Toaru Majutsu no Index:NT Volume19 Chapter 2
Chapter 2: An Awakening Beast Visits a City of Steel – X=Scarlet.
This happened just 10 minutes before the attack on the District 7 Central Anti-Skill Station.
A silhouette wriggled through the darkness.
That organism had no definite form. Its mass was limited to 32kg and its color and shape could be freely rearranged.
Thus, the organism’s standard strategy was to wait. It was more like a jellyfish or sea anemone than a squid or octopus. It scanned the surrounding environment, camouflaged itself as the bait most likely to draw the target in, and then did nothing more than wait. Near a cave or sunken ship, it would become a treasure chest. At a mountain cabin during winter, it would become a warming stove or a firewood tree. In a desert village, it would become a jug of water. That was how it was meant to work.
However, there were some targets it could not hunt only by waiting.
It could move autonomously in those cases.
Although it would seem odd for a treasure chest or water jug to move on its own, so this only applied in certain situations.
The Anti-Skill officers protecting the main entrance of the building may not have done anything wrong.
They truly did not approach the organism for the indecent reasons its form had been chosen for. When they saw that wandering around so late at night, it was only natural to want to protect it. Plus, this was the Central Anti-Skill Station. They could not deny the possibility that it was here in search of help due to a major problem at home or school. And this was all the more suspicious given the bare feet and almost transparently thin dress during winter. That was enough to hint some kind of crime, so they could not just ignore this.
“What brings you here so late, miss?”
The Anti-Skill guard crouched down to eye level and spoke to that with a smile. He had of course been placed at the front entrance because he was tough, but if he glared suspiciously at everyone, they would lose the people’s trust and no one would cooperate with them. That was why the guards at the front entrance needed to be both tough and sociable.
But perhaps he should have used those senses to detect something fishy about this.
Was his tough side or his sociable side needed here?
To repeat, that organism had no definite form.
It scanned the surrounding environment and redesigned itself in the shape and colors that would best capture its prey. Within its 32kg limit, it needed to become some kind of bait that blended into the scenery of this civilized nation’s metropolis while also drawing the greatest number of targets into the lethal range, whether that was out of a sense of justice or more indecent motives.
It had found the optimal answer.
Like some kind of crack, a small vertical wound ran down that lovely girl’s forehead.
No, it was not just a wound. It was clearly wriggling.
For some reason, the Anti-Skill guard viewed that bizarre phenomenon in a very unscientific way.
(Is that a third-…?)
He thought it was an eye.
But it was not.
That girl stood less than 130cm tall and a straight line ran down from the top of her head to the bottom of her crotch.
That was a Mimetic Predator.
And its entire body opened wide to the left and right, just like an iron maiden.
And back to the present.
Hamazura and the assassin both emitted red light.
On the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors of the District 7 Central Anti-Skill Station, an amorphous sludge seemed to surround the Processor Suit man standing there.
No, that was more than just filth.
The fluid’s regular movements gathered it around the Processor Suit man’s body. It mostly focused on the upper arms and the thighs. Several frightening weapons shot out. Long bewitching curves not often seen in machines gathered together to form something like jellyfish or sea anemone tentacles. More than just stab or constrict, these combat manipulators could cause definite harm just by lightly touching the target.
Not all mechanical products were made of straight lines and metal.
In fact, this use of cytoplasmic weapons seemed to show off just how high this opponent’s specs were.
(Is that the same suit as mine…? No, is theirs even better than mine!?)
Neither of them needed a starting signal.
Just as the giant combat manipulators seemed to wriggle out from the upper arms and thighs of that humanoid silhouette, those jellyfish or anemone curves formed fearsome spears and rushed in to skewer Hamazura from a variety of angles.
Aneri provided a warning, Hamazura placed his feet in the colorful markers that Aneri displayed on the floor, and he punched the side of one spear after dodging them all. It only felt like a slight bump with the surface of his fist, but he had used another incredible move. His full body weight shifted from his legs and hips to focus on just his fist as he solidly struck the mystery sludge. He had no idea what the move was called.
If those really were modeled after a jellyfish or anemone, countless poison stingers could inject some kind of chemical into him as soon as he touched it, but his entire body was covered by the Processor Suit’s special material.
It was more of an explosion than a roar.
The severed amorphous thing rolled along the floor and flopped around like an octopus leg.
(He didn’t take any steps like he’s playing a dance game. I have Aneri and he has that sludge. Are the Processor Suits the same, but they have different optional add-ons?)
But it was not over yet. The many transparent jellyfish tentacles wrapped together and changed their color and texture. They quickly molded their entire body into an entirely different form.
It was a girl of less than 130cm who inspired an incredible protective urge.
For some reason she had fallen onto her butt with her legs spread.
But Hamazura sighed and ignored how she lightly bit her thumb and gave him an upturned glance.
“Sorry, but I’m more into short girls with big tits!!!!!”
He then chose another incredible move. He sent a kick to the center of her solar plexus to mercilessly launch that organism weapon to the far end of the straight hallway.
However, it did not work properly.
But not because she was entirely unfazed by the attack.
In fact, she was even softer than a normal human body. As if she was a gummy doll without a spine, her small body bent back at a right angle. And he felt a strange crawling sensation on the bottom of his foot.
It was the same as a siren that used the frequency of a baby crying.
She had been specifically designed to provide the most unpleasant and guilt-inducing sensation the human body could experience.
He heard a quiet sound.
Like the tail lights of a car, a red trail of light moved through the sticky darkness. That little game had bought enough time for the wanted criminal known as A. O. Francisca to not just leave the stairway landing but cling to the hallway ceiling.
This was clearly using the same specs as Hamazura’s suit.
He continued placing his feet where Aneri told him, but his backhand blows only sliced through the air and accomplished nothing. After he moved his head aside at the last second to avoid a flying kick meant as a cross counter, Hamazura and A. O. Francisca moved in a small circle to re-judge the distance between them. …It looked cool and all, but all Hamazura was doing was playing the dance game developed by Aneri.
…This was apparently the inevitable result when he was up against someone with the same specs.
Simply put, it would never end one way or the other.
Except his opponent also had that spread-legs bait. Even with Aneri’s support, he would be worn down first if this continued at length.
He could not think about fighting and winning.
He chose an incredible move. Just as the wanted criminal’s fist flew straight toward him, he swung his torso to dodge and then slammed his heel against the floor instead of his opponent. The thick building material immediately sank down, several thick cracks ran through the floor, and A. O. Francisca was dragged to the next floor down like an antlion pit.
Had they been prepared in advance or not?
That was what divided their fates. Hamazura kicked off the wall and ceiling to reach safety before he was dragged down as well.
He had to focus on Lilith for now.
His opponent persistently threw that organism weapon that stabbed toward him like a transparent jellyfish tentacle spear. It had twintails, then a side tail, and then a giant ribbon. It wore a dress with an extremely short miniskirt, then shorts, and then a school swimsuit. But Hamazura grabbed that transforming assassin by her slender neck and slammed her into the bar-covered reinforced glass of a window to throw her out into the night sky from three stories up.
He had supposedly grabbed her by the neck, but that short period of contact had left a deep wound in the armor on the back of his hand. Blood-red light flashed behind the armor. Even after being attacked, he had no idea what she had done to him. But he was fairly certain he had seen something creepily wriggling on the slender throat of that organism weapon as she vanished into the darkness.
“…Now that’s dangerous.”
He doubted the wanted criminal or the organism weapon would die from this. This time, Hamazura really did run toward the nursery for employee families located on the same floor. He could no longer rely on Anti-Skill. He had a bad feeling about what would happen if he did not get Lilith out of here.
Even so, the distance from the direct threat meant the light in the Processor Suit’s gaps briefly lowered from red to yellow.
On the way, he found an Anti-Skill officer sitting in the hallway with her back resting on the wall.
Either the organism weapon had been allowed to move freely through the building before A. O. Francisca’s entrance, or she had been hit by a ceiling panel knocked loose by the shaking of the building. The details were unclear.
“Aneri, can I give her first aid!?”
Since Aneri did not try to resist, was the suit learning his thought patterns through experience, just like a spam filter?
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
A decorated Christmas tree and its LED string of lights (which was dark with the power out) were highlighted, so he followed the instructions by tearing off a decorative stick, pulling off the string of lights, and making a splint for the Anti-Skill officer’s right leg. He could only manage this with Aneri’s help. Only after he had started working did he belatedly realize he was treating a sprained ankle.
The groaning woman had a large chest and long black hair tied back. The combination of a track suit and giant breasts reminded him of his girlfriend. …But it was Hanzou who was obsessed with this busty track suit Anti-Skill officer. He kind of felt like his feelings would lose some of their purity otherwise, so he hoped this did not imprint anything on him. It was important to remain dedicated to the one you loved. And whether in a pink track suit or a navel-baring miniskirt Santa costume, he loved what he loved!
“Why is a suspect…wandering around out here? Who are you…?’
“No, uh, who are you? I, um, certainly don’t recognize you.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter. That child is in the nursery back here. We can’t contain that thing.”
With that said, the busty track suit teacher pulled something from her pants pocket and placed it in his hand.
It was a small key.
“This is the key to the storeroom on the way… There’s a whole mountain of special cash in there, so you might be able to buy some time by unlocking and opening the door.”
“Officially made counterfeit money meant to fool hostage-takers and scammers. They have a special perfume on them that only a trained dog can detect.” The Anti-Skill woman let out a rough breath and smiled thinly. “I know this isn’t something I should be asking of you, but I’m going to do so anyway. If you can still move, then I leave this in your hands. Please protect that child.”
Hamazura could not help but click his tongue.
Anti-Skill had been restricting his actions, but they were not the bad guys here. But if she remained here, she was at risk of being hit by a stray attack. The best way of saving the immobilized survivors was for him and his enemy to leave the building right this moment.
He whispered just one thing before continuing on.
“Don’t let you guard down around the other guy in a Processor Suit. He won’t show any mercy.”
Getting out of here was the best thing he could do for Anti-Skill, so he left the injured woman and continued down the hallway. He used the key given to him by the track suit woman to open the storeroom door on the way. He then made his way to a door covered in winter mascots like Santa and a snow rabbit.
“Lilith!! Are you okay!?”
He knew she could not understand him, but he still shouted to her. It may have been mostly just to give voice to what he hoped was true.
“Dahh!” was the cheerful reply that showed no understanding of the situation.
Lilith was lying in a baby bed that doubled as a cradle and was shaped like a sled. She held a red and yellow trumpet toy that he did not recognize. He sensed a sweet aroma from her mouth, so she had probably been given powdered milk dissolved in warm water. Anti-Skill had apparently been treating her right. That was one more reason not to let the adults be slaughtered. He could not repay their kindness with cruelty.
He wished he could gather up a few baby products, but he could not carry very much with him. He only grabbed Lilith from the sled baby bed.
“We’re going back out into the cold, but bear with it, okay?”
Hamazura analyzed why he said that when she would not understand him. Had he felt it would be dishonest of him not to explain the situation?
That was when he heard a footstep in front of the nursery door.
That was all it took for red curves to race across Hamazura’s body.
(!? What, did he completely ignore the pile of cash!?)
Several transparent tentacle spears shot out, shredded the door decorated with animal mascots, and scattered it in more than 10 pieces. As the cytoplasmic weapons reattached to the Processor Suit’s back as a single mass, A. O. Francisca stepped inside. His warning light was red too. Hamazura held someone he could not allow to be hit and now the exit was blocked. His freedom of choice was being narrowed down more and more before the actual clash began.
Something broke through the side wall before the two people in identical suits could do anything more.
It was a monster with creepy white hair and blood-red eyes who appeared from the other side of the wall.
He spoke just once.
(I’m screwed! Wait, what do I do!? What do I do about Lilith!? I can’t just leave her here, but she’ll be killed along with me if I’m holding her! What’s the right thing to do here, dammit!? Is there even a perfect answer!? And time is passing while I think!)
Hamazura shrank down like lightning had struck a nearby tree and he tried to protect Lilith.
But luckily, if you could call it that…
(Wait, huh? I’m alive?)
For some reason, Academy City’s #1 charged toward the wanted criminal first.
That was enough. Hamazura did not need a clever answer.
There may have been a good reason for the monster’s actions, but it may have been a mere whim. Whatever the case, the dumb delinquent stopped giving his mind a rare workout. He adjusted Lilith’s position in his arms, ran toward the window instead of the door, and broke through the barred reinforced glass to enter the night sky at three stories up.
His jumping distance easily surpassed the limits of a normal person.
He flew past the tall fence meant to prevent escapees and he entered the normal city.
Lilith giggled with joy at the strange sense of floating and Hamazura searched for a landing point. Aneri displayed the recommended route on his visor.
“A large truck!? Really!?”
So as not to shake Lilith, he bent his legs to absorb the impact and somehow managed to land on top of a truck decorated with Christmas lights. But this had apparently been the right choice. The Processor Suit’s colored accent changed from red to yellow and then to blue.
When he finally breathed a sigh of relief, he heard the tooting of a cheap horn.
He looked down to see Lilith had the plastic trumpet toy in her mouth. She had apparently managed to hold onto her favorite despite everything going on.
She seemed to be in a good mood.
They were sneaking around.
In the alley between two buildings, silver-haired Aleis-tan poked her head out to check on something. She(?) held a piece of paper the size of a yen note and let it flutter in the wind.
“Is that a good thing?”
“No, not entirely. Once we have made our preparations and worked up our resolve, it would be a problem if we could not find her. That is half the purpose of this litmus test.”
“What are we doing now?”
“Index or Misaka Mikoto. I said we wanted to locate them to solidify our foundation, didn’t I?”
She wore a witch hat and a cloak over her double blazer uniform, but without the cloak he would have been able to see right up her miniskirt as she stuck her hips out toward him. But Kamijou Touma did not consider that to be lucky. The dirty old man was already acquiring a high school girl’s mentality of a bare-minimum defense!
Although the way it was all so perfectly calculated out made it seem more like the product of a dirty old man.
“As I said before, this protective charm is guaranteed to lose to Coronzon. The greater her influence grows, the more it will destroy itself. So as long as it remains unharmed, we can assume we are safe from her invisible influence. That means there is no need for you to swing your right fist around at random.”
“Don’t give me that sullen look. The most frightening thing in the world is to not know whether or not the events before your eyes are connected to the mastermind. What about that sudden accident or fire? What about all the misfortune that keeps befalling you? What about that person you ran into on the street? Once everything and everyone appears suspicious, you will only distance yourself from the truth. At times like that, it helps to have a protective charm that converts those suspicions into a visible form. You can divide the coincidences from the intentional and locate the hurdles you must overcome.” Aleister waved the paper around. “Coronzon’s scheme is like a three-dimensional maze. It goes well beyond appearing on the front line herself. The best way to keep yourself from getting lost is to view the whole from a flat viewpoint. And that applies to both your enemies and your allies.”
“I feel like that would make Othinus really mad…”
“You seem to view trust as a virtue, but a fixed viewpoint only creates mental blind spots.”
Once she finished checking whatever it was, Aleister stepped out into the nighttime street.
Kamijou honestly had no real obligation to stay with her, but he was afraid what would happen if he let this unprecedented magician roam free. Someone needed to keep a tight grip on her leash.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“If we simply needed to hide, we could have remained in that leisure hotel. Why do you think we used that closed room to separate and extract chemicals and ultimately create this charm? A litmus test is meaningless if all we do is hide. You need to assume we will be heading out into danger.”
Aleister acted all self-important, but she still grabbed Kamijou’s arm as she walked through the city night.
Silence hung over them for a while.
The silver-haired girl breathed a white sigh as she viewed the scenery she had constructed and was now letting go.
“It was pure coincidence that I first visited Japan.”
“But I just couldn’t forget the impact of seeing the large Buddha statue on Kamakura land. When I made it so that I died on British land in 1947, there was only one choice for where I would make my comeback. I had already lost interest in Sicily and Paris by then. And I will admit the choice was somewhat influenced by that doctor who supported me and transported me when I was near death.”
She mentioned a year far in the past.
That was a year from the history books, just after a major war. It was hard to say this country had recovered by that time. Or was that exactly why? That had been the only opportunity to construct such an extraordinary institution in western Tokyo in the name of giving the country an educational and technological recovery.
“I made sure it had everything I would need. Including room for growth. Just as I had seen in those shrines, those temples, and that Buddha statue, when I gave these agricultural people a single goal and built up a specialized field for them, their nature was perfect for constructing a scientific and academic city entirely cut off from the occult. …But perhaps what I was really building was the Japanese scenery that I so longed for. Looking back on it, I may have been more motivated by my hatred for Christianity.”
The silver-haired girl finally stopped in front of a used book chain. It apparently stayed open quite late for a bookstore. A Christmas song played over the store speakers and most of the customers were reading something they probably had no intention of actually buying. The silver-haired girl did not hesitate to step inside.
“What is it?”
“Well, I was just wondering if I would find one of my books in here. But I suppose they are just too minor. They would have made the perfect material for some book divination.”
“Aren’t those the kind of dangerous grimoires that Index stores? You’re not just going to find them lying around.”
“Try actually knowing what you’re talking about before you criticize someone. A few of my books were plays or novels. My ‘death’ occurred on December 1, so I tend to grow sentimental during this season. Please just overlook this.”
With a thin smile, Aleister took Kamijou’s arm and pulled him behind one of the bookcases lined up in something like a maze. Kamijou was unsure if he should protest this old man who had the warmth and scent of a soft girl, but then the silver-haired girl gently whispered in his ear.
“(Index and Misaka Mikoto are one thing, but not even Tsuchimikado Motoharu and Karasuma Fran have shown up? That is most curious. I will admit the science infrastructure is lacking at the moment, but surely they can use individual magic to track us down. Or are they being jammed by some third party?)”
“Hm? I’m not sure what that means, but can we meet up with them or not?”
“(Anti-Skill is busy with something. I could easily search out all this information if I could only use Underline with administrative privileges. No, I wouldn’t even need to go that far. I would only need to check for unnatural tremors on the seismographs laid out in a grid. Well, I’m the one that launched the Windowless Building, so I can’t be picky. Regardless, something is happening nearby, so let’s be careful.)”
She continued tugging on his arm, providing a soft sensation as they left through a different exit.
Aleister was tightly clinging to Kamijou’s right arm, but they oddly did not stand out much. When he looked around again, he realized the Christmas-decorated city was filled with young couples flirting. Even a part-time Santa and snowman were sweetly enjoying each other’s company on the job. Did that all sound rather vague? Of course it was. We can’t exactly provide a detailed description of this kind of December night, dammit.
Mixed in with the part-time Santa cosplayers was a bunny girl gathering participants for some kind of sketchy survey or monitoring. Kamijou had a dead look in his eyes as they walked by all that.
“Why am I spending this romantic night with a dirty old man who belongs in a history book? And I still have two holes in me, remember? At this point, I just want to die…”
“You should not speak of death so lightly, boy. Do you want to have the abyss gaze back into you? …Anyway, the real bottleneck at this point is probably Tsuchimikado Motoharu.”
“Even if the others have special powers or talents, they were no more than amateurs. Tsuchimikado Motoharu, on the other hand, is a professional. If we can’t locate him, then it would be faster to do something he would notice. And we will of course have to watch out for any unexpected third parties, but…but…”
“What? Is something bothering you?”
“Yes. Tsuchimikado Motoharu, hm? Why does something feel off to me?”
Kamijou fell silent there. It was easy to forget with everything that had happened afterwards, but hadn’t they initially headed to the Windowless Building because that rotten sunglasses boy had said something about having shot the Board Chairman in the head? Kamijou could not have that memory returning here, so he put on as big a smile as he could manage and changed the subject.
“I’ve been meaning to ask: What’s going on in this city?”
“That is what I am looking into, one thing at a time. Of course, I tend to move from one failure to another, so I cannot guarantee anything.”
The silver-haired girl pressed her head against his shoulder and sounded exasperated, but there was a somewhat envious note to her voice.
“Coronzon is using Lola’s body as an avatar and she is attempting to harm me so she can hijack Academy City. You understand that much, correct?’
“Yes, but I can’t say I really understand all of it.”
“Good enough. Honesty is a virtue.” The magician giggled. “Several incredibly dangerous things are hidden in Academy City. I cannot allow Lola…no, Coronzon to steal them, but the most important one of all is the Bank.”
“Hmm. You mean that thing that stores all of our grades?”
“The grades from each school, all other esper development data, the chemicals and equipment used for the esper development, and all other Academy City research data is stored and searchable in that single large database. The next-generation weapons and esper powers tend to stand out, but Academy City’s greatest weapon is its scientific knowledge. Having that stolen in its entirety would bring the most harm to the world.”
That would allow a demon to abuse all the technology covering the world.
No, since there was no clear division between science and magic, could it become the puzzle piece that Coronzon needed to complete her incomplete knowledge? Would it fill in the missing half?
What had Magic God Othinus once acquired by bringing science and magic together? Remembering that was enough to trigger alarm bells in Kamijou’s mind.
“Coronzon’s main form is the one inside Lola and thus not on earth at the moment,” said Aleister. “But there is no way Coronzon will give up. That means she is sure to use every one of her pieces on the Academy City board to target that largest of server systems. For example…”
An Anti-Skill special truck raced by with the Doppler effect distorting its siren. It was yet another noisy day in the city. The roadside displays and electronic bulletin boards were playing a news story about a helmeted man attacking a general securities trading office and later escaping from an Anti-Skill station.
“Using all the large and small incidents that occur across Academy City.”
“Are you saying that’s part of it?”
“All crimes have a cause, no matter how ridiculous it might be. And if it seems to happen unnaturally smoothly, it is best to assume a third party is influencing it. If you put in the effort to find multiple sources, a single search engine can distinguish between such things.”
But after Aleister readily stated that…
“However. How much of that is sharp intuition and how much of it is paranoid delusion? Maintaining that line is not easy. To keep that line clear, you need an impartial point of view. It is not that I dislike Misaka Mikoto or Shokuhou Misaki. In fact, the more people providing their opinion, the more your individual biases are diluted and the less likely you are to be trapped by prejudice or preconception. But before accepting someone into our group, we must first prove their safety. And that is where this litmus test comes in. I used to let my question-and-answer AI handle such things, but you will fill that role now. …And since we have seriously tried to kill each other based on our incompatible principles and beliefs, I know you will be able to supply a view counter to my own.”
No matter how many failures, losses, or setbacks she experienced, she would not stop.
She would even make use of the connections made when everything fell apart around her.
“Now, let’s go grab some insurance like always. The first key is Tsuchimikado Motoharu. Let’s cause something of a commotion to grab his attention. There is no need to take this too seriously. It only needs to be a small sign of our presence that a normal person would overlook.”
“So where are we going now…?”
By then, Kamijou Touma may have been nearly swallowed up by it.
He should have been giving a yes or no answer, but he skipped straight past that and asked where.
And that was why this happened.
They visited a steamy sauna that was still open late at night.
“…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Are you completely insane?”
“I have a towel firmly wrapped around my waist, so I’m not sure what more I can do. Then again, I am used to being seen as a villain, so go right ahead. Savor the soft skin, warmth, and aroma of a maiden.”
“But why are you in the men’s sauna!?”
“Oh, should I have gone to the women’s one?”
…Since she was a dirty old man on the inside, that seemed like a problem too.
However, she looked like a fragilely-slender silver-haired girl wearing only a towel. Even this late, there were a few other customers here and there, but all of them were completely flustered. …And yet none of them raised their voice or drove her out. Yes, the men were not about to complain when a girl marched on in with them.
(The other customers were actually just as overwhelmed by the sight of Kamijou whose wounds were only roughly covered by some gauze, but) Aleister gave a curious glance to the small waterproof television another customer had brought with them.
“Hmm, that’s an idea. If we carefully check over the information on traffic congestion, we might gain a general picture of what caused that congestion. And if it is significant, we can pursue it.”
“You keep jumping onto new ideas. Are you only acting clever and you’re actually stumped? Was visiting this sauna only meant to delay coming clean about that!?”
“What’s this? If you’re feeling restless, how about we play a game? Like strip rock-paper-scissors.”
“That’d be a sudden death match!! We both only have one thing to remove!!”
Aleister sat on the paulownia bench like she owned the place and boldly crossed her legs with no concern for what that meant for the towel.
“You sit down too. Didn’t I tell you we would be leaving a sign? I’ve created a topic that ranks above the standard threshold, so word should soon spread across social media. And everyone sharing it will think it’s entirely unimportant and laughable. Only those who know the crucial fact that the Board Chairman has become a silver-haired girl will realize its importance.”
“Are you sure you planned all this out?”
“Well, since I am defenselessly exposing my skin, there is a risk of an unpleasant third party contacting us. But if that happens, I only need to remove this towel and scream at the top of my lungs. When I announce that everyone here is a witness, they will fall into an unprecedented level of panic, giving us time to slip away and go elsewhere.”
Was the situation really worth making that kind of gamble?
Kamijou could not seem to relax until the usual gang had been gathered.
“In all likelihood, that will not happen.” Aleister’s well-featured face and neck had grown somewhat flushed. “And the incident started by Coronzon is a matter separate from our actions here. We must start by contacting and regrouping with the others to bring us back on track. And the easiest way to do that is to cast aside the fixed viewpoint of ‘Kamijou Touma’s story’.”
“Some things in this world seem quite similar but are entirely different. For example, professional wrestling uses safe pinning techniques developed from circus acts, so it would be useless for an obsessed fan of that to discuss a wrestling match in an international tournament where the contestants are truly struggling for victory. Having some small knowledge can actually lead you astray. That is what I am talking about. Although enacting an idea this ridiculous is sure to help reset your worldview.”
“What are you trying to say?”
She answered with a straight face.
“A pink wind shall save the world.”
“Okay, that’s it. Clench your teeth because Lilith in heaven is demanding a Round 2!!”
He could not rely on Anti-Skill.
But he could not leave a baby out in the December cold either.
It was fairly unusual for shelter to be the most important of the survival necessities, but the cold was Lilith’s greatest enemy at the moment. They needed some kind of shelter before thinking about anything else.
That was why Hamazura Shiage made a certain decision while trailing a blue light.
“This place should work.”
On Aneri’s instructions, he broke through the glass door’s lock like he was solving a puzzle ring and then he snuck in. The sweet scent of flowers immediately pushed in at him like a solid wall.
(It’s still around 8, but I guess public facilities close early.)
This was a botanical garden.
…Perhaps because it was a public facility, its Christmas lights were still on after all the guests had left. He knew you had to be careful with light sources when growing plants and flowers that used photosynthesis, so would those decorative lights really not cause any kind of problem?
It was enclosed by a large glass dome shaped like half a soccer ball. The delicate sections for things like high elevation plants were probably carefully temperature controlled instead of tended to by hand, so unlike a zoo or aquarium, it was difficult for problems to develop with the sterile environment. If he used this as a base, Lilith would at least not freeze to death.
Identical posters were plastered all over the place, but that was probably because this was being used as the location for a web-broadcast drama. Its release had been delayed a fair bit due to the heat wave, but he was pretty sure it was about several Killer Demons attacking each other with their respective methods of killing.
The baby groaned in his arms.
She had apparently not yet developed a love of flowers. Based on her displeased tone, she may not have liked the strong aroma. …Hamazura slammed shut the door of his heart before he was overwhelmed by the nightmarish memories of choosing this as the location for a date and doing a wonderful job of boring the track suit girl.
Yes, flowers produced neither light nor sound.
They did not move much, so there was not much you could do if someone said they were bored. There was no way to recover.
“Now, then… Aneri, pull up some footage from the nursery.”
The botanical garden would manage the temperature, so now he wanted to gather the supplies a baby would need. The Anti-Skill station’s nursery was the perfect example. He wanted to reproduce as many of the things seen there as possible.
(I guess a crib would come first.)
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
It sounded cute and all, but there was still some risk.
Some of the plants apparently needed more than the air-conditioning system’s heat, so a soft and silky cloth was wrapped around a few of them. He checked in the storeroom and found a few bundles of that cloth. He pulled them out and prepared a bed for Lilith. Chemicals and allergens could be a problem and the handmade structure would be useless if some wires or the points of screws were sticking out.
Luckily, he had a magic word for that.
“Aneri, help me out.”
He needed certainty right now. If his adolescent pride was going to get in the way, he had to discard it.
He arranged several gardening tools as if fitting them into the guide silhouettes that appeared directly in his vision. When Lilith started sounding bored, Aneri played a lullaby created with an automatic song-creation program to soothe her while Hamazura completed his construction work. It was not easy since he did not use any glue out of fear of harmful chemicals, but the way the wood fit complexly together like parquetry actually increased its durability.
The crib was complete.
He pressed on it a few times to test its overall strength and then gently placed Lilith in it. It showed no sign of collapsing. She must have liked the soft sensation because she clapped her small hands in joy.
He finally breathed a sigh of relief.
However, she was a living being, so this was not enough. Shelter was not the only basic necessity. However, he could not use a normal store when he was dressed the same as a wanted criminal and he had been burned when trying an online store before.
He had to come up with some other way.
He entered the guard room which had no real purpose anymore now that the security was automated and he found a few radios placed inside chargers.
(Perfect. I can take one for myself and place another next to Lilith’s crib)
The luxury apartment was honestly a little too big just for living with her boyfriend, but Mugino and Kinuhata had stubbornly insisted they get one of this size. It was supposed to have been just the two of them, but at some point, those other two girls had essentially moved in with them.
It was currently nine at night.
(There’s always so much fatty food during December. That Santa outfit fits perfectly now, so I’m a little worried about later on…)
It was not that the track suit girl had suddenly gained a desire to dress sexily. There was actually a sad story behind it where Kinuhata ordered it online as a joke, found the chest was far baggier than she expected, and could not possibly wear it. But no matter how it had started, it may have been best to smile and watch over her as she took a large step forward by showing any interest at all in something other than a track suit.
While Takitsubo Rikou was in the changing room and working at some unfamiliar ab exercises in nothing but panties and a towel, her smartphone rang. The phone was sitting on top of the washing machine and set to vibrate, so it slid over and then fell right on top of her head.
She checked the screen and saw the call was from “Public Phone”.
This had happened earlier, so even absentminded Takitsubo could guess what it was about.
“It’s me. Hamazura.”
“Yes, yes. I just have to prove it, right!? You seem to be working hard on your abs, but you don’t have to worry about that. With such a wonderful cup size, your chest alone adds an extra kilogram or two. So you don’t need to strip naked and despair over the reading on the scale every day. It’s just the natural way of things!!”
“Understood. Real or not, I’m on my way to murder you!!”
“Good, glad to see my love got through to you. I’ll pay you back later, so can you…hm, it’s past nine. The department stores and drugstores are probably closing soon. Oh, I know. Just to be certain, can you head to a 24-hour discount store and buy the things I need? I wouldn’t have to ask this of you if I could’ve accepted the things I ordered online earlier, but now I have to buy it all twice!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Um, I need diapers, baby powder, a baby bottle, powdered milk, some soft water bottles…um, they apparently have ones for babies, so get those. Also, a container and chemicals for sterilization by boiling! Damn, just check the recommendations on an online store and throw it all in your cart. Get lots of water!”
“Leave it all at the payphone next to the Car Holder coin-operated parking lot south of District 7’s Leaf Street. Just leave the bag of stuff inside the phone booth. Oh, and we don’t actually have to see each other, since I doubt that would end well. Once you leave the products, just go home! Bye!!”
He hung up on her.
Takitsubo stared at her smartphone for a while, tilted her head, and then voiced her question.
“Diapers and a baby bottle…?”
She shut her eyes and then rubbed her index finger against her temple.
“Wh-what is Hamazura trying to get me to do?”
Kamijou Touma had thought it would be over once they worked up a sweat in the sauna and washed off in the shower, but he had yet to see the bottom of this rabbit hole.
“Aren’t internet cafes exciting? The booths are so much more cramped and packed together than a karaoke box, but they’re only divided by a single thin partition and you can hear everything from the other ones. And when you stuff two people into a single-person booth like this, it feels even more cramped.”
“I have holes in my body, so quit pushing on me like that. My blood is gonna squirt out like you’re squeezing a juice box! I’ve had enough of your observations on life and, come to think of it, you wrote erotica in the past, didn’t you!?”
“Quit complaining. I wanted to use a video booth, but I compromised with this because you insisted.”
Their conversation was accompanied by the clicking of a mouse.
“Even after showing off so much skin, Tsuchimikado never showed. It’s about time to seriously consider the possibility that something is blocking our scent, but that means we will have to be more proactive.”
“Yes, that’s right. Tsuchimikado. Something was bothering me about him, but it wasn’t about what happened in the Windowless Building. How did he reach me in that final moment in the back alley? No, reaching me may not have been his original goal there.”
Kamijou did not want the conversation to turn toward Tsuchimikado since it could bring back memories of when that boy supposedly shot Aleister in the head. He did not want a conflict between allies at this point.
“Well, that does not matter now. If we cannot find Tsuchimikado, the next best bet would be Misaka Mikoto.”
“That girl has a bad habit of deactivating electronic cameras and sensors when she moves around. But that means we only have to focus on the areas where the security is malfunctioning. …It is far from a surefire method since nothing will rise to surface unless she is taking some kind of special action, but, well, the #3 has a short temper, so she is probably causing some kind of trouble somewhere.”
“You really shouldn’t let her hear you say that.”
Kamijou was sitting in a less-than-comfortable and somewhat fuzzy office chair and the silver-haired girl who smelled of sap sat on his lap while working at a search engine decorated with Santa and snowmen.
“If this isn’t enough to find her, we might be able to walk around the city with an old handheld radio hanging from our neck. The pattern, strength, and direction of the noise might be enough to calculate out the #3’s location.”
An amateur like Kamijou could not tell at all whether she was having any success, so he just honestly asked.
“…Have you figured anything out?”
“They must have prioritized the life infrastructure because the information networks like this have yet to recover. Well, the normal internet is hooked up at least.”
Aleister shifted her small butt back and forth (in Kamijou’s lap) to find the most comfortable position.
“Still, it wouldn’t hurt to prepare some insurance here.”
“Since I have access to a computer, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to rewrite a bit of code.”
Aleister pulled out the kind of stamp-sized flash memory card used in digital cameras and stuck it into the computer’s slot. She opened a new window and began rapidly typing, but everything she typed seemed to be English and numbers. Kamijou was not all that great at math or English, so he could not make any sense of it.
And the silver-haired girl showed no particular interest in explaining.
“Also, I now have a general understanding of the incidents occurring in the city. I was afraid they would all be drowned out by the Windowless Building blasting off, but the normal news is still being reported.”
“And you said Coronzon is using that kind of thing?”
“There were several headlines, but none of them were of much importance. However, this one was reported without a clear explanation for the reasons behind it: the entire series of events following an attack on a general securities trading office. I also happen to recognize the equipment being used: the Processor Suit.”
“This thing? Is it some kind of incredible new weapon?”
“No. For one thing, it has no set shape or size.”
The silver-haired girl leaned back against Kamijou, the soap smell reached him from the back of her head, and she answered in a way that told him she probably did not plan on explaining further. She simply wanted ideas counter to her own opinions, not mutual understanding.
Then she changed the subject to an almost impressive degree.
“Let’s go over what Coronzon is.”
“You mean that demon?”
“I went to Africa in 1909 and performed a summoning experiment. The whole honorable poverty idea from the Loch Ness experiment didn’t really suit me, so I used the blood of three doves to create a circle that would have an immediate effect. Of the 30 angels, the 10th is Zax, also known as Coronzon. Its true essence is the number 333, it prevents a true bonding with the laws of the world, and thus its true meaning is dispersion. It appears to assist you and to be the key needed to cross the abyss, but it is actually a great demon that spreads all forms of pollution and atrocities throughout the world from the one who contacted it. …Hah. A great demon, hm? Such a simple term that provides an accurate image to even the greatest fool, regardless of their knowledge or education. Which is perfect for Coronzon.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing. It was fortunate I was using an apprentice as a breaker. My body was temporarily hijacked as an avatar, but Victor Neuburg functioned perfectly and successfully drove Coronzon away. …Although looking back, it seems 1909 was not the first summoning and it had been targeting me with intent to harm me as a memento from Mathers.”
Aleister laughed and rested her young body weight on Kamijou.
Her arms could no longer reach, so she stretched out a foot and rudely operated the mouse with the sole and toes of her kneesock. And she of course showed no concern for what this meant for her short skirt.
“Coronzon has gathered great knowledge in the depths of the abyss, but she also seems interested in the human techniques that people like Mathers and I have developed. Look at this.”
The screen displayed a video sharing site.
The oddly tall and narrow footage seemed to be from a cellphone and it was almost entirely black and very blurry. Occasional static ran through it and the entire video occasionally lagged and skipped. It was bad enough to suspect the file itself was damaged.
But something could be seen lurking in that darkness.
It looked like a young girl but also not like one. What was it?
“A Mimetic Predator, hm? She is holding out quite well. England, Rome, and Russia should complete the data destruction before long, so I am impressed she has not forgotten her primary task with that external war to worry about.”
“…The magic side is a part of all this?”
“That division is no more than a line I drew using the Archetype Controller. There is no actual distinction between science incidents and magic incidents, so that is no more than a mere monster lurking in the shadows. Although if you are the type to stubbornly insist on measuring things in millibars or yukawas, I won’t stop you.”
Her one leg must have gotten tired because the silver-haired girl reached her other leg up onto the desk as well. She wrapped both her feet around the mouse before continuing.
“It’s the same as the Loch Ness experiment. Although this seems intentionally set up to fail.”
And that of course pressed her soft body weight even further against Kamijou.
“You seem like the type that would easily fall for this bait, so let me warn you up front: If you see something similar in the city, do not approach. I had no interest in observing the progress at the time, but if the third-rate newspapers are to be believed, its strength surpasses that of your average dinosaur.”
Yes, as long as he used the phone, Hamazura could communicate with people.
As long as no one saw his “face”, there would be no trouble. So once Takitsubo had left the requested products, he could come and collect them to complete the handoff.
“So. What are you doing here, Hamazura?”
Except that absentminded girl suddenly ruined the entire plan.
He had waited a full half hour after the designated time to make extra certain they would not meet, but Takitsubo Rikou could put a lot of effort into the weirdest things. He saw half her face poking out from a row of vending machines that glowed with Christmas-colored lights. She had apparently waited for half an hour out in the cold.
And Hamazura Shiage began shadow boxing for no real reason. The gaps in the Processor Suit’s armor were still fully blue.
“Are you stupid!? Why would you stray from the plan!? And where are Mugino and Kinuhata!? If those monsters who run the underground are here, then bring them on!!”
“Shift down your mental gear, Hamazura.”
“You idiot, I’ve got to risk my life to escape those members of a pure combat species that can’t seem to fit into civilized society! I swear, there’s nothing worse than a battle with cute girls where you fight and fight and there’s never any clothing damage! All that leaves is the fact that they’re unfairly strong! So I protest! I won’t accept any rules other than defining the one to strip first as the winner!!!!!”
But a question reached the dumb delinquent’s panicked mind.
Yes, Takitsubo kept calling him Hamazura.
“…What is the meaning of this, Takitsubo-san?”
“It’s true I can’t see your face, but I can see these fruitless actions, that hunched-over gait of poverty itself, and the loser signals emanating from you… Yes, only Hamazura could be behind that mask…”
“If I didn’t have the tough mind of the world-famous End of the Century Emperor, I probably would’ve gone and killed myself after hearing that!!”
“Don’t let that reaction convince you! That’s not who I am!!”
Hamazura tried to hold back the busty Santa (with kneesocks and exposed midriff) who was quite jiggly when running over and embracing him. But the excited girl would not let him redo this or go through another loop. Adolescence was all about one-time chances!
(Anyway, digitize and record this sensation, Aneri! And no, this isn’t about my personal interests! This is sure to benefit the human race! It’ll cause a revolution in the VR industry!!)
But the support AI did not respond. Perhaps because he had wasted this one-time adolescent chance by heading full speed in a dumb direction.
Now that she had identified him from his walking pattern and the way he carried himself (and some kind of mystery signal), Takitsubo spoke to him like a friend.
“Well, Hamazura? What is going on here?”
“Y-yeah. Do you promise Mugino and Kinuhata aren’t here? Those warrior girls who don’t understand human language aren’t spying on us from somewhere? Then I guess I have time to explain.”
“Why did you suddenly ask me to buy diapers and a baby bottle? …Hamazura, you haven’t developed a weird new fetish, have you?”
“Wait, so you didn’t understand me at all!? There were as many options as there are stars in the sky, so why would you ever choose that one!? Are you some kind of veteran agent who always assumes the worst and acts with extreme caution!?”
At any rate, even if he had not cleared his name from this new charge of perversion, he was glad to have someone he knew treating him like Hamazura Shiage.
When he asked Aneri to list out his options here, he was only given terrible ones like throwing his fist into the center of Takitsubo’s chest, so he swept Takitsubo’s feet out from under her and princess carried her.
For some reason, an unrecommended action alert blared, but he had the kneesocks miniskirt Santa carry the shopping bag of baby goods like an otter, kicked off a building wall to reach the neighboring roof, and then began jumping from rooftop to rooftop.
“? Hamazura, you seem to be touching my butt.”
“Blame your short skirt. We’re taking a stroll through the air, so if I wasn’t holding it down, everyone below us could see. See those red panties, that is.”
“Why do you know that!? When did you see them!?”
“You really went the extra mile to make sure those matched.”
He was hit by a cute barrage of fists along the way, but that was not a problem thanks to the Processor Suit’s armor.
With the bright Christmas lights below them, the stars were drowned out and the sky seemed wrapped in pitch black. While leaping from darkness to darkness in a reserved but cool fashion, Hamazura began to speak.
“There’s one thing I have to warn you about up front: A. O. Francisca. There’s someone else wearing another one of these Processor Suits, so you can’t just trust this appearance. Oh, I know. See this scar on the back of the hand? Use that to determine if it’s me or not. If you don’t see that or they run in a weird way, then they’re a fake.”
“It may be an issue of volume, but their equipment seems good at transforming into human kids. So in your case, watch out for little boys. Don’t you give them a sweet look. Be on your guard!”
“…Hamazura, what kind of person do you think I am?”
She glared at him, but he could not help but worry for his girlfriend. That was just how he worked.
“Anyway, what are you doing, Hamazura?”
“That’s what I’d like to know, but I’ll tell you what little I do know. I suddenly found myself in this weird suit, I was chased around the city, and now I’m being chased by some guy in an identical Processor Suit. Framing me for some crime apparently wasn’t enough for them. …I thought I was being pursued in their place, but cutting off the lizard’s tail apparently wasn’t the end of it.”
Perhaps due to the attack on the Central Anti-Skill Station, emergency vehicles were driving in the canyon between buildings with their red lights ruining the December illumination art. Hamazura…or really, “a man in a Processor Suit” was still a wanted criminal, but Anti-Skill apparently was not focused on the rooftops.
If he could do this, so could A. O. Francisca. He could not view this too positively, so he had to be careful.
“There are two things we need to know,” said Takitsubo as he held her. “First, what is that Processor Suit man named A. O. Francisca trying to do? Second, you said the #1 is pursuing this incident separate from Anti-Skill, so where is he getting his information and why is he pursuing it?”
“…Pretty much, yeah.”
“A. O. Ay, oh… I wonder what that means. Alpha and omega?”
“What’s that? It sounds kinda familiar… Is it a weapon in a game or something?”
“Francisca is the weapon. It’s a throwing axe from Europe and I think it was used by the Franks who were active toward the end of the Roman period. Hmm, come to think of it, there’s a missile known as a tomahawk, isn’t there? That seems kind of like a hint and kind of like it only makes everything more confusing.”
The mysterious Processor Suit was not the wanted criminal’s only trump card. Hamazura had also seen him work alongside a strange organism weapon.
He decided to work from the assumption that A. O. Francisca and Accelerator had been enemies from the beginning and the wanted criminal had put another Processor Suit on Hamazura as a decoy to distract the pursuing #1.
That seemed to make sense at first, but it fell apart with the attack on the Central Anti-Skill Station. Hamazura had been caught as “the person inside the weird suit”, so Anti-Skill and Accelerator would both have been focused on him. Attacking the strictly-guarded building to finish off Hamazura would only reveal that Hamazura was not the real one.
“Maybe it began that way. Maybe I was only meant to be disposed as bait. But something A. O. Francisca didn’t expect happened, so their plan fell apart and they had to make an appearance. …Could that be it?”
But in that case, there would have to be something other than Hamazura or the Processor Suit that had changed everything for A. O. Francisca. What else had been in that Central Anti-Skill Station? If the wanted criminal and the #1 had been enemies to begin with, what had they been fighting over?
It would have to be something Hamazura had picked up along the way.
It would have to be valuable enough for that wanted criminal to return to their decoy after having supposedly escaped.
If their goal was to recover or destroy that thing…what was it?
He thought about it and only one possibility came to mind.
It was something he had only picked up by coincidence with no intent behind it whatsoever. But it might have some great meaning for those extraordinary monsters. Back in the Central Anti-Skill Station, those two had ultimately clashed in the nursery. What if that was not a mere coincidence?
“But if you’re wearing a Processor Suit, I guess it’s the same either way. This shouldn’t be boring at least.”
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
“So does this mean you’re the parent?”
He did not know why he recalled those words.
But Hamazura Shiage was now convinced enough to speak the name of the individual at the center of this.
There was not much he knew about her. He did not even know who had left her in that abandoned car’s trunk in that back alley. It was possible he had picked up an incredibly valuable golden egg without realizing it. Did she have some unheard of talent or antibodies for a deadly disease?
Academy City’s #1 had been in the same area.
Had he been planning to search out that “hiding spot” at his leisure after driving off anyone who might interfere?
“Hamazura. You might have found an answer, but you need to explain it to me too.”
“Hm? Well, if my thoughts won’t just confuse you…”
While he explained his prediction at length, he carried Takitsubo back to the Christmas-decorated botanical garden. Once they arrived, he heard a baby crying quite loudly inside the reinforced glass of the facility.
Hamazura had actually already heard the crying since he had a connection to the crib using the radios he had borrowed from the guard room, but he was not all that worried. After spending some time with her, he had learned that babies had different kinds of crying. And the most frightening thing was when they stopped crying, as if their throat was clogged. If she was crying nice and loud, it was not a signal of danger.
“And after I made sure to make her a bunch of toys that hang from the ceiling and spin around or that make sounds when you touch them.”
He gently lowered the Santa costume and green ribbon girl to the ground and then approached the crib. Lilith’s crying immediately stopped. She instead made a begging noise.
And when he picked her up, she immediately smiled.
“? ??? So you didn’t actually want anything? Do you just cry and smile for no real reason?”
“Hamazura, you have a critical lack of understanding of a girl’s heart.”
For some reason, Takitsubo gave him a cold look as she set down the shopping bag full of baby products.
Then she peered at the baby he was holding.
“She’s so cute.”
“Really? You can’t tell the gender of a baby just by looking at them and they all seem to look the same to me. Plus, the way they crumple up their face looks like a monkey.”
“…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………A critical lack of understanding.”
Hamazura Shiage’s meter was draining fast, but it seemed not even Aneri could give AI relationship advice like something from a marriage counseling site. In fact, the recommended routes he was given all included things like axe kicks and suplexes. He could not blame the program since it had been made by human hands, but he could only classify it as a meathead combat species. The thought processes were far too simple, so everything came down to winning and losing and the greatest destructive power was always considered the winner. As an experienced user, Hamazura gently brushed the suggestions aside like he was seeing a comedian with a muscleman shtick. Yes, Aneri was not a bad person. Not at all.
“Does she need some milk?”
“She apparently had some at the nursery, so she should be fine for a while.”
“What about her diaper?”
“I don’t smell anything and she’ll cry a lot if she does need it.”
The baby talk had infected his girlfriend.
Even if he could rely on Aneri, he did not want this untranslatable language to spread too far, but what did this mean?
“I want to do something,” she said.
“If you say so, but no matter what we try to force on her, the baby will just cry. Lilith will generally get our attention if she wants anything.”
Hamazura lowered the baby into the handmade crib and she made a somewhat displeased noise. She apparently did not want to sleep right now. She waved around her red and yellow trumpet toy, put it in her mouth, and tooted it at him.
It was possible the wanted criminal and the #1 were fighting over this baby.
That bothered him, but he had no way of finding out more right away.
This was not a medical facility, so he could not start to discuss the structure of Lilith’s brain or her genetic makeup.
The only curious thing he could see with the naked eye was the tag around her wrist. That was not much information, but it felt like a clue that would connect her to her parents. It meant this baby was not some illusion that had suddenly appeared out of thin air. She was a lifeform supported by a history leading back into the past.
“If she has a tag, then she was looked after by a hospital, right? Does that mean she probably wasn’t born in a public bathroom and then abandoned?”
Figuring out what hospital used that tag might be an important hint. But how would he do that? You could search anything that caught your interest in this age, but he had been burned when he tried to use the internet earlier. He could only use this place for one night since the employees would show up in the morning, but he did not want to lose the bed he had finally prepared for Lilith. The botanical garden had a terminal for looking up the names of flowers, but he wanted to avoid using it.
However, Takitsubo said something odd.
“But about that tag. What is it made from?”
“Huh? Isn’t it plastic or polyvinyl whatever?”
“I don’t think so.”
She immediately rejected his ideas.
Hamazura gave a doubtful look behind his helmet, but the miniskirt Santa reached into the crib.
She removed the cheap tag from that small hand and pulled out the water-boiling kit she had bought for sterilizing the baby bottle. But she did not pour any water in. She used the heating element without any water inside and then tossed the tag in.
It was not that anything happened.
Quite the opposite. Even when exposed to more heat than a car’s cigarette lighter, it showed no sign of melting or discoloring. Nor did it burn or produce any kind of smoke or odor. Even a silicone tajine pot meant for use in a microwave would have discolored somewhat. That fact that this did not change at all felt like encountering a bizarre phenomenon.
Takitsubo’s expression had not changed.
Hamazura was apparently the only one surprised by this.
“I doubt this would change even if we directly heated it on a gas burner. It looks flimsy, but it isn’t simple plastic or vinyl.”
“…Then what is this thing…?”
They had found a mystery object, like a small chip an alien had embedded in someone’s head. A baby had been abandoned with a tag of unknown material around her wrist. What had happened to Lilith?
This entirely changed his view of Lilith whose existence he had proven using that tag.
Takitsubo switched off the boiling container, flipped it upside down, and shook the tag out. It was still hot, so they did not immediately return it to Lilith’s wrist. They wrapped a towel around it and waited for it to cool.
“There is one thing we know,” said Takitsubo.
“No matter how strange the situation is, Lilith hasn’t done anything wrong.”
It sounded simple, but that was a point he could never lose sight of. If he let this distance him from her, he would be walking the same path as whoever had placed a baby in the trunk of an abandoned car and left her there. He would never let himself do that. He might not know what kind of person he wanted to be, but he knew that kind of person was something he never wanted to be. No matter how much people looked down on him and no matter how close he came to be crushed by self-loathing and self-contradiction on a daily basis, that dumb delinquent lived by his dumb delinquent pride.
He heard an energetic voice from the baby.
Since they had been discussing the tag, she apparently wanted their attention again. When he knew what she wanted, responding was easy.
“We can’t have her crying through the night,” he said. “So let’s play with her until she’s all worn out.”
“I’ll do it. What should I do?”
Takitsubo pulled a plastic bell and a toy castanet from the shopping bag and gave a snort. This was an unnecessary task. They would not be punished if they did not do it and they would not be paid any kind of bonus for doing it well. But the girl in a midriff-baring Santa outfit with kneesocks leaned eagerly forward and said she would do it. Hamazura’s shoulders relaxed as he watched through his helmet.
This was good.
This was how the world should be.
No matter Lilith’s origins, she had had the horrific experience of being in an abandoned car’s trunk.
So they would not let her day end on that terrible note.
This had nothing to do with their ranking in the esper development or with winning a fight. This child had unfairly experienced all sorts of misfortune based on someone else’s decision, so they had to show her the world could also be a kind place. If they did not use the positive to cancel out the negative and make this a good day overall, they could not accept tomorrow.
If he could not do that much, Hamazura Shiage would be unable to call himself human.
“Y’know…I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone get kicked out of an internet cafe. It’s like seeing a samurai with a topknot living in modern Japan.”
“A valuable experience then, wouldn’t you say?”
“None of that was a compliment! You were bouncing up and down on top of me so much that the chair fell back and we knocked over the partition!”
“Sorry, I just got a little overexcited when I saw they had begun putting together a new ascent route for the K2 in the short time since I last checked. I do feel somewhat bad.”
“Oh, yeah. You are a mountain climber, aren’t you? But that aside, where are we now!?”
“You can’t tell? This is a capsule hotel. Since I’ve finally come out into the city, I want to try everything I can.”
“We ultimately failed to regroup with magical Tsuchimikado Motoharu or scientific Misaka Mikoto. What barrier stands in our way? What is suspicious and who would be able to do it? We need to assume there is something to this.”
“Is the way you give up on thinking and seek an answer from me a sign of your trust in me? Anyway, I have seen what is suspicious. And I am sure its outlines will grow more apparent to you as time passes.”
She made it sound like common knowledge, but the spiky-haired boy who lived a perfectly normal high school life had never visited such a facility.
It was located in one corner of a multi-tenant building. One wall was covered in human lockers that were only a bit better than the morgue in a police drama. They were of course horribly uncomfortable, but it took it to such an extreme that it actually felt like something out of science fiction.
And Kamijou was fairly certain a young boy and girl were not meant to share a single one together. He could not help but fear his wounds would reopen.
“Wait, we can’t do this. Two people puts this thing at 200% capacity and there’s no good reason to cram us both in there like a train during rush hour. Wow, and why does this dirty old man smell like soap and feel so warm!?”
“Worry not. Half of that smell is from you.”
“That’s not any better! It’s like smelling your own fart in a sealed space…!!”
People pounded on the walls from every direction. That was apparently a warning to at least keep their flirting quiet.
Kamijou was half in tears when his only option was to hold the silver-haired girl in his arms. If he desperately insisted this was all a misunderstanding, the world would only see it as disturbing people’s sleep.
Aleister spoke quietly like a parent reading a bedtime story.
“Well, using the internet cafe computer meant a lot. It gave me one more piece of insurance in case I need it.”
“What kind of insurance?”
“A computer virus. You like those simple terms over a more specific classification like malware or worm, right? Simple terms like Holy Guardian Angel.”
Aleister pressed her cheek to his chest and, in something like a magic trick, revealed a stamp-sized flash memory card between her fingers
“…What are you going to use that for…?”
“Insurance, like I said. It’s a relief to have it on hand, but you would prefer not to use it. This thing is so heinous that the many cyber attacks that Misaka Mikoto once made on the clone experiments pale in comparison.”
Kamijou decided he should really confiscate that from her, but the small size of the flash memory card worked against him. After they grabbed it back and forth for a while, she ultimately stuck it in a truly unbelievable place that prevented him from reaching for it. That isn’t much of explanation, you say? That’s because I can’t put the specifics here, dammit.
This was someone who been known as senseless since the 1800s yet never let it get to them.
“Anyway, I have a general plan now.”
“To be honest, I knew an incident on this scale would have some involvement from the seven Level 5s…and since it has connections to the dark side, it would probably be the #1, #2, or #4. No matter how much they try to deny it, it is obvious they are working to clean up this city. So if they are involved in this, in would be in a passive role. Just as firefighters head to a building because it is on fire, they would not be involved in the initial cause of the fire.”
“It looked like you were just watching online videos the whole time. What is that going to tell you?”
“If I could only use Underline, I wouldn’t have had to manually work through all those files that could be deleted at any moment.” A soapy scent scattered from the bottom of the girl’s silver hair. “And not even the greatest monster exists solely as an individual. The Level 5 would have stepped out onto the game board of their own free will. So what was it that pushed them to act? If I can determine the trigger from their relationship diagram, the true central figure should come into view.”
While held in Kamijou’s arms, small Aleister placed her slender palm on his chest.
And she whispered sweetly like a serpent recommending an apple.
“Now, who was it that appeared on the board? Yomikawa Aiho belongs to the District 7 Central Anti-Skill Station, but Accelerator’s involvement was confirmed before the attack on the station. Then is it Last Order, Yoshikawa Kikyou, or Misaka Worst? That is still not clear to me.”
“What? Don’t tell me your answer is going to be ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’.”
“Not even I am that conceited.”
Kamijou was holding her head near his chest, so warmth built up where their skin touched.
“Next, let us switch viewpoints and focus on the #4. The relationship diagram here is even simpler. And what appear to have been Kinuhata Saiai and Takitsubo Rikou were seen at ticket gate B4 of District 7’s southern station. That would be near the turtle statue. Mugino Shizuri’s relationships are almost entirely carried over from the former members of Item. The one exception is Fremea Seivelun, sister of Frenda Seivelun.”
“…I’m not really sure what Item is, but you said there was an exception, right? Aren’t there two branches there?”
“No. If Fremea was at risk, the #2 would act. …Well, the autonomous Dark Matter that split off from the original would. But there is no sign of that. That means the Level 5s were not called in by Fremea or by Kuroyoru Umidori and Fräulein Kreutune who branch off from there.”
“Hm? Hmm??? Hold on. Doesn’t that mean you’ve eliminated all the candidates?”
“My, aren’t we insensitive.”
With that, Aleister wrapped her slender legs around Kamijou’s body as if in punishment. The magician spoke from close range like a snake carrying a sweet venom.
“Item was a four-person small-scale response team including Frenda who was killed on the job, but now the term also refers to a separate temporary worker of theirs.”
Academy City’s Board Chairman paused for just a moment.
And then he identified the person.
“Hamazura Shiage. He is likely at the center of this incident. Focus on him and something is bound to happen. We should see the next clue we should follow.”
It was late at night.
Lilith had been so full of energy, but once they actually began playing with her, she had fallen asleep unexpectedly quickly. According to Takitsubo, a baby’s sleep balance was different from a normal person’s. Like a cat, they would repeatedly switch between shallow sleep and wakefulness, so it was apparently not that difficult to get them to sleep. The problem was how frequently they woke back up.
With nothing more to do, Miniskirt Santa Takitsubo was curled up and asleep.
The only person awake in the building surrounded by reinforced glass was Hamazura decorated by a blue light. He would have had difficulty sleeping anyway with his life in danger and his girlfriend defenselessly sleeping next to him with no wall between them, but that was a moot point when he could not remove the special Processor Suit that he was still not accustomed to.
Aneri was obsessed with battling and focused on ability above all else, so whenever he asked for advice, he had to reject a suggestion that he could be given some pleasant sleep if an intentional short in the suit was used like a stun gun.
That left him to reflect on the events of the day like he was counting sheep.
(Who was that guy anyway?)
He was of course curious about Wanted Criminal A. O. Francisca who seemed to be the cause of all this.
(Is it someone I know? I mean, it is possible they just chose me on the spot like some kind of serial killer, but even if it was just on a whim, they couldn’t choose someone they had never come in contact with before. Even the world’s worst murderer only crawls around their own sphere of life and chooses victims from there, so they wouldn’t choose someone from a country they’ve never heard of on the other side of the world.)
He ran into people on a daily basis in his life and could have earned someone’s ire somewhere or other, but he could not think of anyone who could get their hands on this high-tech equipment and put together this “game”.
He had initially thought this was the leaders of the city and it was related to the Parameter List, but it would be odd if he was just being disposed of on the sidelines of Lilith’s story. He had only seen a hint of their cruelty and that had been more than enough for him. If they were taking this seriously, they would throw all their frustrations at him and have a thorough execution festival as part of Hamazura Shiage’s story. Or so it seemed to him.
(Where was it?)
That was why another thought occurred to Hamazura.
Wasn’t this whole incident oddly shallow? He did not need classified documents on some special incident or a forensic investigation kit here. Couldn’t he figure something out just by digging through his memories?
(Where did I get involved with them? We only needed to pass each other by in the street. It can be as flimsy as can be, but there has to have been something that led them to choose me.)
For example, what had happened today?
He had to think about the time before he was placed in this weird Processor Suit. He opened the drawers of his memories from before the crisis. This would of course have to be something that occurred before it all began.
(Yes, that’s right. I helped install that ATM starting in the morning, I used a small crane to unload the equipment since they didn’t have anyone else who could, I ate a convenience store bento for lunch, it was a salmon meal since Mugino’s tastes seem to have rubbed off on me, the site manager got mad at me for sitting on a block in the parking lot while I ate, and I was paid 15,000 yen for the day…)
He was not sure if he had found something or not.
Just like if someone had told him to compare two identical photos for differences, everything started to look kind of suspicious.
The answer might be obvious if he looked at it from a different angle, but he did not know what angle that was. Where had the culprit viewed him from?
And as he lost himself in possibly pointless and possibly crucial thought, something changed. It came from the crib Lilith was supposed to be sleeping in.
She was breathing in a way he had not heard before.
“What’s going on!? Lilith, what’s wrong!?”
Hamazura quickly got up and found himself speaking aloud even though he knew the baby could not answer him.
But he did get a response from the bare-midriff miniskirt Santa named Takitsubo Rikou who was curled up on the floor. She rubbed her eyes and slowly got up.
“Uuh, what is it, Hamazura?”
“Lilith’s acting weird. What is this? She didn’t swallow something, did she?”
“I don’t think I chose any toys small enough for that.”
She could tell he was serious about this when she heard Lilith’s breathing for herself. Takitsubo checked the baby’s face and then placed a hand on the tiny forehead.
“She has a fever. Her temperature is too high even for a baby. And yet she isn’t sweating at all…”
“Hold on. Isn’t that the worst combination?”
“It sounds like she’s having trouble breathing, so some phlegm or vomit might be clogging her throat. But it’s hard for an amateur like me to say.”
They were at the limit of what amateurs could do.
Then it was obvious what they had to rely on next.
“The hospital, hm?”
“But, Hamazura, that would be risky. The hospitals have a hotline to Anti-Skill, so they’ll report anything that looks remotely suspicious.”
The tension of death crept up on him again.
He recalled hearing that cavities and appendicitis could be deadly for a runaway criminal.
For the same reason, delinquent groups would leave a badly injured member in the hospital parking lot and then make a run for it. They wanted the help of the hospital, but they did not want to be arrested either. But Hamazura and Takitsubo could not just leave Lilith there.
It was possible the wanted criminal and the #1 were targeting her.
They could not just leave her in a stranger’s care and call it a day. If they could not continue protecting her, her life would still be at risk.
“Hamazura, do you know any unlicensed doctors from your old life?”
“Those doctors aren’t all that great. At best, they had their medical license taken from them after making some kind of medical error. They’re fine if you need a few stitches or a splint for a broken arm, but there’s no way they have the specialized equipment or knowledge to take care of a small baby like this!”
Of course, it was possible this was nowhere near as serious as it looked. Then they would end up like a runaway criminal who got arrested after mistaking a simple hangover for a serious brain disease. But amateurs like them could not make that call. They had to assume the worst and act as if Lilith had little time.
It was time to make a decision.
So Hamazura Shiage spoke up.
“…Let’s go to the hospital.”
“It needs to have a pediatric department, so it has to be a fairly large general hospital. And while we’re at it, a hospital we can trust would be nice. Yes, the one in District 7 with the frog-faced doctor is well-known, isn’t it? That place should be accepting emergency patients this late, so if we can get her there…”
“Hamazura, are you aware of the risk that would place on you.”
“What else am I supposed to do!?” He sounded like he was cornered. “I’m causing someone trouble just by being here right now. I know that! But abandoning Lilith would be on an entirely different level. I’d be crossing a line! And I can’t do that!! I once got so caught up in protecting myself that I tried to kill someone’s parent. So it might sound silly for me to get all principled now, but this is a line I absolutely refuse to cross!!”
The midriff-baring Santa girl intentionally paused for a deep breath before speaking.
“…Understood. Then you stay here, Hamazura. I’ll take Lilith to the hospital.”
“No. Lilith’s information was already recorded at the Central Anti-Skill Station. They’ll have the basics like her name and picture, but also things like her fingerprints, retina scan, and shape of her teeth. Hell, knowing this city, they might have taken her DNA as well. And all that data will have reached all the related agencies over the network. Take Lilith there and you’ll be a wanted criminal too. I won’t let that happen. We can still limit the number of people being pursued, Takitsubo, so this isn’t the job for you. I’m already being pursued, so only I have to head out there!!”
“You’ll be trapped, Hamazura…”
“I know. That’s why we can’t screw this up. Listen, I’m not placing you or Lilith on this sinking ship. This is my ship and only I need to sink on it.”
“I’ll take Lilith to the hospital, so you hurry back to the apartment and wake up Mugino and Kinuhata. This is the same as when the Central Anti-Skill Station was attacked. I can’t imagine how they’re intercepting the information, but if my name shows up on the public agencies’ network, I think A. O. Francisca and the #1 will be there to target Lilith. The civilian hospital’s guards won’t stand a chance. Takitsubo, you’re not a suspect, so you and the others guard Lilith in secret. It’ll be a Level 5 against a Level 5. Then we’ll finally have some hope. We don’t have to fully defeat those monsters. We just have to get Lilith examined at the hospital and then get her somewhere safe.”
“What will you do, Hamazura?”
“I’ll figure something out after I’ve been arrested. Don’t worry. They might not find me completely innocent at this point, but I haven’t committed any major crimes. It isn’t worth letting someone die over.”
Takitsubo shook her head like a small child.
Hamazura’s weak heart was just about swayed despite the situation, but he held strong. It was easy to let go of the person dangling from the precipice, but what would happen to that person? Lilith had already experienced it once while abandoned in that trunk below the frigid sky. He could not force that sort of unfairness on her again.
Hamazura felt that he had been the same. The details were different, but he had been abandoned by society. And he only had a life now because someone had taken him in.
He would not let Lilith’s life end while derailed like this. He would return her to the proper path.
It would probably be best to act before his resolution faded.
The dumb delinquent gently picked Lilith up while she groaned in agony on the crib.
“…I’ll be going.”
“Please do what I asked you to. We can only save Lilith’s life if we all work together.”
The situation did not wait around for his decision here.
The Processor Suit’s accent color switched from blue to yellow.
And the entire botanical garden building shook like a dump truck had crashed into it.
A time of trial had arrived for Mina Mathers the Black Cat Witch.
“…I’m so hungry.”
Yes, this was no time to be celebrating the newfound freedom of a physical body after being released from the bonds of a processing device. She honestly thought her current version was less energy efficient. Academy City’s #1 had gone off somewhere while her vision blurred. Mina honestly wished she could have gotten more out of him.
The big city had seemed like it never slept, but there were actually few stores that stayed open late into the night. The cat ears and tail sticking out from her mourning clothes had wilted and she had been drawn to a brightly-lit convenience store, just like bugs gathering around a light. The miniskirt Santas and snowmen had gone home, so a lonely atmosphere surrounded the store.
But she did not enter the store and instead let her back slide down the glass window until she was sitting on the ground. Yes, it was the fluorescent lights themselves and not the shelves of food that had stimulated her hunger. She pulled out an extension cord used to power the electric sign placed out on the sidewalk and she stuck the plug into her mouth, but it did not work very well. All she got was a weird flavor.
Once her eyes started spinning behind her veil, the black cat witch realized something was wrong.
(This is only 100 volts and 15 amps… Does it need to be an industrial-level power source? Or would a train’s high-voltage line work? No, I feel like I’m looking at this all wrong. Oh, right. Biological bodies use fat and carbohydrates as a power source, don’t they?)
That could easily lead to something like the people from countries that insisted that french fries were vegetables, but that may have been unavoidable when the historical Mina her body was based on was from the country where people thought fish and chips “taste like mum’s cooking”.
The mourning clothes and cat ears lady did not hesitate to circle behind the store.
The metal box was firmly locked, but a legendary magician could not be stopped by something like that.
“Hee hee hee. I have the artistic talent that constructed the foundation of the many Tattvas and magic circles used during the Golden cabal’s prime. Do you really think there is anything I cannot do? I can pry this open with nothing more than a palette knife and two wires I find on the ground.”
She was feeling a little loopy after experiencing hunger for the first time, so please go easy on her.
After forcing open the metal box that’s lid popped upwards like a treasure chest, she found something truly unexpected within: nothing at all.
The box should have been full of expired bentos, drinks, and more, but there was nothing there. She only saw the smooth and cold bottom.
It was the shock more than the actual hunger that broke her.
“Kyuuuu~ ~ ~”
Feeling faint, Mina Mathers (the homeless unemployed widow) went fully limp, pressed her stomach against the opened box, and partially laid her upper body inside the box, but then the convenience store’s metal back door opened.
It was possible the metal box had the same sensors as an automatic door and could detect anyone around it.
A middle-aged man stuck his head out and spoke to her.
“Goods are only just getting back into circulation after the heat wave, so we aren’t so overrun with food that we have to throw any of it out.”
After being afflicted with intense hunger (or maybe not all that much hunger, but Mina did not know how to handle it the first time she experienced it), Mina Mathers was unable to move a step and decided to squat down in the metal box as if she had decided that would be her home now. The middle-aged convenience store manager must have had some interesting thoughts when he saw that, but he invited her into the store’s office.
“Well, they do say being beautiful opens doors. Ehehn.”
The man could only tilt his head when the black cat witch proudly puffed out her chest for no apparent reason.
“I’ll of course need you to keep this a secret from central, but these things happen from time to time.”
The manager must have found some spare time and taken a break because he walked across the office while avoiding the snowman costume someone had left on the floor after stripping it off. Based on the star-shaped magnets on the whiteboard, they were doing good business taking cake orders. He grabbed a bento from a rough pile of them on a corner of the table.
The black cat witch’s cat ears pricked up.
“Mh!? So you do have unsold bentos! If you have extras, then I will ecologically recycle them for you. Woof woof!!”
“It takes an odd person to start woofing while dressed like that. And these aren’t expired. They’re damaged.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the food itself, but the corners were crushed in transit and we can’t put them out for sale. The contents are just fine, but everyone would avoid them. The inspector from central told us to keep them back here since it would give the place a bad image.”
“I see…The news said the circulation of goods had recovered, but I guess things aren’t that simple behind the scenes.”
“They’ll eventually go bad since no one can eat them, so we’ll just end up stuffing them in that box. But I just can’t bring myself to treat them like garbage until the date on the sticker has passed.”
“I see, I see. That is wonderful for you. By the way, my stomach is begging for a Christmas roast beef salad, assorted fried party foods, bite-size French bread, a 500mL bottle of nonalcoholic champagne, and a strawberry shortcake. Drool drool.”
“You weren’t listening to a word I said, were you? Well, I guess this is better than sending them to the box.”
“Oh? You don’t collect these Christmas festival stickers that will earn you a whole turkey on Christmas Eve?”
“Collecting those from products we throw out would count as embezzlement. I probably wouldn’t get in trouble for something so minor, but still.”
It was hard to tell if Mina Mathers was listening when she was bent over and intently focused on the bento spinning around in the microwave. The cat tail was standing straight up from the butt stuck out toward the manager.
He did not seem to care that the lovely mourning clothes woman tore open the bento’s packaging and crudely scarfed down a late (and Christmas-themed) dinner, but that may have been because he was from this country that serves alcohol and large meals even at wakes and funerals.
“So this is the flavor and fullness of a properly cooked meal. It really is something you can only understand after trying it for yourself.”
The middle-aged manager smiled bitterly.
“You sure can eat.”
“I must thank you for inviting me in.”
Mina seemed to be having trouble cutting the piece of shortcake using the provided plastic fork. She pressed the side of the fork against the top of the cake a few times before giving up and grabbing it with her hand. She supported the sides of the spongey cake with her fingers like it was a tart and she brought it right to her mouth. The fact that it looked elegant was a testament to Mina Mathers’s appearance.
The manager responded to the black cat witch while watching her eat.
“Yes, why did I do that? I guess I’m just used to these ‘ridiculous requests’ that you won’t find in the manual.”
“It was the same when this one teacher asked me to watch the children who stopped by afterschool and look out for any signs of abuse on their teeth or clothing. Maybe I figured he must have a good reason to ask such a big favor.”
“There was no real reason for me. I only came here because I was hungry.”
“Ha ha. And that sounds like something that teacher would say.”
Mina Mathers tilted her head at the manager’s words.
But the middle-aged man had more to say.
“That teacher’s hope was to distance his students from even the slightest danger, but that was a means to an end and not a goal itself. …There was nothing in him himself. No, he may have never been interested in a fulfilling life for himself. Are you familiar with the story of The Happy Prince? You know, the one where a prince statue decorated with jewels asks a swallow to carry the jewels that make up his body to the poor people.”
“I am familiar with most fairy tales and literature. My administrator was the kind of person who would focus on the hidden and magical meanings in the Alice stories.”
“He was someone right out of that story. He was sensitive to other people’s dangers, but he had no interest in himself. He didn’t save them because he had any real reason to; he couldn’t abandon them because he had no real reason to. And I wasn’t able to stop him from wearing himself away.”
“He was an incredible person, but if I could redo my life, I don’t know if I would have supported that lifestyle of his like I did. And that may be why I keep making the kinds of decisions he would have.”
Mina Mathers placed that final bite of shortcake in her mouth.
The mourning clothes and cat ears woman slowly chewed and swallowed before opening her mouth.
“Kihara Kagun was a dangerous irregularity that greatly strayed from our plan, but that was why I monitored him as a top-priority threat. First the battle against Kihara Byouri in Baggage City and then the largescale raid to rescue the civilians in this nation’s capital of Tokyo. It would be easy to sum up his end in a single word, but I am not crass enough to do so. Instead, I will leave you with this: You said there was nothing in Kihara Kagun, but how was that greatest and worst of Kiharas able to keep the fire of revenge blazing so brightly for so long? That would be a testament to how happy his life had been. Even if that had already been taken from him, its value cannot be denied. Not by anyone.”
“Wait a minute. Did I ever mention his name? Who are you?”
“Thank you for the meal.”
As the manager watched on in surprise, Mina licked whipped cream from her fingers and slowly stood up from the office sofa.
And she answered him.
“Mina Mathers, or the black cat witch. But now I am no different from the children of this city: someone in search of a goal.”
It happened in an instant.
The electrical system must have been knocked out because the botanical garden’s Christmas lights all went dark.
Next, the reinforced glass dome above Hamazura’s head was unable to bear the impact and utterly shattered. Clear shards poured down like rain. It might as well have been a solid suspended ceiling.
While surrounded by the warning color of yellow, Hamazura pushed Takitsubo out of the way, grabbed Lilith, and got down on all fours to protect both of them.
“Shut your eyes!!”
If Hamazura had not been fully covered by the Processor Suit’s special material, he would have been shredded. And the attacker would have known that. At the very least, they had made this attack knowing the baby was inside.
“I’m really going to show that bastard hell now…”
Fighting would be easy, but then what would happen to Lilith as she groaned in pain? What should he do here? What should he protect, what should he let escape, what should he fight against, and what would he gain from that? The dumb delinquent worked his head as hard as he could.
Takitsubo was not known to the enemy, so would the standard plan be to allow her to escape with Lilith while Hamazura fought the attacker head-on to buy them time?
But then he would be stuck here.
As he had explained already, this was not over once they got Lilith to the hospital. The wanted criminal and the #1 would target Lilith while she was being examined and treated. In that case, he could not place Takitsubo on the game board. He had to instead send her back to the apartment to contact Mugino and Kinuhata. Then those three members of old Item could ignore Anti-Skill while staking out the hospital and intercepting either attacker when they showed up.
An unpleasant chill ran down his spine.
Hamazura gave Aneri an instruction while still holding Lilith’s abnormally warm body.
“Aneri, begin recording.”
He had to make a few more preparations. He needed the botanical garden’s search terminal, the silk cloth used to protect some plants from the cold, and a bicycle with gyros on its wheels…
“Hamazura, what are you doing?”
“The worst thing right now is letting them find you here. I’ll meet the attacker out front. You leave through the back and contact Mugino and Kinuhata. That plan doesn’t change no matter what happens in the meantime. Secretly protecting that hospital takes top priority.”
“I’m counting on you. So go!”
Urged on by another rumble and tremor, Hamazura and Takitsubo set off running in different directions. He had a lot to do. This would be like threading a needle, but that was their only hope right now. Once he had hurried through the various tasks, the gaps of his armor were dyed red. He gathered his resolve and turned around while still holding a mass wrapped in a blanket.
There he saw a dangerous form wearing an identical Processor Suit.
The light coloring A. O. Francisca’s silhouette changed from yellow to red.
With a sticky sound, something like clear jellyfish tentacles wrapped around his upper arms and thighs. The large weapon blossomed out from the human silhouette. Since their basic equipment was identical, it was the optional additions that distinguished them. That organism weapon gave A. O. Francisca an advantage and the life Hamazura held gave him a disadvantage.
But Hamazura did not hesitate to speak.
“I’m at the end of my patience, you son of a bitch.”
Their clash began with an explosive roar.
“Aneri, follow the plan. Call up the recorded movement pattern! Protecting Lilith takes top priority!!”
Countless markers covered the floor.
A. O. Francisca could fire multiple jellyfish spears at once without having to approach, but Hamazura could not just swing around the blanketed mass he held. As if pantomiming a bag in midair, he kept the baby in the center at all times while he moved his own body around her. That allowed him to interfere with her as little as possible while still moving vigorously.
It may have been something like an irregular form of breakdancing or capoeira.
As if swimming through a sea of endless possibilities, Hamazura stepped on one colorful marker after another to pull off the complex movements and charge in toward the Processor Suit man from the right.
He had stored up all of his circular motion up to that point and released it all as a final roundhouse kick.
He might as well have been swinging around a ball-and-chain as the maximum scale impact assaulted A. O. Francisca’s temple.
He heard the sound of thick fibers tensing. In a move that seemed to ignore his own will, the wanted criminal had raised both arms to protect his head. Even after guarding, his torso bent back, but it did not seem to do any real damage.
Hamazura had expected this much from an identical suit.
But A. O. Francisca still had the organism weapon.
Next, Hamazura tried to throw a chop toward the navel which was relatively hard to move out of the way due to one’s center of gravity, but the wanted criminal, who could not move much while bent back so far, swung his right hand. The jellyfish manipulators on his upper arms and thighs immediately began to crawl.
They stabbed out from multiple angles simultaneously.
As warnings danced in his vision, Hamazura tried to slam on the brakes and switch from attack to evasion, but then an accident occurred.
He could dodge this on his own, but then he would violently shake the being in his arm. That could easily be fatal to a baby.
Hamazura Shiage may have chosen the right answer from a long term view. By leaving Takitsubo free, she could escape outside, get Mugino and Kinuhata’s help, and keep Lilith safe once she arrived at the hospital. That may have been a beautiful answer with no loose ends.
But what about in the short term?
If he made a mistake in this very moment, he would be unable to take Lilith to the hospital in the first place.
There was no answer within the movable range defined by the Lilith-protection regulations.
Aneri could not calculate out a recommended route and the markers vanished from the floor like a receding wave.
Just then, a transparent spear pierced the center of what he held in his arm. The sound seemed almost too quiet.
Time seemed to have stopped.
Then even more jellyfish tentacles attacked. A few targeted Hamazura and a few targeted the already-pierced mass to be absolutely certain. He could not avoid the merciless assault and the blanket was torn to shreds and flew through the air.
A. O. Francisca must have felt victorious because his colored accents brazenly reduced from red to yellow.
Who was it that time had stopped for? Hamazura or A. O. Francisca?
The dumb delinquent spoke a moment later.
“That’s what I thought.”
The shredded blanket was no more than a blanket.
It had only been made to look like more after being stuffed with the same sort of silk cloth used to create the crib. There was a reason this had fooled the wanted criminal’s cameras and sensors. Just before the battle, Hamazura had held Lilith and had Aneri’s sensors accurately record the movements of her limbs, the rising and falling of her lungs as she breathed, and even the beating of her heart. Afterwards, he had only needed to hold the decoy blanket while the Processor Suit’s motors and electric potential elastic tape reproduced the same vibrations. That had made it look like Lilith was there.
But if she was not here, where was she?
The real Lilith was not in Hamazura’s hands or Takitsubo’s hands.
The Christmas songs were much quieter now but the lights were brighter than ever alongside an Academy City road late at night. A single bicycle was rolling along there.
There was no one sitting in the seat. That was to be expected since it was a ground delivery drone with gyros on its wheels and a large motor to power it. Unlike the aerial drones shaped like crane flies, it could carry a heavy load, there was no risk of dropping the package en route, and it was less affected by the weather and wind, so delivery services using them were popular and gaining much more of the market share. The services had begun to avoid the criticism that online stores were putting too much pressure on the delivery companies, but when this service expanded to include online auctions and any small packages, the bike courier and pizza delivery services started to tremble with fear.
And the botanical garden had terminals for looking up the names of flowers. That meant it had computers hooked up to the internet.
A “delivery” weighing less than 5kg was being carried in the cargo box protected by multiple springs and a scale-like device.
That delivery’s name was Lilith.
The designated destination was that District 7 hospital which would be accepting emergency patients and had a pediatric department.
It had finally happened.
He was still surrounded by red warning lights, but Hamazura Shiage felt like he had actually left the rails of pre-established harmony.
(Did you not expect that one?)
Both he and his opponent wore identical Processor Suits made of the same special material. He could not settle this with a head-on clash and the enemy had an organism weapon as an add-on. Even if he had Aneri’s support, he would be gradually worn down over a lengthy battle.
So what was it he needed to avoid that result?
Needless to say, it was to betray the enemy Processor Suit’s expectations.
(There’s a taste of reality for you. It’s time the world betrayed you and you fell down to the very bottom, you goddamn genius!!)
“Aneri!! Cancel the Lilith-protection regulations used for the bluff! Switch to full-power combat mode!!!!!!”
Just by taking a large step forward, Hamazura built up power for an attack. He transferred strength from his legs to his hips, back, shoulder, and finally fist. Just like the force propagating from a drawn bowstring, the electric potential elastic tape and motors converted their movement force into an attack force.
This was the situation.
The world had been shaken.
In this instant alone, the pre-established harmony did not apply even when faced with a suit that looked like a mirror image of his own. He would not let this develop into a situation where they both used their full strength as they moved around in something like a dance.
Welcome to the uncertain world that divides victory from defeat and life from death.
Hamazura Shiage saw this as his greatest chance, but A. O. Francisca defended himself by crossing the many jellyfish tentacles in front of his body. It was like shutting a giant steel gate.
Hamazura ignored that and broke through it.
The spears in the way tried to block his fist, but it made no difference. Just as the tip of his fist touched the surface of the outermost one, the powerful impact pierced straight through. He broke through all of the spears like someone punching through a stack of tiles for a show and the impact finally reached the center of the wanted criminal’s chest behind them all. The lights in the gaps of A. O. Francisca’s armor finally rose from yellow to red, but it was too late.
Academy City’s #1 had speculated that this special material had been developed for a shield bash attack that made use of the Windowless Building’s Calculate Fortress which artificially reproduced a portion of Accelerator’s vector control power.
If that was true, then in this moment Hamazura Shiage’s fist contained something that rivaled the power of the #1.
To protect the people he cared for, he was prepared to knock down everything in his path with this demonic blow. With the ultimate artificial equipment, a strategy seemingly born from the shallow thinking of a monkey, and a program that gave concrete reality to his vague ideas, he had finally managed to grasp something outside of the pre-established harmony. To make use of this opportunity, he focused all his strength on attacking with this steel fist.
He may have reached the level of piercing the thick bedrock of an underground nuclear shelter.
Even the explosive sound vanished.
The scenery seemed to bend and explode around that central point.
An invisible shockwave burst not from A. O. Francisca’s chest but from his back on the other side. The botanical garden trees and sprinklers behind him were knocked over and even the steel beams of the shattered glass dome were blown away.
He heard a sizzling sound like water being sprinkled on a red hot metal plate.
Hamazura had forcibly controlled so much momentum that his entire Processor Suit glowed red like a steel beam fresh off the blast furnace conveyer belt.
From there, everything actually slowed down.
The wanted criminal’s body wobbled. He must not have been able to support his own weight even with mechanical assistance because he collapsed forward. The red light decorating the Processor Suit blinked like a fluorescent light on the verge of dying. But he managed to draw out his last ounce of pride and landed on all fours to at least avoid having his face hit the floor.
He looked like a criminal waiting to be beheaded.
Hamazura obeyed Aneri’s instructions.
He stepped on the glowing marker and raised his right leg up higher than his face. He held that position for a moment and then swung his heel down with savage speed to strike the back of A. O. Francisca’s head.
He would break the wanted criminal’s pride.
The floor material broke and the visor gave the ground a kiss. This time, all the accent lights vanished.
But it was not over there.
With his foot still on the wanted criminal’s head, Hamazura checked his surroundings. He had sensed this presence without needing a warning from Aneri. Was it that organism weapon? But it did not come from just one direction. This felt more like he was entirely surrounded.
No, it did not just feel like it.
His Processor Suit was still red. It had not returned to yellow or blue?
And with Hamazura’s foot still on his head, A. O. Francisca’s weakly extended right hand snapped its fingers.
It was a great flood.
Extraordinary walls pushed in from all directions.
Each individual mass was precisely 32kg. They had no set shape or color and they had scanned their environment to take on the form that would most efficiently lure in the greatest number of preys in this metropolis of a civilized country.
The Mimetic Predators numbered in the hundreds, thousands…no, tens of thousands as they surrounded and narrowed in on him.
They only walked at first, but then one began running and it all snowballed out of control from there.
Each one looked like a different sort of girl standing less than 130cm tall: a twintail girl in a dress, a short-haired girl in overalls, a dumpling-hair girl in a China dress, a leotard girl with a cloth headband around her forehead, a literature girl with glasses, a sports girl wearing a swimsuit, etc. But with this many of them, they did not even need to attack. Just by pressing in on him, they could crush him with enough force to bend and break even a large dam’s water-release port.
And Hamazura did not hesitate.
He even had time to wag his index finger at them.
“You really don’t learn, do you? I said I like short girls with big tits!!”
They were all no more than weapons shaped like little girls. When the first twintail girl rushed at him, he swung his fist down to knock her straight down. Then he kicked a braided glasses girl so hard she flew like an artillery shell. Their great numbers were not just a threat for Hamazura. If he could not have them pushing in at him as a group, he just had to make sure they never got close. He used the enemy organism weapons as projectiles to knock them over from a distance and took out large chunks of that little girl army.
The main problem was the damage they did to his armor every time he touched them, but…
“Aneri! Can you assist me even if I’m wielding a weapon!?”
Aneri must have taken that as a challenge because a window opened and rapidly scrolled through a list of supported weapons, but it was far too fast for him to keep up. Aneri was probably doing that on purpose.
But once he pulled a thick metal pipe off of the sprinklers, the fight was his. He grabbed the long weapon near the center and swung it around to send out a flurry of blows with either end. It was a disposable weapon, so he did not care how much it was damaged. One Mimetic Predator must have realized the girl form had no effect because transparent jellyfish tentacles rapidly scattered from its arms and head while a great maw opened along its torso’s central line like an iron maiden. Hamazura knocked that down, slammed it into the center of the group like a shell, and kept the army from pushing in on him.
But there was a problem.
These were cytoplasmic weapons. That meant they could learn. Once he had cut through a decent number of them, the girls withdrew their tentacles and giant maws and kept their distance like a receding wave.
But they were not running away.
Hamazura recalled what this place was. The reinforced glass that protected the many plants from the winter cold had been shattered, but the steel beams of the soccer ball framework were still overhead. The hundreds or thousands of girl-shaped organism weapons clung to those and quickly ruled the sky above.
He thought back.
What had happened when that glass rain had poured down on him?
He had been so busy protecting Lilith and Takitsubo that he had been unable to dodge it himself.
If 130cm and 32kg “artillery shells” were thrown down at him with that same density, there would be nothing he could do. And unlike when they were pressing in from a two-dimensional surface, he could not knock them over like dominoes when they used themselves like shells from up there.
If even one of them pinned him down, it was all over.
More and more would cling to him and keep him from moving until he was buried under a pile of human shapes. Simply touching those organism weapons had torn away at his suit’s special material like they were a tunnel boring machine, so the Processor Suit would eventually be destroyed and the damage would reach his body.
They were shaped like little girls, but they were something else entirely.
Perhaps so they could cling to and bite at him, the organism weapons dropped head-first as they jumped down toward him. There was no escape from that overwhelming density that might as well have been a suspended ceiling. Tension ran through his entire body and countless warnings flew through his vision.
But that was when it happened.
An even more frightening attack dropped from the heavens.
A straight line of white light landed in the center of the botanical garden and the thousands of organism weapons were blown in every direction.
It was someone with white hair that fully reflected the moonlight.
It was someone with sinister eyes more beautiful than the finest rubies which were said to be pigeon blood red.
And most importantly, it was the true #1 who easily held the title of Academy City’s strongest.
Just one step.
Merely placing his feet on the ground had caused this shockwave. He broke through the hopeless and murderous suspended ceiling, sent the thousands of organism weapons flying in every direction, and left Hamazura Shiage with no choice but to work hard not to be blown away with them.
“So have you finally caught up with what’s going on here? I feel like a few pieces are still missing, but you’re on the right track. The train has been placed on the rails, so just follow that and it’ll all come together.”
He sounded casual.
Hamazura was not even sure the #1 was talking to him.
And something was wrong with Aneri who had been assisting Hamazura throughout. The colorful markers displayed all across the floor now vanished like a receding wave. His options were sealed off. The program was telling him he could not win and that challenging this boy to a fight would be a mistake in and of itself. The conditions were different from when they had first clashed. The program had probably gathered more information for its learning routines and corrected the previous mistake.
He truly was frightening.
He really was the #1. He was a solid wall that killed all possibility just by standing there. He was a “crawling unfortunate accident” and you could only give up if you were caught by it. For anyone who knew even a bit about the terrors in this city’s night, Accelerator was like an anthropomorphized form of those crimes and atrocities.
That meant this incident was serious enough to require a legend like that to make an appearance.
And yet Hamazura did not even know the origin of the Processor Suit he was trusting with his life.
“Why is someone like you pursuing Lilith? I don’t know what kind of secret or talent she’s hiding, but you’re already Academy City’s strongest! You’re the #1 and there’s nothing higher than that!”
He could have understood if it was the #2 or #3.
It would have made a lot more sense if a Level 0 was behind it.
They would have a reason to aim higher. Or they would eliminate others for fear of being dragged further down.
But Accelerator did not need to do either. He already has his throne as the #1 and there was no way anyone could drag him down from there for any reason.
However, that was when something unexpected happened.
The #1’s appearance also easily destroyed the pre-established harmony that Hamazura Shiage and Aneri had built up.
And he did it with his words.
“Did you really think that Lilith baby was at the center of all this?”
All his assumptions were turned on their head and he was dumped back to square one. And he did not have time for his thoughts to blank even for a moment when faced with such a dangerous enemy.
How had Accelerator read the timing through the visor?
He disappeared just as Hamazura blinked.
Accelerator had already moved right up to him. That monster had such a presence that it seemed creepy to hear him speak human language.
“If you’re that confused, then get lost.”
He seemed to only lightly touch Hamazura’s solar plexus.
But then a great roar burst out and Hamazura’s vision fell into darkness.
The warning lights in the Processor Suit’s gaps went dark and his mind followed…but only after a few seconds had passed.
Why had his vision vanished first?
Because of the critical damage done to the Processor Suit supported by Aneri.
Between the Lines 2
There was no oxygen or gravity.
The Windowless Building had been thrown out into true outer space and the angel and demon’s fierce attacks continued inside.
“Aneri seems to be doing her job quite well. But I do not like the idea of replacing her with Mina Mathers. I just can’t see her growing so close to Hamazura Shiage. This has nothing to do with the good or evil and legitimacy or illegitimacy of either one. Aneri is the copy and Mina is the original. It is only polite to treat them as separate.”
Coronzon, the great demon represented by the number 333, was a being of evil dispersion.
Her avatar Lola Stuart’s long, long blonde hair floated in the weightlessness and the immense magic power contained within was released. Immediately, several explosions occurred around the woman’s body. Yes, that was the greatest symbol of dispersion. And that supplied a new force for the screws, bolts, and glass shards floating around after being freed from the bonds of gravity. She used the weightless space to create a storm of bullets with fearsome destructive power that flew horizontally toward her enemy.
The explosions occurred in more than one place.
This was the three-body problem. Several vectors fused together and intertwined as the storm of sharp shards flew, creating a single dangerous existence. It became a great maw lined with fangs.
“You cannot tell me you haven’t seen it, barf bag. If your specs were that low, no one would have put so much effort into defeating you.”
“Come to think of it, why did you send Mina Mathers to the surface?”
“I suppose a waste receptacle would look for a reason there. Even after everything, you can’t do any better than that?”
Meanwhile, Aiwass, the Holy Guardian Angel bearing the number 93, remained composed.
A demon’s role was to whisper sweet words. So anyone who tried to follow it by eye would not have been able to see even one grain of the sandstorm. When their naïve hopes, convenience predictions, and other self-made toxins eroded their mind, they would fail to dodge a perfectly avoidable attack and be defeated. If you read too deeply into it and tried to see through multiple hidden layers, you would only make a fool of yourself. Demons could not produce anything themselves, so that was how they achieved victory.
“Hey, toilet brush. Surely A. O. Francisca isn’t your only pawn.”
“Silence is an answer in and of itself. Well, Mina might become a trump card against you. Of course, this is her life we’re talking about. I won’t force her to do anything.”
“I have a simple question, Aiwass.”
As the explosions raged across the weightless space as a fierce attack, Aiwass made no attempt to even touch them. Just by gently flapping the wings on his back, the immense horizontal rainstorm was shaken, diverted, and launched upwards. However, it was not air that had done that.
That glowing figure had driven back a demon with just the power enveloping his body.
He would not allow any contaminant to approach him.
“Do you really think you can bring all of this to a clean end? Everything in the world trends toward dispersion. It is so much easier to throw everything out of order than to bring it all into order.”
“Dispersion? If you’re serious about that, then I am truly shocked by your narrow view of the world. Ever since the Big Bang, the world has had the boring tendency to trend toward convergence and stability. From the macro galaxies to the micro particles, everything is a series of similar spins. There are millions of species on that blue planet, but there is very little variety beyond the standard male/female divide. And snow crystals never leave the realm of 120 degrees. The world will bring itself into order with no assistance needed, just like a bathtub after pulling the plug. Rebellious elements like Aleister that struggle against it all and climb the waterfall are actually quite rare. Not even a hero can do that. And that is why they are so worth observing.”
The storm of the end raged between them.
A normal person’s body would have been blown away by a single shard grazing them and any surviving silhouettes would have been turned into Coronzon’s avatar anyway. But they still had enough focus leftover to calmly chat.
“That isn’t a good enough reason,” said Coronzon.
He immediately replied.
And that symbol of good and radiance, who, much like bleach, was dangerously bright and cleansing, continued with a sneer.
“I am a Holy Guardian Angel that throws in a crystal of knowledge to watch the ripples spread and bring revolution to the world. Do I look like I would have any love for that worthless ocean you call logic and efficiency?”