Toaru Majutsu no Index:RailgunSS3 Chapter7
It was dark out.
First, they deactivated the electronic security and then they raised the metal shutter and unlocked the analog lock meant as a countermeasure for cyber-attacks. The whole process took less than 3 minutes.
After having a subordinate open the glass door, someone calmly walked in.
“Where is the guard on duty?”
“We acquired the necessary personal information in advance and bribed him into silence. He agreed to smell some knock-out gas around back. Night-duty security is one job where the pay far outweighs the actual work involved. The people who choose the job for that reason tend to have a need for a quick reward.”
The woman stepped into the darkness while glancing over at her face reflected in the glass door.
She looked far too young to be a mother.
She wore a black silk party dress and her long black hair was even silkier than that. It was mostly straight, but there were curls by her ears.
That lady shined from head to toe and she had a curvy figure, yet the light of her skin and eyes was even more youthful than that of an undeveloped girl who had only just started puberty. That would have seemed imbalanced if not for the thorough care given to her by professionals. Makeup, health foods, aesthetic salons, fitness gyms, aromatherapy, face washing products, sleep products, beauty parlors, detoxing, oxygen therapy, stress reduction, etc. There was an endless list of ways in which she had polished her body inside and out.
It was all the magic of money.
The one flaw was her inability to claim she had earned that money herself.
She had no esper power or next-generation weapons. Her beauty came from a different sort of power and she now walked down the dark hallway with her sharp heels clacking. The only lights were the reds of the fire alarms and greens of the emergency exits, but there was no hesitation in her step. People could walk to the bathroom in their own home in the dead of night without ever bumping into a wall or the stairs. This was proof of how thoroughly she had investigated this place and memorized its layout.
Sakibasu Ryouu held a silver-shining duralumin case.
It was narrower and longer than the ones a businessman would carry.
The case alone was enough to give people an ominous impression.
And her other hand was softly massaging the base of her finger. Specifically, her left ring finger. She had not been careless enough to wear her ring now, but there was still a mark there.
(You really can’t escape it, can you? I really wish I could hide it while at work.)
“This is the necessary program.”
A figure held out a USB memory stick smaller than lipstick while respectfully following her around.
The label said Blue_Blood.
That was the name of their organization and of the memory device carrying the data that represented their ideals.
That nightmarish virus would spread from Academy City and bring down all the computers in the world simultaneously. The damage would affect everything from personal mobile devices to public dams and power stations.
“The computer used to write and compile the script has already been destroyed. This is the one and only copy. Once it infects the AI server, please destroy the flash memory according to the necessary procedure. Then no one can analyze the source to discover a way to directly eliminate the virus.”
After that businesslike response, a smile formed around the lady’s eyes.
This was a human side to her beyond the charismatic leader.
“I know creating this and destroying the data was a lot of work, Engineer.”
“Think nothing of it. I will soon fry the necessary portion of my brain cells to physically eliminate the last trace. I will take responsibility and eliminate all possibility of an analysis being done from the developer’s side. If I do not contact you according to schedule, please assume I overdid it and died. I hate to ask this of you, but if that happens, please order one of your people to remove my corpse from my room and dump it somewhere so I do not decompose all alone in there. As a bit player in your grand plan, I am praying for Blue Blood’s success. Now, if you will excuse me.”
The beautiful woman placed the small device in the chest of her dress using fingers given a thorough manicure by a professional. She then brushed back her long black hair and called two other names.
The response came from either side of her.
Twin girls who looked completely identical approached her. They were short girls with their silver hair in ponytails, but that was no reason to let your guard down in Academy City. Just like Riot and Reversible, they were trump cards given codenames.
They were not at home, but they only wore baggy dress shirts and leather boots.
These two were the best bodyguards out of all the trump cards in the organization.
The beautiful leader holding the narrow duralumin case asked a question without even looking toward those silver-haired girls showing off their bright bare legs.
“I will now infect Zero-Day Link. Normal communications will not work once I am on the upper levels of the building. I will not be able to give you further instructions, so use your best judgment to eliminate any threats. Since you are a part of Blue Blood, you want to bring glory to your bloodline, don’t you? I will not ask why, but do know that I will make that dream of yours a reality.”
The black party dress woman smiled at that immediate response.
“You can call me ma’am. I am not so childish that I would insist I look that young.”
“Is that an order, lady?”
“Please, Acid. And Counselor too. Do not make a mother feel any more ridiculous than she already does. This is as painful as being dragged out onto the beauty pageant stage and asked to wear a swimsuit among all the young girls.”
For some reason, the silver-haired twins both pouted their lips.
They apparently did not like their beautiful leader’s humility. They really did not like it.
But however they felt on the inside, they were obedient on the outside.
“My apologies. Ma’am, do you expect someone to try and stop us?”
“Counselor, I know you can read my thoughts, so do you really need me to say it out loud? I know my daughter, so I know someone is coming. The boundary between amateur and expert is meaningless to her. She can produce results completely outside the usual social structures and hierarchies. Riot and Reversible were both defeated. We have seen more than one upset that cannot be explained by simply comparing the strength of both sides. Do not let your guard down.”
“Yes, Sakibasu Yuri always had it. She has the invisible power to make the impossible possible. The power I have now was only made by increasing what I had with the IP rights. It all began with the toy that girl made. So I will never underestimate her. My daughter has something that could destroy the world.”
“Lady, I do not think-…”
“Call me ma’am. If you are going to do it, be thorough.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am aware this is forward of me, but not everyone can do what you do either. The fact that you can do all of that and claim you were simply ‘increasing what you had’ is proof enough of your incredible talent.”
Acid was speaking her heart there.
But the black party dress lady only smiled a little.
“You will know what I mean once you see someone who really does have it. What I have done is no more than some petty tricks in comparison.”
That was extremely reassuring as an ally, but equally as troublesome as an enemy.
If someone found a 1000-yen bill on the side of the road and simply picked it up and pocketed it, that was all they would have. A 1000-yen profit was logically the maximum they could earn there. But the people who had it were different. If they selflessly took it to the closest police box and received plenty of praise for their good deed, they would create connections to the people around them. If the president of an entertainment production company or a global investor happened to be in that group, they would have created a truly valuable connection. That 1000 yen would produce a result worth far more than that. And that was what actually happened with those people. It might seem ridiculous, but that was who Sakibasu Yuri was.
After all, who could have ever imagined it?
Who could have imagined a card game made at the age of 5 would continue to produce a vast fortune to this day, like an oil field that never ran dry? In fact, even Sakibasu Yuri would have failed if she had tried to do that. That had been the result of her innocently working at it without trying to cause anything at all.
The more logically people looked at the battles fought by those who had it, the more they were drawn in.
Tokiwadai Middle School’s Level 5s and Judgment were not the threat here. The black-haired lady had heard about the elective exam. Those other students had been her daughter’s enemy to begin with, yet they had eventually ended up as allies. Everything had worked out for the better. Ordinary cause and effect would have said that could not happen, yet it had.
Sakibasu Yuri really was the greatest threat she did not want to run up against.
As long as that girl was acting out of benevolence and not out of self-interest, everything on the field – both enemy and ally – would work to her benefit.
Trying to do any of it on purpose would cause that miraculous balance to collapse, but if she innocently tried to do good deeds, then all phenomena would work toward giving her strength. Just like a snowball rolling down the hill.
What had convinced the old man who managed the Chandelier Auction House?
Why had a faithful servant like Riot spilled the beans?
Why had those two girls, who could never get along, joined forces to end this?
None of it had been the flashy Railgun or the Teleportation that left 3D space.
So whose actions had brought about all those results?
…Yes, a lot had happened that Sakibasu Ryouu was not even aware of.
Even if she did not know everything about the people pursuing her, she was vaguely aware that they had followed a single solid path that was not going to branch off. Something would arrive along that path. They were only a group of middle school girls and they should have reached a point where the trail went cold several times already. So how had they managed to find a new clue every single time? It had not been about money or esper powers. No, it had been the result of so many good deeds.
It did not matter if someone was an enemy or an ally.
It was different from manipulating or controlling someone’s mind.
As long as it was pure benevolence that drove her and she did not include any self-interest in the equation, then everything on the field would bring power to Sakibasu Yuri.
Sakibasu Ryouu only had the information available to her to work with, but that was enough.
(They will be coming. The insurance company’s server is not a problem since there was a dummy corporation in between, but either Riot or Reversible must have talked. That means they will know my name and that girl is bound to have her thoughts upon learning what I am doing. Sakibasu Yuri’s benevolence is sure to rear its head and lock onto me.)
That mother had only been able to build herself up on the foundation built by her daughter, so that was the only conclusion she could reach.
She squeezed the duralumin case’s handle a little tighter as she spoke.
“Logic and statistics are worthless. Even experience is of no use here. Act on your immediate senses. That is the only way to stand in the same field as her. This is far more than a hackneyed clash between Academy City espers. Be aware of that.”
“You only need to make it through tonight. Zero-Day Link will overwrite the world. If this works, it will prove that those of us with the proper bloodlines are those who have it. We can rewrite the world in that way and then we truly will have blue blood.”
They were in the center of District 15, Academy City’s largest shopping district.
“This is the polar opposite of District 3, isn’t it?”
“I’ve heard this district alone uses 40% of Academy City’s power.”
Misaka Mikoto and Shirai Kuroko spoke in annoyance while viewing the flood of neon and electronic signs. It was not Halloween or Christmas, so what was with all those LEDs wrapped around the roadside trees?
There were a lot of broadcast and mass media facilities here, so outside broadcasting vans covered in antennae and location shooting busses covered in smoked glass were all over the roads. Were all the taxis and other hired vehicles meant to transport people in the entertainment business?
It was approaching late night, yet the place was still crowded. Mikoto looked around suspiciously while weaving between some youths carrying energy drinks who looked like they would start cheering each other on at any moment.
“We’re talking about the headquarters of a security software company, so I was imagining some kind of glass-covered secret base deep in the mountains or in the middle of the desert. Y’know, with a domed or donut shape.”
“A child like you might not understand, but a company can increase their reputation by having their HQ in an expensive part of the city☆ Even outside of Academy City, aren’t there a lot of corporate HQs in Roppongi or Akasaka? Really, it’s all about keeping up appearances and showing off. Think of it like the corporate billboards in a stadium or the ‘so-and-so presents’ in the name of a musical or orchestra.”
That may have also explained the TV and online ads that only gave the name of a corporate group without giving any actual product names. It was not for the ordinary customers who would see the product on the store shelves; it was an appeal to the people who bought stocks.
They received a message that would not show up on Sakibasu Yuri’s phone now that Uiharu had changed the settings.
“Sa10> I really didn’t tell Sakibasu-san anything, but are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“I am. We can’t force her to do anything more.”
The building in question was a 20-story one on a road one over from the main street. Simply listing it as “in District 15” must have been enough for them. When they actually viewed it from a distance, they found it in a crowded area which did not seem to get much sunlight.
The girl with gorgeous ringlet curls raised one eyebrow.
“Queen, there is someone waiting in front of the main entrance.”
“Oh, dear. I have such trouble telling apart old men above a certain age.”
“My, my, Hokaze. You have very accepting tastes, don’t you?”
The Queen laughed in an exasperated and impressed fashion, but at what age did a man become “old” in her eyes?
At any rate, Mikoto had something to say too.
“I have no interest in filthy men of any age.”
“I’m not talking about that nonsense. I need your opinion as a Judgment member.”
“If he was really a night guard, would he be wearing shiny new equipment like that? I swear I can smell the insect repellant from here. And look carefully near his cuffs and collar. The tanlines are not quite in the right place. This appears to be his first time wearing that uniform.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m sure they have someone around back too, but check the security camera directly above the entrance. Why isn’t the lens moving?”
“GK> Geh, I tried to hack in but was forced out. And not just because this is a security company. Someone else has already taken over the system.”
The four girls exchanged a glance.
They all had the same opinion:
“They’re guilty as can be. Let’s take them out.”
An explosive boom burst out.
A high-voltage current coursed through the grunt disguised as a security guard to keep people away before he crashed right through the glass door and rolled along the lobby floor.
Nevertheless, no alarm went off.
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki crunched the small glass shards underfoot as they entered the building.
The darkness inside seemed to waver.
No, blatant killer intent reached them from the elevator hall, the emergency stairs, and all the corridors leading away from the main lobby. A threatening group was surrounding them. It was unclear how many followers Blue Blood had, but there were apparently a fair number of people who wanted to be special.
They had expected this.
They were here to pick a fight in the first place.
“Kuroko, coordinate with Uiharu-san and clear a path to the server room!!”
“Hokaze, take care of all the fools trying to attack us. I will use this to silence the ignorant onlookers that try to gather outside, so do not bother hiding any of your power☆”
The hunters gave their instructions and the hounds were released.
The men were dressed like night guards, but their weapons were an exception. Instead of police batons and flashlights, they appeared to be wielding suppressor-equipped handguns and flamethrowers with several portable gas cylinders inserted like a revolver, but what did that matter? You must not underestimate this special deck composed entirely of Level 4s and Level 5s from Tokiwadai Middle School.
They were from a prestigious powers development school.
It was said the students would be powerful enough to take over the White House if they worked together.
The ringlet curls girl strengthened her muscles and neurotransmission by controlling her bioelectricity, so she slipped through the gaps between the bullets flying her way and broke the plate in a bulletproof vest with a single punch. Metal darts sent out via teleportation accurately pierced the flamethrower cylinders, detonating the weapons. And the Level 5s did not just stand and watch. One used powerful magnetism to tear a drink vending machine from the floor so it could block the bullets the girls could not dodge with martial arts alone and the other spun a TV remote around to make the men in night guard uniforms start grappling with each other.
Mikoto magnetically pulled a fire extinguisher into her hands and then clobbered a nearby man in the head with it.
“They’re weak! Way too weak!! Dealing with them is a waste of time!!”
“GK> I found a map of the HQ’s interior from the documents submitted to the closet fire station. The server room is on the 20th floor. That is where you will likely find the AI that makes up a quarter of Zero-Day Link.”
“The top floor?” asked Kuroko. “They placed a computer higher than the president’s office?”
“GK> They can’t place it underground in case of an earthquake or water damage. And to prevent intentional sabotage or hacking, they wouldn’t want to place it somewhere ordinary employees, visitors, and cleaning staff can go. So their best bet was to place it on the isolated floor above the president’s office on the 19th floor. The elevator only goes up to the 19th floor, so the only way to the top floor is by passing right in front of the president. …You can tell the president is something of a control freak who does not trust their employees or business partners.”
“Is that how it works?”
“GK> It makes sense from a security standpoint. The state of the president’s social interactions is another matter, though. In case of an emergency, the crucial blades can be physically removed from the servers and carried away by helicopter. This is a security software developer, after all. They must know how valuable intellectual property like computers and programs can be.”
“Sa10> Oh, I’ve heard that urban legend! The human life seed rights!! There’s a rumor of a list of items like priceless art and fancy cars that are considered more valuable than human lives, so rescue teams will work to protect them instead of actual people during a disaster or major incident! So if your rent is unusually low, it probably means everyone in your area will be left to die!!”
Shokuhou took a peek at Mikoto’s phone and quickly grew pale.
Thus spoke the extremely unathletic girl:
“20th… M-M-Misaka-saaan? As civilized human beings, we will of course, of course, of courrrrrse be taking the elevator, right?”
“Do you want to get trapped inside it 20 stories up? C’mon, the emergency stairs are this way!!”
“Ahh, I had a feeling!”
Mikoto ignored her complaints and kicked open the metal door.
She first sent a high-voltage lightning spear straight up and a few (men dressed as) night guards rolled down.
“This won’t be all they have. Not when we had to deal with people like Riot and Reversible already.”
They cautiously climbed the emergency stairs.
Mikoto heard the “hee hee hoo” breathing of a young wife with a large stomach coming from behind her. She looked back curiously to see Shokuhou Misaki clinging to the metal railing with both hands and trembling partway up the stairs with sweat soaking her body.
“We’re only at the third floor, so I hope you’re only doing that for laughs.”
“My civilized ability is on another level from yours, Misaka-san. Not everyone trained themselves by running around in the monkey enclosure at the zoo.”
“Breathing doesn’t lie, unathletic girl. Or are you wearing such thick makeup you can’t manage cutaneous respiration?”
“H-h-how am I even supposed to communicate with a low intelligence ability girl who acts like cutaneous respiration has any bearing on keeping humans alive? Misaka-san, are you a mysterious creature that suffocates to death if you soak up to the shoulders in the bath? Phew…”
“(She feels unnecessarily soft, so while she looks skinny, I bet you would find she is an incarnation of visceral fat if you checked with an MRI. Yeah, no girl wants to have a beer belly or dad bod. I need to watch myself to make sure it doesn’t happen to me.)”
“You certainly have a disturbingly active imagination! What part of this perfect, radiant, and sweet-smelling body could possibly make you think of a dad!?”
Shokuhou Misaki had tears in the corners of her eyes now, but the Queen lacked her usual intensity since she really was weak in the knees. It was unclear what kind of unbalanced life she lived to end up so physically weak when she was so careful about eating healthy foods.
And then the gorgeous ringlet curls girl stepped forward because she was used to babysitting that girl.
“Queen, if you are tired, I could carry you like a princess.”
“Really!? My love ability for you knows no bounds, Hokaze!!!!!”
“Stop it, you burden! Don’t waste a valuable frontline fighter by making her carry your fat ass around!!”
“I never even considered it! I can totally walk!! …And why did you suddenly start talking about my butt there? Y-y-y-y-you’re just stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the wonderful size of my chest, aren’t you!?”
“Oh? Gravity doesn’t discriminate, Shokuhou. If this is too hard for you, just tell us. Those of us who are nice and light can support you before you topple backwards and your giant ass crashes into the floor. With three of us, not even that lump of fat can crush us.”
“I said I can walk!! Look, I can easily outpace you!!”
In some kind of miracle, the Queen of Tokiwadai actively used her muscles for once to walk up the stairs. While her clique members thoroughly spoiled her, Misaka Mikoto had apparently found a different way to hold her reins.
“Ah, ahhh… You may have been trying to help there, Onee-sama, but you stole a valuable opportunity from Hokaze-san. …Don’t let it get to you, Hokaze-san.”
The ringlet curls girl had frozen in place with her arms spread in a welcoming pose, so Shirai Kuroko placed a hand on her shoulder and held a finger to the corner of her own eye. The normal Level 4s were overshadowed by the bickering of the crazy Level 5s. This was one bitter truth of Academy City that Shirai herself was often burned by.
But something else happened just as Shokuhou Misaki reached the fourth floor using her psychological rocket boosters.
They heard a creaking sound, but it did not come from the floor or door. It came from the emergency stairway’s wall. Specifically, the one on the outside of the building.
That was confusing.
But as an esper living in Academy City, Misaka Mikoto was extremely wary of any phenomenon she could not immediately explain.
“Be careful, everyone!! Something is coming!!”
“Oh? You’re sensitive. Is that a sign of your experience?”
“Oh? You’re sensitive. Is that a sign of your experience?”
Was that compressed air that rushed in from outside?
Sparks scattered from Misaka Mikoto’s bangs and she controlled magnetism with all her might. The emergency stairs were nothing more than blocks similar to stair cars stacked on top of each other. Every twelve steps were a single block with another block in between for the landing. So with enough strength to tear away one of those blocks, it could be used as a shield.
She only managed to come up with the idea and act on it so quickly because she had seen the leotard girl known as Riot use air as a weapon in the club battle.
“Misaka-san, you idiot!! The sparks are going to trigger a-…!?”
Shokuhou Misaki was suddenly cut off.
Riot had been involved in another incident as well. The man known as Reversible had altered the concentration of oxygen in the air to knock out his target.
This was not just air. It was pure oxygen.
Crimson flames erupted from Misaka Mikoto’s forehead.
When the Queen cried out, the ringlet curls girl removed her blazer and forcefully placed it over Misaka Mikoto’s head. Fortunately, oxygen did not have the explosive energy to accelerate a blaze. If this had been hydrogen, Mikoto’s head might have been blown off. This was the same as swinging your palm horizontally to slice through a candle’s flame. If it was extinguished for even a moment, the propagation of heat could be stopped.
A silver-haired girl peered down at them while clinging to the 3m hole in the wall. She only wore a baggy dress shirt. She must have been crawling along the outside wall like a gecko.
She held what appeared to be a stick of lip balm in her mouth.
“Hee hee hee hee hee. Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee.”
Shirai Kuroko teleported several metal darts at her, but the silver-ponytailed girl had already ducked back into the large hole.
The ringlet curls girl who excelled at physical brawls held Mikoto’s head in her arms while speaking in a low voice.
“The location of the glass, walls, columns, and steel beams did not even matter. …With power like that, she can target us from any direction. Climbing the direct path of the emergency stairs would be too dangerous!”
“Let’s head into the building proper. Is this the 4th floor? We need that wider space if we’re going to escape her or defeat her.”
They pushed open the metal door to reach the 4th floor.
“I – read – that☆”
The sound did not come from any direction.
It only left behind the unpleasant sensation of someone directly toying with their minds.
“Now, how do you think I did that? That Queen there can produce any psychological phenomenon since she is the strongest of that sort of esper, so surely she should be able to figure it out. Ah ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
“They lured us in here.”
Misaka Mikoto removed the blazer from her head like it was a nuisance.
She slowly exhaled.
“You guard dogs intend to finish this here, don’t you!?”
She heard two footsteps.
The way they blended into a single set must have been their special skill.
Apparently not even a security software developer had nothing but offices full of computers. Was this a relaxation room or a daycare? Colorful tables and chairs were lined up in a large space and there was even indoor playground equipment like a slide and a jungle gym. Although it was unclear if that was meant to be used or just for decoration.
It was somewhat reminiscent of the hospital pediatric rehabilitation room where they had spoken with Hanakawa Hinadori. Perhaps it was designed based on the same relaxation principles.
In addition to a deck of Witch & Psychic cards, there were a few cards separated out and framed on the table. Perhaps they were actually worth something.
And in that psychedelic world where primary color toys littered the middle of the grownup world, two silver-ponytailed girls stood side by side with identical cheeks pressed together.
“I am Acid.”
“And I am Counselor.”
Between each statement, they used their lips to pass each other the lip balm they held in their mouths. It was like passing each other a single microphone to share it. The act brought their lips dangerously close to touching and they actually seemed to be enjoying that possibility as they continued.
“Were you having fun bullying the weak?”
“But how about we switch up the genre a bit now?”
With dual giggles, they made an announcement while close enough to kiss each other.
“It is time for some cruel and gory horror where an immortal monster chases you around.”
“It is time for some cruel and gory horror where an immortal monster chases you around.”
A powerful wind whirled around the twins.
Their already short dress shirts fluttered even more risquély.
The one with the lip balm in the corner of her mouth, and thus the one in control, was Acid.
“Hokaze can’t save your skin every single time, Misaka-san. If you don’t want to end up with a scorched afro, think carefully about what kind of attacks you use!!”
Shokuhou Misaki pulled a TV remote from her bag and pointed it at the twins, but then she clicked her tongue.
“My power doesn’t work?”
(No, that isn’t it. Since I have to see them and press the remote’s button, my power cannot completely ignore the laws of physics.)
“They’re doing something with the air! Something like a mirage that bends the light and throws off our aim!!”
“Hee Hee. Hee hee hee hee.”
“Hee Hee. Hee hee hee hee.”
But things were different from before.
There was an odd noise.
The strange sound was like a thin piece of rubber or plastic bubbling as it was held over a fire.
Like before, Misaka Mikoto was wary of any phenomenon she could not immediately explain.
This time, her thoughts managed to catch up.
“It has to start with oxygen… So is she combining it with hydrogen ions so it joins with the moisture in the air? Everyone, hide!! A powerful acid is coming!!”
Drops of water scattered in every direction like in the middle of a windy storm. Mikoto tackled Shirai’s slender hips and the ringlet curls girl picked up Shokuhou before they both dove behind reinforced plastic playground equipment.
The representative example of an oxyacid was sulfuric acid, so the risk was plain to see.
The frightening sound that followed was like a hot brand being pressed against bare flesh.
Mikoto recalled what Riot had said about old skeletal models while she was disguised as an old man. If they had stayed standing where they were, all their flesh would have been stripped from their bones.
The lip-to-lip handover happened again.
Now it was Counselor who held the lip balm in her mouth.
“And I ‘read’ where you would flee to. Here.”
There was a small sound.
The girl going by the name of Counselor had flicked up a pen she had heated with a lighter. There had been no strange pillar of fire. It had only been heated by a flickering flame no larger than a candle’s. This was a tiny phenomenon compared to before, but it was enough to change things.
It activated the sprinkler.
But the resultant artificial downpour did not make the normal sound. Once the raindrops hit the floor, they bubbled up with white smoke expanding.
Now, a question.
Sulfuric acid is the representative example of an oxyacid. It is stable as a liquid even at high concentrations, but what happens when a lot of water is suddenly poured onto it?
Mikoto’s back stiffened and her fears were confirmed by the ringlet curls girl hiding behind a different piece of playground equipment.
“If you breathe in that chemical smoke, it will damage your lungs! And watch your footing. The concentration should have fallen from contact with the water, but touching those puddles should still injure you quite badly!!”
“I get that, but where are we supposed to escape to!?”
Shirai could teleport past the expanding puddles, but there was no safe ground as far as the eye could see. The contaminated water spread across the floor like amoebas and the white chemical smoke would fill the entire space before long.
“Hee hee hee hee.”
Only the laughter of the silver-haired twins in dress shirts reached them from beyond that white veil.
Which one had the lip balm in her mouth?
They had to have been soaked by the water themselves, but one of the twins making cheek-to-cheek contact had free control over oxygen. From the look of things, she could neutralize the harm in their immediate vicinity.
The Queen of Tokiwadai spoke from behind the other piece of playground equipment.
She saw that other girl as an enemy, so she knew exactly what possibilities that girl’s power held.
“Do not let the existing pathways constrain your thoughts. What is your esper name again!?”
A life-saving boom sounded from overhead.
Just by flicking an arcade coin, she had stirred up the air and blown through the 4th floor ceiling. The white chemical smoke scattered, the artificial rain from the sprinklers was cut off, and a new escape route was opened overhead.
Shirai Kuroko wrapped her arms around Mikoto’s hips, the ringlet curls girl picked up Shokuhou, and they both escaped up to the 5th floor in their own ways.
The giggling silver-haired twins did not pursue them.
After all, the one known as Counselor spoke as she took the stick from the girl whose soft cheek was pressed against her own.
“I ‘read’ all of that☆ …Is this all you have, chosen girls?”
Apparently, the damage was not isolated to the ceiling (or floor?) between the 4th and 5th floors. A few floors above that had been broken through as well.
Shirai glanced down at her phone.
“They seem to be using a jamming signal and signal-blocking materials to prevent everything from giving us a hint regarding their powers. These were probably part of the company’s security to begin with.”
That said, being cut off from Uiharu and Saten’s advice was a painful loss. If they could have had a search of the Bank run, they might have found details on Acid or Counselor’s powers.
The 5th floor seemed to be made up of a few conference rooms. The smaller ones would only hold a few people and the larger ones had enough space for more than 20. It seemed the building kept all its facilities for normal people and guests on the lower floors so those people would not have to enter the office space on the higher floors. That may have been necessary for security reasons, but it gave a cold and exclusive impression once you noticed.
(For now, I need to check on the locations of all metal objects, especially steel ones. Fire extinguishers are crucial since you can find them anywhere and you can use them for so much. Is there any aluminum or magnesium around here? Oh, there’s an industrial-sized wax can. It’s not the most explosive thing in the world, but it is flammable.)
Mikoto’s eyes scanned the scene and noted the locations of possible weapons because she recognized how dangerous an enemy this was.
The brief magic seemed to have worn off for the unathletic honey-blonde girl.
“Hee hee hoo… We just have to prevent that weird virus from being injected into the system, right?”
“Breathing doesn’t lie, Shokuhou. Did you put out too many pheromones and nearly give yourself a false pregnancy?”
“W-we don’t even need to defend Zero-Day Link, do we? Wouldn’t it be faster to give up on reaching the 20th floor and skewer the server room from down here!?”
“They don’t have to protect the servers either. They only need to get the virus out there. I don’t know if it uses wireless or fiber optic, but as long as they have that internal connection, they can contact the other Zero-Day Link computers. Breaking the signal-blocking walls would only increase the risk.”
There was still Acid who controlled oxygen and Counselor who read minds.
They could not focus on the server room unless they did something about those silver-haired twins first. They could see why those two had been held in reserve until now. They were bad enough individually, but finding a blind spot was difficult when they worked together. Blindly charging in at them would only wear Mikoto’s group down. It really did feel like being chased by an immortal monster in a horror movie.
Mikoto leaned back against one of the walls between conference rooms and was surprised to find it was only a flimsy partition.
“Shokuhou. Acid seems to be controlling oxygen, but can you tell what Counselor is doing? Can you use that remote to mess with our heads to reject her power?”
“I haven’t the foggiest…”
“Isn’t your power Mental Out? I thought you could do anything psychological. So surely you can reproduce what that Counselor girl is doing! Right!?”
“I can read minds like that, but there are several different ways of doing so, like reading the chemical compounds in the brain or reading the differences in electrical potential. All I can tell you is that her power ‘reads minds’, but I can’t tell you what path she uses to reach that. Plus, wouldn’t your head reject any command I tried to give you? That plan wouldn’t work.”
“If you’re so great, then do something about Acid! Or is nearly blowing yourself up with your forehead fireworks the only thing you can do!?”
“Try to remember who it was that got us up to this floor!”
“You mean me and my perfect advice ability!?”
The ringlet curls girl grabbed the bickering Level 5s by the head and pressed their foreheads together.
The two of them blinked in confusion as they nearly kissed on accident.
“Enough!! We need to work together and escape this crisis, so why are you wasting this chance we won with your arguing!?”
“Yes, but, Hokaze, you are supposed to be my right-hand girl, so you should be taking my side in-…”
“I – said – e – nough!!”
“Ow, ow, yikes, yikes!! Stop rubbing our foreheads together, Hokaze-san! Oh, no! They’re going to touch! Our lips are going to touch!!”
“Heh, heh heh, eh heh heh. Don’t worry, Hokaze. Look how good friends we are!! S-s-s-so let go! Please let go! Ahhh, why with Misaka-san of all people!? Anything but that!!”
The Ace and Queen were in the very unusual situation of being forced to take each other’s temperature with their foreheads, so they tearfully trembled in place. They were close enough for their tears to join together, they could feel each other’s warm breaths, and it felt like their generally-unnoticed cutaneous respiration was going to sync up. If their lips touched as well, it was all over.
Shirai Kuroko could not just watch anymore.
This floor was filled with conference rooms that would normally be filled with men in business suits, so the twintailed girl reflexively grabbed a large glass ashtray. But…
(This angle won’t work. Nor will that one. Th-this isn’t easy… Where can I hit them to ensure Onee-sama’s first isn’t taken from me!?)
“Dah, bah, wait, Hokaze-san. Hokaze-san!?”
“Be quiet, Shirai-san!! We must not go easy on them here! I am willing to lose the Queen’s love over this because it is in their best interests that someone tells them this!!”
“But, um, this is not about that! This is a more immediate issue where my Onee-sama’s lips will be taken from me! Ahhh, but I can’t act carelessly here! Anything I do could cause them to close those last few millimeters!!”
They could not expect any reinforcements, so Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki were plunged into an unexpected crisis.
The gorgeous ringlet curls girl smiled thinly while rubbing the two girls’ foreheads together.
“Have you two learned your lesson?”
“Or shall I continue the forehead rubbing for another minute? I can keep going for 10 minutes or even an hour if necessary. …Surely you are not naïve enough to think you can escape my grip when I can bench press a full ton.”
“I’m sorry! I can’t keep doing this! I’m trembling so much a horrific accident is almost guaranteed at this point!!”
At long last, they were released from that hell, but only after setting a new record of 5mm in that game of chicken.
They could not stop the tears from flowing.
Yes, tears were not something you could control of your own free will. Humans did not have complete control of their bodies.
“Ah, ahhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
“Gasp, pant. I-I survived. I escaped with my life intact.”
The Level 5s fell to the floor and breathed heavy sighs.
Their breathing truly did not lie. It made their unnaturally elevated heartrate readily apparent.
That person who people would fight over if she appeared in a fighting game (because her exceptional dashing meant her combos were nigh inescapable) smiled and spoke.
“Now that you two have made up, how about we have a more constructive conversation? …And, um, why do you all keep talking about lips and accidents when I was only rubbing their foreheads together???”
“(Eh? What’s going on? Do we live in a world where no one can beat overly strong airheads?)”
“(Just you watch, Hokaze. Your nickname is going to be Musclebound Mama in the very near future.)”
“…Did you say something?”
“No, nothing at all!! Look how good friends we are!!!!!”
“No, nothing at all!! Look how good friends we are!!!!!”
The two of them put their arms around each other’s shoulders and put on their biggest smiles.
Each of Mikoto and Shokuhou’s attacks were much more powerful, but someone who actually knew how to string her attacks together into a combo had managed to get close enough to reach out and grab them. They could still win if they played their cards right, but talking back to her at this close range would be suicide.
The two BFFS were still unable to get up from the floor and Mikoto wiped sweat from her brow. Sweat was another thing people could not consciously control.
“Let’s go over what we know. Let’s start with Acid. She almost certainly controls oxygen. Nothing she did felt like she’s using a different power in some way to trick us into thinking that.”
“There is still a lot we do not know, like how much she can do with that power. For one thing, we don’t even know if she has the production ability to make new oxygen or if she is only moving around what already exists around her☆”
Then the stormbringer of a ringlet curls girl tilted her head.
“Um, does anyone here have any siblings?”
“Well, you see.” She gave a small smile. “Esper powers seem to be somewhat influenced by genetics, so I was wondering how strict that really is. I have no way of looking into it myself since I am an only child. …Come to think of it, there were two sisters in that lab, but how was it with them?”
It was a thoughtless action.
Shokuhou Misaki glanced over at Misaka Mikoto. It had long been said that the eyes were as eloquent as the mouth, but that belief was backed up by how fortunetellers and psychologists would observe the eyes first and foremost.
The ringlet curls girl seemed to somewhat misinterpret what that glance meant.
“Oh, do you have any siblings, Misaka-san?”
“That would be news to me.”
Her roommate, Shirai Kuroko, looked dubious, but that was not the main point here.
She did have some people she could call her sisters.
Except they were actually mass-produced military clones.
At the very least, the genetic factor was not an absolute. If it were that simple, Academy City would be overrun with more than ten thousand Railguns. But at the same time, genetics did seem to supply some guidelines. She had never heard of a Sister with a non-electrical power. And that was after more than 20,000 had been produced. Acid and Counselor.
Assuming they had not used plastic surgery to match their appearances, they had to be identical twins.
The bond would not be as strong between ordinary siblings. It was possible fraternal twins would have completely different powers. But if they shared the exact same genetic makeup, that would probably change.
“In that case…?”
Those girls had definite power.
But it had gone unrecognized.
Theirs had been a pitiful life and one they were not allowed to escape.
Weren’t they supposed to have risen to a higher stage if they had more power? But in the end, the riffraff were just the riffraff if they did not have the title of a prestigious school.
“You are letting this get to you, Acid.”
“You can still read me, Counselor?”
“What else am I good for?”
“Yes. …What do we have left if our powers are taken from us?”
Esper powers were not necessarily convenient.
They passed the stick of lip balm from lips to lips as if passing back and forth a microphone they were sharing.
“Shall we double check?”
“Is that really necessary?”
“My oxyacid cannot be set to stun.”
The identical twins discussed their situation while reaching for the buttons of the baggy dress shirts they wore. This was a necessary ritual. The oxyacid created by combining oxygen with plenty of hydrogen ions was powerful, but that meant even a small drop could spell disaster. They would immediately notice if any got on their skin, so they had to worry about it getting on their clothes and eating a hole in those. But in those cases, it was not always too late.
Once they had stripped down to their underwear, the girls checked both sides of their shirts in turn.
“I do not see any holes or scorch marks.”
“No problem here either.”
“Oh? Counselor, whose shirt is this one again?”
“I can ‘read’ you, Acid, so I can tell you truly do not know. And to be honest, I am not sure either.”
Their bodies were exactly the same size, so it did not really matter. After checking their shirts, they put them back on. With the ritual complete, it was time for their next move.
“Acid, you can have this.”
They held hands and looked overhead.
Highly-concentrated oxygen whirled around them and then the ceiling collapsed, sending construction materials crashing down to the floor nearby like a waterfall or avalanche.
The two of them whispered to each other as if none of that were happening.
“It really is, Counselor. Although I am afraid of some of the oxyacid dripping down when I use it overhead like that.”
The bottoms of their baggy dress shirts fluttered dangerously.
The ceiling had collapsed, but they did not actually need to dissolve the entire thing. No high-rise buildings were actually made of nothing but reinforced concrete these days. That would be too weak to impacts and vibrations and it would have terrible insulation, reducing the efficiency of the air conditioning. So if they damaged the joints connecting the various materials, the rest would collapse under its own weight.
They did not fly through the sky or anything like that. Acid did not control the wind or the air which were a mixture of different gasses. She only controlled pure oxygen. That meant producing a gust of wind was an inefficient use of her powers.
She excelled at chemical reactions. Specifically, she produced boxy coffin-like blocks out of the empty air and stacked them up.
That muddy-colored staircase was of course a collection of various oxides.
Acid had created a powerful oxyacid by combining oxygen with hydrogen ions and then the moisture in the air, but that was not her only specialty. She could also create solid blocks by combining the nitrogen and carbon in the air.
The silver-haired twin girls held hands and readily climbed those disconcerting steps that would cause untold harm if you licked them. They showed no concern at all for how exposed their bright thighs were.
“They are from Tokiwadai, aren’t they?”
“Yes, a prestigious girl’s school.”
“A status we could never hope to achieve.”
“If a delinquent school produces high-level espers, they don’t even know what to do with them, do they?”
That was their story.
Their school had had a bottom-level ranking and never should have produced a single Level 4, much less two, but they had not wanted to let that prize transfer away. When the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella suddenly shined through the riffraff around them, would they really find happiness? No. If their family or sisters were truly unkind, would they just watch as the star of the show left home?
The school had gotten in their way.
“Our school has the technology to produce fantastic esper powers such as this.”
They needed those twin girls attending their school if they were to make that claim. They also wanted the record of the twins graduating from their school. …So the teachers had written falsehoods into their permanent records and doomed them to forever remain in that bottom-level delinquent school. Endless possibilities should have opened up to them, but no one had grabbed ahold of their outstretched hands. On paper, they had supposedly hit their teachers countless times and aborted an untold number of nonexistent children. The teachers had only sneered and told the twins to sue them if they had a problem with it. They were supposed to prove their innocence, but how? Were they supposed to spread their legs and say “take a look” every time some false accusation was leveled against them? People snickered when they walked around town, their photos were posted on social media like mugshots, and they had even had raw eggs thrown at them in front of the train station. When their parents called, they only ever heard shrill shouting these days. They were stuck there until graduation. And with the nonsense accusations written up about them, they could not hope for much better at the next level of their education either. They would be stuck in bottom-level delinquent schools forevermore.
But then someone had spoken to them.
“Then why not destroy that school yourselves?”
It had been a revelation.
If the school was gone, nothing would remain to hold them back.
They might not be able to clean up the poor reputation that had already been established, but they could at least crush the source of that trouble and break free of the vicious cycle. They could not change the present, but they would stop things from getting any worse in the future.
And to top it all off, the twin known as Acid could accomplish some useful things with her power to control oxygen.
That oppressive mass of reinforced concrete had burned like a campfire at midnight. That was all it had taken to rob the school’s 300 students and its teachers of their stagnant territory. They had banded together as the lowest of the low and mocked those twins, but the girls had no idea what had become of them once they were split up and sent to separate schools that worked differently. The students had probably failed to keep up with the classes and powers development and the teachers had probably been labeled as idiot factories that could not even write on the blackboard properly. Either way, the mockers would have become the mocked. But the twins were honestly not interested enough in those people to keep track of their lives after they had their revenge. For them, it had ended with that one act. They did not see how they could ever make any progress if they continued carrying that with them.
What they had needed was liberation.
It had felt like the world was opening up before their eyes.
Once they had done it, they had tilted their heads and wondered why the thought had never occurred to them before, but it had been that person who had told them what to do. That adult woman had been the first person to ever reach out a helping hand to them and her lessons had changed how they viewed the world like a piece of trick art.
Of course they were going to follow her.
She had told those twin girls that all their troubles had been caused by a problem with their birth. If they had been born into a family with history and style behind it, money would have come to them as a matter of course. If they had attended a prestigious school from the beginning, none of that trouble would have ever happened.
And she told them it was not too late.
Their current environment was a mistake. If they were lifted up to the position they rightfully belonged in, they would have attended a prestigious school like it was normal and developed their powers even further like it was normal.
So that was what they would do.
No matter what it took.
This was not like robbing a bank for money or making threatening phone calls to a rich kid. They were only taking back what was rightfully theirs. So why should they show any restraint?
“There they are.”
“Indeed they are.”
The silver ponytail twins giggled, passed the lip balm with their lips, and pressed their cheeks together.
They had known this from the beginning.
“The one in the hallway straight ahead is Misaka Mikoto.”
That was enough for the Electromaster to frown, but…
“The one behind that thin partition wall is Shirai Kuroko.”
The frown turned into a full-on grimace.
But Counselor was not done yet.
“The one behind the vending machine is Shokuhou Misaki.”
With a click of their tongues, the Teleporter and Mental Out had to move out into the open. Using cover was only useful when it acted as a shield or hid your presence, but neither use applied here if Acid concentrated her attacks on them. And if the wall or hiding place ended up trapping them, it would only work against them. Once their presence was known, they had to move out.
It was of course Counselor who had read all this.
There was a deviation in the tempo of their laughter. Acid opened her mouth a bit, but the lip balm never arrived.
Mikoto casually scattered electricity from her palm in front of them.
And as soon as it hit the floor, the entire surface of the floor burst into flames.
“I really do not approve of abusing the Judgment fire-prevention manual to open up all the valves,” said Shirai.
That explained why the sprinklers were not functioning, but that was not Acid’s main focus. Counselor was acting weird, so she worked to organize what information she had even though that was not usually her job.
This was a first.
She had to half-steal the stick from her twin’s lips instead of having it passed to her.
“Is this some kind of oil? No, is it wax?”
Acid had taken control now, but her confusion was not just about Mikoto’s actions.
Counselor could “read” everything, so why had she not given advance warning? That confused her much more.
But before she could correct this mistaken situation, Arsonist Mikoto opened her mouth.
“Acid, you are an oxygen-controlling esper. That much I’m quite sure of.”
There was a low roar.
At that point, Acid finally realized why their enemies had spread this fire around.
“Fire consumes oxygen,” said Mikoto. “It is normally too small a difference to notice, but the flickering and intensity of the flames should reveal how much oxygen is left.”
“Wax fires burn at a lower temperature than you would think,” added Shirai. “At the very least, they are not as hot as kerosene or gasoline.”
“So don’t you think they can act as our canary in the coal mine?☆”
Shokuhou’s bewitching smile elicited an outburst of anger from Acid.
“You!! Counselor, get ready. We don’t need to worry about unnatural-looking injuries. We can dispose of their bodies in the very fire they set!!”
Counselor still did not respond.
Acid poked her lips with the stick of lip balm held between her own lips, but her twin did not grab it.
This was a first. Acid was always cheek-to-cheek with her twin, but something seemed off about that identical girl now. The silver-haired twins in dress shirts were no longer in sync. Acid’s partner was soaked with a disturbed sweat like it was a giant frog’s belly rubbing against her cheek.
Finally, she broke the rules. Counselor opened her mouth to speak without holding the stick between her lips.
“Yes, we have a pretty good guess about your power as well.” Mikoto glanced down at the sea of flames surrounding her. “Acid controls oxygen, but where does it come from? At the very least, she doesn’t seem to gather it from her surroundings. It seems she produces oxygen in her lungs and breaths it out into the air to control it. The flames are obviously growing stronger around you two. …Then what about Counselor? As identical twins with the same genetic makeup, you should have similar powers. That means you do not read people’s minds by scanning the electrical signals or chemical compounds in their heads. You are only taking readings centered on oxygen, just like with Acid’s power.”
In a way, that was the answer.
How was oxygen linked to people’s emotions and thoughts? Counselor herself had given it away.
“There are plenty of actions you have no control over, like trembling in fear or shedding tears,” said Mikoto.
“Like if you walk up the stairs long enough, you can’t help but start gasping for breath. And that gives away your inner thoughts.” The Queen smiled with a TV remote in hand. “Breathing. …Just like perspiration, it accurately reflects one’s tension and emotions. Come to think of it, they monitor that in Anti-Skill interrogation rooms, don’t they?”
“What a curious thing to know,” commented Shirai. “But if that was all it was, it could be fooled by consciously regulating your breathing. And you could hold your breath to refuse to give a reading, no matter how unnatural it looked. So it has to be more than that. Would it be best to assume you read a form of breathing that cannot be consciously controlled?”
That girl could read minds through oxygen.
They could not just think of it as an absurdly useful power and stop thinking there. For example, their friend Sakibasu Yuri could use her carbon-based power to do everything from appraising antiques to accurately reading the flow of the air. It would hardly be surprising to find other espers who could use other elements like oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen.
Mikoto wagged her finger a bit.
“For example, what about cutaneous respiration? Covering yourself in gold dust does not suffocate you and taking a bath does not drown you, so it might not seem all that important and there are a number of exaggerated stories related to it, but at the very least, I’ve never heard of someone who could freely control it. If you can read it, then there really is no way for a normal person to avoid it. We can’t hide our thoughts from you unless we wear an airtight spacesuit or something.”
Counselor had initially spoken directly in Mikoto and the others’ minds, so she must have been able to write information into that minute amount of oxygen instead of just reading it.
Counselor had not lost control of herself because her power had been revealed.
In the most extreme examples, there were battles that could not be won even if the esper’s power was discovered. If this group had only done that, Acid and Councilor could have used their teamwork to crush them.
But that would not work here.
Counselor had noticed a fundamental problem before Acid did.
She had given the positions of Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, and even Shokuhou Misaki who reigned supreme at the top of Counselor’s own field of psychological powers.
And because she could “read” all that…
Her thoughts were a complete mess. Counselor had been left behind by her confusion. She should have had the stronger psyche, yet she had trampled on the twins’ rules and completely overlooked the distrust she was creating in her partner.
“The other one. There was another one with you!! That girl with the unrealistic ringlet curls. Where is she hiding!?”
“Why not control the oxygen to read our minds? Isn’t that your specialty?”
The Ace answered her with a cruel smirk.
And that smile spread to the Queen as well.
“Rampage Dress. …She is a Level 4 who controls her own bioelectricity to place every part of her body – including her organs and blood vessels – under her conscious control. My clique’s right-hand girl is an exception who can actually control her cutaneous respiration. Once she understood how it worked, escaping your grasp was not difficult for her☆”
“Then…then where is that monstrously strong girl!?”
“I really don’t think reading any of our minds is going to tell you. I mean, she never told us where she was going. Silly girl. Reading someone’s mind is useless when that person doesn’t know the information you want. Hokaze Junko has gone into hiding to act independently of us. Invading our minds will not tell you what she is thinking. …And I would recommend not underestimating my right-hand girl. When boosting herself, she has the muscular strength to bench press more than a ton. You can control oxygen? Then use those mental abilities you’re so proud of to work out a way of using that to defend yourself. But if even a single blow takes you by surprise, a flesh-and-blood human like you will be pulverized.”
“We have no way of finding out where Hokaze-san is or what she is doing.” Misaka Mikoto spread her arms within the sea of flames. “But we can still take our own individual guesses and provide thorough support for that option. But only Hokaze-san herself can know if we are correct.”
Counselor clenched her teeth and let her fear control her as she shouted to the partner standing right next to her.
That obvious attempt to relieve her tension was ineffective.
Because a moment later, she heard a sound like a plastic bottle’s cap being twisted off, but much more ominous.
It came from right by her ear, as if whispering softly.
Counselor may not have been able to see it because they were close enough for their cheeks to touch.
A raging wind had approached from behind and landed a karate chop in the center of Acid’s back, causing that twin to arch her back from intense pain similar to a hernia exploding. And the very next moment, the other arm wrapped around her neck.
It was over far too quickly.
And since Acid was the only one capable of directly fighting, her defat left Counselor defenseless since she could “only” read minds. The twins could have tried for a cross-counter against Mikoto or Shokuhou, but the raging ringlet curls wind prevented that by hiding the thoughts that leaked out through cutaneous respiration.
There was nothing she could do now.
Or there shouldn’t have been.
Counselor’s shout was like a vocal slap to the face.
And that was enough to force life back into Acid’s eyes.
Mikoto just barely managed to grasp the situation through the flickering flames.
It was the oxygen.
Enough oxygen to cause hyperventilation under normal circumstances had just been swallowed into Acid’s lips!?
“Be careful, Hokaze-san!! She can still move!!”
This was somewhat similar to how the ringlet curls girl strengthened her body using bioelectricity. By controlling the flow of oxygen in her body down to the cellular level, Acid placed her body under her full control.
There was a dull sound similar to a metal bat swinging around.
It was followed by a heavy sound as Acid’s slender hand grabbed the ringlet curl girl’s neck. She was going to lift her up with one hand at this rate.
It must have been a subconscious action.
But that was why she showed no mercy or restraint. The ringlet curls girl used both hands to grab Acid’s wrist with all her might.
This girl could bench press more than a ton and she could strip away a concrete wall with just her grip strength. But after boosting herself in a way similar to Rampage Dress, Acid’s slender arm showed no sign of the bones or muscles snapping.
Counselor practically stole the stick of lip balm from Acid’s lips.
She was fighting back and she resumed her footwork at the same time.
“Acid, use her as a shield.”
Shokuhou Misaki immediately hit her TV remote’s switch, but the one twin swung the ringlet curls girl around while literally suspending her above the floor. Mental Out was such a wide-ranging power that she could only activate it when controlling herself via a TV remote. That meant she had to see her target and indicate them with her finger movement. With that physical curtain blocking her view, her attempt ended in failure.
“Do not worry. I will tell you exactly what to do. We can turn this around together, Acid.”
Counselor was “reading” the contents of Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, and Shokuhou Misaki’s minds. That could not be prevented on the fly after revealing the true nature of her power. Even if they surrounded the twins, their every attack would have a cross-counter waiting.
While being used as a shield with her neck in the one twin’s grasp, the ringlet curls girl tried to force out her voice.
Her warning did not arrive in time.
A dull sound exploded out as something hit the twintailed girl in the forehead. It was a solid compact containing a new autumn-exclusive color of foundation. While holding the girl up with one arm, Acid had blocked the enemy’s view like a bullfighter and used her strengthened arm to throw the cosmetic item she had pulled from her uniform’s pocket. Mikoto and Shirai used coins and darts as weapons, so they knew such things could be very destructive when used well.
The blow must have shaken Shirai’s head because she collapsed to the floor.
(We can’t make any careless attacks, but we can’t just stand here either.)
“I can ‘read’ that.”
They could not hope for a long-term battle.
If they did not figure out something soon, the ringlet curls girl would not last.
Her slender neck was being squeezed. With her control of her muscles, she might be able to reduce her oxygen consumption in a state similar to suspended animation, but not even that would last forever.
The silver-haired twins let the hems of their dress shirts flutter as the flames whirled around them.
They were back in top form. Counselor could read the enemy’s thoughts and Acid could control the oxygen.
They had climbed back to the top.
Misaka Mikoto clenched her teeth in that moment.
What did she need to bring an end to this negative turn of events?
(Something those twins don’t expect. A situation not even Counselor can read properly.)
She thought about it and found only one answer.
For one thing, it was unrealistic to expect any help from unconscious Shirai Kuroko or the ringlet curls girl who was being suspended by an arm.
But even with the one logical choice, it was unclear if a makeshift team would work here. Not to mention that Counselor could discover anything they were hiding using their cutaneous respiration.
How effective would this be?
She could only go for it.
The shoulders of the silver-ponytailed twin known as Counselor must have shaken before the girl being addressed.
She had indeed read Misaka Mikoto’s thoughts.
The long blonde-haired girl’s remote aimed in an odd direction. Acid and Counselor could defend against that if it was aimed at them, but their methods did not have a long enough range to prevent their enemies from using it on each other.
(What are they doing?)
Counselor gulped and focused on reading the Railgun’s thoughts.
I’ll use a lightning spear from straight ahead. As long as it’s non-lethal, I can take out that ringlet curls girl named Hokaze Junko along with the twins.
(But no. Misaka Mikoto is being controlled, so her own thoughts don’t matter. It’s Shokuhou Misaki’s thoughts that matter. She’s the one deciding what Misaka Mikoto will do!!)
Counselor looked to the side.
That girl with the TV remote was a Level 5 psychological esper, but that did not mean she could prevent Counselor from reading her thoughts. Cutaneous respiration could not be consciously controlled, so carefully scanning the balance there would reveal her emotions and thoughts.
I will have her use an iron sand sword. Rescuing my right-hand girl Hokaze Junko takes top priority. The sword’s edge is sharp enough that Acid’s severed hand can be reattached if she receives prompt medical care.
The scariest part was how the girl boiled with anger on the inside despite appearing so calm on the outside.
But now Counselor knew the truth. She only had to focus on Shokuhou Misaki to get through this. Acid could take them by surprise any number of times with the physical abilities given by controlling her oxygen intake on a cellular level. She could even wield Hokaze Junko as a club to attack the other girls.
They had a plan.
They could definitely win like this.
“Acid!! Focus your attacks on Misaka Mikoto! We can finish this while their teamwork is still-….” Counselor trailed off.
She could read people’s emotions and thoughts based on the target’s cutaneous respiration. They could not prevent her from doing so without wearing an airtight spacesuit.
Which was why she noticed what Misaka Mikoto was really planning beneath her surface thoughts.
For some reason, Shokuhou’s Mental Out doesn’t work on me. So no matter what she tries to have me do, it will be the lightning spear that hits them.
“Wait, no! Misaka Mikoto really is in control!?”
We don’t really know why my control doesn’t work on her. I might be able to take control if I pour all my strength into it. If that works, then the iron sand sword will slice right through that girl’s wrist. I mean, why should I hold back for her sake?
She understood now.
She had read it all.
Counselor had managed to dodge everything with perfect accuracy because every person could only plan to do one thing and could only do one thing. With just the one option, she could predict it and dodge it. No one could escape their own thoughts, so with Counselor’s support, they could achieve victory without taking so much as a scratch.
What if there were two options?
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki. Whichever one ended up being in control, one of the #3’s powerful attacks would be coming. A slight delay in reacting would prevent her from dodging it. Blocking those attacks by force was out of the question. It would be like being hit head-on by a large dump truck.
So predicting the coming attack and dodging it would no longer work.
Not even Mikoto and Shokuhou knew how this would turn out. And either option would allow them to defeat Acid and Counselor.
Counselor’s power was meaningless at this point.
A fighting amateur would have to rely only on her ordinary senses to predict which attack was coming!!
The stick of lip balm slipped from her mouth and fell to the floor.
Two voices were in perfect harmony within her mind.
Those girls were normally polar opposites, but they were a perfect match in this moment.
You really wanna do this? Then it’s time we taught you who you picked a fight with here!!!!!
For a while afterwards, a scorched smell lingered in the 5th floor air.
And not just because of the fire that had finally been put out using a foaming chemical fire extinguisher.
Shokuhou brushed back her honey-blonde hair and pouted her lips.
“The iron sand sword would’ve been cooler.”
“You can only say that because you wouldn’t have been the one dirtying your hands.”
The silver-haired twins, Acid and Counselor, were collapsed on the floor along with the ringlet curls girl who had been taken hostage. It had been an emergency, but Mikoto had zapped the hostage while Acid held her. She was not going to escape that unharmed.
“Kuroko, are you okay?”
“You put me through a lot of trouble, you know that!?”
Mikoto and Shokuhou lifted up the unconscious girls.
“(Onee-sama is so close!!)”
“(I-I feel like I am being corrupted by some kind of wicked passion…)”
The ringlet curls girl felt it would be awkward to announce she had come to and Shirai Kuroko was simply enjoying the situation as they cracked their eyes open and made eye contact with each other.
Meanwhile, Shokuhou Misaki sighed.
That Machiavellian girl had made the ringlet curls girl her right-hand girl. Even if the attack had come from their own side, she may still have been quite worried.
“Hey, Shokuhou. Is your girl okay?”
But the Machiavellianism was still there.
She must have decided showing weakness was never a good idea because the Queen of Tokiwadai brushed back her long blonde hair when she noticed Mikoto’s eyes on her.
“Of course she is. I chose Hokaze as my right-hand girl. You really think something as minor as this would take her out of the fight?”
“Heh hehn. My Hokaze is incredible. She would run right into a sea of flames if I was in trouble, she acts as my clique’s representative to keep the heat off of me, and she stays by my side even when I’m not in trouble☆ I could never find anyone to replace her. Not that I could say any of this to her.”
(Wow, there is no way Hokaze-san can open her eyes now. I mean, she’s starting to tremble and blush, so she’s obviously already awake.)
“Wait! Does that mean Kuroko is too!?”
“Gwagh!! D-don’t ruin my fun!”
Shirai Kuroko cried out in a way very unlike a middle school girl.
But she seemed happy even as she was thrown to the floor.
They bound and gagged Acid and Counselor before stuffing them in random lockers. How to fully restrain such versatile espers was a tricky question, but Acid, the source of the physical phenomena, created oxygen with her own breathing. Unlike hydrogen, oxygen was not explosive and her own skin was vulnerable to the powerful oxyacid. They decided trapping her in a narrow space where the walls reached her skin would be surprisingly effective.
Things had calmed down, but they could not relax yet.
Acid and Counselor were only the guard dogs. Their real target was still here. They were after the server room on the 20th floor. If Sakibasu Yuri’s mother, Ryouu, managed to infect the Zero-Day Link computer with her virus, everything they had accomplished would be for naught.
The ringlet curls girl hesitantly stretched her arms up to see how her body was doing.
“Nhh, I’m all charged up.”
“So do the people without selfish desires get more in the end?” wondered Shirai. “But I already decided I would live true to my feelings.”
They wanted to be part of a famous bloodline that left its name in history.
So they would destroy the entire world to make people see their blood as special. Noblesse oblige. If they readily provided more funding than the nobles in a time of need, the masses would accept them. They wanted to become a legend similar to Santa Claus or the Kasa Jizo. It was all for that.
“Okay, how about we get going? It’s time for the final hunt.”
“Yeah, that’s a pain, so it would be faster to launch myself up there with magnetism.”
“M-Misaka-san? I only have my legs to carry me and no matter how inhumanly beautiful they might be, lactic acid still builds up in them. Are you even listening!?”
“Glad I’m not you.”
“Oh, no. She isn’t even considering how I’ll get up there, is she!? Heh. Eh heh heh. Now, I have an idea. How about you lend me that underclassman of yours? I can climb those stairs with ease with some help from a power as convenient as teleportation!!”
“Hokaze-san is standing right behind you after recovering so calmly. Infidelity really is a bad idea, isn’t it? I mean, who would try to seduce some other girl when the one is lying there right next to you? Anyway, you can go to hell.”
Mikoto ignored the screams of “Hgh, wait, no, it’s not like that, Hokazeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!?”
After reaching the 19th floor where the president’s office was, they cut across there to reach the stairs leading directly to the 20th floor. Fortunately, there were no tripwires or other traps. Did Sakibasu Ryouu not have that kind of technical skill, or had she feared tripping one of her own traps in the dark?
“It’s cold in here!”
“My, my. Look at this child. You need to be able to resist the cold if you want to keep up with middle school fashion.”
“Says the person clinging to Hokaze-san for warmth.”
When they opened the large door, they were greeted by a refrigerator-like chill.
The darkness inside was of a different sort from before.
This was a blatantly “artificial” darkness, like in a planetarium or movie theater. There must not have been any windows. It felt like a vast graveyard made of plastic. A space larger than Tokiwadai’s lecture halls was lined with boxy computers the size of refrigerators and they all had green and yellow pilot lights blinking irregularly.
The center must have doubled as a maintenance access corridor.
The rows of gravestones were pushed to the left and right, leaving a long straight path in the center. That was the large server room’s main street. The letters and numbers labeling sections of the room like an old apartment complex’s building numbers were arranged to be viewed from that central line.
And in the center of that path, someone exhaled a white breath.
“This must mean…yes, Acid and Counselor were defeated. They may have been Academy City espers, but I suppose they were only children.”
The woman wore a gorgeous party dress made from a glossy black silk. She looked a lot like someone the girls knew. Her long black hair was curled only at her ears and her white skin made her age impossible to judge. The bodylines pushing out her dress from within, the sex appeal coming from her nape, and the shine of the colored nails at the end of her slender fingers were all very different from the girls of Tokiwadai Middle School. None of this was an internal light. It was all applied externally.
It was possible this woman was more “artificial” than the solemn, planetarium-like darkness in here.
“You’re the one too immature to understand what ‘children’ do.”
Mikoto focused on the object in Sakibasu Ryouu’s hand.
It was a silver-shining duralumin case with a longer and narrower shape than usual.
“What does the difference in income matter? It doesn’t change a thing if the child surpasses her parents! Sakibasu-san said she just wanted your praise. She held her head and sobbed while saying that was all she had wanted!! Yet you-…!!”
“Money is not everything. There are some things money cannot buy.”
The woman spoke in a singsong voice.
Yet it contained something far too thick to easily swallow.
It carried a pressure that made you forget all about the artificial chill of the server room.
“If you can say that, it is proof that you already have it. I protected that tiny house, cooked pancakes, and kept tabs on all the sales to stick to our budget…but what good are those motherly acts in the face of all that money!? Those words only shine when they come from the winners! If the failures speak them from poverty, they only sound like sour grapes!! You can only accept throwing out money when you already have it and are so flush with cash you can throw it in the ditch for all you care. Only then can you say there’s more to life than that! You haven’t felt this pain or experienced this suffering. You can set fire to a stack of cash and throw it into the wind without batting an eye, so you can never understand. You true rich girls don’t know how it feels!!”
After that rant, the black party dress woman smiled a little.
She exhaled a white breath and shook her head.
She let her body sway unsteadily to refocus her mind.
“But the thing is, having money really is meaningless.”
“Give the poor money and they will still be poor. They will only be mocked as swine with their pearls. In the end, it is predetermined who can reach a higher level. It comes in many forms: bloodline, family, history, and tradition. The people with those privileges are not even aware of it. Meanwhile, the flightless birds are doomed to be devoured by the insects on the ground. They will not die immediately, but it will gradually spread through them like pus.”
She snapped open some clasps.
She opened the oddly long and narrow duralumin case.
“I do not resent my daughter.”
Yes. According to Riot, aka Hanakawa Hinadori, Sakibasu Ryouu’s target in the initial attack had not been Sakibasu for losing the violin contest. She had ordered the shotgun fired on Mikoto’s group for winning.
On top of that.
“I am not so old and infirm that I will accept charity from the very daughter I birthed.”
She tossed the opened duralumin case to the side. In the planetarium-like darkness, Mikoto glared at the black silk party dress woman who now held the case’s contents.
“Kuroko or Hokaze-san would be too powerful. Shokuhou!! Let’s attack simultaneously!!”
“I can handle this all on my own.”
Academy City’s #5 spun the TV remote in her hand and aimed it while pressing the button with her thumb.
Mental Out was the strongest psychological power.
This woman could not avoid it like Acid and Counselor could. She was no more than an adult, so she would have her mind controlled and forced to simply stand there.
So they thought.
“Did you do something?”
“!? She can still move!!”
Shokuhou Misaki was so confident in her own powers that her eyes widened past the limit.
But freezing up was a bad idea.
“Argh, I’m supposed to be working for Onee-sama!!”
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl moved forward to protect defenseless Shokuhou.
Meanwhile, the clock was still ticking.
Sakibasu Ryouu held the violin's chinrest between her shoulder and chin and placed the bow across it with her other hand. And she directed the neck toward the girls almost like she was taking aim with a rifle.
A note followed.
Mikoto visualized it like a sharp knife slicing through the artificial chill and flying toward the center of her chest.
She had launched a lightning spear at the same time, but it veered off course partway through.
Mikoto took a blow to the heart and was thrown backwards.
“What!? That was Onee-sama’s…Academy City’s #3’s lightning spear!”
Everyone could tell this was not at all normal.
For one thing, how could she wield a violin like a deadly weapon!?
(It’s the scab. While Sakibasu-san stroked it, has this woman developed a sound that intentionally rips away that psychological scab!?)
“This chilly air really is not good for the instrument, so I will end this quickly.”
This was not just an unpleasant sound like nails on the chalkboard.
Sakibasu Ryouu’s sound came with a physical blow.
Mikoto knew a single violin could not actually produce a shockwave like a fighter jet, but she still found it hard to breath. Frankly, she was amazed she was not bleeding from the corners of her eyes.
“Stativarius Tam Lin.”
The bow stopped moving for just a moment.
The beautiful mother in a black party dress sighed a white breath and spoke while rubbing her cheek against the demonic violin.
“All art carries creation and destruction as two sides of the same coin. The Stativari are famous for the creative side of their music, so it only stands to reason they would carry just as much power when used for destruction instead.”
“So it’s a next-generation weapon!?”
“Do not overwrite this with that silly word. This is quite the opposite of that. Esper powers have only existed for a few decades. A new academic field like that cannot hope to surpass the historical weight carried by this instrument.”
“Onee-sama!! Our top priority is Zero-Day Link. You can stop her by destroying all the servers in-…”
With a forceful tug of the bow, another “invisible blade” flew out. There was nothing in the air, yet Shirai Kuroko saw blades stabbing into her arms, legs, chest, and forehead. She had actual weight, yet those imagined visuals sent her spinning backwards through the air.
Sakibasu Ryouu spoke while elegantly holding the violin in the center of the darkness.
Her white breath carried a sweet heat as she took aim at Shokuhou Misaki who was ill suited for direct combat.
“It is no use.”
The Queen’s right-hand girl gave a shout and charged forward. Her power allowed her to consciously control even her cutaneous respiration, so she may have been able to block out her sense of hearing. But…
“That is not how this works.”
The crashing noise that followed came from the ringlet curls girl rolling along the floor.
The black party dress woman smiled thinly while using the sharp toe of her high heels to push aside the girl lying at her feet and holding her gut.
“Do be careful. You do not want to see what happens if your skin sticks to the cold floor.”
“The Stativari provide their users with the ‘weight’ they lack. Talent? Genetic traits? If this is about effort, well, it was not easy acquiring this. I am not about to be defeated by some cheap esper powers development program.”
(It isn’t just the sound. Is it shaking all the bones in our bodies!?)
Even if all four of them worked separately to destroy the computers lined up like gravestones, would Sakibasu Ryouu allow it? As large as this room was, it was still a single enclosed space. There was a lot about how her attack worked they still did not understand, but if it could be sent out in all directions from her, it was possible the destructive effect could reach them even while behind the refrigerator-like objects.
“Now, let us bring this to an end.”
“Crawl helplessly on the floor and give up. As rich girls who have it, you may have been able to trample on the world’s logic this far into your lives. You may have been given a predetermined path of success that sidestepped all pain. But this is what happens to children who turn on the adults.”
It was coming.
She placed the bow on the strings and slowly gathered strength.
The frightening tone of death and destruction would accurately attack Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki!!
It was distorted
Mikoto imagined a nonexistent sword flying straight toward the center of her chest.
However, there was another.
A violin note was played from a new source and it passed by Mikoto’s group to collide with the auditory attack launched by Sakibasu Ryouu’s Stativarius Tam Lin. That was what had distorted it so badly. The image seen in Mikoto’s mind’s eye scattered like a small tornado of directionless noise.
She felt no pain.
She felt no impact.
She could only think of one possibility. What could possibly compete with a Stativarius’s sound without relying on tricks? And what performer had the skill to match that world-famous instrument?
That person casually tossed something onto the floor. That plastic box smaller than a pencil case was a mobile router. It must have been modified in some way because Mikoto’s group’s phones all beeped despite being in the heavily shielded server room.
“GK> I have a connection! My homemade device worked!!”
“Sa10> That must mean she arrived!!”
This was a level that not even Misaka Mikoto’s tricks and Shirai Kuroko’s intense practice could match.
They had managed to succeed in Tokiwadai’s elective exam, but no one had been able to reproduce that performance that stroked the scab with enough pressure to be just short of causing pain.
There had been no guarantee she would come.
They could not have blamed her if she had not. No matter how many crimes Sakibasu Ryouu had committed and even if she had repeatedly made dangerous actions that put her daughter’s life at risk, she was still this girl’s mother. She was an irreplaceable family member. Who could have complained if the girl had overturned the world’s logic and insisted she would save her mother or if she could bear it no longer and fled? Mikoto thought that complexity was what it meant to be human.
She had come to this dangerous place. Revealing her family member’s crimes might cast a dark shadow on her own life as well. Even if this was the right thing to do as far as the rules were concerned, it might leave her family bonds in tatters. She knew that – she had to know that – but she had still risked her life to rush here and do something that would not benefit her in any way.
“I had no idea a Stativarius could be used like that, mother.”
She wore her long black hair in twintails with just the ends curled.
And that short girl shared the same facial features as the black party dress woman holding the demonic violin.
In other words…
“But that means my Stativarius Ainsel can be used in the same way!!”
Both violins released abnormal sounds that were launched like crossbow bolts. The Ainsel accurately shot down Tam Lin’s auditory spear, like a Gatling gun protecting a warship from a missile.
“Sa10> Uiharu, can’t you use your computer skills to shut off the server room’s power!?”
“GK> If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be a very good center of security! But at the very least, it does not appear to be behaving oddly. The virus still has not been applied along with a patch or firmware update!”
In the end, taking control of the room through combat was the only option.
But this was no time to be celebrating Sakibasu Yuri’s arrival.
What was this?
After sensing a look from Shirai Kuroko, who had already defeated that world-famous instrument, Sakibasu Yuri responded while holding her violin at the ready.
“Do not worry. I will not be swallowed up by the weight of history again. But I will use everything available to me if it gives me the power I need to face the world’s injustices!!”
While holding their violins like mirror images, they softly removed the bow from the strings.
The mother glared at and whispered to her daughter.
“You appear in the nick of time, you have made these allies, and you have that Stativarius. You really do have it, Yuri. As long as you are acting entirely out of benevolence, everything here will take your side.”
“Sakibasu-san, why are you here?”
“I don’t have a good reason.”
Sakibasu Yuri answered Mikoto’s question with a white sigh and by moving her black-kneesocked legs to stand alongside the other girls with her Stativarius Ainsel at the ready.
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki.
With a Level 5 on either side, she was no longer afraid. She already stood there as her own person.
The Stativarius Ainsel was only a tool.
She was in control and the world-famous instrument obeyed.
“She is family! She is my mother!! So I must be the one to stop her. My poor mother, your greatest misfortune was not taking this wicked path. It was gathering so much power, surrounding yourself with so many people, and executing such a largescale plan yet not having anyone with the guts to stop you!!”
“So I will stop you. I will not politely support you or watch from a distance, looking for a chance to benefit!! Mother, I will not let you be alone. If you fear your crimes and the punishment that is sure to follow, then we can carry the blame together as a family!! I do not need money, fame, social status, or even Tokiwadai!! I do not care if I am family to a criminal. Why should I be ashamed to take your hand and name myself your daughter!?”
This may have been the birth of a new legend.
What did Oda matter? Why should anyone care about Tokugawa?
A great family and bloodline might find its beginnings in a vow to feel no shame, stand strong, and never give in when it came to protecting those who shared your blood, no matter how many stones were thrown and how strong the winds of adversity blew.
That girl was already flying the flag of Sakibasu. If it would allow her to fight the wicked temptation dragging her mother into the depths of the earth, she would engage Einstein in a battle of wits or challenge Benkei to a fistfight. That was how she had completed herself.
She would not allow her mother to be alone.
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl got up once more.
Rather than a violin, the sound of clenched teeth reached them from a short distance away.
It came from the beautiful mother.
“The fact that you can so easily throw it away is the very proof that you have it!! You will never understand my pain!!!!!”
“You never needed to experience that pain. All people have blood and history simply by being people. You need to realize that no one must look up at anyone else if we all shine equally bright! Mother, your complex is no more than an illusion of your own making!!”
“How can you say that when you were the one that ruined my life by forcing that massive fortune onto me?”
“What I made at the age of 5 was a child’s toy drawn on construction paper. It was you adults who gathered up the designs, released them to the world at large, and attached an obvious price tag to them, mother! I did not make that fortune all on my own! That success was something we earned together!! You could have found pride in that!!”
A loud boom followed.
Both Stativari had released full-power destructive notes.
Ainsel and Tam Lin.
The two world-famous instruments created by the same person may have been evenly matched.
Except there was a difference.
“Sakibasu will not lose. She might be your child, but she is also a member of my clique.”
Shokuhou Misaki managed to get that out even as her visible breaths took an irregular pattern.
The girl supported by the Queen faced her mother again.
“I understand. I too was drawn to a tool like that. You might think you can do anything with Stativarius Tam Lin and you might think the quality of your tool is all that matters.”
She did not hesitate.
She did not step back.
Sakibasu Yuri moved her black kneesocked legs to step out in front of the Railgun and Mental Out who were known as Ace and Queen of Tokiwadai. A white breath escaped the corner of her mouth as she stood on the front line.
She stood there to protect everyone else.
And that did not just mean the girls in Tokiwadai uniforms. She would save everyone, including her mother!
“But there were people who said they enjoyed my performance. They said the Stativarius was a curse and that relying on it would only rob me of my own possibilities! I have my own skill with the violin that I developed through practice. I am hesitant to use that for destruction, but I am willing to do so if it will open your eyes. And if we are both using violins of equal quality, then it is the other factors that will decide this! Now, mother, it is time to stop hiding behind that Stativarius like a small child. It is time to reveal who you really are!!”
“I promise I will not laugh, so it does not matter how embarrassing, unsightly, pathetic, ugly, painful, pitiful, and agonizing it is! Open up and show me what is in your heart!!”
An especially loud boom followed.
This time, the mass of noise was not distorted.
In a direct collision, the equal strikes might have canceled each other out.
But that was not what happened.
The powers were different.
This was not just Sakibasu Yuri’s skill as a performer.
But it was something she had obtained by being herself.
“GK> I’m glad that conversation took so long.”
“Sa10> Formations are a bit like a group dance, right? You can leave the specifics to Big Sis Saten here!!”
“Kuroko, Shokuhou!! We have our instructions on our phones, so let’s do this!!”
Mikoto and the others removed the foil sheets used to protect the cables from frost in the intense cold and they spread them out while enduring the numbing of their hands.
“Make sure this unathletic girl over here does it right!!”
“Aren’t we supposed to be working together here!?”
This idea had come from Shirai Kuroko’s victory over the Stativarius Ainsel.
Mikoto and Shokuhou took up positions close to Sakibasu Yuri’s sides. Shirai and the ringlet curls girl used the excellent mobility provided by their powers to move a bit further out on either side. They formed a hemisphere around the violin girl, as if they were forming a parabolic antenna.
The mother with a Stativarius widened her eyes.
“It is time, mother. Time to taste the defeat we have prepared for you as a group!! Then you can escape your isolation! As someone who was once manipulated by a Stativarius in the same way, I know how effective this is!!”
The quality of an instrument could not be determined with just the instrument itself.
The performer and the many people who prepared the stage were also necessary.
The two sounds collided head-on, but Tam Lin’s was torn through and the remaining one rushed toward the beautiful mother like a gust of wind.
Sakibasu Ryouu arched her back as it pierced her.
Her mouth hung open, but no white breath left it.
She moved her body forward to avoid collapsing backwards, but then she lost her balance. She overcorrected and fell to her knees. Leaning forward to face the floor may have been the final stubborn act of a parent in front of her daughter.
That lady had decorated herself with a black silk party dress and lost sight of her actual age by altering her hair and skin. But just before she collapsed face-first to the floor, her lips moved. She may have already lost consciousness, but she definitely spoke these words.
“I only wanted to be…someone who could protect you.”
Sakibasu Ryouu finally collapsed and stopped moving altogether.
For a while, the twintailed girl could not move either. She kept the bow hovering above the strings and bit her lovely lip to bear with something.
That woman must have been exposed to a great many pressures, both internal and external.
Unlike a middle school child like Yuri, she must have had plenty of negative feelings about unintentionally receiving so much money as an adult. So she had tried to change things. All so her daughter would not suffer through the same things when she grew up.
She had fought.
She had fought and fought and fought.
And at some point, she had strayed and lost her way.
How could she bring her family peace if it had to be bought with people’s lives? At some point, she had lost sight of that. Even though her initial motives had been entirely admirable.
“She would make pancakes a lot,” said the girl while looking down at her mother. “She seemed to know she was not a very good cook, so that must have been the one thing she knew how to make. Because just like store-bought curry roux, you only have to stir eggs and milk into the pre-mixed powder and pour it into the frying pan. …But I still haven’t found something I would rather eat.”
“Not even the finest Japanese cook or the chef of a 5-star Western restaurant could cook something better than that. There was no one above her holding her back. We were already the best we could possibly be. That flavor was all I wanted.”
She wiped away the clear drops in her eyes before they could freeze.
Sakibasu Yuri’s white breaths carried her voice.
“Let’s end this. Zero-Day Link is still running, isn’t it? I do not know what mother was trying to infect it with, but if we search her clothing and take her smartphone and whatever other storage devices we find, this will all be over.”
“Sa10> But where should you search?”
“GK> There are models smaller than a pill out there. Shirai-san, use your phone to scan her entire body. It might be woven into her clothing like a theft-prevention tag.”
This incident was never going to have a completely happy ending.
Sakibasu Yuri had cleared her name in the attack on the family restaurant, but they had instead revealed it to be her mother’s crime. That meant she would be criticized regardless. In the end, all of Mikoto’s efforts had failed to achieve her original goal. She had failed to protect Sakibasu Yuri.
But that girl had still said they would end this.
Did Mikoto have any reason not to honor that wish?
Shokuhou Misaki brushed back her long blonde hair.
“No matter what happens, you belong to me. My clique will never discriminate against someone who had the courage to see through what was right. You will always have a place here. Never forget that.”
“Yes. Thank you very much, Queen.”
The black-twintailed girl smiled and bowed.
Now they could end this entire incident.
Sakibasu Yuri crouched down and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. The woman lay face down on the ice-cold floor, but her skin had not stuck to it. Her daughter rolled her onto her back.
After setting up her phone according to Uiharu’s instructions, Shirai moved it along the surface of the black party dress with a troubled look. Finally, she gestured at a certain point with her slender chin. She was instructing Sakibasu.
The mother’s black party dress did not seem to have any pockets. After some hesitation and worrying, the daughter reached her fingers into her mother’s cleavage.
And just then.
It sounded a bit like static electricity.
It may have been a miniscule thing compared to the barrage of noise from before, but she was stopped by some strange and unexplainable phenomenon.
“Wait, Sakibasu-san, stand back!! There’s still something here!?”
Just as Mikoto shouted a shocked warning, something like an explosion occurred.
Their white breaths caught in their throats. The defenseless girls were struck and thrown away from collapsed Sakibasu Ryouu. Misaka Mikoto was fairly accustomed to getting into fights, but even she had the wind knocked out of her. This was too much to simply ignore the damage.
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl’s eyes widened.
“An esper power!?”
“It can’t be. She might live in Academy City, but she’s an adult!”
(What…? What in the world happened!?)
This was not right. The beautiful mother’s arms and legs were moving. She was clearly unconscious, yet she was moving with the awkwardness of a marionette. This unexplained phenomenon all expanded from a single point. It was like a small open seam tearing wide open.
The white breaths escaping from the corners of her mouth seemed like a mystical energy or phosphorescence.
The eerie image added a frightening edge to her beauty.
“Come to think of it, there is one question we never answered.”
Shokuhou Misaki clenched her teeth while holding out her TV remote.
No, she was pressing the button with her thumb.
Yet the woman did not stop. She stood up within her black silk party dress. The movements were all weirdly limp, like she was nothing but human skin stuffed full of mud.
“Why didn’t my Mental Out work on her? She isn’t a four-legged beast or an unmanned weapon. An ordinary human should not escape my control like that!!”
“Then is there something else getting in the way?”
Mikoto looked confused, but then she realized what it had to be.
The situation was utterly insane, but there was something Sakibasu Ryouu seemed to keep in her grasp at all times.
“The Stativarius Tam Lin?”
The woman held up the violin and softly placed the bow across the strings.
Assuming that deadly mass of sound was coming again, Sakibasu Yuri readied her Ainsel, but then the world seemed to change around them. Something entirely unexpected happened.
The vibration of the strings unmistakably spoke.
“Ee hee hee!! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!! Ahh, ahh, ahh, this is so much fun! Quite the tear-jerker there, you two!! I only intended to consume her tears and suffering, but it looks like today is my lucky day!! Now I get to enjoy the mother and daughter both!!!!!”
It was a voice.
There was no other interpretation.
“Sa10> Wait, that’s the violin? But the voice recognition is giving us actual text! What is going on over there!?”
Mikoto was there and not even she could answer that one.
The vibration of the strings was chatting with them instead of making music?
“Oh, don’t act so surprised. Sakibasu Yuri, you chose the Ainsel yourself, if I recall. The Stativari are so strongly desired because they give people whatever they lack. I’m here because I was needed! I’m doing this because I was asked to!! Do you get the picture now!?”
“Her personality has changed?” asked Shokuhou with astonishment in her white breath.
To reiterate, Sakibasu Ryouu had made a mistake at some point and lost her way. She had become someone who could harm others without feeling any pangs of guilt. But when had that happened? What had changed her from a mother who cooked pancakes to delight her young daughter even though she could not cook?
Had the cause really come from within?
What if some external factor had corrupted her?
“Was it the feel of the violin, its music, the varnish on the surface, or its weight?” asked Mikoto. “Whatever the case, did acquiring that external attachment create another mind within her!?”
“The Stativari were created more than 300 years ago,” pointed out Shokuhou. “That’s more than 100 years before the era of Freud and Jung! Neuroscience and psychology were little different from the occult back then, so there is no way they could have designed such a precise psychological input device.”
“Then what is that!?”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s been lurking in the underside of the world for at least 300 years!!”
They heard a dull sound.
It came from…was that a shadow extending from the beautiful mother’s feet? Giant black arms dropped down to her left and right. A giant upper body appeared as if covering her entire back. Was it a weapon, or was it trying to embrace the defenseless dress woman from behind?
“What in the world?”
“We can…explain all of this…with Academy City textbooks…can’t we?”
Shirai and the ringlet curls girl stared in disbelief.
The phenomenon was finally taking a turn toward the supernatural.
Sakibasu Ryouu had used several powerful espers as her arms and legs or as her eyes and ears, but wasn’t that because she was not an esper herself?
Something spoke with the crude voice produced by the vibrating strings of the demonic violin she held.
“Looks like she lost pretty easily, but I did give her what she lacks. Just in a way you all aren’t aware of. So how’s it gonna be, ma’am!? Are you gonna give up here? I thought you wanted a noble bloodline and family no matter what it took!”
“You mustn’t, mother.”
Sakibasu Yuri did not understand the exact situation or logic behind it, but she grasped the gist of it.
That thing was bad news. It easily entered people’s hearts, manipulated them as it saw fit, and corrupted them.
It was that sort of being.
Since they specialized in projectiles, Mikoto and Shirai started shifting their footing, but each time, the black party dress lady’s body swayed. She moved as if to protect the violin from their line of fire. They could not find an opening to attack like this.
“Don’t listen to it! Let’s end this already!! No, that isn’t right. It’s already over. All of it!! You don’t need to dig it all back up!!”
“Your adorable little daughter is watching.”
She had managed to muster some small amount of courage.
She had gathered the determination to protect her family.
But the malicious words of a third party transformed both those things into the trigger for the exact opposite result.
“Your sense of justice was just as pure before you fell into the mud. Sad, ain’t it? Once you fall, all those lovely things are so easily defiled. You saw how ugly adults can be when they swarmed to all that cash you found yourself with, didn’t you? The light in your eyes has dulled and will never shine again. But do as you wish. You can run away if you’d like. Of course, then you’ll just have to watch as your adorable little daughter ends up viewing the world through eyes as dark and dull as your own.”
“Pathetic, ain’t it!? You know that’s what lies in store for her, but you’re powerless to stop it!! It must be agonizing! You can see the gears of the world all set up to dump your only child into tragedy, but you can’t stop them from turning!! …Do you want to see your adorable little daughter devoured? Do you want to see the hyenas swarm around her naïve justice and tear her to pieces? If not, then call out to me and leave your body in my control!! You might be pathetic, foolish, and powerless, but that honest heart of yours is your true weapon!! I will supply everything you lack. You just have to make the wish. I am Stativarius Tam Lin and I exist to fulfill everything you lack!!”
Some slight strength entered Sakibasu Ryouu’s limp body.
Shokuhou Misaki held out her TV remote, but pressing the button still had no result. A different logic was mixed into the human mind there.
Meanwhile, the mother held the violin and bow of her own free will once more.
But that was not the human power to defeat temptation.
Quite the opposite.
She was taking the hopelessly easy way out. She was handing her body over to the “demon”. This was the final motion needed to give her assent and authorization. The mother signed her name as her daughter watched.
She signed the impure contract.
Because no matter how corrupted she became, she could not allow her daughter to take the same path.
And she spoke.
Sakibasu Ryouu said one last thing along with a white breath.
I’m sorry, Yuri.
I was such a terrible mother who couldn’t do anything right.
An even more powerful shockwave exploded out and filled the large server room. The industrial computers lined up like gravestones no longer mattered. They were all knocked over and smashed, sending violent electricity scattering everywhere. The room’s cooling equipment must have been damaged too because something like white dry ice smoke erupted from the ceiling with a hissing sound.
The metal foil they had used as reflection boards to increase the power of the violin were torn. They were useless now.
It was utter chaos.
The mother had been willing to throw herself into the fires of hell to fulfill the Zero-Day Link plan for her daughter’s sake, but whatever she had become did not bat an eye at destroying all that now. She wielded her violin and the four intensely vibrating strings produced a deafening roar of laughter.
“Ha ha!! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!”
Some invisible rails had clearly been changed.
A dull zapping sound burst out.
Mikoto could restrain herself no longer, so she had launched a lightning spear, but it veered off course partway through and exploded.
One note from the violin had been enough to rule over this entire space.
“Contract received! Contract received!! You have my praise for exposing your pathetic side, accepting your foolishness, contemplating your powerlessness, and yet clinging to your honesty!! So don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll supply everything you lack. You want a noble family, a respected bloodline, and a name no one will ever forget, do you!? Then I’ll create all of that for you! By any means necessary!!”
Was there any meaning in it?
Or was it just a physiological reaction?
A single clear drop fell from the eye of the mother’s limp empty shell. She could not wipe it away, so it froze there on her cheek.
How painful must it have been for that mother to shed a tear of weakness in front of her child?
That selfish violation made the black-twintailed girl clench her teeth.
It was true that her mother had not known what to do with the sudden influx of money that had destroyed their previously gentle lifestyle, came in contact with a strange violin, had her heart disturbed, and ultimately harmed a great many people. If she had not been stopped, she would have spread chaos around the world. No matter how she had reached that point, she would have to pay for it.
Did she really have to pay this much? Did she have to have the mask stripped away against her will, have her dignity shattered, and have her heart trampled on? Was anything permitted as long as the victim had committed some kind of crime? When the person making the punishment was the one who had convinced her to commit the crime in the first place!?
“Who are you?” asked Sakibasu Yuri with a tremor in her voice. No, her voice was a bullet of sound on par with the Ainsel. “Who in the world are you!!!???”
“I am Stativarius Tam Lin, the device that provides its master what they lack by the fastest means possible. Zero-Day Link? Noble bloodlines? Noblesse oblige? Whoever pays the most to the common folk gets to be the new nobles? To be honest, I don’t understand any of that crap! It’s all so slow-going and who knows if it would even work. No matter how much she tries to dress it up, she’s just some kind housewife who could use a lot more ambition. Of course, that’s probably why she got surrounded and devoured the instant she had some money. She’s never gonna accomplish anything herself, so I’ll give her what she wants in a much more surefire way.”
The ringlet curls girl was ever vigilant and tried to sneak into a blind spot while Tam Lin was talking, but she was blocked by a complete coincidence. A thick burst of electricity exploded at her feet. That was not Mikoto’s power. It was the high-voltage current leaking out of the servers destroyed by Tam Lin. This was very different from the 100 volts of a home power socket.
The black party dress lady was not immune to the electricity either. Those glowing electric serpents were crawling unpredictably around. If one happened to touch her ankle, her flesh and blood would explode and she would die.
There was no fear or tension in that voice. In fact, it seemed to be enjoying this.
“Now, then. How to make her die?”
Even Mikoto tensed her shoulders when she heard that.
This was taking an unexpected turn.
“Why are you so surprised? History and tradition are the result of a great many deaths. Family names are the things written on graves. So there’s a real simple way for this mother to lay the foundation for her daughter. Sakibasu Ryouu only has to die to grant her own wish. And in as dramatic, moving, beneficial, and unforgettable a way as possible.”
“But…but no one was talking about that!” She wanted to be happy. Her methods were wrong, but she only relied on you so they could all smile together as a family!!”
“It’s no use, Misaka-san. This thing does not seem to have any real interest in the person it has borrowed. Whatever it is, my Mental Out does not work on it. I doubt it even has a human mind.”
“Call me whatever you like, but you humans have a bad habit of assuming being like you is a good thing. It’s like putting clothes on a cat and feeding it miso soup. Miso soup full of chopped green onions.”
Tam Lin seemed to be saying it was not human.
If a program was monitoring human activities, would it make that same assessment?
“The way people die has meaning. Maybe you would have an easier time understanding if I used this country’s origins as an example. Oda Nobunaga is only famous because of his shocking death as Honnouji burned around him. Can you list the names and causes of death of the Tokugawa leaders who lived through times of peace!? It’s all about death. Death is the quickest way to give weight to your blood and family. Ha ha ah ha ha!! And I’ve gotta make the best use of this life I’ve been entrusted with, don’t I!?”
Sakibasu Yuri heard that conclusion.
But there was more to the world than malice.
“I’ll help you, Sakibasu-san.”
“Didn’t I tell you? You belong to me. I don’t have to explain why I’m doing this, do I?”
Misaka Mikoto and Shokuhou Misaki stood in the way to challenge this foe.
But they were not the only ones.
“This black twintails girl is nothing but trouble. But I’m used to it by now, so let’s get this over with.”
“Queen, grant me permission. I know I offered this power to you, but she is part of your clique. May I use my full power just this once?”
“GK> Tell me whatever you need. I’ll investigate anything!”
“Sa10> Me too!!”
Shirai Kuroko and Hokaze Junko had joined the others again.
And Sakibasu Yuri quietly held up her violin.
“You are not a terrible mother.”
When the words spilled from her lips, she used them as a starting point to express her thoughts.
No matter how much the chemical coolant leaking from the broken cooling equipment froze the server room, it could never extinguish the heat filling her heart.
“You did hurt a lot of people and cause even more trouble, but it all started with nothing more than a desire to protect your family. I refuse to believe that is a bad thing.”
She did not hesitate.
She did not look away.
“I never wanted the money.”
The mother had agonized over her desire for the strength to say that.
So the daughter would do it.
“Our bloodline and family status never really mattered.”
Sakibasu Ryouu had separated her and her daughter’s accomplishments in her mind, but that had not been necessary. They could have shared it all as part of the same family.
She had even done so herself.
When she had drawn a crayon picture of her mother, her aunt had praised her for it. She had written a school essay about her father’s job. She had bragged to her friends about how incredible her family was and that her parents could do anything.
That should have been enough.
There was nothing wrong or shameful with having pride in your family.
Sakibasu Yuri did not hesitate to wield another Stativarius capable of becoming just as much of a monster and shouted like she was picking a fight with the entire world.
“She wanted to protect her family!! It should have been enough to stay in that small house full of memories, smiling together and making pancakes!! And mother must have felt the same before a demon like you latched onto her and took advantage of the fears all that money gave her. …Distorting people’s wishes is not the same thing as granting them, Tam Lin. Whatever wicked temptation you bring, it can never truly fulfill or satisfy anyone! Everything you give them is a product of misguided compromise and resignation that actually cuts off the path to truly granting their wish. Everything you hold so dear is no more than that. It isn’t even worth a fistful of dirt!!”
A high-pitched noise rang between Sakibasu Yuri’s eyes.
No, perhaps only she could hear it.
Were her blood vessels or nerves going haywire?
It was a disconcerting feeling like all her body’s skin had grown taut. In fact, something may really have been tearing like a run in a pair of stockings. She could feel a spreading heat within the chilly server room.
But the surface wounds and bleeding were not what mattered.
This was a call.
She held a world-famous violin in her hands. That Stativarius was worth well over 100 million yen. Her mother’s soul had been taken away when she was overwhelmed by that brand name and its fame, but that would not happen to Yuri who was supported by so many people and understood the power of her own performance.
She could face it properly.
An instrument was a tool.
It was the person who was in control.
As long as she made no mistake there, she could change the Stativarius’s curse into a blessing.
“I will be taking my family member back. No matter what.”
That name referred to a fairy with the same name as yourself.
With a white breath, the girl answered the call.
She called out to the partner in the unlocked violin case who she had literally shared her bed and table with.
She would not be defeated by that world-famous instrument.
Because she was an equal and independent being.
“So lend me your power!! Stativarius Ainsel!!!!!!”