Toaru Majutsu no Index:RailgunSS3 Chapter3
It was 10 PM.
Tokiwadai Middle School had a strict curfew, so this girl should not have been out in the city this late.
“Hokaze, Kobayashi. Wait for me here as promised, okay?☆”
Shokuhou Misaki was Queen of the school’s largest clique.
However, she was not out on the cold, dark streets.
“My, my. If it isn’t, Shokuhou-sama. If you had let me know you wished to do business with us, I would have sent someone to you.”
A slender man in a suit that looked stuck in the past greeted her with a bright smile.
They were inside a shop filled with gentle indirect lighting and soft music. The space was smaller than a convenience store, but it was filled with items valuable enough to buy up dozens of convenience stores, land included.
Glass cases lined the walls and waist-height tables and counters formed more showcases in the center.
This was a pawnshop.
But instead of providing desperate people with money to live off of in exchange for their household belongings, it was more like a pachinko prize exchange where mistresses and hostesses could sell the rings and fur coats they were given or a corporate president’s secretary could get cash for the car keys and golf sets their boss had given them under mysterious circumstances.
With a soft sound, Shokuhou Misaki placed a small leather bag on the glass counter. The girls in her clique who knew her well (and sort of worshiped her) would have known this was not her usual bag. Bags like this were supposedly designed with style in mind rather than functionality, but anyone who actually used them instead of keeping them around for decoration would know immediately that this bag’s style was not all that great. It was only given the illusion of style by the world-famous brand name attached to it.
Of course, Shokuhou was not here to sell or to buy.
The white-gloved man did not even need to pull out the loupe he used for his job.
“Very good, Shokuhou-sama. You have presented your key, so please follow me to the back room.”
“Your followers are welcome as well. You are a regular client, so anyone you vouch for is free to accompany you.”
Shokuhou Misaki possessed one of the “keys” which allowed a limited few to use special services and enter restricted areas in Academy City. She already knew about this pawnshop’s back room. It connected to the back room of the beauty salon next door and it provided a truly exclusive selection that no one could ever gain access to by spending money at the front counter.
Just as the man in a suit turned around, Shokuhou casually reached into the leather bag.
He may have noticed in the reflections off all the glass cases, but before he could turn back around, she aimed a TV remote toward his back and toyed with the button.
She was Academy City’s #5 Level 5.
Metal Out was the strongest of the purely psychological powers.
“Well, I do frequent this shop, so I will give you some leeway ability before I mess with your head☆ But I will make sure you tell me everything even if you refuse to obey. So wouldn’t it be nicer for you if you just came clean on your own?”
There was no smile in the Queen’s eyes and her voice was icy.
In fact, there was a dreadfully bewitching look to her eyes that could only be found in the extraordinarily beautiful.
“Have we made some sort of mistake? I believe we have helped you acquire several different keys.”
“That’s the thing.”
Her voice was flat.
No, her emotion had passed the upper limits that ordinary people could detect, similar to how ultrasonic waves surpassed the audible range of the human ear.
“That privileged class is a service allowing people to enjoy a pleasant ‘high’, isn’t it? Special privileges are best when you do not actually use them. Then it is the ultimate game of make believe. But if people actually open that lid and discover how toxic it all is on the inside, don’t you think you will lose all that trust ability you have built up? To be blunt, I am sick of it. Riding around the city on a motorcycle and firing a shotgun? All I want to do is lug this bag around and enjoy life at the top, so I certainly do not want people seeing me as part of some silly gang of criminals.”
The slender man did not turn around.
And that may not have been due to the TV remote or her Level 5 powers.
How could he possibly gather the courage to directly face the look in the Queen’s eyes?
“We work day in and day out to bring our clients to a higher level. That bag would have gone to someone else, but we held onto it especially for you!! I cannot sit here and have you criticizing us for that. You were Cinderella asking for a dress! So…so how can you treat us like a wicked witch!?”
With those piercing words, her voice grew even deeper.
Something different from killer intent erupted from her.
That had to be something only the Queen of Tokiwadai could produce. After all, she did not view things on a level of kill or be killed. She was familiar with plenty of fates worse than death.
She had the strongest psychological power.
Just a bit more strength entered the finger on the TV remote’s button.
The time for mercy had ended.
“You dare speak to me that way after directly targeting one of my girls?”
Sakibasu Yuri, whose black twintails had curled ends, felt a tremor down her spine.
She placed her hands on her cheeks and shut her eyes.
“(It’s ten o’clock. Ten o’clock at night… Kwahh!! The curfew. The curfew. I’m completely breaking the curfew. Ohh, I can’t believe I’m walking around the city at this hour!! Should I really be doing this? No, of course not. And I’m not alone! I’m out at night with a friend! Ahh, mother, I’m sorry! What will become of me now!?)”
The violin girl gasped and came back to her senses.
Misaka Mikoto, the girl who had called out to her, was holding her phone sideways and snapping photos of the large electric motorcycle from a variety of angles. But this was not about getting content for social media.
“Uiharu-san, is there anything else you need?”
“GK> Okay, you have the license plate, the lights, the electric motor, the battery, the tires, the frame, the seat, and the model numbers for them all. That should be enough for now.”
Car accident investigations tended to come down to running searches. You gathered as much miniscule information as you could from the road (e.g. tire tracks, flecks of paint, and shards of a broken light) and then checked to see what shops sold those and which companies manufactured them. You wanted to figure out who had a car containing all of Parts A, B, C, and D. Then you checked to see which of those people could have been at the scene of the accident or crime. By narrowing down the suspects like that, you would eventually have just the one person remaining.
“Of course, you can’t find the culprit that way if it was a stolen car.”
“GK> The location and method of the theft can act as an indirect hint, so it can’t hurt to gather this information. The more data I have to analyze, the better.”
“If only we could have directly searched for their esper power.”
“GK> Telekinesis is as common a power as fire and electricity based ones. There are differences in level of strength and control, but we would have a hard time searching the Bank with the information we have. Plus, there are occasionally people who hold back during the System Scan so their power is reported as weaker than it actually is. It would help if we had some other way of narrowing it down. And we need as many ways of doing that we can get.”
Sakibasu Yuri tilted her head at that.
And she hesitantly spoke up.
“Um, these are only photos. If the motorcycle is that big a hint, why not bring it back to a Judgment station?”
“That would be difficult.” Mikoto smiled bitterly. “Anti-Skill and Judgment have different jurisdictions and authority levels. Like in all things, an adult organization like Anti-Skill generally has more authority. Someone must have heard the gunshots and the motorcycle crash, so we’re going to hear some sirens approaching before long. If we removed such obvious evidence from the scene before they had time for an official investigation, who knows what they would accuse us of. Not to mention that we can’t tell them we’re here to sneak into the insurance company. Just having them ask why we’re here wouldn’t end well.”
The black twintails girl shrank down a bit. She rubbed her black kneesocked legs together as a sign of unease.
It was possible what had happened afterschool was just an act to take control of the situation, but Sakibasu must not have gotten over that oppressive view of the adults.
“Kuroko, did you get into the insurance company’s server?”
“True T-Tails> I got the files out the way Uiharu told me, but I imagine they’re at least encrypted. The rest is up to that geek’s skill.”
They apparently did not have access to everything right away. But at least this was better than finding out it was a quantum signal and they had destroyed the files by trying to mess with them.
“Then I guess we can’t bring this back either. Ugh, and just when I thought I could show off my power…”
Sakibasu Yuri was referring to the scrap of black leather held between her index and middle fingers. It was from the remnants of the riding suits Mikoto had blown away.
But Mikoto’s eyes widened when she saw it.
“Sakibasu-san… You touched that with your bare hands?”
“Um, let’s see…what do we do now? We have to worry about fingerprints, skin flakes, the oils in sweat, and…what else???”
Wiping it off with a handkerchief and setting it down was not enough.
That would not fool a forensic investigation and it would count as altering evidence even if it did. Leaving it here would only further confuse matters.
“We can’t just make it go away, so I guess we’ll have to leave it with Judgment for the time being. Uiharu-san, did you hear that?”
“GK> You want me to fight the grownups? Bring it on. …But can I order some energy drinks and caffeine gum to keep my energy level up? Using a 24-hour drone delivery service, of course.”
“If you are going to buy those, I recommend skipping the convenience store and using a discount store that sells imported goods with who-knows-what language on the packaging. The foreign version of the same product is often a lot stronger.”
They heard a needlessly loud siren approaching.
Staying here would be a bad idea.
“Did you see that message, Kuroko? Once you have what we need, escape the building. Sakibasu-san and I are getting out of here, so we can meet up later.”
“True T-Tails> Why do I feel like more and more of the cute twintails underclassman pie is being taken from me? But anyway, understood.”
Mikoto slipped her phone into her pocket and had Sakibasu store the leather evidence in a clear bag.
“B-but how are we supposed to escape? Anti-Skill specializes in arresting criminals, don’t they!?”
“We aren’t criminals, so don’t worry about it too much. By the way, Sakibasu-san, are you afraid of heights?”
“What? No, not really.”
“What about fast vehicles?”
“I have a 1-year pass to the District 6 amusement park. I make sure to check out all the new roller coasters.”
“Then you’ll be fine.”
With that casual response, Mikoto swept Sakibasu’s legs out from under her and supported her by her back and the back of her knees.
This position was commonly known as “princess carrying” someone.
“Excuse me a moment. We’re going to be airborne, so hold onto your violin case.”
Sakibasu’s mind went blank, but that only made this easier.
Misaka Mikoto magnetically clung to a skyscraper’s wall, jumped over the arriving vehicle with flashing lights on top, and continued jumping from building to building.
A rhythmic beat shook the air.
Karaoke boxes could be found anywhere in Academy City. It was currently past 10:30 at night, so it was too late for middle schoolers to be renting out a room there. However, Mikoto and Sakibasu did not seem concerned about that.
“I used this unlimited black card for the violin auction, but I never expected it to come in handy at a place like this.”
“That’s one of Academy City’s ‘keys’, huh?”
Mikoto still sounded skeptical as she leaned back in the sofa and sipped at some cider.
The Stativarius Ainsel would have lost its effectiveness as a “key”, but it turned out the girl had another one. When Sakibasu had pulled out her wallet and phone trying to figure out how to buy a drink at a vending machine, the people around her had seen the card and made a complete 180 in attitude.
A black card was not something you could buy at an auction, so the Chandelier Auction House must not have been the only victim having their products turned into “keys”.
At any rate, they could not use the usual family restaurant so soon after the shooting, so they had been looking for somewhere else to have a meeting. That was when a young karaoke box employee had noticed the black card. This was a loophole open only to those with the right “key”. Academy City apparently had several different secret maps laid out on top of it like different pieces of colored cellophane.
Shirai Kuroko had arrived a while later.
As someone meant to protect the city’s peace, she had not been happy about hanging out in a karaoke box at night, but she must have known that the situation called for it.
Uiharu Kazari joined them via her own social media site.
“GK> Oh, no. Sorry. It looks like I can’t meet up with you. I can’t think of any ninja skills I could use to sneak out of the dorm at this hour, so I’ll join you remotely.”
“Ehh? Uiharu, all you have to do is go up to the third floor and climb down the drain spout just below the hallway window. The second floor window is covered up, so you have to use the third floor. That lets you climb down the back of the building.”
“GK> Wait, what are you doing there, Saten-san!? When did you sneak out!?”
“Heh. Child, do not underestimate Big Sis Saten Ruiko. I am like a butterfly of the night chasing down the urban legends lurking in the shadows of Academy City. If you aren’t brave enough to head out at night for some fun, then grab your pillow and get some sleep.”
At any rate, their evidence sat on the room’s glass table.
A clear plastic bag contained a scrap of black leather.
It had originally belonged to one of the telekinetically-controlled riding suits.
Sakibasu Yuri slowly exhaled while gently holding out her soft-looking right palm. She apparently did not need to remove the leather from the bag. She held her palm just short of touching the plastic and then shut her eyes.
That power let her precisely measure the carbon isotopes inside an object.
That appraisal power let her instantly determine the authenticity of a world-famous instrument like a Stativarius.
“It is made of water buffalo.”
Her lovely lips parted and she spoke like a shrine maiden receiving a divine oracle.
“It was processed within 90 days and the leather was tanned using formaldehyde.”
“Yes, the same substance used to preserve specimens. Also, the oil used for maintenance was different than normal. …Goat fat was used. There is no sign of human skin, hair, or oils…well, except for mine. What does that mean? Was a brand-new factory-produced product remade into a telekinetic weapon?”
“Hm? Wait just a moment.” Saten frowned. “You said goat fat was used to maintain it, right? If it was brand new from the factory, why bother doing maintenance?”
“Yes, that’s right… It appears to have originally been all water buffalo products, but that was washed off with water and redone with goat fat. It would seem someone did intentionally alter it.”
The treatment of leather products was quite unique.
In fact, people often likened it to the leather being alive, needing to breathe, and needing nutrients.
If it was simply left in storage, it would grow damaged, cracked, and moldy all on its own. You could not sell it if that happened, so stores had to maintain their inventory themselves. There were countless ways of doing that, so even the same product from the same manufacturer could have a different shine or shade depending on how it was stored.
There were all sorts of creams used to maintain leather. They were made from the fats or oils of cows, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, rapeseed, and sunflowers. Some even used synthetic petroleum oils.
The riding suit itself was made from water buffalo leather using formaldehyde and it was maintained using a goat cream. If they could find a store that fit both conditions, they might be able to find who had bought and controlled the riding suits.
At the very least, it was unusual for the leather to contain no fingerprints, dust, or other traces despite being removed from the bag for maintenance.
The following morning, Uiharu Kazari sent a message to all of their phones.
“GK> I have identified the riding suit’s manufacturer. Not many factories in Academy City use formaldehyde when tanning leather and only one place uses goat cream for treating their products.”
Misaka Mikoto snapped shut her phone and sighed.
It was currently the break after second period, so the day was far from over.
She glanced out the hallway window and muttered to herself.
“I really want to just leave.”
“Oh, dear. We seem to have a dangerous delinquent in our school.”
“I don’t have time to deal with a delinquent right now, so let’s leave it at that. Ugh, keeping up with social media is such a pain. Maybe I should have kept my friend list a lot shorter.”
A blob of fat walked by while using her phone. She would have been running into people if she were not holding onto the uniform of her clique’s CQC ringlet curl girl so that girl could lead her around. She tried picking a fight with Mikoto, but that was normal.
After patiently waiting until school had let out for the day, Misaka Mikoto left the School Garden with Shirai Kuroko and Sakibasu Yuri. Uiharu Kazari and Saten Ruiko were already waiting near the gate.
“Hey, Misaka-san. It’s so hard waiting until classes are over, isn’t it? We lost so much time!”
Uiharu chided Saten like a rule-abiding student, but Mikoto honestly agreed with Saten. They were short on time. Not that she could say anything about it with Shirai around.
Sakibasu Yuri remained the top suspect for planning the shooting.
If nothing was done, the bored people online might decide she was a criminal based on no real evidence and spread her personal information around. And if the trail went cold, it was even possible Anti-Skill would leak her information to get things moving again.
That was part of the reason they had no time, but…
“(Hmm, based on the trends online, any tendency in that direction is being stifled by some powerful force. It’s like someone with an incredible amount of social media influence is working behind the scenes.)”
Uiharu’s assessment aside, their first order of business was using the riding suit’s purchase route to find the Telekinesis user.
“What is Anti-Skill doing?”
“They seem to have finished their investigation of the scene, but there was no one there for them to find, right? With only a fallen motorcycle and two shredded riding suits, they need to start their investigation by determining whether this was an accident or a crime. That said, they aren’t dumb enough to miss the connection between that and the attack on the family restaurant. It looks like their plan is to investigate the remains of the shotgun and the shotgun shells to see if they can figure out what this is all about.”
“Yeah, those are the most illegal looking parts of it all,” casually responded Shirai.
Come to think of it, she had worked with Uiharu to pull data from the insurance company’s server. They should have a list of clients with insurance policies on a Stativarius like Sakibasu’s – and thus a list of people who would hold a grudge over Sakibasu losing the violin competition. Were they making progress on decrypting that file?
Since that was what came to Mikoto’s mind, she must not have expected the gun to be much of a lead.
A shotgun was a special weapon with limited routes to acquire one, so it might seem easier to determine where it came from than with a knife or metal bat that could be found anywhere in the city.
However, this city’s darkness was deep.
Guns were almost entirely banned in this country, yet Mikoto knew of people who would pull one out like it was perfectly normal. If whoever was behind this had sunk to that level, then Anti-Skill would never reach those stagnant depths while searching the shallows. Checking the gun shops that followed all the rules would turn up nothing.
With normal products like the riding suits and electric motorcycle, they might have bought them normally. But when a risk was involved in simply acquiring them, they would have been cautious. It seemed unlikely they would have carelessly left a trail behind there.
Mikoto decided to let Anti-Skill try their method.
As long as they would not get in the way, she was willing to ignore them.
She decided to focus on pursuing the origin of the riding suits they had found.
Uiharu had done the preliminary research, so she led them to a surprising location.
Mikoto had expected an auto parts store or a sporting goods store, but…
“Wh-what is this place?”
There was a bear.
The giant bear was standing on its hind legs with its arms raised in a threatening pose. The real carnivore was far taller than Mikoto’s group, but it was frozen in that pose. Its colors were a little faded after being left out in the open.
The store’s sign said it was a model shop.
But when they peered in through the glass window, they saw deer, pheasants, and other animals frozen in time.
The entire area looked rundown. Academy City had a highly concentrated population due to its limited land, but this area was inefficiently crammed full of multi-tenant buildings three or four stories tall and a lot of the small shops on the street had their entrances covered by rusty metal shutters. There was barely anyone around. The only people in evidence were some workers loading industrial bags of expired flour and cornstarch into a truck parked on the side of the road.
Had this happened naturally, or was it the result of some kind of social construction experiment?
Uiharu Kazari had located the store in question, but even she sounded somewhat surprised by it.
“Taxidermy, formaldehyde, and transparent specimens… This appears to be a specialist in creating models made from what were once living animals. The riding suits were apparently patched together from extra materials.”
Shirai sounded hesitant, so Uiharu made sure to clarify.
“I said few factories use formaldehyde, remember? For example, when getting a deer stuffed, people who want to mount the head on the wall will just get the head done instead of the entire animal. The taxidermist will give the customer what they want, but that sometimes leaves them with part of the animal to throw out. So they will remove the skin from those parts and make bags, belts, or even riding suits from it.”
When making her analysis, Sakibasu had said formaldehyde was used to tan the leather. Was that simply because the store had that chemical on hand?
Doing that so as not to waste any part of the animal may have been a way of showing respect. …But did you really feel the need to show that kind of respect when it was a product being sold as an ornament instead of a trophy you had killed yourself?
Saten and Uiharu thought of taxidermy as a pastime for the rich, but Mikoto, Shirai, and Sakibasu seemed just as hesitant. It was possible real live high-class girls were not actually surrounded by suits of armor and giant paintings at all times.
But when they tried entering the front door…
A low voice escaped Saten’s mouth. She may have been more surprised than impressed.
There were so many of them.
The store was not all that large, so it felt crowded. The shelves were decorated with frogs or snakes inside glass cylinders and animals were frozen in time while carelessly lined up where the sunlight would not reach them. Shallow, frame-like boxes contained butterflies and beetles pinned in place and there was even a hornet nest larger than a basketball.
A small counter seemed almost buried by the shelves along the wall.
The old man there was covered in wrinkles like an animal that had not been preserved properly. He wore a plain track suit and a large mask over his mouth. He seemed more worried about staining his clothes than about looking nice for customers. Mikoto was worried he might actually walk back and forth between the counter and his workplace without washing his hands.
He spoke to them in a barely understandable voice mumbled from behind the white mask. They could not see his lips, so it was even harder to make out what he was saying.
“What is it, young ladies? This isn’t the time of year for a summer project and I doubt you’re here for insect specimens.”
Some cheaters apparently came here for their bug-catching project instead of setting foot in the forest. Was that better or worse than the people who used Q&A sites or auction sites to do their homework?
Sakibasu began waving her hands side to side.
“Um, that is not why we are here.”
“Then what is it? Looking for a model skeleton made from real human bones?”
Shirai Kuroko and Uiharu Kazari of Judgment both did a spit take at that.
But they were not the first to lean forward in interest. They were beaten to it by Saten Ruiko, that black hole for any suspicious rumors.
“D-do you have one of those legendary items made from a real human!?”
“Those things aren’t as exciting as the old stories make them sound. In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for executed prisoners to have the flesh chemically stripped from their bones to be used as a teaching tool. It’s little different from putting real human hair onto a doll’s head. It’s nothing too strange.”
At this rate, they were going to get badly sidetracked.
Mikoto grabbed excited Saten’s shoulder and pulled her back.
“We’re here to ask about some riding suits made here.”
“Hm? You don’t look old enough to be bikers.”
“Onee-sama, let me handle this. Excuse me, but I am from Judgment. Could we speak for a moment?”
The old man behind the counter responded to Shirai by mumbling something through the mask.
He was hard to make out, so Shirai leaned forward without even thinking.
A moment later, a pump-action shotgun popped up from below the counter.
The close-range blast reverberated in the gut more than the ears.
In a way, the solid and invisible wall of sound was even more of a weapon than the metal balls rushing toward them at blinding speed. Uiharu and Saten screamed and fell back onto the floor.
In this case, that was the correct response.
Sakibasu Yuri was in more danger since she mostly just stood there. Her black kneesocked legs turned inward and she only cowered down a little.
Separate from that, some bluish-white sparks flew through the air.
The scattershot should have flown straight toward them from less than a meter away, but it veered off course and instead shattered the cylindrical bottles of formaldehyde specimens behind them.
The mere mention of that name was enough to cause this.
The old man in a track suit and mask rose from his small chair and pulled the trigger again.
More and more gunshots rang out, but none of them hit. Now, did he realize what was happening? Mikoto was not actually using magnetism or the Lorentz force to manipulate the bullets tearing through the air. She was instead using an invisible hand to grab and move the sight on top of the pump-action shotgun itself.
It was the same as a flashlight’s beam.
Since the scatter shot spread out as it traveled, it was actually safer to be at point-blank range than further away. Shards from liquid-filled bottles and pieces of who-knows-what from broken stuffed animals scattered all around Mikoto.
“He’s getting away.”
She grimaced even after producing such a superhuman result. That small old man had not cared whether or not he hit them. He had only needed to break as many of his own products as possible to buy enough time to slip out the back of the store.
This battle had begun unexpectedly.
Mikoto belatedly regretted coming here in their uniforms. They could not have predicted this, but they might have exposed their identities. They were already being targeted from all over the city, but this was unfortunate all the same.
“Kuroko, teleport behind the store! Uiharu-san, you look after Saten-san and Sakibasu-san. I don’t think they were actually hit, but it’s easy to overlook the pain when you’re full of adrenaline. Check with your eyes and hands to see if they were struck or cut anywhere!!”
The only response was a groan from the floor.
Mikoto assumed someone was suffering from a headache due to the blood rushing to their head in a state of extreme tension and excitement, but she was wrong. A moment later, a unique chemical odor reached her nose as well. Her loafers were standing in some sort of puddle.
She could tell that was enough to remove the shine from those leather products.
Mikoto quickly covered her nose with a handkerchief.
“Kuroko, change of plans!! Get those girls out of here immediately!!”
Formaldehyde was sealed inside bottles for a reason: it was highly volatile. And it was also highly toxic. It prevented decomposition because it killed all the microbes. If someone was exposed to it, it would take out their breathing and eyes first. They could not leave Uiharu and Saten collapsed on the floor here.
A metallic sound came from the back of the store.
Mikoto was afraid of another shotgun blast, but nothing happened.
The old man had apparently escaped out the back door.
“Kuroko, Sakibasu-san, take care of those two. I can’t let him get away!!”
“Onee-sama! It’s too dangerous to go without any support!!”
He had already disappeared from view, so if she was delayed any longer, he might really get away. She jumped over the narrow counter, burst out the opened metal door, and found herself in the back alley.
She was immediately greeted by a gunshot from the side, but she blocked it with a metal bucket packed full of kitchen garbage that she swung around with magnetism. A solid shield was not the only defense.
She heard some light footsteps.
She did not run directly after the man.
She leaped straight up, used magnetism to press the soles of her shoes against the building’s wall, and ran up to the multi-tenant building’s roof. The best strategy for a game of tag was to look down from above the maze.
(He’s gone? Where did Old Mr. Shotgun get off to!?)
No matter how swift-footed he might be, Mikoto doubted he could have escaped her elevated field of vision while running through the complex array of roads on an old man’s legs. Had he escaped into a building with a roof or hidden below one of the cars parked on the roadside? Had he made that choice by chance, or had he predicted this? Mikoto started to grow a little confused.
At the moment, she needed information.
She noticed something while leaning over to view the area below.
She immediately jumped from the roof, once more used magnetism to stand perpendicular to the wall, and ran down the wall to reach the ground.
She made her way to an area with a few plastic beer cases stacked up in what could not be the proper way.
Something like dirty brown bandages were balled up and stuffed inside there. She found they were a plain track suit, a large mask, running shoes, and so on. Formaldehyde had splashed across everything in that small store, so Mikoto made sure not to touch the discolored brown sash with her bare hands. And while she viewed it from a distance…
She seriously hoped it was not human skin. Although it was still creepy if it belonged to an animal.
This had likely been done with a chemical and not an esper power. After a bit, it started to smoke and then it suddenly burst into flames. Mikoto quickly pulled a thick cloth from nearby and flapped it over the top to put out the small fire.
(In the two previous attacks, they controlled riding suits with Telekinesis to make it look like a living human. And this time, the target disappeared while moving too quickly for an old man. Could it be…?)
“Was that old man the telekinetic assassin himself? No, an adult wouldn’t be using an esper power… Then are they not an old man at all? Was an esper wearing that skin to enhance their own movements like with a powered suit!?”
Yes, she had found the track suit, the creepy skin, and such, but she had not found the most shocking item: the shotgun.
If it was not here, did that mean the attacker still had it?
Mikoto quickly pulled her phone from her skirt pocket, started up their shared social media app, and spoke into it.
Why had that old man suddenly disappeared? He should still have been in view, so had she lost sight of him because he removed that skin to change his appearance?
And had he really continued to run away afterwards?
Because he feared the word “Judgment”?
Sakibasu Yuri was his assassination target and she was right here while he was armed with a shotgun. For that matter, was this situation even an accident for him?
Could he have been waiting here for Sakibasu to eventually track down the model shop and pay it a visit?
In other words, could he be traveling in a circle through the labyrinthine back alleys to return to the store?
“Kuroko! Look after Sakibasu-san and the others!! The telekinetic assassin might be headed-…”
She heard the bursting of gunpowder directly from the vibrations of the air instead of through her phone.
The distinct odor of formaldehyde seemed to hit them in the head more than the nose, so Uiharu and Saten choked and suppressed some nausea similar to light motion sickness while they scrambled out of the store. Shirai Kuroko was one thing, but it was ironic that an amateur like Sakibasu Yuri had to carry a Judgment member like Uiharu.
“Shirai-san, can you carry us all to safety if he comes back?”
“That would be difficult. My Teleportation has a limit of around 130kg and that includes my own weight. So carrying four people at once would probably push it over the limit.”
“Then can you use your power offensively to defeat him in a preemptive strike?”
“I will do my best.”
That meant there was no guarantee.
When Shirai teleported objects, they could be embedded in things while ignoring how hard or tough the original material was. And she did indeed have a belt around each thigh to carry dart-like metal spikes. If she wanted to, she could break open a bank vault door protected by tungsten steel rods.
But on the other hand, her power was difficult to use in defense. She generally fought by combining projectile attacks with quick evasions. She did not even consider stopping any attacks head on. A single hit would end it. With a shotgun being fired repeatedly, she would have a hard time fighting safely while also covering for Uiharu, Saten, and Sakibasu.
The girl with the curly black twintails spoke up while holding her violin case.
“Then I suppose I cannot let myself be carried around this time.”
“You there! Those are being disposed of, aren’t they? I will buy them all. And it is dangerous here, so leave immediately!!”
The young men in work jumpsuits blinked in confusion, but when Sakibasu held her phone up to their mobile device to complete the electronic payment, she began inspecting the large bags loaded onto the back of the parked truck. She must have felt the violin case was in the way because…
“Excuse me, but could you hold onto this for a moment?”
“Hwuh? Um, the Stativarius!?”
Uiharu had been sitting limply on the road, but she immediately tensed up. Meanwhile, Sakibasu began pulling out the truck’s contents.
“Let’s see. Flour is the most common version seen in movies and dramas, but cornstarch actually works better. …There!!”
This was not a case of opening the bag too hard and having its contents scatter everywhere like often happened with chips.
She split open the bag on the road and intentionally scattered its contents around.
The white powder spread out in the air like a miniature cumulonimbus cloud. The Tokiwadai uniform was made of the finest quality materials while remaining tasteful, yet she did seem to care when this fine powder got all over her uniform.
Shirai Kuroko looked puzzled.
“S-Sakibasu-san? What are you doing!?”
Instead of answering the Judgment girl, Sakibasu calmly pointed her palm straight ahead and spoke that term.
That power let her precisely measure the carbon isotopes inside an object.
She could use that to accurately read the movements of the corn starch powder distributed thinly through the air. That meant she could read the movement of the air. Sakibasu Yuri was one of the girls who studied at Tokiwadai Middle School, so her power was bound to be above the norm.
While essentially performing a three-dimensional scan of the space around her, the curly black twintails girl looked around and stopped her gaze on a single point.
“Found you!! I know you are hiding there!!”
With a click of the tongue, a small figure ran out of an alleyway entrance with a pump-action shotgun in hand. Was that…the old man from before? The semi-long blonde hair belonged to a small girl in a bright blue leotard whose youthful skin was nothing like the old man from before. She(?) wore delicate pointe shoes that did not look like they were meant for outdoor use. She looked even younger than first year middle schoolers like Shirai and Sakibasu, but the way she carried herself was oddly similar to that old man. It was like seeing a 3D model running on his motion capture data.
But the most important fact now was the shotgun she held.
“Sakibasu-san, get away from- !!”
Shirai started to shout at Sakibasu, but…
“I can use the motion of the powder to read the air currents created by the gun’s movement. That isn’t going to hit me!!”
The supposed protection target was exactly right.
In fact, Sakibasu shoved Shirai out of the way. A deafening blast rang out a moment later, but the horizontal swarm of metal balls did not produce a single drop of blood. The curly black twintails girl easily avoided the very real gun.
A light bursting sound followed.
But this was not the firing of a gun. It was more like the sound of a paper bag popping. Sakibasu had pulled a finely embroidered handkerchief from somewhere.
Instead of letting it flutter, she beat the air with it.
By pushing on the air, she subtly altered the density of the cornstarch and made sure it enveloped the shotgun-wielding assassin. The static electricity built up in the synthetic leotard may have acted as the final ignition.
“Watch and be amazed. I am not some helpless little girl.”
A scarlet explosion erupted out.
It was a dust explosion.
That was the moment when Carbon Search, a passive sensory power, was used as an offensive physical power.
Finally, a panicked voice came from beyond the explosive flames. That may have been a sign that the leotard girl had finally taken a step off the rails she had set up.
Sakibasu Yuri’s short skirt fluttered dangerously while she winked and waved her handkerchief as if taunting her opponent.
“I like to go the eco-friendly and non-wasteful route, but do you see what I can accomplish doing that? This truck is full of expired cornstarch. Or should I go with flour next? Or maybe you would prefer some potato starch or pancake mix. The size and weight of the powder affects the quality of the explosion, so feel free to make your request. Now, how many more times can I intentionally trigger a dust explosion? And is an ordinary shotgun really a greater threat than that? Work your clever little head to figure out the answers!!”
It did not matter whether the leotard girl moved forward and tried to ready her shotgun or fell back and tried to escape.
Sakibasu would not let up until the girl set down her weapon and put her hands up.
A few more explosions thoroughly assaulted the tiny attacker.
It was a lot like fire magic in a classic RPG. The theory behind it was simple, so there was no fear of catching herself or her friends in the blasts and it provided a powerful and highly stable attack. Even an esper with actual Pyrokinesis might have been jealous of the incredible precision of these explosions.
Then Sakibasu Yuri brought the handkerchief to her mouth.
“That was a hit…but it felt like she got away.”
“Geh. What is that!?”
Shirai Kuroko groaned because a large swarm of small winged insects burst out of a back alley. They were the type to swarm around streetlights at night. The flashy explosions had apparently awoken those sleeping nocturnal beasts.
Meanwhile, they heard a sound like scrap metal being thrown.
They found the shotgun abandoned by the alley entrance with a bent barrel, but that was all. The leotard girl must have fled into the alley because there was no sign of her.
“She escaped outside the cornstarch? Shirai-san, please pursue her! But don’t forget that she might have another gun hidden somewhere!!”
“Seriously!? I have to run right into that swarm of bugs!?”
“You can take a shortcut using your teleportation!!”
Shirai Kuroko was in serious trouble if she was being bossed around by this girl. She was at risk of falling behind on the path of the twintails.
But just then, they heard a dull sound.
It was the sound of Mikoto “landing” on a multi-tenant building wall and joining the others from overhead.
“Are you okay!?”
When she called to them from the wall, Uiharu and Saten weakly waved up at her from where they sat on the ground. They seemed to be showing off that they were not injured.
After seeing that, Mikoto breathed a sigh of relief. Sakibasu’s previous intensity seemed to evaporate as she waved her hands side to side and opened her mouth.
“Misaka-san, I don’t know what happened, but it seems that old man was actually a girl in a leotard.”
“Anyway, that’s what happened! If you see a small girl with a flat chest and semi-long blonde hair who is wearing a light blue leotard and pointe shoes, that’s, um, the same person who attacked us!!”
Watching her try to explain with strange hand gestures only made it more confusing, but Mikoto had seen the stripped-off track suit and something like a strange skin. Some kind of chemical had caused it to burst into flames, so it was definitely something the enemy had not wanted anyone to find.
(Come to think of it, there was no innerwear there. Did they strip off what they were wearing along with the skin? As much as they could without hindering their movements, anyway.)
“Kuroko, let’s trade positions. I’ll stay on the surface while you teleport between rooftops. We need to track down that attacker!!”
“Onee-sama, I am with Judgment!!”
“Your power really only lets you evade quickly, so can you really respond to a surprise attack from a bullet? Oh, is that their shotgun there? But they might have some other gun and Telekinesis doesn’t require any kind of motion to activate. Not to mention we’re talking about narrow alleyways. I can approach them more easily since I can use a thick metal panel as a shield. So hurry!!”
Mikoto did not wait for an answer.
After jumping down from the wall, she ran into the alley. Bugs and rats were flying or running around in a panic after the explosions, but that did not slow her down any. Now Shirai had no choice but to follow Mikoto’s plan. She gave a quick nod of thanks toward Sakibasu for earlier and then teleported on up to the multi-purpose building’s roof.
Mikoto thought to herself while continuing down the alley.
(I won’t let them get away this time. They were apparently boosting their athletic ability by using their power on the skin wrapped around them for their old man disguise, but they don’t have that anymore. They can’t have gotten far with just their legs to carry them, so I can catch up and settle this!!)
She caught sight of a bright color fluttering around a corner down the alleyway.
It was semi-long blonde hair.
And was that the long, skintight sleeve of a light blue leotard?
“Kuroko, after her. Don’t lose track of her!!”
“True T-Tails> I can see her from above. Turning that corner was a bluff. She ran inside the back entrance of a nearby shop!!”
Mikoto turned the corner, forcibly unlocked the metal door’s electronic lock using her powers, and more or less kicked it open.
With a loud bang, she saw a pair of fearful eyes inside.
However, it did not seem like the female staff member in the dimly-lit back room had just now screamed and fallen onto her butt. It looked more like she had already been cowering down and simply looked over when Mikoto ran in.
“Excuse me, but a girl ran in here a moment ago. Do you know which way she went?”
“She had a gun. It was a weird shape, but it was definitely real. I’ve seen them on video sites before.”
“Just tell me which way!”
Mikoto ran in the direction indicated by a trembling finger and flung open another door.
The light inside dazzled her.
Her eyes must have grown too accustomed to the dim back room.
She found an area filled with soft lighting and jazz music. It appeared to be a women’s boutique. It was meant for women in their early twenties and the scattering of customers looked college aged.
“She’s not here?”
According to Sakibasu and the others, the real attacker hidden below that strange skin was a small girl who might be as young as elementary school age. Plus, a light blue leotard and pointe shoes was not the best outfit for walking out on the streets. She would definitely stick out like a sore thumb in this space full of grownups. Nevertheless, there was no sign of her here. Mikoto could not find her.
Was there another exit somewhere?
She had been small enough to dress up as that old man, so Mikoto remained cautious and peeked between the rows of clothing on hangars as she slowly looked around the boutique. Then she noticed something strange.
(What’s with the windows?)
Hadn’t this area been a shopping district with rusted metal shutters covering everything? The sign for a fancy boutique like this would have stood out. And when she looked closer, she could indeed see metal shutters covering the glass windows and door.
From outside, there would be nothing to tell you the boutique was open.
The shutter-filled shopping district was a bluff.
Did that mean all of the customers and staff used the back entrance?
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
A young woman had approached without making a noise.
She was like someone who would be featured in a magazine or on TV. She was on another level entirely from the self-styled charismatic staff members who did not even know the proper words to use.
“I deeply apologize, but may I see your key?”
Mikoto ignored the question and took another quick look around the boutique. The only people there were a scattering of college-aged “elite customers” and two or three staff members who were a little older. But she was focused on their eyes. They were of course mostly glancing toward Mikoto since she was an outsider, but they also occasionally looked elsewhere.
Mikoto did not overlook that.
The woman who seemed to be the manager raised her voice as Mikoto ran toward the fitting rooms lined up by one wall. Just one of them had the curtain unnaturally closed. Needless to say, that was the other location the people here were focused on. She did not bother saying anything before grabbing the curtain and throwing it open.
There was nothing inside.
It was so empty that the emptiness felt abnormal.
Simply tracing her fingers along the edge of the large mirror on the wall was not enough to reveal the existence of a hidden door. For one thing, it might be on the floor instead of the wall. Regardless, the leotard attacker had vanished after entering this fitting room. She likely gone underground and left the boutique.
Keys, keys, and more keys.
It felt like wandering through an RPG castle with color-coded doors. Academy City’s secret VIPs apparently enjoyed these games of make believe. This was on a larger scale, but it was a similar form of catharsis to small children gathering scrap materials to build a secret fort where the adults were not in charge.
Mikoto spoke into her phone.
“Uiharu-san, search the Bank for a map of the urban development plans for this area! They won’t be using the facilities and underground pathways on that map. They’ll have constructed their own ant colony that weaves through the gaps! What safe routes would there be for digging an underground route leading away from this boutique? Check the plumbing, gas lines, power lines, fiber optic lines, subway tunnels, and utility tunnels. Academy City is packed full of things underground, so there can’t have been much space for them to dig!”
Things were not going as smoothly for the villains as Mikoto assumed.
Evenly-spaced fluorescent lights shined on cold concrete. Semi-long blonde hair swayed side to side as a small girl walked down a long, long straight corridor that looked like part of a secret lab or evacuation tunnel. She was about elementary school aged and she wore a light blue leotard and pointe shoes. That outfit had been part of the disguise needed to lie in wait, but it was not exactly suited for combat. She was currently focused on the modern convenience of a smartphone.
The person on the other end sounded exasperated.
“Riot… How did you screw up your job this badly? Not only did your initial target survive, but you failed to protect the insurance company’s server. If I hadn’t used a shell company for the Stativarius’s insurance policy, they would have found my identity there.”
“But that isn’t so bad. The insurance company only gave us somewhere to ambush them and they can’t reach me that way. That is not the real problem here. Care to explain why you are escaping using a Generic Rank 4 underground passage?”
“…It was an emergency.”
“To think you of all people would break our compliance rules. Where is your key? You were not even authorized to enter that Ring Rank 3 boutique. Did you win the lottery and buy the key at auction?”
“If I was captured back there, Judgment or Anti-Skill would have forced me to tell them everything! Then this entire system would be revealed. It would all fall apart. I mean, you ordered to have them secretly eliminated because you don’t want this getting out!!”
“I believe I told you I will only accept good news, Riot.”
“I am still working on the job, so give me time to recover! I can still pull this off!!”
Her fierce words were the polar opposite of her slender form.
A short silence followed.
Would the other person stick with her, or would they throw her out and try elsewhere?
This unpleasant silence made it seem like they were seriously unsure which to choose. For the girl walking down the underground passageway, it felt like being trapped inside a stopped elevator while someone approached the thick wire with a giant pair of cutters. Their decision could send her tumbling down to her doom.
“Where do are trying to go?”
“The railroad technology museum,” said the girl.
“That museum is Railroad Model Rank 5. Are you kidding me?”
“Then give me some other option. If there isn’t one, then I’m forcing my way in there! No matter who’s after me!!”
“Go to Club Psychedelic Beach. It is Wallet Rank 4. You can use the troops and weapons there, so make sure you eliminate all pursuit. Then get back to work, Riot. Piss me off any more and I really will hire someone else. And their job will be to kill you, not your targets. So hurry up!”
“This place here,” said Saten over the social media app.
“Sa10> A while back, everyone was talking about how the subway tunnel makes a weird turn here. The rumor was they built it that way to avoid an underground power spot because there were so many accidents during construction.”
“GK> A power spot? But there is a reference to it in the Judgment records. That was where a so-called Mr. Inertia used the sharp curve to lean up against high school girls on the packed train.”
Most of the information was just plain awful, but Mikoto was thankful to at least know the right location.
She Railgunned a big hole in the road and hopped down through there.
“Onee-sama, we need to have a family meeting once this is all over.”
“Are you checking to see if I’m calm enough to take issue with the ‘family’ part?”
It was a narrow passageway made from plain concrete. It was like the secret exit from a lab. They had cut in somewhere in the middle, so it extended far ahead of them and behind them. Mikoto and Shirai nodded before setting off in opposite directions.
By this point, Mikoto felt incredibly dumb for having started all this in their uniforms, but they did not have time to go change right now.
“Can you not predict where they’re headed?”
“GK> That would be difficult. I can predict the path of the underground passageway using the areas that slip through the gaps of the other underground structures, but I can’t tell you what surface buildings it connects to.”
Mikoto turned around in surprise when someone called her name from behind.
For some reason, Sakibasu Yuri was catching up to her with violin case in hand. Unlike a certain unathletic Queen, this black kneesocks girl was surprisingly active.
“Sakibasu-san? How did you find your way here?”
“Your footprints. Since you stepped on all that cornstarch I scattered around earlier, I can use my Carbon Search to track the invisible footprints you left behind. …Although I was trying to follow the ones the leotard girl left.”
“Oh, the cornstarch was of course expired and about to be disposed of. I like to go the eco-friendly and non-wasteful route.”
With powers, it was all in how you used them.
Mikoto could see why Shokuhou Misaki found this girl interesting enough to accept her into her clique.
Sakibasu may not have been aware of her own value, though.
“Oh I know. Misaka-san, you and Shirai-san wear the same school-designated loafers as I do, so the soles should all have the same general design. I should have ignored those and tracked just the pointe shoe prints.”
“Um, Sakibasu-san? Can you still do that? I’m pretty sure she went this way.”
“Yes, of course.”
From there, the curly black twintails girl took the lead.
It did not take long once she found the footprints in that straight passageway. The passageway made a few 90-degree turns along the way and there were some three-way and four-way intersections, but Sakibasu never hesitated when choosing the route. She continued onward and eventually arrived at a metal door.
“Uiharu-san, check the map at my phone’s GPS location. What’s above me?”
GK> Um, a club? I think???”
Uiharu’s response was full of question marks, but that may not have been a problem with the map data. She may have just been unfamiliar with clubs in general.
A lot of time had passed since they met up after school, so it would be late evening or early night up on the surface. But if this was another place where no one used the front entrance, they could cover up all the windows 24/7 like a movie theater or planetarium and play loud dance music whenever they wanted.
“The door has an electronic lock, so I can open it at any time.”
“GK> Even if you use your power, any method you’ve used once will be registered.”
“GK> An AI server called Zero-Day Link will tag the method based on risk level and send it straight to the virus storage center. So keep in mind you can’t use the same method twice.”
“What will you do, Shirai-san?” asked Sakibasu.
“True T-Tails> I will meet up with you two of course! I will be right there, so wait just a moment!!”
“No. Uiharu-san, the club has a public-facing side too, right? I don’t care if it’s incomplete. Pull up the layout and send it to Kuroko’s phone. Kuroko, you head to the surface and watch the front exit. You’ve seen what that leotard girl looks like, right?”
“True T-Tails> Onee-sama!”
“I can’t leave this job to Uiharu-san or Saten-san. This is meaningless if the attacker can just escape the club, so we have to catch her here. We’re going to end this ridiculous incident and bring safety back to our lives. Got that?”
“True T-Tails> …My position is being threatened by an invasive species…”
“True T-Tails> Fine, fine. I get it!”
Mikoto then glanced over at Sakibasu.
“If the attacker specifically chose this as a destination, she must hope to accomplish something here. That means the odds are good she has a plan to fight back. I don’t know if it will be with a gun or with her powers or if she will be on her own or with a group. You wait here. I’ll crush the threat on my own.”
“I get that.” Sakibasu showed her impatience and nerves by rubbing her black kneesocked thighs together. “But this underground passageway is also a secret area someone doesn’t want found, isn’t it? It seems to branch off all over the place, so if it connects to other locations, I might run into someone arriving from a different building. The risk inside the club doesn’t seem any greater than in the tunnel.”
“Plus, you haven’t seen what she looks like, have you? The leotard stands out, but that’s why she will probably change out of it to escape. It would be safer for both of us if I went with you.”
“…Okay. Watch my back.”
The metal door had an electronic lock, so Mikoto’s powers could easily open it.
But opening it was bound to cause something to happen.
It was Mikoto’s group against the attacker. One side would win and the other would lose.
That was like the door to hell.
But if they did not cross that threshold, they would be forced to continue living in fear of attack from assassins sent by an unseen villain. Not even Mikoto could look after Shirai, Uiharu, Saten, and Sakibasu 24-hours a day.
She had to accept this challenge to reclaim peace in their lives.
Mikoto held her palm toward the electronic lock panel and made an announcement.
“Let’s do this, Sakibasu-san!!”