Toaru Majutsu no Index:RailgunSS3 Chapter1
If you were looking for well-mannered young ladies, this was the place.
Prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School was one of the world’s greatest hotspots for polite language.
“Perhaps this will answer your question, Shirai-san.”
Was this girl picking a fight?
Shirai Kuroko, a small girl with her long chestnut hair worn in twintails, let her shoulders slump in annoyance within the white school building’s cafeteria. There were some entitled people who would snap at train station workers, nurses, Anti-Skill officers, and other people simply doing their best to serve the city. Shirai’s position in Judgment may have made her the target this time.
…Why was it so hard for the people causing trouble to notice the trouble they were causing? Shirai had just finished spending her precious lunch break to deal with the paperwork she so loathed and finally had some time to enjoy a nice apple tea in peace, so why did this complete stranger think it was appropriate to barge in and sit at the same table as her!? How had this other girl overlooked the fact that Shirai had ignored her usual calorie counting to add some honey to the cup as a pick-me-up after that grueling chore!?
The other girl appeared to be a fellow first year.
She even had twintails like Shirai did. She had thickly tied off her long black hair and curled the tips in something like ringlet curls. The bangs were parted in a somewhat complex fashion, but that was how you dressed up in Tokiwadai where flashy makeup and accessories were verboten. She also wore black kneesocks because socks were checked less strictly than rings or earrings. Shirai had no real reason to think so, but she felt certain this girl wore gothic clothing when away from school. Incidentally, Japan was actually in the top 5 countries for the gothic lolita fashion. That might sound surprising, but black hair was the orthodox look to match a gothic lolita dress. …Basically, it was a strange fusion of cultures born of excessive adoration, similar to the American idea of a ninja or geisha.
“I will get right to the point. This is about the elective exams.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Shirai-san, you chose the same music elective as me. Hwa ha ha! Your only choice is to accept your fate and give up now. But do not blame yourself, Shirai-san. Every star’s shine fades in the light of the massive sun!!”
“Is that so?”
This was reminding Shirai a little too much of what had happened with Kongou Mitsuko. This girl left far too many openings, including the fact that the sun was not all that impressive when compared to all the other stars in the universe.
Was she doomed to have bad experiences with every long black-haired girl in her school?
The girl thudded an instrument case down onto the round table.
When she undid the latch and opened it like a treasure chest, she revealed an amber shine with red silk padding wrapping it more neatly than a diamond.
Shirai Kuroko removed her teacup from the table out of common courtesy. But not because she was afraid it might wobble and spill its tea. In some cases, reflecting sunlight onto the instrument itself could be considered a form of damage.
“This is no ordinary violin! It is the Stativarius Ainsel!! It is the world’s greatest violin that I finally got my hands on using special connections only accessible to a chosen few. It has the finest sound in the world and you can never find a better instrument for bringing pleasure to your ears. This violin brings guaranteed success as a reward for the effort taken to acquire it! I must apologize, but none of your shallow efforts could possibly move this solid foundation. The top spot in our elective is mine!!”
Seeing someone brag about their antique was a rare sight. And the phrase “instrument for bringing pleasure” sent Shirai Kuroko’s mind in a rather inappropriate direction, so she had to stop herself.
Shirai asked a question as gingerly as she had when speaking to the person clinging to the base of a wind turbine claiming they had been given instructions from outer space.
“What is your point?”
“You have to ask? Out of the great kindness of my heart, I am giving you advance warning to soften the later despair. If I surprised you with this in the exam room, you might just pass out from the shock. But now you know your efforts are wasted. You may have some talent, but prepare to have your pitiful values washed away as you experience a life-changing performance! Prepare to praise my glorious victory!!”
Shirai Kuroko began typing into her phone below the table. She was sending an emergency message to fellow Judgment member Uiharu Kazari: “Call me immediately.” She wanted an excuse to claim she had pressing business and needed to leave.
“You are just dying to hear it, aren’t you?”
The pressure was intense.
In fact, the girl’s small face filled Shirai’s vision after moving to just 3cm away. An unexpected sneeze could easily lead to an accidental kiss.
An excited snort hit her in the face.
“This is your chance to hear a real Stativarius! I would not be so cruel as to deprive you of the chance to hear its music!! Now, Shirai-san. Reflect on the fact that you are given the honor of hearing the finest sound in the world. That is the lovely reward I, Sakibasu Yuri, will provide the poor girls who are doomed to fall before me!!”
“Fuck this! Fuck that! And fuck her most of all!!!!!”
Afterschool, Shirai Kuroko was slamming a metal bat against white balls at a District 7 batting cage. In what may have been derived from sushi-making robots, this batting cage used a pitching arm with actual fingers, so it could throw breaking balls.
Saten Ruiko looked exasperated as she calmly watched from behind the safety net.
“Shirai-san sure is acting wild today.”
“Is she? She does so many bizarre things that I’m not sure this is worse than usual.”
“Uiharu-san, I’ve been defending you against rumors that you’re secretly a black-hearted person, so please don’t make me regret standing up for you.”
“Shirai-saaaan! We can see your underweeeear!”
“Wow, the world is a big place. I don’t even know what to call underwear that perverted!!”
They had come here instead of the usual family restaurant because Shirai Kuroko was feeling frustrated. Saten had suggested using this nearby batting cage, but Shirai was swinging the aluminum bat at the baseballs with such ferocity you would think she was trying to slice them in two.
After an angry outburst, the girl in question stomped over with bat in hand.
She had completed the three sets of three balls. The pitching machine stopped and the LCD screen displayed her various results such as batting average. She tended toward right fly balls and she had some trouble with forkballs that flew straight toward the high inside corner before dropping down.
She spun the bat around by twisting her wrist and childishly pouted her lips toward the LCD screen.
“A vintage instrument? The world’s finest sound? Argh, I don’t care!!”
“Wow, Shirai-san’s venting at us without bothering to explain anything.”
“And these are called purple silk butterfly open-back panties! I must always wear the finest lingerie so I am ready for Onee-sama to have her way with me anytime and anywhere!!”
“I didn’t want an explanation of your perversion!! Your mom must be crying, Shirai-san!!”
“I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it. The memory alone is pissing me off. I get enough credit from Judgment activities that I honestly don’t really care how I rank in the elective exam. As long as I get a passing grade. But I can’t stand the thought of that black spiral twintail girl lording it over me with some exaggerated laugh!! What did I ever do to deserve this!? Is dealing with this kind of pain-in-the-ass supposed to be my duty as a public servant or something? Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
She vented for even longer without really explaining.
The other two girls realized they could not get through this just by nodding in agreement, so they looked behind them.
“M-M-Misaka-san. A little help please.”
Misaka Mikoto seemed interested in the kitchen space for the snack area at the very edge of the batting cage facility. She had her hands pressed against the glass divider while intensely focused on the junk food you could not get at their normal family restaurant: yakisoba, okonomiyaki, grilled rice balls, and anything else that could be cooked on a giant grill. The round indentations on one edge were probably for takoyaki. But she did not seem that interested in eating the food. She was instead enjoying the performance the cook put on with the spatula while cooking it all. That meant her back was fully turned on Shirai Kuroko the Lost Lamb.
“(Misaka-san is ultra dry, so wouldn’t that be like pouring oil on the Shirai-san fire?)”
“(I think that’s just how she shows her love.)”
While Saten and Uiharu whispered to each other, Misaka Mikoto finally turned around to respond. She had apparently succumbed to the temptation and bought some takoyaki from the big-sisterly festival-style cook.
“Hm, you know what, Kuroko?”
“Yes? Uh, woof, woof!!”
“You said her violin is a Stativarius, right?”
“Ugeh!? A Stativarius!?” shouted Uiharu while bristling at the thought.
Saten did not seem to recognize the name. She was unlikely to hear about something like that unless it carried a strange legend about each of its owners dying under suspicious circumstances.
“Simply put, it’s a violin that goes for hundreds of millions of yen at auction.”
“Bff!? Hold on, I thought we were talking about a middle schooler here! We are, aren’t we!?”
“Yes, we are, Saten-san. I’m glad you noticed. But this is prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School we’re talking about! I bet they spend stupid amounts of money without batting an eye! They’re the loosest girls in town when it comes to their pocketbooks!!”
Shirai gave those two a look, but they paid her no heed.
Saten kept the whispered conversation going with Uiharu.
“But isn’t it kind of messed up that they can get a good grade by buying a vintage instrument instead of through their hard work or practice?”
“How you go about getting that antique is probably part of the fierce fighting between those rich girls.”
Shirai was growing increasingly worried about what kind of classy space-time was developing in those girls’ minds.
Misaka Mikoto did not bother addressing that as she used a toothpick to pop a takoyaki in her mouth and fiercely fought with it because it was hotter than she expected.
“Hot, hot! So what’s this Stativarius’s name?”
“Munch, munch. I had a feeling.”
She somehow managed to swallow the takoyaki and rubbed her temple with her index finger.
“You said she got it through some special connections, but she probably meant Shokuhou Misaki.”
“She’s the Queen of Tokiwadai’s biggest clique and she’s my biggest enemy. I’ve never heard of this Sakibasu Yuri girl before, but that could mean she’s a new member of the clique. I do know the name Stativarius Ainsel, though. This might be a proxy war between Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki. She’s probably trying to settle things once and for all by pitting our underclassmen against each other.”
The crazed bat-wielding twintail girl (equipped with a see-through butterfly) hung her head and groaned.
“You mean I was targeted because I am your favorite? Heh…heh heh. Ah ha ha ha! I was wrong about you, Sakibasu Yuri!! That I can accept, so how about it, Onee-sama!? It’s time we made our official debut as a couple!!!!!”
“Stop forcing a positive interpretation. This was more like a random attack than anything.”
Mikoto was clearly exasperated, but she did not like the sound of this either. Someone had been targeted for being her friend. Any kind of retaliation could cause things to escalate, but at the same time, Academy City’s #3 Level 5, Railgun, did not have the kind of reserved personality that would let her ignore this.
If they were under attack, she was not about to hold back.
The best option was to thoroughly defang the enemy so they could never try this again.
“Kuroko, this is just about the elective exam, right?”
“What about it?”
“I’ll help you.”
She had learned her lesson last time, so Mikoto blew on the next takoyaki before tossing it into her mouth. Uiharu and Saten widened their eyes at her words.
“Eh? But isn’t this an important exam? Is an upperclassman like you really allowed to help an underclassman like Shirai-san?”
“We’re not talking about the System Scan to measure our powers. We’re allowed to support each other to an extent with our classroom learning. The regulations can differ between subjects, but I doubt it will be an issue for a non-powers elective. Otherwise that girl – Sakibasu-san was it? – wouldn’t be allowed to use a special violin she got from the #5.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
“But, Misaka-san, that Stativarius is a world-famous violin, right? It’s on the level of the Almati and Guarnari violins. No matter how much money you spend in your fancy world, you can’t beat its sound, can you?”
Uiharu knew a bit about this, but Mikoto gave her the look of a mischievous schemer.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“There’s no rule guaranteeing you a sound worthy of the high price you paid. A Stativarius doesn’t sound good because it’s expensive; it’s expensive because it sounds good. Get that backwards and you’re in for a rude awakening. Also…”
“The Stativarius Ainsel could easily fetch hundreds of millions at auction. No one would doubt the superiority brought by that price tag. …So what could be more fun than showing it who’s boss using a commercial or handmade instrument?”
The number of mischievous grins grew to four.
Just as many toothpicks reached into the box of takoyaki Mikoto held.
Uiharu and Saten had never been to a classical instrument store, but it turned out they were not hard to find. Instead of a big-box store, it felt more like a small urban electronics store. It felt stuck in the past, but it also showed no sign of going anywhere. In that sense, it was similar to a light truck selling roast sweet potatoes or bamboo poles.
Instead of playing music over speakers, robot arms played the string instruments and air was blown through the wind instruments so customers could hear how they would sound. Uiharu and Saten walked curiously through the shelves of instruments that their amateur eyes could not tell apart.
Of course, buying the best violin this store had would not be enough to match the Stativarius. There was no point in trying to compete that way.
Mikoto instead picked up the cheapest practice model they had.
They must have had trouble selling it because it was marked down to just 5000 yen.
“Okay, this should be fine as a base.”
She was like an impatient child who popped open the toy box before getting home. She held up the somewhat faded wooden instrument on the side of the road.
As a true Tokiwadai student, she looked perfect with the instrument.
“This is a violin. I should probably start with a simple overview. It looks like the sound is made simply by vibrating the taut strings with this bow, but the inside of the violin itself is actually hollow and it resonates with the vibration of the strings. Some say the sound of a violin changes depending on how the varnish is applied, but that’s because they’re concerned about how it influences the vibration of the resonance chamber.”
“Stativari are so highly prized because of the excellent balance of the resonance chamber’s curves. And on such a subtle level that factory production can’t match it. Anyone can get the strings on straight, so any differences have to be in the holy ground where the craftsman has left their mark.”
“Does that mean the strings can be made of kite string or metal wire for all it matters?”
Saten put forth a bold theory.
“The strings produce the sound and the chamber resonates with it,” said Shirai. “It might be similar to an idol and a concert hall. Even the fanciest acoustic equipment is wasted without a singer.”
Orchestras used violas, cellos, and contrabasses in addition to violins, but the size was the only real difference and the basic structure was the same. The Stativarius name was famous for string instruments as a whole and the same creator made instruments of all those different scales.
“Since this is a cheap violin, the strings are synthetic, just like fishing line, but the more expensive ones use sheep intestines.”
“That is more common than you think. It is used in wieners and sausages as well.”
Even Saten was a little disgusted by the thought, but it did not seem to bother Mikoto at all.
“But to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. The Stativarius is from the 1700s and the same animal intestines wouldn’t have survived for three centuries. The strings will have been replaced at some point, so its vintage value doesn’t come from there.”
Uiharu Kazari was oddly interested in Mikoto’s elegant way of holding the violin than the violin itself, so she viewed the girl from various angles. When Shirai Kuroko noticed, she lightly hit the girl and continued the conversation.
“So it comes back to the resonance chamber? Then is altering the violin itself the quickest route to changing the sound?”
It seemed almost too easy.
Mikoto twisted loose the knob on the head of the violin and used a special tool resembling a flathead screwdriver to pop open the gourd-shaped violin so casually you would think it was a bento box.
Uiharu cried out in surprise, but it was not broken. Mikoto had taken it apart for maintenance in a way only the craftsman was meant to do.
There was nothing inside.
There truly were no special parts there. They only found the blank space of an empty box inside. It was such a simple image that the others began to wonder why this was viewed as a classy instrument that was out of reach for commoners.
As Mikoto continued to dismantle it, she revealed it to be no more than a collection of wooden rods and panels. It almost looked like you could trace the shapes on some plywood as a pattern to cut out the exact same parts for yourself. In reality, the parts were processed with heat and pressure just like a bow (the weapon kind), but it meant a lot that they were starting with accurate parts similar to those used to build a plastic robot model. It was a good starting point.
The rest came down to accurate knowledge.
They had to know how a violin worked.
“Let’s think about the inner structure for a bit. As long as you meet the bare minimum of standards, anyone can get a passing grade when it comes to strings. That means the difference has to come from here. The final sound is created by the vibration of the empty resonance chamber.”
In that case…
“If we modify this resonance chamber, we can adjust the sound however we like, right?”
If you need some help with your plans, just come on down to Seikyu Handz!!
“Saten-san, why are you just standing there in the entranceway?”
“Quiet, Uiharu. When you visit Handz, it’s only polite to spread your arms, stand tall, and let the overwhelming aura wash over you!!”
“You’re in the way.”
They ignored Saten Ruiko and her strange custom.
Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko made their way to the DIY section full of bookcases and TV stands you had to assemble yourself. The section carried standard tools like saws and hammers, but also things like waterproof rubber glue and duct tape. The screwdriver selection included everything from sturdy attachments for electric drills to tiny models meant for use on glasses or phones.
“I want to try out several different things, so we will need sandpaper in at least three different grit sizes. We can just use woodworking tools for carving down the panels, but what if we need to add to them? Wood putty would be the standard option, but we could also use masking tape or wax.”
“What about the varnish? They have standard maintenance sets for musical instruments, but they also have the hard industrial wax used for gym floors.”
“The more options the better, so let’s prepare as many varieties as we can for testing. There’s a supermarket below this, isn’t there? We can buy some things there as well: egg whites, vinegar, soy sauce, mirin…oh, and chili oil might be interesting too.”
They were likely planning to blend ingredients together to find a miracle combination like they were mixing fountain drinks, but the specific options given made it sound like they were trying to cook the perfect gyoza.
“We should also buy a few different wood panels. Even if it’s a practice model, it would be a waste to ruin a real violin. It is only our pattern. The violin we put together and test will be a handmade one made from plywood.”
“If we’re going to be cutting curves in plywood, we’ll need a jigsaw, won’t we?”
“Wow, might as well get this water gun too.”
“Saten-san! Are you a child sneaking candy in the shopping cart!?”
Saten was unfazed by Uiharu snapping at her.
She asked a question while the other girl tugged on her ear.
“Building our own violin sounds fun and all, but how will you know whether or not it sounds even better than that…Stativarius was it?”
Getting a nice sound was not enough. Their extremely practical objective was to “defeat” the Stativarius Ainsel. Without a way of measuring their goal, they would have no way to know if they were getting closer to it.
First of all, what was a “nice sound”?
How was it defined?
What was needed to convince people it was worth spending hundreds of billions in an auction?
“We need an example, don’t we? Kuroko, there’s a way to get the perfect sample to compare to, isn’t there?”
“Ugh… Onee-sama, you don’t mean…?”
“Was her name Sakibasu Yuri? After the trouble she went to to obtain that Stativarius, she must be dying to show it off. Kuroko, you ask her to hear it at school tomorrow. With a recording device hidden in your pocket, of course.”
“Nwo ho ho ho ho!! Oh ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!!!!!!”
It was lunchtime in Tokiwadai Middle School’s courtyard.
The brown twintail girl had a blank expression while forming a small triangle with her mouth. The black twintail girl was leaning so far back it had to be hurting her back.
Sakibasu Yuri, whose black twintails were thick with curly tips, rubbed her cheek against the instrument case she held.
“You want to hear it? Yes, of course you want to hear it! I am so glad you worked up the courage to ask! There are some things in life you just cannot resist no matter how hard you try!! Everyone feels that way sometimes, so it is nothing to be ashamed of. Now – then! Out of respect for how you mustered the courage to be honest with your feelings, I will let you hear the lovely sound of this Stativarius Ainsel!!”
It apparently cost hundreds of millions at auction, but the case was not locked and it was light enough for the girl to easily carry around with her. There might be a GPS tracker or something hidden in the case’s lining, but that could easily be used for criminals to track down where the valuable item was stored. Sakibasu Yuri bent her black kneesocked legs to crouch down, placed the case on the neatly mown grass, and removed the violin and bow. It was possible she was a true high-class girl who held no suspicion of others. Or maybe she falsely assumed that no one in this prestigious school would be a thief.
To a Judgment member who protected Academy City’s law and order, her handling of the vintage item seemed horridly careless. Regardless, she held the violin up between her shoulder and chin and stood up straight. She looked right at home with the instrument, but that may have been because she was a Tokiwadai girl.
“Is there a tune you would like to hear?”
“How about the Sinfonia Intermedio?”
“That’s right! It just has to be Air on the G String, doesn’t it!?”
“Why did you even ask for a request!?”
She was not listening.
Apparently, Sakibasu Yuri did not need any sheet music. In fact, she moved the bow with her eyes shut. Instead of letting others hear the series of notes, she appeared to be enjoying how the vibrations shook the core of her body.
Shirai could not say what exactly it was, but something about the sound drew her in.
During the lunch break at a school like this, it was not uncommon to hear the music of string and wind instruments coming from the rooftop or music room, but this was somehow different. The girls enjoying some after-lunch tea on picnic sheets in the courtyard started to gather around.
It was the same as the flavor of food.
If something used mayonnaise or artificial flavoring, it was obvious how to recreate that flavor yourself. You knew where the hurdle was located, so clearing it was easy. Just think about why it was the rice balls and potato chips at the supermarket were always advertising their “new and improved taste”. Real depth was found in flavors that were good but more difficult to explain. With a clear soup stock, it was unclear just how many dozens of steps went into making it. The Stativarius was on that level.
Shirai had to use this rare opportunity to understand what she could.
She focused her ears.
Sakibasu pressed down with the bow harder than one would expect with a delicate vintage instrument and there was more distortion in the sound than with a normal violin. It was a mischievous sound, like gently touching a half-healed scab. Press just a little too hard and you would start bleeding. The girl’s personal style balanced on the fine line between pleasure and displeasure. She may have naturally developed this style in order to enjoy the vibration that permeated her entire body. It was the same idea as those people who modified their vehicle’s engine. Judgment often had to deal with them.
“This is surprisingly good.”
“Heh heh. Of course it is. This is the world’s finest violin, after all.”
Sakibasu Yuri could even chat during the performance. She kept her eyes shut and basked in the sense of superiority, but that was not what Shirai had meant. She was not using sheet music and she was not using a metronome to keep her rhythm. Even if this was a famous piece of music, it had to have taken a lot of work to reach the point that she could play it as easily as humming. She continued the relaxed yet powerful performance without any pauses like a skipping record needle. She even included some adlibs in the form of subtle distortions that tickled the eardrums.
It was obvious she had done considerable practice.
She did not show any sign of that great effort, but that may have been her aesthetic.
…Also her name was Sakibasu. Shirai Kuroko had honestly known very little about her before this. Surnames held great meaning to high-class girls like them. They all come from different sorts of families. For example, Kongou Mitsuko’s family owned an airline and Shirai Kuroko’s ran a major chain of convenience stores. There were even some descendants from the former Japanese aristocracy or the princess of a kingdom arriving as a transfer student.
This girl was Sakibasu.
That was a minor surname that Shirai had never even heard of before.
“The answer is cards.”
Shirai had said nothing and Sakibasu could not have seen her expression, but she must have sensed the change in the atmosphere. With her eyes still closed, the girl continued to play and gave the answer.
“A trading card game, in fact. Do you not play those often, Shirai-san?”
“Not really. While working for Judgment, I sometimes help children who have lost theirs.”
“I happened to create the game when I was five. I don’t know the details of how it all happened, but it is now translated for and sold in 49 different countries around the world.”
“You designed it…all on your own?”
“I have no real control over it anymore. It has traveled around the globe while going through several different companies. In a few more years, they say it might be more ubiquitous than traditional playing cards.”
That was a surprise.
There were some girls in Tokiwadai who had started a company or research team while attending the school, but that was all something extra after their parents had already provided for their tuition and other expenses. They were all the daughters of rich people, not the ruler or conglomerate president themselves. It was quite rare for a girl in Tokiwadai to be supported by their own efforts alone.
That explained why Shirai had never heard the name.
Not enough time had passed since her initial success for the name to have spread very far.
Sakibasu Yuri practically sang that name while becoming one with the vintage instrument by enjoying the vibrations of the notes she played.
She seemed to be seizing its historical weight and legendary depth for herself.
“This is what I wanted. A supplement. A shortcut to instantly acquire that accumulated time. And now that I have what I lacked, I will lose to no one. This exam is mine, Shirai-san.”
In a third-story hallway overlooking the courtyard, someone rested her elbows on the windowsill as she looked outside.
She was Academy City’s #5 Level 5, Shokuhou Misaki.
That Queen of the largest clique had waist-length blonde hair and model-like proportions.
“I see you’re causing trouble again, Misaka-san☆”
“You’re going to blame me for pouring oil on the fire when you’re the one who dumped the initial sparks on the mountain?”
Mikoto held a chocolate bar in her mouth. Shokuhou avoided all additives, so she stared at Mikoto like the girl was a creepy old guy eating mud dumplings that children had made at the park.
“Your adorable little underclassman could have sidestepped all of this by forfeiting the competition, couldn’t she have?”
“Isn’t that girl from your clique?”
“She just happens to have a convenient power: the ability to precisely measure carbon isotopes. That gives her accurate appraisal ability for the legitimacy of antiques and artwork. It couldn’t hurt to have someone like that around, could it?”
That power was not as obviously useful as Mikoto’s Railgun or Shokuhou’s Mental Out, but it was all in how you used it. A 14C power could be used to appraise antiques and artwork, to search for geological layers and mineral veins, and even to scan the human body. When looking only at physical scans, that power would rival Mikoto’s free control of electromagnetism.
Shokuhou giggled before continuing.
“Her power can even detect spoiled food. I thought it was a neat ability, so I had her join my clique☆”
“It’s called Carbon Search, right? That explains why she was so willing to spend all that money on that violin as soon as it was up for sale. …Although I heard you were the one who got her in touch with the auction house.”
“The Chandelier Auction House, yes. I didn’t expect her to actually win the thing, though. I just wanted her to expand her horizons by experiencing a more mature atmosphere ability, but I should have been more careful. I forgot auctions houses tend to get beginners so worked up they forget how to make smart decisions.”
Shokuhou bent her hips to lean on the windowsill as she looked down to the courtyard outside once more.
Sakibasu Yuri’s performance was at a very high level.
The Tokiwadai girls were used to hearing high-quality music, but even they were drawn in to listen. Their hearts must have been tickled by the adventurous spirit that was like gently touching a half-healed scab. But all of them would give the credit to the Stativarius. They were drawn to the shine of that famous instrument, so none of them would acknowledge Sakibasu Yuri’s own efforts.
Not even the girl herself would.
That would trample on the possibility budding up from the dirt.
It was not uncommon for a Tokiwadai girl to eventually stop trying when the results of her efforts were always chalked up to coasting off her parents’ success. Sakibasu’s situation was similar. The Stativarius was only a tool to be used, but Sakibasu was choosing to let it swallow up her own efforts.
“I really did fail with her,” said Shokuhou. “For once, I really need to make sure I do better next time.”
“What were you even trying to do with her?”
“She is always worried about her parents.” Shokuhou gave a sorrowful look toward the courtyard instead of turning back toward Mikoto. “Both her parents worked so very, very, very hard at their jobs so they could save up enough to raise their child as best they could, but then a mere child’s toy earned far more than that. She says her parents were delighted by her success ability and are proud that she managed to get into Tokiwadai, but it still weighs on her. She worries she broke something irreplaceable at the very core of her parents.”
“They have money now, but none of the tradition ability. They have too much money to return to a normal life, but the upper classes reject them and refuse to protect them because they lack a prestigious family name and the history that brings. She worries they are struggling in that awkward in-between position. You know, like the people who end up unhappy even after winning the lottery.”
Was that why the girl was so fixated on the Stativarius Ainsel?
No, it probably did not have to be a violin. She had wanted something with enough depth and weight that no one could turn her away. She did not have that herself, so she had wanted an outside source for it.
History and tradition.
If she had those, she believed she could give her parents a solid foundation to stand on.
Misaka Mikoto sighed quietly while holding the chocolate bar she was eating for an efficient boost of energy.
It reminded her of a woman going into debt buying handbags and wristwatches to dress herself up for social media photos. She had heard those brand-name items had a community built around them. You had to be wearing specific fancy products to be allowed inside certain shops or to be told about the secret menu or hidden services. Mikoto was satisfied spending time afterschool at a normal family restaurant with her friends or using the punching machine at the arcade, so she did not understand any of this. But to the people who wanted to enjoy the side of the world hidden below three layers of secrecy, it was worth pursuing those special “keys”.
There were regulars who were provided luxury foreign cars not normally available. Whose palms were the latest phones designed for? There were super VIPs whose personal needs the entire world catered to.
Money by itself was useless.
It could be jewelry or a sports car, but the new field was only opened to you once you exchanged the money for a special “key” that unlocked the secrets of the city around you. Like a castle lined with color-coded doors in an RPG.
That side of the world was out there.
Although living a life focused on that and only that was a frightening thought for Mikoto.
“Can I leave this with you?”
“I guess. Really, I’m relieved to learn that someone like you can screw things up sometimes. It’s adorable.”
“Ah, hey! Stop patting my head like that!”
“I know yelling at you would accomplish nothing, so you get the good girl treatment. Being treated like a little girl hurts the most to prideful people like you, doesn’t it?”
Shokuhou Misaki must have legitimacy felt guilty because she could not bring herself to brush off Mikoto’s hand like she normally would. …And she decided to ignore the girls from her clique trembling and breathing heavily while they watched from around the hallway corner.
“I’ll handle it.” Mikoto narrowed her eyes. “I would’ve helped out Kuroko either way.”
“Good, good. Glad to hear it.”
“Y’know, you’d be pretty cute if you were always this honest about what you wanted.”
She finally removed her hand from Shokuhou’s head and waved as she left.
The Queen continued to pout her lips like a small child, but then she realized something: that hand.
Hadn’t Misaka Mikoto been holding a sticky chocolate bar!?
The #5 grew pale and reached up to her head….
“Are you freaking kidding me, Misaka-saaan!?”
No matter how much she shouted, the #3 did not turn around. She did, however, stick out her tongue.
Afterschool, Shirai left the School Garden. The usual gang of four visited a rental studio that was little more than a trunk room. While it was called a studio, it was not for TV cameras. It was an audio studio, so it was mostly frequented by pointy-headed boys carrying electric guitars.
“Wow,” said Uiharu as she stopped in the entrance of the room. “First that batting cage and now this. Saten-san, you’re familiar with a lot of places we don’t visit often in Judgment.”
“Eh? Not really, Uiharu. There are tons of places I can’t get into. You know how you have to take the long way around to get from the platform to the ticket gate at the train station we always use? There’s actually a shortcut that goes straight between them, but rumor has it you can only use it with a special card given to the railway company’s shareholders.”
The room was colored an off-white cream color. It was around 10 meters square and had a single double glazed window and door at the back. Those led to the mixer room where you could adjust the recording equipment. This was a simple space for practicing, so it did not have the best equipment. But since it was for practice, the equipment was set up so you could objectively analyze your own performance.
That was what they needed.
They had not used a normal karaoke box because they wanted to analyze the audio data recorded on the phone Shirai Kuroko pulled from her skirt pocket.
“I wonder how well I recorded the Stativarius Ainsel.”
“Wow. I wish I could have heard that live.”
Saten’s eyes widened. They did not know what Sakibasu Yuri normally did afterschool, but if she had heard that, Shirai was pretty sure the girl would have happily opened the violin case even if they were on the side of the road or in the restroom.
Then Saten frowned.
“But does a phone recording have good enough sound quality?”
“This is Judgment equipment, so it records a wider range of frequencies than normal phones. It will be enough to analyze.”
Shirai Kuroko was confident the music she had heard was of excellent quality, but she could not explain what exactly about the Stativarius had overwhelmed her so much. She could not put it to words, but something about it was different. But unless this was a bizarre placebo effect caused by the Stativarius name, there had to be something there. She wanted to pass the data through specialized equipment, analyze the waveform, and view it as numerical data.
“This is an analog waveform recorded as a digital signal, so there is some unavoidable loss. Will this cable be good enough?”
“Why not transfer it wirelessly?”
“I want to avoid as much noise as possible, so we need to do this the right way from the beginning.”
Unlike a computer or piano, the recording equipment was covered with rows of sliders and knobs that were a bit intimidating to touch, but Uiharu adjusted the settings to play the sound file without any alterations.
Air on the G String.
The unique performance was smooth and flowing but still contained some intentional distortion not found when simply pursuing the series of notes on the sheet music.
The music was reminiscent of a forbidden temptation, like touching a half-healed scab. The performance called out to your instincts instead of your mind and it directly grasped at your soul.
“Yeah, that’s classical music all right.”
Saten Ruiko’s impression was incredibly vague. She probably did not know the name of the song.
This had been recorded with the phone in Shirai’s skirt pocket, so it was a bit muffled and contained the occasional sound of rubbing cloth or blowing wind. Nevertheless, they could sense something clearly different from a practice violin kept in the school music room.
It was different from other violins, but they could not explain how.
That violin was indeed a real Stativarius.
Surpassing that would require using their own senses to reveal the secret ingredient in the three-star chef’s dish.
“Okay, let’s create a new file we can modify to cut out the noise while keeping the source file intact. And now it’s finally time to use all these faders.”
“Wait, Uiharu. You’re going to touch those knobs? I’m scared!”
Shirai was not that interested in machines, but she did occasionally analyze the audio from phone and VoIP calls for Judgment investigations. Still, she was more familiar with an ordinary mouse and keyboard. She was afraid of altering something and not knowing how to get it back to normal, so she understood why Saten was so cautious.
That odd voice did not come from Uiharu who was playing with the faders; it came from Shirai Kuroko who was listening from a step away.
“What’s wrong, Shirai-san?”
“Well, um, this is from the Stativarius, right? Not the practice violin we bought?”
“You recorded the data yourself, didn’t you?”
She must have had trouble gathering her thoughts because she opened the violin case, pulled out the cheap practice model, and used the bow to play a quick song. It was a nursery rhyme commonly used for tuning.
They recorded the quick, 30-second performance and analyzed it in the same way.
“You’re kidding,” said a dazed Uiharu.
Since she started weakly slapping the mixer console with her soft hand, she may have thought it was malfunctioning.
Shirai Kuroko had apparently found proof of her earlier question.
But she still sounded puzzled.
“When you look at the actual readings, the Stativarius Ainsel and the practice violin are even more similar than I expected. The waveforms are nearly identical, aren’t they? They felt so different when listening to them, so was my perception influenced by the brand name?”
“N-no, no. No, no, no, no!! We’re talking about a Stativarius, Shirai-san. A world-renowned legend! There must be some subtle differences that this studio can’t detect!”
Saten’s voice was cracking.
And at this point, it was Mikoto who sounded impressed.
She let out a sigh before speaking.
“The sound of a Stativarius isn’t actually different from a normal violin. Those results made a splash on the online news sites a while back. Although their value didn’t really take a hit though because so many people insisted a crude computer analysis can’t detect the true quality of music.”
“This tells us what there is to know based on the actual audible sound, so let’s widen the scope of our investigation. Let’s take this and go like this.”
Mikoto leaned over seated Uiharu to operate the equipment and then pointed at a spot on the screen.
She made a point of not looking at Shirai Kuroko as the girl bit her handkerchief.
“Look, there’s a weird waveform here. And only with the Stativarius.”
Uiharu had a somewhat ticklish response to Mikoto whispering in her ear, but Mikoto was quick to explain further.
They were not interested in the sound of tearing cloth. That was just Shirai Kuroko ripping her handkerchief with her teeth.
“There’s a slight distortion at the start and end of the notes. It was just hidden by the way Sakibasu-san plays.”
“Hm? What does that matter?”
“It doesn’t really. There’s just a slight lag before it gets up to speed or slows down, just like a train leaving or arriving in the station. You might be able to produce the note you want more easily with a normal violin.” Mikoto smiled bitterly. “That said, I’m betting Sakibasu-san intentionally distorts the sound. Just like bitterness can be considered an adult flavor in cooking, it’s all in how you use it.”
“In music or any sensory information, a numerical representation is not enough to know whether something will be considered pleasant or unpleasant.”
Shirai brought a hand to her skinny jaw and Mikoto nodded in agreement.
Sakibasu Yuri had appeared to enjoy the vibrations in her body in addition to listening to the music with her ears. There were countless ways to enjoy and experience things.
“I don’t know if it was made this way to begin with or if it ended up this way after the varnish was reapplied time and again over the years, but the Stativarius Ainsel has some inaudible magic in its music. We should be able to replicate it now that we know how it works, but I bet it’s going to require a delicate touch. Transforming bitterness into an adult flavor is much easier said than done. Get it just a little wrong and the dish is ruined.”
“But we don’t have to force ourselves to pursue the Stativarius, do we?”
Saten sounded cheerful.
She was probably hoping to motivate the others.
“Our goal is to defeat the Stativarius, not perfectly reproduce its sound. What does that adult flavor matter? Sound is just a vibration of the air. Whether it’s from a car’s engine or the shaking of a train, we just have to produce an even more pleasing vibration, right? We can search the internet for best possible vibration and analyze that wavelength.”
She was not wrong.
The Stativarius had been made centuries ago, so it had been gradually left behind by the changing times.
In the most general sense, they could take inspiration from electric guitars and keyboards, add in some new parts, and produce a sound the Stativarius could never hope to match.
“Saten-san. And the rest of you too. Listen up.”
“What is it?”
“There is one more major hurdle to clear before we can surpass the Stativarius.”
“We will now begin the music elective exam. Are you all ready?”
In the chilly early morning air, the elderly music teacher spoke in a gentle cadence very different from the students. She did not raise her voice much, but it carried across the entire room.
And that was not just because there were so few people in such a large space.
They were gathered in an auditorium.
The building was used for plays, debates, and music. It was said diamonds had 60% of the original stone carved away so they could reflect light in the most effective manner. This auditorium was the same. It rivaled the size of a gym and the angle of every single corner was carefully adjusted so the sound of a pin dropping on the stage would reach every part of the room.
Auditoriums came in a number of different styles. Simply put, the stage and audience seating could be rearranged like a 3D puzzle. The orthodox style was to arrange the seats in tiers facing the stage from a single direction, but there was also the two-sided debate style that placed tiered seating on either side and he circular theatre style that surrounded the rectangular stage on all sides. They were all designed to reflect light and sound in the best way possible for their intended use.
This one was the most orthodox style of all.
Just think of a stereotypical move theater or orchestra hall. The stage was built alongside one wall and the tiered seating was stacked up to provide a view of that stage.
Instead of providing a negative impression, the elegant music teacher’s soft wrinkles added to the beauty of her face. She gently reached for her own instrument.
“Your assignment is to play one of these: a violin. The specific instrument and song is up to you, but you each have three minutes to play. Choosing what song and what section of that song to play is part of your assignment, but I assume you already understand that.”
In the world of classical music, three minutes was an extremely short amount of time. If you played from the beginning, your time would be up before you completed the initial prelude. There was even an unconfirmed urban legend that the CD standard was designed so that Beethoven’s 9th would fit on a single disk.
Just like with the gym exam, this exam had two consecutive class periods to work with, but three minutes per person was still barely enough time. Even just ten people meant over half an hour because there was a time loss while one performer left the stage and the next took their place.
“(Heh hehn. I hope you have been practicing, Shirai-san.)”
The girl with spiraling ends to her black twintails whispered to Shirai, who lightly rubbed the back of her hand. Shirai was wearing white gloves to protect her hands during this important exam.
“(Practicing the perfect words to praise my flawless victory, I mean. You will once more be blessed with the music of the Stativarius Ainsel.)”
“Stop talking. The teacher is glaring at us.”
Sakibasu Yuri quickly straightened up, but the elderly music teacher was apparently only focused on her to have her perform first.
After bending her black kneesocked legs to crouch down and undo the clasps on the violin case, she pulled out the instrument which shined with a deep amber light.
That was enough to gather the other girls’ attention.
Even these sheltered girls were Academy City residents first and Tokiwadai students second. They had not been taught to believe in mystical auras.
It was no more than a 60cm piece of wood with four strings, but it cost enough to buy a house. Sakibasu Yuri held the neck in one hand and spun it around like a baton in what looked like some kind of good luck charm. Then she lightly held the violin between her shoulder and neck as if checking on its position.
“This is the Stativarius Ainsel. I am sure you did your research over the past few days, Shirai-san.”
“Did you rush to the online news and video sites and cling to the sour grapes stories about the surprisingly little difference in the audio waveforms? But that is not enough. That is not the true essence of a Stativarius. Recording numerical values with sensors is not the same thing as listening to music. It is people who listen to music and it is our hearts that appreciate it. If you did not lose sight of that basic fact, then you should have realized there is no way to defeat a Stativarius.”
It was true you could find the occasional article or paper claiming the Stativari were not all they were cracked up to be. But the dates on those things were fairly old. They would appear and be quickly forgotten.
No matter what proof was found in the sensor readings and waveforms, everyone continued to praise the Stativari as the world’s greatest violins. They continued to insist there was no more beautiful sound in the world. Everyone’s opinions reverted to normal. That was why people continued to spend hundreds of millions at auctions.
But why did that happen?
“Allow me to demonstrate the true charm found in the world-renowned Stativarius Ainsel.”
“Sakibasu-san, I will be judging your performance, not the violin’s.”
“Nonsense. I have nothing of my own. Not one thing. And that is perfectly fine with me. I can use an outside source to make up for what I lack. …As long as that allows me to protect my blameless parents.”
Sakibasu Yuri stepped up onto the stage with a nasal laugh.
The Stativarius Ainsel carried great charm.
But her reliance on that instrument prevented her own great skill from being recognized. Any fame she gained would be attributed to the violin. By others and by herself. It was a beautiful tool, but it stole all possibility from its owner. It was like a cursed sword in that way.
“What song will you be using?” softly asked the elderly music teacher.
“Air on the G String. I could never choose anything else.”
The spotlight shined down on the center of the stage.
She took one small step to the left of center.
Even with so many listeners – and rivals – focused on her, her core was not shaken thanks to the external confidence booster she held.
Also, she did not even bother looking back at those listeners. Nor did she prepare any sheet music. She silently shut her eyelids decorated with beautiful lashes and closed herself in her own little world.
She placed the bow on the violin and held down the four strings with her slender fingers.
A moment later, the first note was played.
It was powerful.
The burst of sound could even be called violent.
The note distorted itself to open with some bizarre noise, but that provided a forbidden thrill similar to gently touching a half-healed scab. That divine temptation hovered on the precipice dividing pleasure from displeasure. This could never be reproduced by viewing the sheet music and following the notes written there. This devil’s whisper could only be created by reading the slight idiosyncrasies of the Stativarius Ainsel. If the player was even a little bit off, the scab would tear open and everyone’s ears would be assaulted by an unpleasant noise akin to pain.
Instead of starting in the middle somewhere, Sakibasu Yuri had chosen to play from the very beginning. A mere three minutes was woefully inadequate in the world of classical music. But that did not matter to her. This was only the beginning of the beginning before the song managed to heat up, but each of her intensely distorted notes tightly grasped the souls of the listeners.
You listened to the Stativarius Ainsel with your body, not your ears.
Maybe it had been designed that way and maybe it had gradually changed over the years. Either way, the slight distortion at the beginning and end of the notes introduced an irregularity similar to a bitter flavor, but Sakibasu Yuri managed to transform that into an “adult flavor” to use it as her weapon. When she played, the violin’s music was more powerful than a mermaid’s song. Even if you covered your ears with your hands, the pleasure might still reach you through the vibration of your spine.
Shirai-san and the others already knew this from their analysis of the waveform in the rental studio.
The world’s scientists had likely discovered these same things when they worked to divulge the secrets of the Stativari.
But that had failed to change people’s opinions.
The Stativarius Ainsel was still a world-renowned instrument that went for hundreds of millions of yen at auction.
Its true power was not found in those surface level observations.
Shirai Kuroko heard a few groans and laments from the dimly-lit audience seating. Those came from the other challengers hoping to win the top spot in this exam. The ones voicing true despair may have chosen Air on the G String and worked hard practicing it.
But they knew the truth before making their attempt.
They could not defeat the series of notes they were hearing now.
Shirai slowly narrowed her eyes and observed the girls who were raising the white flag before even trying. This was the prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School, so those girls would be decently skilled themselves. Even if it was not a Stativarius, it was possible some had secured another high-quality violin like an Almati or a Guarnari.
Yet they still concluded they could not win.
Shirai Kuroko had thoroughly studied the Stativarius to fight back against it, but even she was succumbing to its magic. Yes, she only had to look back on what she had thought just now.
Even if it was not a Stativarius.
She recalled what Misaka Mikoto had said:
“You can’t help but use the Stativarius as the baseline.”
There were no fixed answers in art. That was why an artist’s talent could be recognized for a hundred years or more after their death. When comparing two instruments, it should be impossible to determine which one was objectively superior. And yet the Stativari stood at the peak of violins and their position there remained unshaken.
It had not mattered at all when those crass researchers had analyzed the waveforms of recorded performance data and revealed that the sound was not actually all that outstanding.
The legend had remained intact.
“A Stativarius is the ideal form of a violin,” Mikoto had said. “It plays the finest music and performances are judged by how close they come to matching it. People aren’t focused on whether a performance is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than a Stativarius. It’s more like target shooting. The best score is for hitting the Stativarius in the very center. You can approach that, but there is no way of surpassing it. There’s a mental block there.”
Sakibasu Yuri silently removed the bow from the violin.
She had used up the three minutes allotted for her exam.
Had silence ever been so oppressive? It seemed to draw out a desire to listen to that music forever because Shirai and the others felt a powerful craving for what they had lost.
There was no applause.
Applauding would have accepted that the performance really was over. The girls so wanted to hear more that they could not bring themselves to move.
The girl with black twintails had kept her eyes closed this whole time, so she could not have been watching the clock. Even her internal clock was impressive. Her own talents simply paled in comparison to the Stativarius Ainsel she held.
She softly opened her eyes.
A tremor ran down her spine as she enjoyed the lingering silence.
“Thank you for listening.”
She gave an elegant bow and descended the stairs as casually as passing the baton in a relay race. She had gone first, but she was clearly confident that her position at the top was guaranteed no matter who came after her.
And in fact, this was quite cruel to the girl who had to go immediately after her. She shook her head like a puppy wet from the rain and, even when the music teacher grabbed her arm, she only protested that she could not possibly perform after that. She was so worked up and the pressure was so great that she finally passed out.
But maybe it could have been worse.
Everyone felt bad for the girl after that.
“#3: Inori-san. You are amplifying the impression of your music using outside emotions, aren’t you? You are disqualified for using your psychological esper power.”
She collapsed on the spot and began bawling.
Her emotion-manipulating power filled her crying as well, so the music teacher snapped her fingers. The women in charge of security grabbed the disqualified girl by the arms and quickly removed her from the auditorium. The music teacher had not been monitoring the music with any kind of device, so she must have decided the music she was hearing should not have been able to move her to emotion like that.
Normal methods had no hope of reaching the Stativarius Ainsel’s level.
So it was understandable the girl had wanted to use her power.
But this was not that kind of exam.
So after learning not to make the same mistakes as the others, the other students stepped up onto the stage like normal.
However, their performances were all very safe.
They did not have to win. They only had to follow the series of notes on their sheet music without making any catastrophic mistakes. Their bland music was a lot like watching someone drive around a racetrack at a safe 40km/h. They were a lot like the robot arms that mechanically played sample songs on the instruments. They were defanging themselves and offering up their broken fangs without bothering to fight.
It was the music teacher who asked Sakibasu Yuri to go first.
If she could judge all the students fairly after hearing that, then her ears and soul were the real deal.
Sakibasu Yuri whispered to Shirai in the auditorium full of vanquished foes.
Her confidence could be seen in how she stretched her black kneesocked legs to stand tall.
“The true power of the Stativarius Ainsel is the legend it carries. People are powerless against such things. Bags, clocks, dresses, and high-class girls like us all carry similar legends, don’t they? No matter what the scientists say and no matter what results their machines spit out, these legends will never die. That is why the Stativari are immovable. Nothing is judged ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than them. They are the bull’s eye all other violins aim for.”
“Oh? Are you sure about that?”
“Did you think I was challenging you with nothing prepared? I will admit the legend of the Stativari is powerful. After 300 years, it is impossible to ignore. But that passage of time also introduces openings I can take advantage of.”
The old music teacher called a certain name.
It was Shirai Kuroko’s turn.
“Now, it is time for my counterattack.”
“There is no flaw in my Stativarius. Or do you doubt its legitimacy? Unfortunately, my Carbon Search power means there is not even the slightest chance it is a fake.”
“I never suggested it was.”
Shirai used her gloved hands to hoist a large bag onto her shoulder as she casually whispered to the other girl.
“I am saying I will take your Stativarius Ainsel head on and I will crush it along with its legend.”
Something about Shirai’s actions stood out even more than her disrespectful statement.
What was that bag large enough to hold a dismantled racing bike? The students had to provide their own instrument and choose their own song for this exam, but there was one required condition: a violin. They had to use a 60cm collection of wood panels and strings, so what was in that bag?
They had already seen a Stativarius which went for hundreds of millions at auction, but the music teacher gave this a skeptical look.
“Shirai-san, what is in that bag? I believe I told you this exam requires a violin. Did you bring the wrong instrument?”
“No, no. Of course not.”
The chestnut twintail girl laughed.
She pulled her instrument from a standard violin case she had in addition to the large bag.
“I will only be playing this violin here. It is a handmade one I put together based on a commercial practice model, but it meets all of the standards for a violin. If you like, you can take it apart and examine it after my performance.”
“Then what is that?”
The elderly teacher asked the question everyone there was thinking. The other bag was larger and more mysterious than the violin. Sakibasu Yuri had the indisputable greatest violin with her Stativarius Ainsel, but even that immovable aura was somewhat shaken by this. She rubbed her black kneesocked legs together.
Shirai Kuroko, meanwhile, answered the question with a question of her own.
“Sensei, just to be clear, we are to play the violin for this exam, correct?”
“We have three minutes and we are free to choose our song. As long as we play a violin, everything else is for us to decide. Such as using a world-famous violin.”
“Yes, what of it?”
“Then I have one more question.”
Up on the stage, Shirai Kuroko set down the black synthetic bag which she could have fit inside if she curled up. It made a nice thud that did not sound at all like wood.
She lightly tapped on the brightly waxed floor with her foot.
“Only the violin is required and we are free to do what we like with the stage around us, aren’t we? For example, we can play in the center of the stage or on the edge if we like. The sound you all hear is not coming directly from the violin. Especially in an indoor concert hall like this. The sound waves reflect off of all the surfaces in here before finally reaching your ears.”
For one thing, this auditorium could be rearranged. The stage and audience seating could be moved around to create the optimum space for a concert, for a play, or for a debate. The reverberation could not be ignored. Even if you were playing the exact same Stativarius both times, the impressions from an audience would change drastically when playing in a dedicated opera house or in a run-down abandoned house.
“In that case.”
She breathed in and out.
And then she unzipped the bag all at once.
“If there is no rule against it, I am free to create a space around me to set up the reverberation however I like, aren’t I?”
Metal and gears could be heard fitting together.
There were steel legs with a dull shine.
Something like jointed tripods supported rectangular metal films only a little thicker than aluminum foil. They looked like metal easels or canvases that could walk on their own and four of them surrounded Shirai Kuroko on the stage.
Robot products like this were not uncommon in Academy City.
There had been a pitching arm at the batting cage and music robots in the classical instrument store. With some help from Uiharu who knew a lot about this stuff (to the point that she got a sparkle in her eye and began licking her lips), it had not been that difficult to create these autonomous walking machines. In Academy City, you did not even need to visit an electronics district to acquire some simple circuit boards. A visit to a large bookstore was enough to get some generic craft circuit boards in the how-to books for building pet robots or AI speakers.
“You may take this apart and check it over after the performance as well, but I assure you it contains no mechanical microphones, speakers, or anything capable of recording and replaying audio. They are simply sound reflection boards. They are no more than obstacles to reflect my violin’s music in the optimal direction and at the optimal angle.”
She moved her gloved fingers with practiced ease to ready a handmade violin with no tradition behind it. The sound reflection boards must have been monitoring their distance with cameras or lasers because they skillfully used their legs to adjust their position.
“No one can defeat a Stativarius. It has nothing to do with the quality of the sound. People’s ears and minds have already decided whatever sound it makes reigns supreme. Anything outside of that bull’s eye will be considered inferior.”
Sakibasu Yuri had the world’s greatest violin.
So Shirai Kuroko had constructed the world’s greatest concert hall.
There were of course music halls considered to be “holy ground”, but none that had a legend on the level of the Stativari. People would want to play there, but their souls had not been stained by the idea that there was a quality of music they could only play there. The best sound quality was not achieved through the work of ancient craftsmen. That title belonged to the cutting-edge event halls mathematically designed using CAD.
“I will not be challenging the Stativarius with the quality of my violin. The final judgment is made on the sound that reaches your ears, not the sound that leaves my instrument. I will modify the concert hall around me to produce a sound greater than that world-famous instrument. No matter how great an instrument is, the audience’s impression will change depending on where you play it. The Stativarius might be considered the baseline, but I will not be bound by that!!”
Shirai Kuroko grinned.
“Sakibasu-san, you must know how crucial the stage is. Before playing, you took a step to the left of center, didn’t you? But you were still using the existing stage, so you cannot hope to match the stage I have built for myself!!”
Sakibasu’s eyes widened.
Her method was to cling to the weight of the accumulated past, so she turned back toward the music teacher.
“Can…can she do that!? Really!?”
“Shirai-san.” The elderly teacher sighed softly. “My judgment of your music will be provisional. It will take time to dismantle and examine that, but if I do find any mechanical means of recording and replaying audio, your score will be withdrawn. Is that acceptable?”
She was effectively giving approval.
Shirai Kuroko smiled boldly.
The Stativarius had a legend behind it.
Everyone viewed it as the baseline for the best possible sound, so they succumbed to its name without even checking how it actually sounded. That was the weight it had gained over several centuries. Several researchers and musicians had challenged that legend over the years. They had claimed it was not all it was cracked up to be and provided data as proof, but they had failed to tear down the walls of that impregnable fortress.
The masses had pathetically accused them of being crass or jealous.
Overwhelmed by those cries, the challengers had all sunk into the swamp of humiliation and defeat.
Why had they wanted to challenge the Stativari in the first place? They were world-famous instruments from a historical creator. They had to have known what would happen if they spat on that yet were defeated, so why had they suppressed the fear of universal hatred and done it anyway?
The answer was simple.
They knew the Stativari were the greatest. They carried a legend powered by so many people’s wishes that they remained the greatest. An individual’s efforts could never change an entire country or the world. Those instruments had the same absolute weight of a group behind them.
But at the same time, if that legend could be shattered, people would want to see that great feat achieved during their lifetime. They wanted to be charmed by that great upset. The many challengers who had continued to fall defeated over the centuries had built up a legend separate from the Stativari themselves.
It was a paradox.
Just like the Kuchisake Onna and pomade, the rise of one legend would naturally lead to the rise of a counter legend attempting to destroy the first. Humans were indulgent creatures and there was no rule saying they could only carry one wish in their hearts. It was the same as being in the mood for both Chinese and French food at the same time. They were contradictory and cursed creatures who would unwaveringly believe in the Stativari’s status at the top while also hoping to see the moment those instruments were thrown down to earth.
Shirai Kuroko was not making this challenge with only a few days of work.
If Sakibasu Yuri was carrying the legend of the Stativarius Ainsel, then she would wield the paradox that had plagued those instruments for centuries!!
“Now, Shirai-san. What song will you be playing?”
When the music teacher asked that question, everyone there awaited Shirai’s answer while the technological music hall surrounded her. Would it be Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart? Everyone must have assumed she would choose some famous song to challenge Sakibasu’s Air on the G String.
But they assumed wrong.
“This exam is meant to test our skill with the violin, so we are free to choose whatever song we want, correct?”
This was where Shirai Kuroko could best make her stance clear. She lightly held the glove between her teeth to remove it.
The hand below had bandages covering the fingertips.
She had made her preparations.
She had put together a plan.
But who said she had not practiced hard as well?
“Then I will play an original song. It might not be on the level of the classical composers, but please enjoy.”
They say what followed was a three minute miracle.
In Tokiwadai Middle School’s grounds, Misaka Mikoto held one of her right hand’s fingers in her mouth while wearing short-sleeved gym clothes. Specifically, the fingertip where a small injury was covered by a bandage decorated with a frog mascot character.
She had practiced along with Shirai more than she maybe should have.
She did not want to hear any more classical music for quite a while.
(This hurts a fair bit, but not enough to keep me from running around campus.)
“…What is it, Shokuhou?”
While taking a short break and wiping the sweat from her brow with a microfiber towel, Misaka Mikoto turned around with an annoyed look in her eyes. She was in the middle of the exam for her elective. Shokuhou must have finished hers already. For some reason, she wore an apron over her uniform.
“Hold on. Eh? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you chose home ec!”
“I’m not great at it or anything. …I really just wanted the cooking ability to make my own bentos.”
Shokuhou Misaki had called out to Mikoto, but she was not looking that Ace’s way.
The Queen’s eyes were on the auditorium.
“I know I asked for your help ability and I know Sakibasu had to be taken down a peg given the situation, but I didn’t expect you to be so crafty.”
“What, did you use a remote to listen through one of your clique girls? And you of all people have no right to accuse someone else of being crafty.”
“Aren’t you worried how it will turn out?”
“I trust her to pull it off.”
Shokuhou sighed at that.
Shokuhou Misaki was the Queen of Tokiwadai’s largest clique. She had built up an immovable position with her incredible charisma and power. But she had gained a different kind of powerful connection through this strange bond linking her and Misaka Mikoto. And the strength of a bond was not determined by the number of people it linked.
“First of all, it’s ridiculous to have a violin test that only lasts three minutes. That’s just to make it easier on the teacher giving the test, right? I mean, you might be able to make it exciting if you skip straight to the climax and play that, but all songs – not just classical music – are one big drama using every part of the song from beginning to end. Classical music extends that over a longer running time, but none of it is unnecessary. Cobble together a highlights reel like something you’d find on a video site or aggregation site and the real essence of the song will be missing. You might inspire some brief emotion, but it can’t represent the entirety of the drama.”
“Is that why you wrote an original song that can be played from beginning to end in three minutes?”
“I doubt it’s better than Beethoven or Mozart, but that’s kind of the point.” Mikoto grinned. “Did you know that the Parthenon wasn’t originally white? Or that the Statue of Liberty wasn’t originally that greenish color? The flow of time is cruel and the original colors were weathered or rusted away. But it’s strange. There’s a part of us that finds beauty in what’s damaged, broken, or incomplete. Because it’s missing something or is broken, we see room for improvement. Jigsaw puzzles and model ships are the same. You enjoy the time spent fiddling with the countless pieces putting it together, but if they put the finished product up for sale in a shop, no one would consider buying it and hanging it on their wall.”
“That might be fine for gathering listeners in front of the train station, but this performance is being judged by a teacher with a trained ear for music.”
“That’s the point.”
Misaka Mikoto did not hesitate to respond.
This was not enough to defeat her.
“The song she’s playing might not be as ‘complete’, but each note played from the violin is accurate. There is no mistake in her technique, so there is no reason to lower her score. The song might be imperfect, but the performance is perfect. A trained teacher knows not to conflate the two, so I know she can judge the performance accurately. It had to be someone who understood the beauty of the white Parthenon that lost its color.”
No one could defeat the Stativarius Ainsel.
So they had used the combined power of everything other than that to overcome Sakibasu Yuri.
That was Shirai Kuroko’s basic plan. That was why she had analyzed the Stativarius’s sound, built her own handmade violin, constructed the optimum space using the autonomous sound reflection boards, prepared an original song that included a full drama in just three minutes, taken advantage of her own imperfection, and even included the music teacher’s trained ear in her plan.
But after all that, it ultimately came down to how much she had practiced. It was probably Misaka Mikoto’s involvement that had made sure Shirai Kuroko’s own effort was not overlooked.
It was only with that practice that everyone else’s assistance could bear fruit.
The Queen of the largest clique could give any command with a single TV remote, but Misaka Mikoto had a different way of assisting her underclassman. She had literally run around Academy City to gather the necessary theories, data, and materials, she had racked her brain with Shirai to come up with the plan, and she had spent long nights building the necessary tools so their ideas could become a reality.
Her right index finger had a frog mascot character bandage on it.
Assuming she had not attempted some unfamiliar cooking and screwed up, then she must have been doing something behind the scenes. Making the violin and the machines required more than just sending the design data to a 3D printer and pushing a button. Tools more dangerous than a kitchen knife had been necessary.
And that was not all.
She had likely gotten a blister on her finger when accompanying her underclassman during the intense violin practice and writing the original song could not have been easy either. She must have been worn down both physically and mentally, but that had not mattered to her even with the important exam on the horizon.
She was different from Shokuhou who always gave precise instructions from behind the scenes.
This girl chose to stand on the front line so she could shield everyone else.
That was Misaka Mikoto, Ace of Tokiwadai Middle School.
“…Why are you staring at me like that?”
Aproned Shokuhou Misaki brushed up her honey-blonde bangs with a look of partial exasperation.
The Queen spoke as the end-of-class bell rang.
The competition would be over now.
“The final judgment is made on the sound that reaches your ears, not the sound that leaves the instrument, hm? Do you see now why a violin acquired with extreme money ability can’t stand up to that, Sakibasu?”
“Okay, it’s time to celebrate our victory over the Stativarius Ainsel.”
Afterschool, some girls’ voices rang out in the usual family restaurant. At times like this, the 200-yen fountain drink station with 72 varieties and free refills was a powerful ally. Add an order of fries with truffle salt and it was unbeatable. The cost performance was so good that they were a little worried how the place could stay in business. It felt like discovering a taboo combination.
The first to start eating was Uiharu Kazari whose head was decorated with flowers.
Saten Ruiko seemed like more of a fad chaser, but Uiharu had the greater longing to join the high-class world of the Tokiwadai students.
“Hyah. It’s honestly kind of scary. I mean, we’re talking about a Stativarius. That’s a world-famous violin that goes for hundreds of millions at auction!! How far are you going to go, Shirai-san!? Kyah, come back!!”
“Hwah!! Praise me more, humanity! Gaze upon the living sun that I am! A new legend was born today!!”
“Well, I seriously doubt the price of a Stativarius is going to drop because of this.”
“A win is a win, Misaka-san! C’mon!! We want to hear the story straight from you, Shirai-san! Cheers!!”
At Saten’s prompting, the four girls clinked together their cheap glasses, nearly spilling the colorful carbonated contents, and laughed.
However, there was one person there whose face was flushed red and could not stop trembling.
She had twintails, but unlike Shirai Kuroko, hers were black and had curled ends.
She was Sakibasu Yuri.
“I was prepared to be humiliated as is the fate of the vanquished, but I did not expect you to invite me to your victory party… Fine, I admit it! I lost!! So have your fun at my expense and use my shame to sweeten your food! Yes, like you are consuming a meal served on my naked body!!”
The curly black twintail girl shouted, grabbed her phone, and hit the call button on what appeared to be an app for placing an order through the restaurant’s wireless LAN.
“I am not going suffer through this on an empty stomach!! Hello? Manager? Bring out your secret menu listing! …What? Surely you must have one!!”
But Mikoto and the others only gave her puzzled looks.
Shirai tilted her head.
“What is it, my master!? What are your orders for this cardboard girl who has lost all history and tradition!?”
“You are barely making any sense, but all we defeated was the Stativarius Ainsel’s legend. We have no intention of finding fault in your own talents with the violin.”
Sakibasu was shocked into silence with her eyes wide.
“Yeah, that’s right!” Saten leaned forward. “The sample data I heard in the rental studio was incredible!! The data said the Stativarius wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the handmade violin could make similar sounds….but neither Shirai-san nor Misaka-san could perfectly reproduce your performance. And they practiced like crazy!”
“For that matter, Saten-san and I don’t even know how to play the violin at all,” chimed in Uiharu while gnawing on the end of a long fry like a rodent. “I’ve heard Air on the G String on video sites and as a ringtone, but the way it sounds really changes depending on how you play it, doesn’t it?”
Mikoto could only scratch her cheek and smile bitterly.
Playing Air on the G String was not that difficult a challenge for Tokiwadai students.
But Sakibasu Yuri’s performance had shaken people to the core using the slight distortions not found in the sheet music. That was her own secret technique. And the fact remained that Mikoto and Shirai had failed to bring down that stronghold even after working so hard they had bandages on their fingers.
“You have a unique way of applying force. Using enough force to bend the strings normally just pushes back the bow instead.”
Sakibasu Yuri bit her lip and let out a trembling voice.
This may have been an emotion other than anger.
It was more like the confusion of someone driven into a dead end or to the edge of a cliff.
“What good is that!? Everything I have comes from the Stativarius. Praise me all you like, but I can’t move anyone’s hearts without the weight of that world-famous violin behind it!! No one will accept me without that history and I can’t give my parents peace of mind without that tradition! So why bother consoling me like this!?”
Shirai Kuroko quietly called the girl’s name.
She held a perfectly ordinary violin and spun it around by the neck.
This was not a Stativarius or even the handmade one she had put together with Mikoto and the others. It was the practice model they had used for reference. But it was still a musical instrument that would produce the proper notes when played properly.
“Then could I ask for a song? I want to hear your specialty: Air on the G String.”
“How far can you take the sound now that you have lost the legend of the Stativarius? I think your true value can be found there. And let me make one thing clear: I may be able to defeat the Stativarius Ainsel, but I cannot defeat you, Sakibasu Yuri. You lamented the lack of history and tradition, didn’t you? You think your parents must feel ashamed, don’t you? Then isn’t there only one course of action: create a new legend yourself.”
That girl had claimed she had nothing herself.
That was why she had found an outside source to provide what she lacked.
But the very foe who had stripped her of that armor claimed she could not even scratch what was revealed below the armor.
Her fingers were shaking.
She reached for the practice violin that Shirai Kuroko held out, but she hesitated and did not immediately grab it. Slowly and hesitantly, like she was touching a metal rod in the fire, she grabbed the perfectly ordinary violin.
The curse of the Stativarius Ainsel’s reputation was no more.
This performance was the girl’s and the girl’s alone.
The sound may have been subtly different from the Stativarius and its slight distortion at the beginning and ending of each note. No matter how hard she tried, she could not reproduce that sound.
But that was not enough to ruin Sakibasu Yuri’s performance.
Even with the practice violin, the essence of her music – that stroking of the emotional scab – filled the space around her.
It did not matter that she did not have the world-renowned Stativarius.
She only needed the skill she had been using all along to read and adapt to the instrument’s subtle idiosyncrasies.
Normally, there were limits to what you could do even in a family restaurant catering to students after school. If you walked in and started loudly playing an instrument, the staff would run over and tell you to stop. They might even kick you out.
Those emotional thorns never manifested.
From the moment the bow touched the strings, everyone was focused on listening. No ring of people formed around the musician. No one clapped their hands. But everyone leaned back in their seats, let the series of notes wash over them, and enjoyed the performance.
The staff even considerately turned down the music playing over the restaurant’s speakers.
The performance continued in full, to the very last note.
A small noise entered the silence that followed. It was perfectly ordinary applause. It was unclear who clapped first, but eventually everyone was showing their appreciation.
That was the power of music.
It carried a charm greater than a mermaid’s song.
“Do you see now, Sakibasu-san?”
Shirai Kuroko spoke to Sakibasu who was more surprised by what she had done than anyone.
Tricks had only been enough to defeat the tool.
Even with the four girls working together, they could not hope to match that true talent.
“This is a true legend. No matter how high the price, a Stativarius you can buy with money cannot hope to defeat the light that you alone carry. It’s time you realized that you already hold a position no one else can reach. That is your responsibility as the ruler who carries a true legend.”
She said nothing for a while.
But it was obvious to everyone that Sakibasu Yuri was experiencing some kind of emotional response.
All she could manage after her performance was to silently bow.
And no one was crass enough to try and peek at her expression from below.
“The sample set is apparently inside the School Garden’s Tokiwadai Middle School, but we can come up with a different plan for that. For now, Riot, you need to eliminate the individual.”
“We cannot let this stand. The Stativarius legend must not fall.”
“I’m using a shotgun, so I can’t aim very precisely. Before I do this, I want to check the rate for the surrounding civilians.”
“Understood. Attacking the target takes top priority and I will not worry about how many other people I hit.”
“I will only accept good news.”
“I can feel the love.”
Mikoto glimpsed something outside the family restaurant window.
The first oddity she noticed was not a loud noise or bright light. Quite the opposite. Even with the thick glass in the way, it was odd for such a large motorcycle to be so silent. It probably used an electric motor, but the required engine sound effect had been illegally shut off.
It was ridden by a pair of people in black riding suits and full-face helmets.
The one on the back seat was aiming some kind of a long tube their way.
Just as Mikoto felt tension squeeze at her heart, she heard a series of blasts and the restaurant’s windows shattered into a cascade of glass shards.