Those irregular lines of light almost looked like decorations.
He was not sure if they were LEDs or OLEDs, but the way they slowly blinked on and off suggested the brightness and color could be changed.
Something flashed in the corner of his eye and then a boxy window-like object intruded on his view. It was white text on a black background, but the alphanumeric text scrolled by far too fast for him to read.
Something bad was beginning.
That was the only interpretation.
He had not seen any kind of zipper or buttons on the suit. In fact, it seemed like an extension of his own skin, so he could not even imagine how it could be taken off. The most he could find was what felt like a small lock-like protrusion on the back of his neck. But he had felt that through the sensor-covered gloves, so it could always be a fictional sensation cooked up by messing with the data.
(What is this….?)
He had no clue.
If he had simply been attacked from behind for his day’s pay, there would be no reason to put him in something like this. And this was way too much technology for a simple prank for a joke video or something. The appearance of this kind of “secret” was a very bad omen. It suggested that this might be connected to those perverts with delusions of intelligence in the upper, upper, upper levels of the city.
And he could think of far too good a reason for them to have a grudge against him.
(This is bad. Is this about that? I so hope they haven’t learned about that.)
Whether from his breathing, heartrate, or brainwaves, the machine sensed his rising stress and displayed a yellow heart-shaped warning icon in the bottom corner of his artificial vision.
Hamazura Shiage had used glue to hide a data chip in his ear. It was less than a quarter the size of a stamp, but that tiny storage device had contained Academy City’s secret: the Parameter List. Everyone was supposed to equally receive the benefits of the powers development, but everyone’s potential was checked in advance and all the funding and equipment were focused on a small group of geniuses. In other words, there was a digital culling system that benefited only the group at the top and discarded all the other people who could have grown much further. If that got out, it could develop into a scandal that dragged a city of 2.3 million into wide-scale riots, but the power fell in his hands once he had that data. Thanks to that, Hamazura and the people he cared for were just barely able to receive peaceful lives without being targeted by the dark side.
However, that had ended with the heat wave.
That fearsome natural disaster had actually been powerful microwaves raining down from the heavens, so all exposed electronics had been mercilessly destroyed. The microchip that was Hamazura Shiage’s lifeline was no exception. He had intentionally not kept any backups to increase its value as a bargaining chip, but that had backfired.
Hamazura did not currently have the Parameter List as a bargaining chip.
To put it another way, the darkness of this city had no more reason to hold back. If they had learned of this, they were sure to show no mercy and attack him in his sleep. He could think of no reason why they would spare him.
This had happened just as Academy City was showing signs of recovery and thus both the light and dark sides of the city had time to focus on other things. This was suspicious. Suspicious as hell.
(This is bad, bad, bad! What is this thing!? Please don’t tell me it’s a sealed suit with a cylinder of poison gas attached!)
Hamazura’s mind harshly caught on something. It felt a lot like the needle suddenly skipping on a smoothly-playing record. The cause was the boxy window in the corner of his vision. As white alphanumeric text scrolled rapidly across the black background, he spotted a familiar phrase mixed in.
He did not see it clearly.
But it still stuck around in his mind like a subliminal message slipped into a film.
“…Aneri?” he muttered before raising his voice to a shout. “What…are you installed in this thing too, like with the Dragon Rider!? If you can hear me, then answer me! …No, just give me some kind of sign. Yes…yes, I know. Stop this scrolling text for a bit! I want to get a good look at it!!”
But there was no response.
The script or registry changes must have been complete because the window closed. Only his clear vision remained. He still had no explanation for what was happening in the background.
He shouted and stood up.
(Damn, I guess they never were the type to converse with text or voice!)
But thinking that was not going to change anything.
He frantically looked around and finally realized he was right in the middle of a major intersection. The roadside trees were decorated with LED Christmas lights and female voices were making endless announcements about sales from the department stores and appliance stores. Because Hamazura was collapsed there, traffic in every direction was stopped regardless of the light and a crowd had gathered around him at a distance. No, in this apathetic and emotionless a society, would modern boys and girls even stop on the crosswalk if someone collapsed? He had a feeling they were more likely to film it on their phones, post it to social media, and laugh their asses off.
It was clearly something else that had them cautious.
So much so that they did not even consider innocently aiming their smartphone lenses his way to gain attention on social media.
“Moving on to the next story.”
He heard the news playing from a large exhibition screen on the belly of the airship floating in the night sky. With Christmas colors for the headline box and cutesy bells and snow rabbits hopping around, the screen composition was quite cute, but the young female announcer’s expression was frighteningly tense.
“Anti-Skill is calling for anyone from District 7 who has information on a masked man who broke into a general securities trading office this afternoon. The crime was carried out with a gun, so he is considered armed and dangerous. All nearby residents are being asked to stay home and to avoid making contact if at all possible.”
There he was.
He had made his debut.
There was grainy security camera footage and an online video in the tall aspect ratio of a cellphone. The news staff had taken the easy route and swiped other people’s work in the name of “journalism” and it all showed the masked man in question.
Now, just how many thumbs up icon “likes” would that article receive?
“Are you kidd-…that isn’t me! I don’t know what this suit is!! Aneri, please, let me wrap my head around one thing at a time!!”
He started babbling through his visor, but that only caused the crowd of people to move even further back. It must have triggered a slight domino effect because quiet shrieks rang out from the students and the part-time miniskirt Santa-chan who was selling Christmas cakes in front of a bakery. They reacted just like they might if an escaped zoo lion had roared. None of them showed any sign of listening to his words like he was a fellow human being.
Hearing sirens and seeing an Anti-Skill armored truck approaching, Hamazura scrambled to his feet. And only after running away on reflex did he realize what he had done.
Q. If you have the misfortune of being confused for a shoplifter due to a malfunction in the sensors at the store’s exit, what must you avoid doing at all costs?
“Oh, jeez. It’s all over if you run, isn’t it!!!???”
This is what Silver-Haired Magic Academy Girl Aleister Crowley-tan had said.
Yes, it had begun with this.
“Hm. I would like to make some quick preparations before we get to work.”
“I would like a private space with soundproofed walls where we will not run into other customers or employees. Well, anywhere set up for karaoke should work.”
That was what she had said.
To really drive home the point, she really had said that.
And now the pointy-haired idiot was faced with pink wallpaper.
Not to mention the glass-walled bath, TV embedded in the wall, and rotating bed.
“…This is wrong.”
“Everything…just everything!! You said karaoke! So it’s wrong to have a bed in the middle of the room! And it isn’t right to have two boxes of tissues on the bedside table!! I mean, really!!”
Touma-chan of the Kamijou family was an adolescent boy, so he had heard rumors that places like this existed. But he had never imaged he would visit one with a historical bastard like this dirty-joke-obsessed, perverted old man who was disguised as a cute girl.
After all, one’s first time held a lot of meaning. Meanwhile, this was clearly an experience best locked away in the deepest recesses of his memories. He could not let this slide just because he had a hole in his gut. He had stopped bleeding, so he would be fine.
Aleister, on the other hand, placed a hand on her slender chin with a difficult look on her face.
“You’re right. We aren’t here to watch a video of a lonely Santa, so we won’t need that many tissues, will we? And even if we do make more of a mess than expected, there’s always the bathroom. And if it comes to it, we can always lick it up to-…”
“Just shut up, you moron!! If you take it this far right from the beginning, where are we supposed to go from here!?”
The place was of course meant for viewing inappropriate videos, but it could apparently play a normal cable broadcast if you did not designate anything. It was currently playing a show that ranked the top internet searches.
“Oh, thank goodness… These things are already near extinction and then we had that heat wave. I had thought all the retro machines were wiped out by the microwaves, but it seems some survived.”
“Why are you getting all tearful over a rotating bed!? I thought that love for retro machinery was meant for old amps and synthesizers and stuff!?”
The Windowless Building had flown away and a mysterious army was sweeping across foreign countries. Some quite shocking topics were being discussed on the flat-screen monitor, but the female announcer was still smiling cheerfully. She seemed to have mistaken the stories for fake news and joke videos on the level of Academy City’s mysterious legend of the Ultimate Galactic Turtle Robot.
Kamijou wanted to regroup with Index, Mikoto, and the others, but his cellphone was not cooperating. He first suspected the rocket’s steam explosion…but that was not the reason. Aleister the silver-haired girl (!?) exasperatedly placed her hands on her hips.
“It seems you invaded the Windowless Building not long after the microwave attack heat wave ended, but did you have enough time to buy a new phone?”
“Oh, hell. Is that disaster ever going to stop being a thorn in my side!?”
But there was nothing he could do when his phone did not work. He relied on his address book for everything, so he could not even remember the numbers of people he called on a regular basis.
“Do not grow fixated on what you can’t do. Our choices must be based in logic and efficiency.”
Meanwhile, the silver-haired girl was sitting on the fluffy round bed.
“I too would like to regroup with the other members of your group, but Coronzon’s malice will begin wriggling in the shadows before long. While we cannot make an anti-Coronzon trump card, we can make a litmus test. Let us begin by acquiring some undeniably trustworthy companions.”
“It would be difficult to truly defeat Coronzon who is represented by the number 333. But I am only talking about creating a failure of a trump card. It will of course lose in a direct conflict, but we can use that to our advantage. In other words, if our protective charm withers and fades, we will know Coronzon’s influence has reached us.”
“But didn’t you launch that thing into space?”
“Even the moon’s gravitational pull can drive people mad. Did you really think banishing her to space would be enough to rest easy?”
The silver-haired girl accidentally hit the rotation button, so Aleister and the control panel by the pillows turned to face the other end of the room. And since it used a giant motor, it was actually quite loud. It played the kind of simple Christmas song heard all around town this time of year, but that was apparently to hide the motor noise.
“Then let’s get started. Then again, my right hand would probably destroy something like that, so I doubt there’s much I can do.”
“Not to worry. While true experts seek specialization and virginity in their Symbolic Weapons, an actual battle is a different matter. You can perform a magical ceremony with ordinary, everyday objects. Your right hand can only destroy, but that has its upsides. When used correctly, it can function much like a monopole that only has a north pole or the powerful magnetic lines that protect a particle accelerator or fusion reactor. It is all in how you use it.”
“Th-this reached a grand scale in a hurry…”
“It is the truth, but you need not be so nervous. You only need to follow my instructions.”
That was likely how it worked with an expert among experts. The silver-haired girl spoke casually and did not bother donning gloves or a mask, so it felt like the sort of expertise seen when a criminal organization was preparing to modify some handguns.
“First of all, boil some water in a random container. The more the better. The temperature should only be somewhat hot, so…yes, let’s make it about 37 degrees for now.”
“Eh? Ah? Th-then I’ll need a hot water heater…oh, and a bowl of cold water to adjust the temperature. Um, and a thermometer too…”
“Come on now. Check the bathtub panel. It lets you set the temperature of the bathwater.”
Sure enough, she was right.
And at this point, none of it had anything to do with magic. Kamijou was apparently so nervous that he had fumbled over a task anyone could handle. He felt bad.
“What should I do while the water’s filling up?”
“Let us prepare over here. I will close my eyes, so grab my shoulders and point me northeast. You don’t know which direction that is? The room’s window points south, so work it out from there.”
“U-umm, like this?”
“Getting any extra chemicals in it could cause unexpected injuries, so I need to remove any loose materials before the synthesis experiment.”
“That would mean the cloak and the blazer…there. Um, do you not need to tie up your hair?”
“No, but the talk of hair reminds me. You might not be able to see my back well due to the hair. You can touch me, so please part my hair and focus on my back.”
“You see something below the white fabric, do you not? There should be a small metal bump. Slowly and carefully undo it. Don’t worry. It will not explode.”
“This? Gulp…wait, this is your bra hook, you idiot!!!!!!”
When he shoved on her back, silver-haired Aleis-tan toppled into the center of the rotating bed. She collapsed onto her side and then faced him with quite a lot of skin showing from her disheveled white blouse, miniskirt, and kneesocks.
Kamijou Touma could not hold back any longer.
…And just to be very clear, it was nothing more than simple anger he could not hold back.
“I could tell from the color of the bra strap… You bastard!! A dirty old man shouldn’t be choosing pure white!! Why!? Are these the hopes and dreams of a dirty old man!?”
“Not to worry. The top and bottom match.”
“I can’t believe this… Now I’m always going to associate white with some old bastard!!”
“Okay, the hot water should be ready by now, but do you prefer working here?”
“Ah!? Th-that’s right. We’re actually doing serious work here. Anyway, what is it you’re trying to do? We don’t need the bath or the bed, do we? You said it was some kind of magic to create a Coronzon litmus test, right? So hurry up and reveal all that knowledge that’s bound to make my head hurt!!”
“What are you talking about? We have a boy and a girl here. And the spells with the most immediate effects have always been sex magic.”
Kamijou really did do a spit take.
The wounds in his shoulder and side ached as he trembled and asked a question.
“Yes, repeating it yourself is an effective way of building comprehension. Have you more or less pictured it in your head? Now that you understand, let us begin. After all, we have no time to spare. We have a bath heated to the perfect temperature, so let us soak this bottle of slimy stuff in the bathwater to warm it up.”
“If you take one step closer, I really will punch you, dammit!!”
“That might be nice too.”
“Okay, I’ll bow down if you want, but please, anything but this!!”
Aleister was the worst no matter what they were trying to do, but Kamijou may have been somewhat lucky that even that dirty old man was turned off by legitimate tears.
The silver-haired girl looked at Kamijou the chicken, put her hands on her slender hips, and let the bed spin her around.
“…Tch. If we can’t use the union between man and woman, then this is going to be a lot more work. But fine. Earning your trust takes top priority at the moment.”
“Wh-what are you writing down in that bedside memo pad…?”
“Visit some drugstores and discount shops to gather everything on this list.”
“Um…what is all this? A siphon coffee maker, a metal bowl, a juicer, salt, and…”
“The salt is used to lower the temperature of ice. Oh, and I would assume even a hotel like this would have an icemaker, but check just to be sure. If they do not, add bagged ice to the list.”
“Okay, that and a pressure cooker, an induction cooker, and…is this number right? Just how much allergy medicine do you want me to buy?”
“That is a replacement for something that would be harder to acquire. It all comes down to synthesis and reduction.”
The round bed continued to spin.
Once she was facing him again, the young-looking board chairman continued speaking.
“Well, I suppose I have a duty to provide some basic information about Great Demon Coronzon and Anglican Archbishop Lola Stuart, but let me say one thing up front.”
She started to turn away again, so Kamijou quickly slapped the bed control button.
She must have been quite fond of it because the silver-haired girl collapsed backwards with a displeased look when the round bed stopped rotating.
“This never would have been a problem if banishing her to space with the Windowless Building was enough to end it. All I can say for certain is that Coronzon’s malice is lurking somewhere on this planet even now.”
Just as he thought his feet had grown a bit unsteady, he began tumbling down a slope at incredible speed. That was how it felt to Hamazura Shiage.
For some reason, the blue lines running down his arms and legs turned yellow.
Just like street racers trying to lose the police via pure speed and coming to regret it, the Anti-Skill truck in pursuit of him was not as normal as it looked. The exterior was no different from a normal truck, but it had received a considerable tuning up. There was simply no way he could escape on foot.
As soon he took the first large step forward, the surrounding scenery was blown away and Hamazura’s body jumped straight over the armored truck parting the crowd and pushing through.
Hamazura himself may have been the most shocked of all. Before his mind could catch up, his feet landed back on the ground, he balled up his body to roll across the asphalt, and he got back up and began running with the leftover momentum. This went well beyond parkour and Hamazura had no recollection of learning how to do it. The precision machinery suit he wore simply chose the actions in response to his desire to flee.
“What the-…that’s way too scary! Aneri, you idiot! I can’t just try this out like a new smartphone feature. You might be fine since you’ve mastered using this thing, but if you’re not gonna give me a manual, at least give me a tutorial! Throwing me in full throttle when I don’t know how to use this mass of horsepower is gonna get me killed!!”
The words “Manual Mode” flashed in the corner of his vision and he regained control of his body.
But he could not have the AI acting smug about being so obedient either.
With the squealing of tires, a mass of steel drove in from the side. The density of passersby was thinner this far away from the crosswalk, so the truck covered in bulletproof armor must have gained more freedom of movement.
Simply put, they had charged in to directly hit the dangerous criminal with their 1-ton truck’s bumper.
All moisture immediately left Hamazura’s throat, but then something odd appeared in his view through the visor. In what looked like something from a dance game, colorful numbered circles appeared on the road.
They may have been an evasion pattern predicted by the machine. Unsure what was going on, Hamazura simply acted on instinct.
He rhythmically followed the steps.
The next thing he knew, he had unleashed an incredible Chinese martial arts move and the 1-ton armored truck was flying through the air.
He sat there in the move’s follow through pose and watched the mass of bulletproof armor roll away like an empty tissue box. The lights filling the gaps in the creepy suit’s armor changed from yellow back to blue.
It was true he was wearing a strange suit. It was also true its specs were an unknown. But even with (presumably) Aneri guiding him through the optimum movements, could he really do that? A speeding 1-ton truck had slammed into a human and it was the truck that was sent flying. When had he become a sage cloistered deep in the mountains?
With their armored truck utterly defeated, it seemed Anti-Skill was hesitant to approach without a plan. They stopped their trucks at a distance and used the vehicles and their doors as shields as they aimed guns his way.
But not at Anti-Skill’s rational response. Lines of fire and step markers were nonchalantly displayed in his vision. If this was all it took, then he was not even playing on very easy; this was the tutorial level.
After what he had done to the 1-ton bulletproof truck, he was sure to kill a flesh-and-blood opponent if he inputted the command.
Hamazura ignored all the round markers on the ground, broke through the fear to forcibly tear his feet from the ground, and ran for a nearby alley entrance. At first, a red “unrecommended action” warning icon flashed, but Aneri must have done something again because new step marker appeared, these ones leading to the alley. The light in the gaps of the armor changed from blue to yellow. Simply by placing his feet in the designated spots like he was entering a combo command as simple as PPKPK, he pulled off some irregular actions that easily avoided the full-auto fire that was fired from multiple directions without any kind of warning.
Then he dashed right into the alley.
It actually frightened him more that not even a single shot grazed him.
(If I don’t do something, Aneri’s going to take this beyond the point of no return. At this rate, it’ll be kill or be killed, and I don’t want either! I don’t want to get caught up in this, but I’m not going along with it either. Heroically causing a scene and getting arrested for it won’t help anything!!)
As he ran further, he obeyed the marker icons that appeared along the narrow alley and knocked over abandoned bicycles, large trash cans, and such. Like an accident at a marathon water station, the obstacles stopped his pursuers with the utmost accuracy and efficiency, but there was only one thing in the boy’s head.
He needed a reliable goddess and he only knew three people who fit the bill.
Although some of them were well on their way to being gods of destruction.
(Mugino, Kinuhata…and Takitsubo! They’re clever, so I can meet up with them and ask them what to do!!)
As the sky changed from purple to the full black of night, a white-haired red-eyed monster stood on the edge of a skyscraper roof.
“Vector control, hm? Come to think of it, that building’s nuke-resistant armor also used manmade tech to incorporate a part of that, didn’t it?”
“Um, how do I use this thing?”
Because he was entirely covered in a skintight suit with no apparent pockets, Hamazura Shiage could not even pull out his usual cellphone. Thus, he was forced to stick his hand underneath some vending machines. The soda machines for major beverage companies all used IC cards, so no one used coins for them, but these were mid and small sized machines for bread and sports newspapers. Once he had some change, he searched around and found a public phone booth pretty easily. The latest models apparently had high-speed internet jacks as well, but he had never seen anyone with a cable hooked up to one.
The booth’s stainless steel frame was surprisingly shiny and the glass seemed to have been polished too. It was possible it had been newly installed after the heat wave, just like the ATMs that Hamazura had been helping with. The city’s fire hydrants and sprinklers were similar.
“This thing’s just in the way.”
He was not used to using a receiver that had a coiled cord, so he tugged and stretched it with his empty hand.
(Um, do you put the change in here? Do you pick up the receiver and then put the change in, or do you put the change in first? Huh? If you pick it up before putting any money in, who pays for the time spent playing that tone???)
Trying it out was his only option. And only after putting a coin in and then lifting the receiver did he realize he could not think of a single phone number because he always used his phone’s address book. The simple electronic tone coming from the receiver only made his heart pound faster. As panic and tension sent his head spinning, a revolution occurred in his head. An 11-digit number popped into his mind.
“Ah! Whose number is this again? Hanzou’s maybe? Well, anyone’s fine at the moment!!”
His mechanical fingertips raced across the push buttons. All it did was display the dialed number, but the small screen was in full color for some reason.
Finally, the familiar ringing sound came from the receiver. He also saw a super-deformed pixel art version of a Brother Santa and a Queen Reindeer chasing each other around near the display for the amount paid.
Hamazura waited while listening to the receiver’s speaker through his helmet’s microphone, which felt like something out of Hollywood to him.
“Arrrgh, not another bearded old geezer!! How many more times do I have to beat the Thousand Dragon before I get that season-limited Santa miniskirt!?”
“Hanzou-shi, this is a trading event where you are meant to swap presents for Christmas, so I don’t think you will ever get that drop if you keep using female characters.”
“And what is with all that ringing? I can’t focus. Kuruwa, turn off my phone!”
“Those are the bells on the screen, aren’t they? I thought it might be the front door’s intercom, but there was no one there. Then I thought it might be a firetruck passing by, but I checked out the window and didn’t see anything.”
“Okay, I’m not going to give up! Our youth is counting on this!!”
“I was wondering why you said you needed a computer in a hurry, but I didn’t expect it to be simple internet withdrawal symptoms… Uuh, that ringing just won’t go away. It’s going to make me neurotic…”
After the phone rang on and on like an infinite loop, Hamazura ran out of patience.
“He’s not answering!! What is that idiot doing!?”
He just about slammed the receiver back onto the hook, but he would probably break the payphone if he did that with his weird suit’s strength. He took some deep breaths to keep his cool, began thrashing about in the cramped box when Aneri displayed a bad breath warning, and prepared for his next attempt.
When he placed the receiver on the hook, the Brother Santa made a last second roll to just barely escape a charge from the Queen Reindeer on the small screen.
He heard the clinking of change falling into the return slot.
He did not have an unlimited number of attempts. Once this change was gone, he was out of luck.
(Hmm, hmm…ah!? Takoyaki-wan-nyan, that’s it!! That’s Takitsubo’s number!!)
He recalled a goroawase mnemonic that would be no help at all on an entrance exam.
This was probably his last chance.
That meant it was all up to those cuties.
He would summon a full deck of those shiny SSR Level 4 and Level 5 cards.
(What does a call from a payphone look like on the other end? Will she pick up if it doesn’t give a number? Please don’t let that happen! This is my last coin!)
The call went through while he was thinking.
“…Um, who is it?”
“Me, me. It’s me. Hey, hey, you recognize my voice, right!?”
He had already completely forgotten that the usual number would not show up on her phone.
Hamazura frantically pieced together the right words in his mind.
“Takitsubo, it’s me. Hamazura Shiage. The pressure from you treating me like a stranger is about to crush my stomach, so could you ease up a bit?”
“This hopeless behavior… I guess it really is Hamazura. What is it?”
How she confirmed his identity made him feel like he was carrying a bomb in his stomach.
At any rate, he was lucky he had been able to contact her at all. Until now, he had not found anyone – not even Aneri – who he could speak with. This was enough to make him feel a little emotional, so he began gesturing as he explained his situation.
“Hey, like I said this morning, I was helping install an ATM at the supermarket, but after I was given an envelope with the day’s pay, someone attacked me from behind, or that’s what I thought, but now I’m not so sure since I’m inside some high-tech suit and Aneri won’t say anything, oh, and Aneri is apparently installed in this suit, but I’m not sure about that either since they aren’t acting normal and then Anti-Skill showed up and the news said I’m a wanted criminal, but I’m not, I’m not at all, because I didn’t do it and it was just the suit, so there must be someone else in the same suit and I’m just getting blamed for their crimes, so I ended up running away and what am I even supposed to do now?”
“Could you sum that up for me???”
Unfortunately, the idiot’s vocabulary was hopelessly insufficient. His explanation was a lost cause from the moment he shifted freely up and down the timeline, mixed his personal predictions and the objective facts together, and used gestures despite talking over the phone.
And this was a payphone.
Something was flashing on the small LCD screen. The call was apparently about to end.
“Ah, ahh!! It’s ending, the call’s going to end!!”
“Hamazura, why are you calling from a public phone anyway? What happened to your cellphone?”
Oh, so it shows up as “Public Phone” on the other end, he realized even though that did not help his situation in the slightest.
“A-anyway, the one thing I know is that I’m in some real trouble. The call’s time limit is approaching fast, so I want to decide on a place to meet up!”
“??? Can’t you just come home?”
He might be pursued by Anti-Skill, the city’s higher ups, the dark side, the shadow emperor, or the queen of the night, so he was afraid to head straight home and lead the enemy there. But that was a secret.
“Okay, fine then! Seven tonight! At seven tonight, go to the turtle statue in front of District 7’s southern station! We can meet-…!!”
With a sudden click and a dial tone, the Brother Santa that had been so desperately fleeing across the screen was finally unable to avoid the Queen Reindeer’s charge, was caught, and exploded. His time was up. He could no longer hear that familiar voice.
He thought his instructions had gotten through to her, but he was a little uneasy.
Hoping harder was not going to change anything, but he still stared intently at the silent receiver.
(A-anyway, I have my next objective. I need to meet up with Takitsubo and the others. I’m not stuck yet; I have an actual goal. Mugino or Kinuhata might be able to tear apart this weird suit’s fibers and get me out of here. A-and since I was just about killed for a crime I didn’t commit, surely Anti-Skill will accept what I did was justified self-defense if I explain my circumstances, right?)
Just then, red light shined on every surface of the phone booth around him. It came from the strange suit he was wearing.
Red was the color of death. This was the greatest warning.
The clear phone booth made of reinforced glass was sliced diagonally down the center.
That human bisection magic trick (which was real and had nothing up its sleeve) caused the glass to shatter a moment later.
Something frightening had passed through.
Just after Hamazura barely managed to sense it, his artificial vision had filled with countless red warning windows. His entire vision had flipped around and he had felt a powerful impact to the center of his chest. And then a few colorful markers had appeared overlaid on his vision.
While still upside down, he placed his palms on the ground to continue a flip and get his feet on the ground once more.
“Heh. That pathetic response makes me doubt you’re the rumored A. O. Francisca.”
Only then did Hamazura realize what had happened.
“But if you’re wearing a Processor Suit, I guess it’s the same either way. This shouldn’t be boring at least. So does this mean you’re the parent?”
It was a person.
Some kind of white shadow was speaking human language.
(A vacuum blade? No, was it just the stiletto effect??? Did they gather the weight or other vectors into a razor-thin blade and send that toward me?)
Of course, he could not work out such a clear explanation of an invisible and silent attack after seeing it just the once. As the warning windows closed like a receding wave, all sorts of data from different lenses and sensors appeared in their place. Just like revealing the trick behind a piece of stage magic that used magnets, he was instantly given all the details on a paranormal phenomenon wrapped in the veil of the mystical. Enough so that even a dumb delinquent could make an accurate prediction.
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
Data was like a series of dots and it took human senses to connect those dots together and find the answer.
But finding the right answer did not necessarily put one’s mind at ease.
The correct answer here was vector control.
Shouting the name changed nothing.
His opponent was perhaps the most well-known person in Academy City. Knowing his name was not going to tell him this was an acquaintance of his. …And even if they had met a few times like in Russia and Hawaii, Accelerator had not seemed like the type to make friends.
So Hamazura was not given a chance to explain.
“So that’s the same Calculate Fortress as the Windowless Building, huh?”
By the time Hamazura heard that whisper, his opponent had already slipped right up to him.
He moved faster than Aneri’s warning messages could appear.
“Let’s see how well this thing can reproduce my powers. That should be fun!!!!!!”
He was knocked away.
With just a swing of Accelerator’s right hand, Hamazura was freed from the bonds of gravity and broke through a water storage tank on the roof of a nearby building. All the stored water turned to spray and splashed across the area. In a detached sort of way, he noted that it looked like an effect from a fighting game.
While his body continued to rotate, his eyes grew unfocused and it all felt surreal. But not because he was passing out after receiving the full brunt of an attack from Academy City’s #1.
Quite the opposite.
The red in the gaps of his armor and returned to yellow.
“Are you kidding…? I took an attack from the #1 and I’m still alive!?”
Markers flashed to indicated predicted landing points on building rooftops, emergency stairs, and the asphalt on the ground. Apparently the height did not matter. Hamazura twisted his body as guided to shift his center of gravity, change his midair orientation, plant his feet on a building wall, counteract the impact, and drop to the ground like a basketball falling into the hoop.
(A. O. Francisca…)
Hamazura thought about that name after easily landing from such a height.
That was an important piece of information.
(That has to refer to a person. But it isn’t me. So is it the name or something of the real wanted criminal? Ay oh? Whatever the case, he must know more than me.)
He had fallen into a back alley somewhere.
The gaps in the processor suit’s armor kept changing between yellow and blue.
He did not know if it had happened during the heat wave or before, but there was a shiny abandoned car with all four tires, all four doors, the seats, the engine, the muffler, and even the steering wheel removed. There was also a pried-open drink vending machine, a small safe, and some other things lying around in a pile. This seemed to be a dismantling zone or dumping ground for a thief group.
Hamazura could hardly believe himself when this odd scene felt almost nostalgic to him, but then several markers appeared in his mechanically-enhanced vision. He did not know if they were to let him run away or to fight, but Aneri was telling him to keep going. He could not just give up even if he was up against Accelerator. The machine was telling him he had a chance.
Just how arrogant could he be?
But Hamazura definitely felt the uncontrollable fear in his chest beginning to fade a bit. This was the same as grabbing a weapon to feel at ease. Or like grabbing a cursed sword.
He was not standing up to his opponent because he was strong and brave.
He was letting himself be guided in that direction because he was weak and wanted to escape this pressure.
(I can’t believe this… I just can’t seem to look good no matter what I do.)
He shook his head in self-deprecation and sat on the trunk of the polished but abandoned car. It had no door or windows, but it seemed to have been a luxury car originally. He wanted to forcibly calm down his legs that threatened to excitedly take him back to the battle scene.
…It was pathetic, but not wrong.
He would be lying if he said he had never wished to be a hero. He had wished he had the power to punch out anyone, even Academy City’s #1. But where would that lead? The more he sought that thrill and the more he was useful or a saving force in a disaster, the more obvious it would be that he was surrounded by nothing but an all-encompassing conflagration.
Happiness was boring. And that was good enough for him.
Just as he was managing to tear that strange temptation from his heart, his machine-enhanced senses picked up on something.
At first, he thought it was a bird or something. Maybe a crow or another large bird that had learned to survive in the city. It felt like an ill omen to him.
Still seated on the abandoned car’s trunk, he looked around to find the source of the noise. Birds like that were known to attack people (although it was rarely unprovoked). And as someone who had once used the back alleys as a home base, he could not laugh off something like that. Just like rats or roaches, they were more frightening as a carrier of disease than for any simple wound they could cause.
But he saw nothing to the front, back, left, or right.
But the impression you had of the information provided by your senses could be greatly changed by an assumption in your mind. Something about this seemed odd for an animal cry. He did not immediately think about “eliminating” it because he sensed something in the cry that stimulated a protective desire. It seemed to be pleading him or asking for help.
And he finally realized something.
(If it isn’t to the front, back, left, or right, then is it up or d-..)
Still sitting on the car’s trunk, Hamazura slowly lowered his gaze. He once more focused on the object he was placing his weight on.
Just like realizing how to look at a piece of trick artwork, understanding spread to all of his senses.
“……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Is this some kind of joke?”
He lifted his hips.
Looking a bit like he was miming sitting in a chair, Hamazura saw the instant when the shiny abandoned car “changed”. It was a sinister “change” to the atmosphere or aura surrounding it, so it was nothing visible, audible, or otherwise detectible through the suit’s lenses or sensors.
This was not an animal cry.
It sounded like a baby was crying from the abandoned car’s trunk.
He grabbed the trunk with both hands, but it of course did not budge. This was a new car that had been stripped for parts, so rust or bent parts would not be to blame. It was locked. Had the owner done this, or had someone placed “something” inside and shut the trunk to let the autolock do its thing? If what he thought was going on here was correct, then the situation was horrific either way.
(I suppose it could be a cat or a dog, right? No, that would be bad too. Oh, I know! It could be a toy doll that plays back this sound!)
Because he did not want to accept the truth, he came up with a second and third possibility that even he knew were improbable. Heartrate, breathing, and perspiration warnings appeared in the corner of his vision. Yes, if that was all this was, the panic and tension would not be messing with his organs so much.
With his hands still on the shiny metal trunk, Hamazura shook his head without thinking. He was in a narrow back alley. He was not going to conveniently run across some convenient adult like Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
He could still hear the crying voice through the thick metal.
It was time for action. If he did not do it, no one would.
“Why in the hell is any of this happening!?”
He cursed and focused his mind.
He could feel his knowledge and skills from his Skill-Out days passing from deep in his mind to his fingertips.
The trunk was solid and modern cars often used both an analog lock and an electronic lock. But the only real threat was the alarm and drive recorder, so knowledge of the lock’s internal structure was irrelevant if you only needed to pry it open. Just like a house’s front door or a desk drawer, it only had the one deadbolt.
(I could use a drill or some acid in the keyhole. No, there’s a simpler solution. Leverage should do the trick!)
His eyes raced across the alley’s filthy ground. This was a dismantling zone or dumping ground for a thief group, so there were piles with the remains of vending machines, small safes, and the like. He grabbed a metal pipe from the ground, used the weight of a boxy safe to crush the pipe’s end down flat, stuck it into the gap between the trunk door and the chassis, and placed the sole of his foot on the pipe. When he pressed his weight down on it, the leverage forced apart the lock’s latch.
With a dull snap, the trunk popped up.
The battery and the alarm itself may have been taken away with everything else because his ears were not assaulted by the shrill noise.
A deep darkness lurked within.
No, the trunk was just a trunk. It took some time for Hamazura himself to sense that raw malice.
A small form was wrapped in soft baby clothes.
It almost looked like a bagworm made from white cloth.
This life was so young that he could not tell at a glance whether they were a boy or a girl.
…Hamazura Shiage had never lived a commendable life. He knew all about the hidden side of this city of children and there were plenty of things people could not let come to light. So he had heard of things like this happening.
But the trunk of an abandoned car in a highly unhygienic back alley was too much.
Leaving them outside in December with no water, air, or food was the same as indirect murder.
“This is insane. Mold and ticks are enough of a threat on their own…”
He spoke it all aloud because this was an unfamiliar problem for him and because he just felt that overwhelmed. He was afraid to keep this inside.
And worst of all…
No matter how heroically he raged at the unfair world and picked up the baby after performing a Caesarian section on this metal womb, it was Hamazura himself who would be bringing the greatest direct threat to the child. What if the #1 showed up now? What if Anti-Skill surrounded him to gun him down with next-generation weapons? A single shot would snuff out this budding life. No matter how much they said they did not know and had not meant to, the result would remain unchanged.
(What do I do? What am I supposed to do?)
There was no time.
Not for Hamazura and especially not for this fragile life.
(I can’t leave them here. And allowing a stray shot to hit them is out of the question. But I’m wanted for a crime I didn’t commit, so who knows if I can safely get them to an Anti-Skill station or hospital. And if I have to rely on those acrobatic movements in another battle, I’ll end up with the same problem as someone who shook their baby.)
He was more or less surrounded and there were very few people he could rely on.
But at the same time, that made it easy to narrow down the options available to him.
(Luckily, I’m the only they’re after. …So it would probably best to leave the baby with Takitsubo and the others and have them take the child to an Anti-Skill station or hospital.)
He would not have to worry after handing the baby over.
The baby and Takitsubo’s group were not targets here. If he went elsewhere after handing off the child, they could walk freely through Academy City as normal, non-threatened people and get the baby to safety.
…Hamazura honestly wanted to stick around and make sure the baby was safe, but he partially gave up on that idea as hopeless. He did not want to become the kind of person who spoke to the child in baby talk to feel that protective desire.
He had no idea how to pick up a baby, but Aneri was actually obedient this time. He followed the instructions on the screen and picked the child up. The guide arrows seemed to be telling him to gently rub their back. Whether they understood the situation or not, the baby uttered some happy-sounding syllables. The psychology of children at this age was far outside his area of expertise. Despite the frigid air, the baby innocently reached out their arms and tried to touch his visor. They had become a bundle of curiosity.
Just then, he saw something wrapped around the baby’s wrist. It was a colorful tag, possibly made of plastic.
And something was written there.
He read off the letters on the tag wrapped around their wrist.
He tilted his head.
If this was their real name, then was the child a foreign girl like Fremea? Well, it was also sadly possible that this was an extremely unconventional name choice and she would grow up to be a pure Japanese black-haired beauty.
At any rate, Hamazura muttered the name to himself.
Mina Mathers, a woman in black mourning clothes, cat ears, and a cat tail, stood tall and raised her newly-bound original grimoire above her head in a corner of Academy City after night had fallen.
She had already walked around the “outside world” for a bit in order to make up for the discrepancies introduced by her physical body – things like gravitational calculations, air resistance, and maintaining her balance on two legs – but she was still a little surprised by how real her own physical voice sounded.
Everything she felt through her skin was new to her, so her seemingly decorative cat ears turned this way and that and the end of her tail rose up as a physical object and not just an illusion. Needless to say, it was the same reaction as a curious cat.
Her feet were placed on the ground.
With that solid sensation below her, the black cat witch looked up into the night sky, but with the vortex of Christmas lights making it hard to see the normal stars, she could not hope to see the Windowless Building which had left the atmosphere. The people’s strong wills had helped the city recover enough to wipe away the darkness of the night and the natural view had once more been irresponsibly destroyed.
Many simple Christmas songs overlapped in the streets as Mina breathed a white breath. Yes, she was now both bound and supported by things like air and gravity.
Now that she was freed from the bonds of the largescale parallel processing machine, nothing forced Mina to do anything. But at the same time, the being who had given her this original grimoire had also left her a message to relay. She would have felt awkward not repaying this debt, so she did have one guide for her actions.
(That should be enough basic movement testing, so I suppose I should start searching for the whereabouts of Administrator Aleister. To be honest, I doubt that will be the end of Coronzon.)
She could have rid herself of Aleister Crowley and everything related to him by leaving Academy City, but Mina was oddly uninterested in doing so. She felt a stronger urge to remain in Academy City.
She was no longer a precision computer.
She stopped analyzing the cause behind this phenomenon and instead resumed her willful action.
She had a single overall objective, but she was distracted by every little thing along the way. Just like a cat. She observed the plump miniskirt Santa part-timer taking Christmas cake preorders in front of a convenience store, she had a staring contest with the white cat walking atop a fence, she stuck her hand into the gap between vending machines, and she pressed her hands against the glass window of what seemed to be a gym so she could look inside.
(I see, I see. This seems to be more about martial arts than general fitness. Although I cannot quite tell whether this is supposed to be boxing, kickboxing, or wrestling.)
The black cat witch was apparently unfamiliar with mixed martial arts. That would be because she had no interest in the sweat and muscles of macho men.
Then why had she stopped in front of this gym from which she heard intermittent dull sounds of impact?
She remembered that attack that had knocked down Administrator Aleister.
Mina Mathers clenched and unclenched her own slender hand.
(That’s right. If I am no longer obligated to obey anyone, then I could do that too. Drool.)
“Hwohhh! Hwohhhh! Hey, why’s she shoving her boobs up against the glass!?” “A lady…no, a widow is staring passionately at us and drooling!!” “Finally… Our pursuit of muscles had cost us any hope of a merry Christmas, but our final chance has arrived!!”
As the people inside began shouting, getting all heated up, and showing off their kneecaps or thigh muscles (because no matter how stoically they claimed it was for self-improvement, they really just wanted to be popular), Mina ignored them all and turned in a different direction.
She heard a baby’s happy voice.
A mysterious figure in a full-face helmet and something like a riding suit was trying to sneak off with a baby.
(Could that be…? No, surely not…)
But Mina Mathers’s sense of danger came from elsewhere.
She took one step away from the gym window.
That was all it took for someone else to swiftly react.
They had white hair and red eyes.
“Who do you think you are targeting with that dangerous look in your eyes?” she asked.
“I already know the answer, but fine, I’ll ask: You intentionally got in my way, didn’t you? I doubt this was just some hopelessly bad luck.”
“Well, I am no longer obligated to obey anyone. So if you must have an answer, let me say I was acting of my own free will.”
When Mina smoothly responded, a palette knife had already appeared in her hand like a magic trick.
Her weapon was art.
“Whether you mean harm or not, the murderous look you were giving that riding suit is enough for me. The two of you are free to battle if you wish, but I will make sure you choose a time and a location that will not bring harm to the baby with him.”
“I don’t really care.”
By the time he said that, it was already over.
He flicked a few of the leaves falling from the roadside trees and they sliced through the air to attack her like razor blades. No, that monster was never actually looking at the black cat witch. He was directly targeting the riding suit holding the baby and she was just in the way.
More and more sparks flew.
All on its own, Mina Mathers’s palette knife moved faster than her own eyes could keep up and it struck down the leaf bullets one after another.
(I see. So this is the vector control I’ve heard so much about.)
But she could not fully counteract the impact.
The black cat witch stiffened slightly and the #1 did not even need to approach her. Since he could manipulate all vectors as he saw fit, he could control the flow of air…that is, the wind. If he created a small tornado around himself, he could lift as many leaves as he wanted from the ground. He could give himself a supply of 100, 1000, or even more bullets to gradually wear Mina Mathers down until she was dead.
The lady in mourning clothes and cat ears once more raised her palette knife in the standard fashion.
“No, I suppose I have no more reason to follow the standard.”
She readily let go of her greatest weapon.
Gravity pulled on the metal and its tip touched the sidewalk.
At that very moment, she became a wind colored the black of mourning and moved right up to Accelerator.
Mina Mathers was “something shaped the same as a person”. She was actually a grimoire, so she was not a human or even a mammal. Thus, her skeleton, muscles, and various organs did not need to move in the normal fashion.
And that meant she could entirely ignore the upper limits of the human body which was bound by calcium and protein.
By the time Accelerator saw her, he could already feel the pressure of the tightly clenched fist striking his entire face. The strength of the word “reflection” was entirely blown away.
It had not functioned at all.
The black cat witch’s right hook caught the #1’s cheekbone and she continued swinging with her entire body weight behind it. The great roar of impact only arrived after a short delay. When she saw the slender form quickly spin around, Mina Mathers whispered to him.
“Even the #1’s reflection is reliant on the calculations you use to control that power. Simply put, you cannot control any vectors with which your conscious and unconscious calculations cannot keep up. Of course, with the brain of Academy City’s #1 and the Misaka Network at your disposal, that would not normally present any kind of problem. …Yes, unless you began a benchmark test with a true processing device. And even if I have been freed from the bonds of that largescale parallel processing device, I am still doing the Thoth Tarot.”
“Hm. I thought I had understood the gravitational calculations, but combat movements feel different. With a physical body, my breasts are a lot heavier and in-the-way than I had expected. But it’s neat how the swinging of the tail helps recover my balance after the follow-through for the punch. Now get up. There is so much more I wish to try out.” The black cat witch took some quick steps back and forth while clenching her fist again.
It did not fit.
This behavior did not fit Mina Mathers’s manner of speech at all.
But that was exactly why the stimulation-starved widow’s lips formed a clear sign of joy behind her veil.
“No matter how old I get, my first time doing something is always so fascinating.”
He was holding a baby, so he had to avoid any intense movements.
The 7:00 meetup time was approaching fast.
Hamazura got moving with the Processor Suit trailing blue light.
The turtle statue in front of the station was an unfortunate place that had originally been a good place to designate as a meetup point, but its image had rapidly declined when it was frequently used for handing off sketchy items sold at online auctions and by school uniform girls who never seemed to return to their dorm. It was located outside an exit with no stores, so almost no one went there. It did not even have the bare minimum of Christmas lights. The turtle itself also had a variety of legends about it, like that it shot beams from its eyes at night, that it leaned on girls who had run away from home to drive them away from whoever they were meeting there, or that it combined with the top of District 18’s domed stadium to transform into the Ultimate Galactic Turtle Robot (hot-blooded). For such an eerie statue, the legends about it were oddly justice-oriented.
“There, there. Some nice girls should be here soon to take you somewhere warm, so try to bear with the cold until then.”
The baby responded with an innocent voice. She probably had not understood him.
He had considered the possibility of heavily-armed Anti-Skill officers locking onto him the instant he left the back alley, but when he hesitantly stepped out, no one really reacted. And this was apparently more than just modern kids not caring about others.
Having a baby with him seemed to eliminate any suspicion that he might be dangerous.
This was an impression warned about in textbooks for training VIP bodyguards. They would work to fill the gap by not letting their guard down even around someone pushing a stroller or holding a baby.
“Now I’m not sure who’s saving who.”
Hamazura passed by a part-timer in a snowman costume (probably advertising toy sales at an home appliance store) and held the happily laughing baby as he walked through the night roads which were even more dangerous than normal. What he first thought was a Christmas song turned out to be a Christmas mix of an electronics store’s jingle. Their top products seemed to be gyro-equipped VR goggles and an action game where you controlled a small boy to manipulate Waltraute, fourth of the nine Valkyrie sisters.
It felt like a miracle that he arrived safely at the turtle statue. On his own, he would have caused another major panic and more Hollywood action would have begun.
The copper statue sat atop a fake-looking stone pedestal made to look like marble.
The surface had yet to rust, so the turtle statue actually looked kind of unnatural. And there was already someone in front of it.
“…I’m receiving a signal from north-northwest…”
It was an absentminded girl with a blank look in her eyes and glossy black hair cut to shoulder length. She also had fairly large breasts (←Important). Setting aside the confusing stuff about AIM Stalker and the Academy Individual, she was the person he knew as Takitsubo Rikou. Perhaps to emulate the Kasa Jizou story, she had wrapped her scarf around the neck of the turtle statue no one else even looked at.
He checked the time and found it was exactly 7.
The worst possibility would have been to wait around when someone might be pursuing him and ultimately have the girls never show, but it seemed he did not have to worry about that.
But Hamazura’s thoughts were elsewhere.
He found something entirely unexpected waiting for him.
That girl supposedly wore a pink track suit year-round, but now she had transformed into once-a-year fluffy red and white Santa (miniskirt, midriff-baring, kneesock-equipped, and green-ribbon-like-rubber-suspenders-to-accentuate-the-chest edition)!!
“Ehh? Um, wh-what are you doing, Takitsubo-san!? When did you start getting into the Christmas spirit!?”
…She stopped calling his name partway through.
That normally otherworldly and absentminded girl gave Hamazura a skeptical look.
Or more specifically, she looked between the mysterious Processor Suit’s helmet and the baby he held.
“What is that?”
“No, wait! It’s me!”
“Me as in…a pervert?”
“It’s Hamazura!! I don’t know what the baby’s deal is either, but I couldn’t just leave her in that abandoned car’s trunk!! And I called you earlier, didn’t I!? Why are we losing progress here!?”
“I can’t see your face and your voice sounds digitally altered… You aren’t Hamazura, so I went out of my way to wear this and all I get is some weirdo staring at me… And that suit is so bizarre that the weirdo is gathering more attention…”
Oh, no, thought Hamazura as he started to panic. A dark aura surrounded her. The fact that she could not see him over the phone had worked in his favor, but now that she could see him, she was starting to doubt his story. He was on the verge of failing in his primary objective to hand off Lilith so she could be taken to safety while he kept his distance.
Just like someone caught by a malfunctioning shoplifting alarm, his frantic actions only made him look more suspicious as he tried to plead his case. In all seriousness, if he could not leave Lilith with her, the baby’s life might really be at risk!
“Let’s get back to the basics. It’s the same as a family’s sign to prevent scammers from impersonating them. What do I need to tell you? What can I tell you to convince you I’m really me?”
“Hmm?” Takitsubo tilted her head. “Then tell me something only Hamazura and I would know.”
You got it.
“That’s easy, silly. You don’t wear a bra when you sleep. Humans spend a third to a fourth of their lives sleeping, so I keep telling you I’m worried about future sagging if you don’t at least put on a fluffy soft bra or a sports bra! Stop being so lazy about your boobs!!”
He did exactly as he was told and yet he got a silent punch to the visor for his trouble.
And Aneri faithfully displayed a marker for where to place his hands and feet for the recommended counterattack, but he entirely ignored that.
“………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Is there a filthy camera hidden in my bedroom?”
“Wait, wait, this’ll never end like that! Say that and you can’t trust the family sign. What’s next? A chip in the brain? Or did I ask the ancestor clinging to your back? If we have to address all of those eccentric possibilities, we’ll have to start thinking about the possibility of a galactic war!!”
Takitsubo simply gave a puzzled groan. She did not seem nearly eager enough. But since she did not stop listening and scream for help, she must have been conflicted. And that meant she was considering the possibility he was telling the truth.
Hamazura could not let this grow into a roleplaying session about a galactic war or a parallel world. What was he lacking? The academic city delinquent worked his brain cells to the limit and decided to settle it once and for all.
“Okay, okay. Then I’ll go with that. Takitsubo, you hate hanging your underwear out to dry where people can see them, so you always use a dryer for them. You’ve been worried about belly fat recently, so you secretly do 50 nude sit-ups in the changing room every day after your bath. No, you aim to do 50, but you usually give up after 20 or 30. I always hear the shower run twice every day because you only realize after the fact that you’ve worked up a sweat right after taking a bath. But for some reason, you’ve decided that every Friday is white panties day. Since I know all that, surely you have to believe it’s really me! Right!?”
“Why do you know so many things the real Hamazura doesn’t know!?”
“Don’t worry. I know you stand in front of the mirror worriedly lifting up your boobs every day, but you aren’t going to get sweat rash below those large breasts so easily. I know you take off your bra every night because you’re afraid of sweat building up, but you don’t really need to worry about ventilation at this stage.”
“Ah, ah, ahhhh!? What is this!? What’s going on!? Are there cameras all over my room broadcasting everything 24 hours a day!!!???”
Oh, I guess I got a little too heated up, realized Gentleman Hamazura.
And if that absentminded girl thought that little bit of effort was enough to hide her maiden’s worries, then she was greatly underestimating what it meant to live with someone. You might think your roommate was not watching, but they were.
Anyway, the miniskirt Santa girl (1LDK, midriff, green ribbons, and kneesocks) was bristling, blushing, and curled up with her head in her hands, but he did not have time for her to recover.
More importantly, some other people arrived.
“Huh? I get the feeling this isn’t a shopping trip to the convenience store, so super what are you doing out here, Takitsubo-san???”
“…And I don’t like the looks of that guy messing with her.”
It was Level 4 Offense Armor, Kinuhata Saiai, and Level 5 Meltdowner, Mugino Shizuri.
The short girl with brown hair in a round bob wore a white knit dress that left her bare legs exposed to a risqué extent. The sexy girl with her wavy chestnut hair worn long had her impressive silhouette boldly visible even through her thick coat. …No one would have expected that beautiful body was half covered in old scars and burns and used a prosthetic hand and eye.
The place and time mattered a lot, but Academy City was not as safe as they claimed. If these two were walking around the dangerous night dressed like that, they had to have enough power to protect themselves.
At this point, even an academic failure like Hamazura had figured out the rules. He would not be given time to calmly explain himself.
And on top of that…
(If I stay silent and leave the baby here, will they actually take her in? That’s the real question.)
The girls of former Item had to be focusing their hostility on Suspicious Individual: Maskman. If he left Lilith, he should not have to worry about her getting caught in the middle of it.
With that in mind, Hamazura saw Aneri place guide labels over parts of the scenery.
Mugino Shizuri (←Prediction: Animal 01).
Kinuhata Saiai (←Prediction: Animal 02).
Takitsubo Rikou (←Prediction: Airhead 01).
The Processor Suit’s light changed from blue to yellow.
And as a finishing blow, the baby in his arms clumsily but innocently spoke some words.
Hag, flat, gentle.
“Okay, yeah. She’s not safe with them.”
No matter what they looked like, those reprehensible people permeated by the dark side showed no mercy.
The warning light coloring Hamazura’s body changed from yellow to red.
Blinding beams and iron fists of invisible air flew about while Hamazura took evasive action with Lilith in his arms.
“Aneri, some support please! Focus on the center of the blows!!”
A single shake could do serious damage to a baby’s head, so performing midair flips with her would be too dangerous. But if he made sure Lilith was always at the center of his axis of rotation, he could move around all he liked while restricting the centrifugal force to a minimum. He looked like he was pantomiming a struggle to pull on a bag stuck in midair.
He also had a chance at negating the impact of landing.
If a pro baseball player was hit by a pitch, they could break a bone, but striking the same impact with a bat would not break their wrists. The ball, the bat, and their wrists were physically linked, but the impact would not propagate along them if the conditions were right. There would be some margin of error, but he could theoretically counteract the vector to the point of reducing the burden and impact to zero.
Lilith raised her tiny hands and giggled with no understanding of the situation.
Hamazura placed his feet and Lilith in the cursors displayed in his vision to continually fall back while spinning horizontally and vertically. After moving a certain distance away, he turned tail and made a mad dash for anywhere but here.
“Stop running, dammit!!”
“Did you use super teach that baby those words to insult us by proxy!? That’s the cruelest joke I’ve ever heard!!”
“Aneri, save the movement patterns from just now. Whenever I’m carrying Lilith from now on, base my actions on those ones!!”
(So I can escape both a Level 4 and a Level 5 at once? Just how good is this suit???)
Now that he had caused a commotion, it would be dangerous to stay on the ground where he could run across patrols. To be safe, he used the emergency stairs on the side of a building to escape to the roof. The accent lights coloring the Processor Suit kept switching between red and yellow.
He heard a lower baby voice than before.
She still was not crying, but Lilith seemed displeased.
(Well, of course she is… She’s got to be cold and hungry.)
That said, he could not rely on Takitsubo and the others like he had hoped. This made it much more difficult to get Lilith somewhere safe. He had to think of a way to get her the basic necessities for survival all on his own. But that would just lead back to the same issues again. A suspicious guy in a full-face helmet could not use a normal store, so it would be very difficult to obtain a bottle or diapers.
Then something occurred to him.
(I was able to talk with Takitsubo as long as she couldn’t see me. Oh, I know. Can I just buy the supplies without anyone actually seeing me?)
These days, anything could be bought online.
By using a ground delivery drone, an electric bicycle with gyros attached to the wheels which was threatening the bike courier and pizza delivery services, you did not even need to meet the delivery boy. And by setting the delivery location somewhere other than your home, you could receive products outside. This was a new service meant to allow online stores to avoid the criticism that they were applying undue pressure on the delivery companies, but since it had begun serving online auctions and any kind of small packages, the delivery companies felt like it was intentionally meant to drive them out of business.
The roads had recovered since the heat wave, so that kind of unmanned equipment was driving all over the place. With Christmas approaching, people’s focus was shifting from necessities to entertainment and luxury items, so there was a large demand.
The problem was Hamazura’s current inability to use a mobile device.
…It was possible the high-tech Processor Suit was connected to the internet, but he was not about to try it when there were too many mysteries about how to operate it.
If he could not use his personal possessions, he had to rely on public devices. He could not exactly approach the computers in government offices or libraries, but there was still an option leftover.
“Was this the place…?”
Hamazura’s Processor Suit had fully returned to blue.
He had arrived in a supermarket parking lot.
It was already dinnertime, so the store had shifted into its hellish final sale meant to ensure it sold all its inventory. Part-timers dressed as Santas and reindeer were forcefully calling out to people near the glass entrance.
But Hamazura was not here for those wives who looked worried about how short their miniskirts were.
During the day, he had helped install a bank ATM here.
…However, this one was not directly linked to the bank. The convenience store group had a partnership with an online bank. They could also be used to pay public utilities bills and buy tickets, so on normal (and dangerous) websites, it used a public encryption key shared with another company. This was apparently meant as a campaign for the provider, but since it could easily be abused, the middle-aged site manager had told Hamazura not to spread that information around.
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
(Come to think of it…)
He thought back to earlier in the day. The touchscreen monitor displayed the usual input guidance, but when he mimicked the finger motions of the engineer who had looked like death itself and had an ominous habit of saying “death march”, the same screen as a home desktop popped up. It apparently used the same base OS. That meant perfectly ordinary viruses could infect it just fine.
(I can tap my finger for clicking and double clicking, but can I not right click?)
At any rate, he was relieved when he saw the same browser anyone would use.
He directly typed the URL of a major search engine into the small screen and found the top page decorated with Santa and some snowmen. But something occurred to him before he went to the online store.
(What was that the #1 mentioned? Ay, oh…)
A. O. Francisca.
He typed it in and hit the search button just to see what turned up.
…It sounded like a name, but he did not find much of anything. In fact, it would not even search specifically for “A. O. Francisca”. To display more search results, it split up the terms and searched them separately without asking. And all it turned up were message boards and walkthrough sites for RPGs and social games. This apparently was not someone who had made much of a name for themselves.
(Nothing, hm? It certainly didn’t sound like a meaningless bluff, though… I just hope this wasn’t scrubbed from the database because it’s related to the dark side.)
He might find something else if he narrowed his search down more, but he was not net savvy enough for that. He only ever typed in whatever he had a question about, so he did not really know how to do a proper search.
(I can’t just surf the web here forever.)
He ended his search there and got down to business.
This time, he used the search engine to call up the site of an online store. His electronic money data was stored on the server, so as long as he typed in his double password, he could login and buy things like normal. They seemed to be having a Christmas sale, so 20% off and 30% off icons were displayed on the edge of the sample product images. Seeing how convenient this was, he could see why the wives and widows in front of the supermarket had been showing some skin.
(Okay, I need some powdered milk, a baby bottle, disinfectant, mineral water…no, soft water. Hm? They have a separate type for babies? I also need diapers, baby powder, a baby blanket, and do they have some warmer clothes?)
He had some memory of what you would need, but he did not have much detailed information. Partway through, he opened another window to check a childcare site run by a housewife and continued his list. Unlike the models shaped like crane flies, the models that drove along the roads would be fine with a delivery weighing over 10 kilograms. He guessed he would be fine ordering all this.
Lilith made a noise and pointed at the screen.
She apparently needed a small plastic tambourine toy and a pacifier, so he ordered those too. After throwing them all into the cart icon, he pulled up the final confirmation screen.
(I need to select ground drone for the delivery method and then set the time and place… Oh, I know. I can use that park that couples don’t even visit at night since delinquents tend to gather there.)
He clicked the confirm purchase button.
And as soon as he did, the gaps between the Processor Suit’s armor changed from blue to yellow.
The bright white beams of searchlights suddenly pushed in from all directions.
He felt like the light had actual pressure to it and he used his body to protect Lilith from it.
This was similar to a flash grenade. If a normal person was exposed to this deluge of light, their eyes would be burned, sharp pain would run through their temples, and they might lose all will to fight and just curl up on the spot. Beyond the fearsome light, an amplified voice hit him like a shockwave.
“Disarm yourself and surrender!! We have you surrounded, so resistance will only increase your suffering!!”
The deafening noise instantly drowned out the plain Christmas songs being played all across the city.
Had they not mentioned a hostage because they were afraid of unnecessarily stimulating him and turning his focus in that direction?
He had completely forgotten something.
The biggest reason that the criminals behind bank transfer scams were caught was because whoever they had withdraw the illicit money from the ATM would be recorded by the security camera. It went without saying what would happen if the network detected odd behavior at an ATM and then the camera showed the same full-face helmet as wanted criminal A. O. Francisca. Plus, he was doing some online shopping with Hamazura Shiage’s ID, so he had now established the mysterious masked man’s identity as Hamazura Shiage. The authorities might begin monitoring his acquaintances like Takitsubo or Hanzou.
But his pursuers had also forgotten something.
Blinding light and deafening noise only inspired instinctual fear when their opponent’s eyes and ears were exposed. Throwing a flash grenade at someone wearing a welding mask or earplugs would not stun them at all. Hamazura’s vision through the visor was enhanced in a variety of ways, so the powerful light was counteracted and he was given a clear view of the fully-armed Anti-Skill officers crouched low and moving around beyond that curtain. The thick-barreled guns they held in both hands may have been for tear gas grenades.
He heard a shrill cry.
It was exposed Lilith and not protected Hamazura who was suffering. He could not let her undeveloped irises or eardrums take any more of a beating. And if they fired tear gas now, she seriously might suffocate. He knew Anti-Skill meant no harm since they had chosen nonlethal weapons against someone who was using a young baby as a hostage, but their manual must not have expected such a unique sort of hostage because this would have the opposite effect.
(What do I do?)
Aneri lined up a few different guides for him. Would he beat up Anti-Skill and break through them, or would he use the ATM as a foothold to jump to the flat supermarket roof and run away? But he would not escape either option unharmed. And a single tear gas grenade could harm Lilith’s respiratory system.
(What do I do…!!!???)
They seemed to think they were hidden by the lights shining on him, but the human silhouettes were clearly colored in for him: blue, yellow, and red. The blue ones were probably the part-time wives being guided inside the supermarket. The yellow were Anti-Skill and the red were the ones he had to most watch out for. Their individual risk was likely determined by a variety of factors like whether they were aiming at him or had their finger on the trigger. A digital countdown appeared above the red silhouettes. The number reduced with each passing second and it had only started at 5.
He could not rely on Aneri here. She must have only thought about the suit’s wearer because the Processor Suit’s gaps were still only a halfhearted yellow.
It was time to make a decision.
Hamazura bit his lip inside the helmet.
“Okay! I’ll do as you say! I surrender!! Listen, don’t shoot, okay? I’m going to place the baby on the ground, so don’t you dare shoot!!”
It did not take long after that.
He gently placed the baby down on the cold parking lot asphalt and took his hands away. Immediately, Anti-Skill rushed in at full speed. No matter how much the suit enhanced his body, it was still a human body. When someone tackled him while wrapping their arms around his knees, he was unable to control his body weight and he was knocked onto his back. As if to be doubly and triply sure, more and more tough-looking men leaped at him.
His visor was filled with warnings and he was given a long list of counterattacks still available to him.
But Hamazura did not obey Aneri’s instructions.
…This is fine, thought the delinquent boy.
He knew Anti-Skill was sure to keep the baby safe and he had not committed any major crimes himself. And he really did want to get this weird Process Suit off. Having them use their special tools might be the quickest route to that.
Only the baby’s crying continued on without end.
Lilith did not seem to understand the situation. An Anti-Skill officer was holding her, but she had crumpled up her face like a monkey and was desperately trying to reach her short arms out toward him.
“7:20 PM, emergency arrest complete!! The suspect’s details are unknown and the hostage is confirmed alive!!”
Hamazura listened to that shouted report in a detached way, but there was one thing that troubled him.
…Even with all these tough Anti-Skill officers on top of him, he showed no sign at all of passing out.
With a shout far too cute for a widow in mourning clothes, a shockwave-like roar rang out.
“I never knew there was such a safe and simple method of measuring the strength of my punch. This was a complete blind spot for me.”
She was in one corner of an arcade that felt like it was about to close up for the night. The giant punching machine’s earthquake-resistant bolts had broken and it wobbled unsteadily. The gamers had been glued to a Youkai battle game where a Zashiki Warashi, a Yuki Onna, and such grabbed at each other’s hair and punched each other (and was providing seasonal SSR Christmas costumes from the card vendor), but their attention began to gather on the party games that had been driven into a back corner.
That fist had knocked down Academy City’s #1 not long before.
As she beat all the high scores in quick succession, the part-time worker grew pale because he had been gradually increasing his score using the cleanup time after closing. Mina would slam her entire body forward, so her upper body would lean up onto the machine when she hit. That caused the skirt of her mourning clothes to ride up quite a bit, but she showed no sign of caring.
Leaning against the wall nearby, a white-haired, red-eyed monster with a modern design cane clicked his tongue.
“I see. So this is what it feels like to work up a sweat. Fascinating.”
“Does this mean you really did get involved in all this without knowing a damn thing that was going on?”
“More or less.”
Anyone who knew the legends of the #1 would have pissed themselves, but Mina Mathers had not been torn to pieces. In fact, it had been Accelerator who first demanded they stop their no-rules street fight. The black cat witch’s fist could never do any real damage, but she kept dodging just out of the way, preventing the #1 from getting in a finishing blow. In other words, it was an endless stalemate. Since his choker only had so much battery power, that was not an amusing situation for Accelerator.
And once the #1’s target had escaped to safety, Mina apparently had nothing against Accelerator himself.
Thanks to that, the bored widow had persistently followed the white-haired demon around and pestered him to play with her.
You would think she had a death wish, but the fact that she was still alive may have shown that Mina Mathers’s skill was the real deal.
“I too am searching for someone, but it is not them. Well, he does love parties and he loves being inappropriate more than anything else in the world, so there is a good chance I could draw him out by causing a major commotion.”
“The riding suit and the baby.”
Accelerator clicked his tongue.
“That’s what you’re focused on? Then I’m guessing you aren’t connected to the ‘parent’ either. This was all a giant waste of time.”
The black cat witch frowned and thought of that baby, but…
“That Processor Suit seems to reproduce a portion of my power as a defense mechanism.”
“Processor Suit. That is a rather low key name for a weapon. Do they focus on defense as its greatest sales point?”
“They probably intend to split the enemy’s head open with a thick shield, like a shield bash or something.”
“Nn!!” shouted the black cat witch once more.
More than just raise her arm, she directed her entire body toward the punching machine. Despite using a bizarre breathing method where she exhaled strongly with her lips tightly shut, the destructive power made it seem like she had a small bomb hidden in her fist.
A great roar burst out and Mina watched the digital counter while continuing the conversation. Perhaps to measure the gravitational effect, she took a meaningless step that jiggled her breasts a fair bit.
“In other words, you suspect it was developed for a purpose other than combat? In that case, it must be meant to protect something quite valuable.”
“Of course. That thing might be even more valuable than me.”
“…Are you aware of how valuable the genetic information of Academy City’s #1 would be?”
“Do I look so stupid I don’t know my own value? Besides, that thing is-…”
Accelerator trailed off when he heard a quick burst of static. With advances in mobile technology, the boundary between military radios and smartphones was beginning to blur. At the very least, it was possible for either one to intercept and decrypt the digital signal of the other.
The black cat witch repeatedly punched her palm with the thick glove worn over her right hand.
“Oh, where are you going?” she asked.
“It seems things have changed,” he spat out. “A certain idiot just got arrested. The one in the suit.”
After all that, he found himself in District 7’s Central Anti-Skill Station.
It was similar to a prefectural police headquarters outside of Academy City. Hamazura was covered head to toe by the strange Processor Suit, so they had cautiously bound him like a scene from Gulliver’s Travels and then taken him to an interrogation room.
The blue light told him he had nothing to worry about. Also, this was far from his first time in an interrogation room like this. Although he had enough sense left to know his life had truly derailed if he began to brag about that fact.
And something odd was sitting atop the steel desk: katsudon.
“Hey, I know you see it a lot in police dramas, but isn’t it against the rules to feed me something like this during an interrogation?”
“We aren’t giving it to the suspect. It’s meant for us and you simply ‘steal’ it while we aren’t looking. That’s the official story anyway.”
“Then I’d be committing theft! Isn’t inducing someone to commit a crime really, really against the rules!?”
The young male Anti-Skill officer sounded exasperated with this extremely suspicious person’s legitimate questions.
“Aren’t you getting hungry? So go ahead and eat it. Just remove that helmet.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I can’t? In fact, bring out a toolbox full of crowbars and wrenches! Anti-Skill’s gotta have a ton of that stuff, right!? Y’know, like what you use to pry open a car door after an accident!! C’mon, c’mon!! Hurry it up!!”
“And if you have enough money for katsudon, then get Lilith a bottle. Stations these days have nurseries for any officers with little kids, right? You can’t tell me you don’t have the supplies.”
“I don’t know if you think you’re Ishikawa Goemon or Nezumi Kozou, but what is it with the occasional criminal who feels like he can lecture us?”
“And if you figure out who Lilith’s parents are, are you just going to take her back to them? …Those are the people who abandoned her in a back alley! I doubt you’re that stupid, but it’s still worth warning you. You should probably consult with your lawyer first if you are considering it.”
“You’re the one that needs a lawyer. And are you about ready to remove that suit yet?”
“Again, I don’t know how to.”
The exasperated teacher was the shining and attractive type who would be a popular with his students if he was the coach of a sports team. Yes, Anti-Skill officers were generally also teachers. That was why this strict interrogation room looked more like a school’s student guidance room once you were used to it. The only real differences were the bars over the window, the sink in the corner, and the monitoring room hidden behind a special mirror. The desk and chairs were not bolted to the floor. Hamazura could only call that careless.
“As I explained several times on the way here, I don’t know how to take it off. Damn, the katsudon’s getting cold. What a waste. Now that I think about it, how do I eat or use the bathroom in this thing?”
Two icons appeared in the corner of his vision. The one shaped like a straw in a cup flashed and then a small cover opened on the side of the helmet’s mouth.
“Am I supposed to stick the katsudon in a blender and then drink it through here as a nutritious smoothie?”
But then what was the other icon for? He had a bad feeling about what that flashing icon meant, especially since it looked an awful lot like a toilet.
“(Hey, stop, Aneri! Don’t open that! Everything that happens in modern interrogation rooms has to be recorded! Okay, I get it! I get that you can do just about anything!)”
“What are you fidgeting around below the table for?”
To the Anti-Skill officer, a desperate battle to preserve Hamazura’s adolescent pride looked like nothing more than a one-man skit.
As Hamazura suppressed the machine empire’s rebellion, the Anti-Skill officer placed a notebook-sized tablet computer on the steel desk.
“Now, let’s hear your testimony again to make sure there are no contradictions.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to do this another three times? I know how this works, so can we just get it over with? And is that judo 3rd dan guy glaring at me from the corner meant for your ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine?”
“His ear’s all swollen from within from being rubbed against the tatami mats so much, so it’s pretty obvious. And the silent type doesn’t really work for the bad cop. Plus, it’s even less effective when I know the trick, so you’re just wasting labor costs here.”
He was honestly willing to tell them anything as long as it was not related to Takitsubo, Mugino, and Kinuhata. He almost felt sorry for the adults applying so much pressure to him when he knew they would later realize he was innocent and be forced to apologize. He kind of wanted them to send in their profiler and forensics team since it would only make their own situation worse, like they were strangling themselves with silk floss.
“Now, what should I tell you first?”
“We are the ones in control of this interrogation.”
He realized this was going to be a long night and Aneri helpfully displayed a simple falling block puzzle in the corner of his vision.
A great tremor shook the entire building.
And then all the lights went out.
Hamazura was not all that surprised thank to the Processor Suit’s visor. The room was now darker than a movie theater, but the visor immediately adjusted its brightness so everything looked the same as it would during midday.
The delinquent’s Processor Suit glowed yellow.
That was the warning color.
It was only a pale light at a single point, so it was not enough to sweep away the room’s darkness.
In fact, it was the professional Anti-Skill officers who began moving around in confusion with their vision so suddenly taken from them.
“What? The emergency power isn’t kicking in!?”
Several sets of rushed footsteps clattered by the metal door. After a while, the building shook again. Then some voices arrived over the Anti-Skill radios which were not reliant on the station’s power.
“The bastard walked right up to the front entrance!! This is no mere accident. I need backup! Repeat, I request backup!!”
The radio monitor’s backlight must have helped him see because it lit up the shining young man’s face from below, giving him a ghastly look as he glared at Hamazura.
“What is this? An accomplice of yours!?”
“How should I know?”
Hamazura dismissively waved a hand.
…He knew Mugino or Kinuhata could easily mop the floor with an Anti-Skill group, but since they did not believe that the full-body suit pervert was him, they would not be here to rescue him. In fact, he had his doubts whether they would come rescue him even if he pleaded them to.
However, he did have a guess who this was.
Anti-Skill pursuing him and the discovery of Lilith had both been detours. This whole issue was centered on Hamazura Shiage and the Process Suit containing Aneri.
And who was it that had pursued and attacked him?
(Oh, geez. Is he that intent on attacking me?)
“A-anyway, you stay here. We’ll be locking the door from outside, so you won’t be able to leave. If you do, it will only add to your list of charges. Listen, this interrogation room is sturdy. And that’s for your protection too!!”
“If you say so.”
With a tragic aura around them, the shining young man and the judo 3rd dan exchanged a nod and left the interrogation room. It would have been a meaningless act given the Processor Suit’s artificial strength, but it was careless of them not to handcuff him.
Hamazura softly sighed as he tried for a triple combo in the puzzle game, screwed it up, and ended up with a pile of garbage.
There was a simple reason why he was so unconcerned despite this crisis.
(This has got to be that #1 freak! I don’t know what kind of secrets this Processor Suit holds, but unlike me, he’s smart, so if I just leave this to him, he’ll solve this whole confusing mess for me. Yes, yes. I just have to let that chosen genius – that true dark hero – beat me up to pass the baton onto him. I see, I see. Well, I was ready to jump straight to the ending and roll the credits once I got Lilith safely to the adults. I don’t know if the fate of the world or the hope of humanity is riding on this, but you just go deal with it on your own. God, what a pain.)
Several more powerful tremors assaulted the central station. Hamazura ignored that to focus on the puzzle game, but he failed to recover from the triple combo attempt and the blocks stacked up to the ceiling.
Once the game over screen changed to the continue selection screen, he looked up.
…And he realized everything had gone silent.
He also realized the Processor Suit’s gaps were switching back and forth between yellow and red.
Unable to bear the same heavy silence as on an elevator, he began to speak aloud. There was of course no one to answer him. The sink’s special mirror had shattered and its pieces covered the floor, so he could see the monitoring room on the other side. And there was no sign of anyone there.
“Knowing him, he’ll go easy on normal people. Won’t he? Right!?”
His voice was simply absorbed by the darkness. At some point, the area had been taken over by the same forlorn atmosphere felt after being left behind in an abandoned building in the middle of the night. What did this mean? Had it not been as simple as he thought?
…And if there was no one here, what had happened to Lilith after she was supposedly taken to safety?
“Are you goddamn kidding me!?”
The interrogation room could not be opened from within after it was locked, but the monitoring room visible through the sink’s broken mirror was a different matter. He stuck his head in, climbed into a room lined with LCD screens, and reached for the doorknob. He had no idea why it mattered, but he tried to be as silent as possible by slowly turning the knob and opening the door only a crack.
There was no light outside.
The dark scene was mechanically corrected. The tremors must have been powerful indeed because cracks ran through the walls and ceiling, and panels of construction material had fallen to the floor in a lot of places. And he saw no one anywhere. No matter how much the brightness and color saturation were adjusted, the atmosphere of a creepy abandoned building crawled up from his feet.
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
Driven by something invisible, Hamazura opened his mouth.
“Aneri, is there any way to locate Lilith?”
The puzzle game window closed and a map of the central station opened in its place. And a red dot was added to it. That was the employee nursery on the third floor, same as the interrogation room. The dot was flashing irregularly, but was that because the suit was amplifying and detecting Lilith’s cries?
He had been warned leaving here would add to his charges.
Even if it had begun with false accusations, there might be no arguing his way out of what he was doing now.
He slowly breathed in and out.
And he made up his mind.
(I would never forgive myself if I let something happen to that baby.)
He took the step.
He entered the shadowy hallway and walked as silently as possible.
He saw Christmas trees and Santa dolls here and there. Perhaps in a collaboration with some kind of manga or anime, a recruitment poster on the wall had a few teenage soldiers lined up in front of a 50m colossal weapon with the text “How about a job that helps protect the city!?” All of it looked like stuffed animals in an abandoned hospital. It felt like an insult to whoever had made them and decorated the place with them, but they just looked so creepy in the darkness.
Just then, he reached a stairway and heard intermittent bursts of gunfire from below. Someone was apparently there. Hamazura had no way of knowing if those were nonlethal rubber bullets or if they had switched to lead bullets. Either way, he could not let Lilith be caught in this mayhem. A rubber bullet might be nonlethal for an adult, but it could easily kill a baby.
He had to recover Lilith as soon as possible.
That was the only thing on his mind, but something pinned his feet in place. No, he could not take his eyes off the stairs leading down. A sort of sixth sense that could not be enhanced by the machine was warning him that he could lose his life if he did not focus on this here.
The noisy vortex of gunfire had stopped at some point.
And yet the sinister atmosphere down the stairs remained unchanged. No, it had grown stronger. Only now did Hamazura realize the sense of danger had not come from the gunfire. Something much more frightening was approaching.
Unable to speak properly, he saw something enter his vision. It came from below the stairs. It carelessly appeared on the landing there. It would have been the perfect spot to fire on if Hamazura had a gun, but it showed no sign of caring about that disadvantage.
It was a person wearing a skintight suit of unknown material that covered them from head to toe.
This enemy had something like an amorphous gel equipped like a piece of external equipment.
This was the true wanted criminal wearing the same equipment as Hamazura Shiage.
This was A. O. Francisca.
He did not know what they really looked like.
But because they had already clashed, he could rule out one person. The person Hamazura had thought was the most likely suspect had not worn a Processor Suit.
As soon as they faced each other, the light filling the gaps of the armor changed to a sinister red.
In other words…
Between the Lines 1
Once they got flying, they quickly left the earth behind.
The Windowless Building had already been thrown out into dark outer space where it floated with no concern for the orbits of any celestial bodies.
Naturally, the large hole in the wall was also ignored.
The situation was as tragic as stuffing a victim in a barrel and throwing them overboard into the sea, but Holy Guardian Angel Aiwass maintained his smile.
Conversely, the woman with extremely long blonde hair held her throat and grimaced while that shining hair danced like snakes in the weightlessness.
Of course, it was extremely abnormal for that to be all that happened to her.
Skydiving video did not provide a sense of falling because there was nothing to compare the skydiver to. Similarly, it was hard to tell what was so incredible about Aiwass and Coronzon when they were together like this.
“Dung pile, your worthless self is one thing, but what about your borrowed avatar? This environment should be just right. The concepts of the cardinal directions should vanish soon and then the North Star will also lose all meaning.”
“Heh heh. Are you worried about Lola’s condition? It certainly is ironic to think a being like you would be concerned about a human.”
“…Do you think you’ve brought peace to the world or something?”
“I guess it was wrong to expect anything of a bath stain’s memory. To reiterate, Magic God High Priest returned from space, did he not? Well, if you thought that was as deep as it gets, then you’re going to be truly shocked by the next trick. That’s one more thing to look forward to.”
“I don’t even need to return.” The being borrowing Lola’s body sneered. “Did you think I only had the one avatar? …I’ll screw it all up for you. Since you’re leaving me alone up here, I can only assume you’re trying to buy time for something, but that will end in failure.”
“A. O. Francisca.”
“Hmm. That is quite the name, but does it actually mean anything?”
“Whatever happens to the British Commonwealth, the leader of the science side, Academy City, belongs to me. So I will make my comeback from there. Aleister might have the upper hand at the moment, but this is him we’re talking about: he’s sure to fail somewhere along the line. My toys belong to me, so I choose where to light the fuse and let them burn.”