Toaru Majutsu no Index:Virtual On Chapter2

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Chapter 2[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Misaka Mikoto sat on a bench on an Academy City District 7 building rooftop. She pulled the goggles up from her eyes and began sensing the cheers around her directly.

“Yes! We cleared the preliminaries, so we’re the District 7 representatives now!!”

“Th-that’s amazing. I never thought we would get to stand on that stage…”

Saten Ruiko and Uiharu Kazari were trembling in excitement nearby. They went to the same school, but they were not wearing their sailor uniforms today.

They wore cheerleader-style outfits colored a bright purple.

Needless to say, it was the same coloring seen on Mikoto’s Raiden and Shirai Kuroko’s Fei-Yen.

Which meant…

“Uuh… I just remembered.”

“What’s that bashful fidgeting for!? We’re the representatives! The district’s honor rests on our shoulders!! Hold your head high!!”

Mikoto had been engrossed in her Virtual-On battle a moment before, but she too was wearing a miniskirt. She had felt like she was inside a sealed, cocoon-like cockpit, but how had it looked to the people around her?

“P-pant, pant! Onee-sama’s bare legs are completely defenseless… But I can sense Onee-sama’s unique form of romance in how she keeps them tightly closed even in the middle of battle.”

“I had a feeling this would happen!!”

Mikoto moved her leg to stomp on the face of Shirai Kuroko, the twintail girl crawling on the floor right in front of her.

Saten was still excited and she made a suggestion from next to Mikoto.

Index VO 117.jpg

“Okay, okay! Let’s go have a victory party for clearing the preliminaries! We need to do something to celebrate the occasion! The usual family restaurant works, right!?”

“…Let me go change first.”

“You can’t. This uniform is District 7’s trademark now!”

Mikoto sighed.

Shokuhou Misaki, Tokiwadai Middle School’s other Level 5, came to mind. Now, which would do more psychological damage: wearing a dress and giving a speech on stage as a representative of their year, or walking around town in a cheerleader costume on the weekends?

As Mikoto stood up (while grabbing Shirai’s collar for trying to get an even better low-angle look from the floor), her portable device emitted a quiet beep.

In fact, all of their devices did.

Instead of an email or voice call, it was a request for a chat service that allowed a real-time exchange of short messages.

“Furashina: I saw your match. Congratulations on qualifying for the main tournament.”

“Oh! How about we invite Ririn-chan? She’s the one that introduced us to Virtual-On in the first place.”

Saten smiled and made that suggestion, but the response was an apologetic one.

“Furashina: I would love to join you, but I would have a hard time figuring out where anyone is in this crowd.”

“Yeah.”

“I suppose that is true.”

Anywhere near where the Virtuaroids were fighting would get incredibly crowded. It was enough to render the city nearly unrecognizable even to residents like Mikoto and the others. Even if they searched each other out while continuing the chat, there was no guarantee they would find each other. After all, they could easily miss each other even if they were waiting inside the same train station.

“Furashina: I have a terrible sense of direction and I’m no good with crowds, so I’ll enjoy the celebration from here.”

“Eh? Even with your portable device’s navigation?”

“Furashina: The 3D makes me nauseous. I can handle this text chat, but I prefer to avoid using any of the more graphical services for long.”

“If you say so.”

Mikoto did not ask any more questions.

They had tried to meet up a few times before, but they always just missed each other due to crowds near the meet-up spot. Mikoto and the others still needed to return the handkerchief she had dropped.

For that reason, they had only spoken with her online, but she did not seem to know all that much about the latest gadgets. They had first met her when they reached out a helping hand after seeing her having trouble with some light flaming on an SNS.

Overall, she was the small animal type.

She did appear to be attempting a variety of things, but some people needed more distance than others. It was possible this was the most comfortable distance for her.

(She seems a lot more like a proper underclassman than Kuroko.)

It had been a truly lucky find that she had introduced Virtual-On to them.

It was possible even she was surprised.

“Let’s get going, Onee-sama. That fight was quite mentally taxing, so it’s important we eat something sweet and relax.”

“No, no. We’ve got to come together as a team for tomorrow! We need to come up with all sorts of formations!!”

“Ahh… You mean we’re going to ignore the food and dive straight into strategizing mode?”

The 4 girls chatted as they left the rooftop.

They all held portable devices.

They spoke about Virtual-On as something perfectly normal.

Part 2[edit]

Once the battle with the Cypher named Blue Stalker ended, Kamijou Touma and Index were released unharmed.

The white and black Specineff was nowhere to be found.

Only after pushing the ultra-thin goggles up onto his forehead did Kamijou remember that he could even do that.

He no longer felt the extreme realism that had seemed to dive deep below his skin.

The portable device he held was unharmed. There was no sign of it having been snapped in half.

He saw the usual scene of District 7 in front of the center.

“Index. That’s right! Index! Are you okay!?”

“Bwoh, mgah!? Wh-what is this!? I can’t see! …Is this a bag!?”

Kamijou suddenly remembered they had done that to her.

Index managed to get her head out of the sack, but the calico cat only stuck its head out and mewed. It seemed to like the enclosed space.

Meanwhile, Aogami Pierce blinked in confusion.

“Kami-yan, how are you feeling? Are you really all right!?”

“Eh? Ah? Well, I feel just fine…”

“I was really shocked when you suddenly disappeared, Kami-yan. I thought you’d been kidnapped by a Teleporter.”

“Disa-…what?”

“You just up and vanished. Want to check the center’s security camera? It was like a magic trick. Do you know what a Ring Scan is?”

“No.”

“When you play Virtual-On, a ring of light appears and scans you from head to toe. Well, you might not be able to tell when you’re playing with the goggles on. I think it’s used to display your body when you move around in the cockpit.”

“Ohh…”

He had seen that in front of the center. He recalled the ring of light that appeared over the heads of the boys and girls as they played Virtual-On.

“So that’s called a Ring Scan?”

“But that only appears once at the start. I’ve never heard of the scan suddenly starting in the middle of a game and I’ve definitely never heard of the player’s body disappearing into it. No, wait…disappearing…a Virtual-On player disappearing… Could it be…?”

Not even Aogami understood what was happening, so his explanation was quite fragmentary.

But he failed to notice Kamijou’s confusion and tilted his head as he continued.

“Right after you disappeared while joining the battle, your Temjin began moving like I’ve never seen before. But once the game was over, you reappeared like nothing had happened. What was that?”

(A Teleporter? No, my right hand would have negated that, right?)

That second Ring Scan should not have happened.

And if Aogami Pierce was to be believed, Kamijou Touma’s disappearance had happened in the short period between Temjin’s sudden activation and the end of the match.

A certain idea came to mind first.

(It all felt oddly real and I couldn’t quite tell where I really was.)

A chill ran down his spine.

“Did it happen when I smashed the controller – my lifeline – inside the cockpit?)

He still did not know what that had meant or if it had even been the right thing to do. He was even doubtful that simply breaking their portable device would provide other players the same result.

Perhaps it had more to do with throwing out all assumptions.

Perhaps it had more to do with truly believing he could move the way he wanted.

Or something like that.

“Hey, Aogami.”

“Yeah?”

Kamijou just about asked about it, but he held his tongue.

Aogami Pierce had held a negative view of the Defected players. But the puzzled look on his face suggested he had yet to realize that Kamijou had Defected.

(He mentioned something about anti-tracking stealth, didn’t he? Can the center’s monitoring system not tell who’s Defected? Well, I guess they’d just search them out and delete their accounts if they could.)

After thinking through it all, a new question occurred to him.

Yes…

“Index. What about her? Did an unnatural Ring Scan start in the middle of the battle for her too?”

“No, it was only you, Kami-yan.”

“Touma, what are you talking about?”

“It was…only me? Index, did anything happen while you were fighting that Blue Stalker? Um, how should I put this…?”

“No. There were only some times when Bal-Bados’s movements were a little unstable.”

“Unstable?”

“It was like the movements were catching on something. I would move the stick, but it only strained and wouldn’t react like I wanted.”

Was that it?

Kamijou could not say for sure, but had he resisted that odd feeling by taking things a step further and breaking his portable device while Index stayed put and returned to the rules of the Next Generation Game?

Was that the source of the difference?

Kamijou’s physical body had entirely vanished, but Index had simply continued operating her portable device like she was possessed even when her vision was blocked.

But…

(In that case…Aogami might be wrong about the change occurring when you fight a Defected Virtuaroid.)

Kamijou looked down at the device in his hand.

(Does it actually begin when you realize you can do more in that cockpit than just operate the Virtuaroid via the portable device? Well, I had a little help getting there thanks to the Blue Stalker’s unfair movements and that weird corrupted message.)

Question it.

That mysterious message had been sent to his address from his address.

But he seemed to remember something similar happening when reporting on a system error. For example, the automated email sent back when an email could not be delivered. It might have been something happening inside his own device with no connection to the Blue Stalker.

But this was different from an email delivery error.

He had no idea what the portable device had read from him to trigger that message.

“…”

The Next Generation Game Virtual-On was only the tip of the iceberg.

A massive amount of data and scripts were hidden below the surface.

His intuition told him the Defection was not adding anything to the system; it was switching off the security to use the system’s full functionality to some end. Yes, what was the purpose of the Ring Scan used on normal players? Index had said it seemed to be scanning their bodies, but Kamijou doubted it influenced how they controlled their units. Could it be nearly useless and the proper Ring Scan was the one that had made Kamijou disappear?

But.

In that case, the Blue Stalker’s intent was a mystery. Why did they not keep that secret to themselves? If they wanted to cheat and show off their superiority, it might be best to target people who could not cheat in the same way, but that would ultimately let the secret out and rob them of the very superiority they wanted to show off.

Kamijou doubted they were too stupid to understand that.

In that case, did they have some other goal?

“Whatever the case, I’m glad you drove them off. The center might get fewer visitors if someone like that kept hanging around nearby.”

(Oh, then I should probably avoid fighting others from now on. It would hardly be fair now that I’ve Defected and I want to avoid providing an odd inspiration like the Blue Stalker did for me. It’s a shame because this seems like a lot of fun.)

“But is it really over?”

“Who knows, Kami-yan. Your movements were pretty superhuman to keep up with the Blue Stalker, but that blue Cypher never did transform. And it made several miraculous dodges in a row. I bet it was just toying with you. Plus, look at its name. You don’t want someone like that following you around everywhere, do you?”

“Ugh…”

“There’s no guarantee since a Temjin base might not be able to keep up with a transformed Cypher’s hit-and-away tactics, but if you’re going to be defenseless otherwise, wouldn’t it be a good idea to come up with a self-defense plan?”

“Hmm. You mean like changing my username and selecting a different unit?”

Kamijou tried to do just that, but the unit selection would not accept his alternative choice.

“What’s going on there?” asked Aogami Pierce. “Some kind of error? Try rebooting it.”

(No, could this be due to Defecting?)

He set that plan aside and tried coming up with something else.

“Instead of that, what if I turn off the wireless…or just switch off the power?”

“That might work, but it’d be pretty inconvenient. These days, you need these things to ride the train or withdraw money at the ATM, right? I don’t know how far you’ve gotten into using them, Kami-yan, but it seems a lot of people can’t calculate change or remember any English vocabulary without them. Y’know, like how people grow reliant on cellphone kanji conversion. The people who are really into it can use them to produce really complex kanji you’ve never even seen before and foreign languages even more chuuni than German, but take away their portable device and they can barely communicate with another human being.”

“I-I can’t even think about living without the coupons!! …But that only leaves me one option.”

“You’ve gotta thoroughly customize that plain Temjin, right? Most rookies have barely touched the customization, but that means they have plenty of room to grow.”

Part 3[edit]

It was the second day of the long weekend.

Part of the reason Kamijou had waited a full day was simply because he had found the Blue Stalker that creepy. He would grow hesitant when he realized he might run into them again while wandering around before he came up with a perfect countermeasure.

But he soon realized something.

For as long as he remained motionless and did not work toward improving his situation, he would remain in danger. He would not grow and he would not become any stronger. The perfect countermeasure was not something someone would just drop in his lap. He had to get moving and accomplish it himself.

So he took action.

The Virtual-On tournament between the representatives of the 23 districts began that day. His portable device kept receiving PR emails and some of the events were introduced on TV.

“This is Nakamura Mary! The long-awaited tournament begins today!! If you don’t like crowds, you can stop by one of the viewing bars to enjoy a drink while you watch or you can laze around your home and watch on your portable device! As your Live DJ, I will help connect the footage together, so it might be even more intense than watching it in person. And the more viewers I have, the more advertising money I get, so make sure you watch!!”

“What in the world are you doing, you shill?”

The conversing commentators played in the background like music in a family restaurant as Kamijou took Index out into the city with him.

Posters were plastered across the walls, fireworks burst in the sky on some kind of cue, and stands selling goods lined the streets. There were also a lot selling telescopic lenses made to attach to a portable device. If those things were selling for a fight between giant Virtuaroids, it was easy to imagine how crowded the tournament battleground had to be. While the preliminaries had used a round-robin tournament system, the main tournament used a traditional tournament system. The matches themselves would move quickly, but anyone who was following a specific team or contestant would have to move all over the place, which could not be easy.

Index was entranced by colorful drinks in bottles shaped like Temjin or Fei-Yen, but Kamijou tugged on her hand and kept walking.

“Touma, what are we doing today?”

“Hmm.”

He wanted mobility and stability.

Altogether, that meant speed.

Thick armor and a special move that could turn things around in a single blow were meaningless if he could not keep up with the speed of that world. Plus, Cypher could transform to gain even greater speed and explosive attack power. It would not just stand there and take a rush from a blind spot.

And luckily, Virtuaroids were easily customizable.

No fancy tools or maintenance equipment were necessary.

“You can use the Material Analyze feature. …You’ve probably already forgotten about it, though.”

He had received an explanation from Aogami Pierce and Lilina who would show up on the screen when released from sleep mode.

“Just by holding up your portable device, you can read in the traits and features of any material in the real world and incorporate it into your Virtuaroid. It can be mechanical or biological. For example, you can incorporate the structure of a real weapon or the nature of an insect or other animal. Humans will refer to their surroundings as a mini universe, so your possibilities can grow endlessly if you are creative enough.”

That was apparently how it worked.

The portable device in his hands was all he needed to infinitely expand his Virtuaroid.

“If that’s what I’m doing, where should we go?”

He and Index discussed it as they walked through the streets of District 7 together.

Even now, they could see fluorescent-colored Virtuaroids clashing here and there.

The main tournament did not just have one location, so the matches were held in districts across the city.

The crowds were much larger than during the preliminaries that had ended the day before and the fields for the matches were much fancier. The same technology used to display the units in empty air was used to create something like bluish-white tape to demarcate the field as well as displays for the units’ remaining endurance, the remaining time, and what battles were gathering attention at other fields.

They could also hear the commentators’ voices, but not from giant speakers. They seemed to be playing from the spectators’ portable devices, creating something of an overlapping echo effect.

“Those midair moves really are the best. But maybe they want to gather more viewers because there’re adding in some unnecessary and illogical actions.”

“Yes, but the viewers will notice that right away. And did they think we were just showing the matches with the highest number of viewers? The world of videos isn’t that kind. Videos need ups and downs to keep people’s attention! And you’re the down! You’re just the necessary filler, so don’t get cocky! Gwa ha ha ha ha!!”

Kamijou and Index had a hard time weaving through the crowds. The rampaging Virtuaroids were scattering stray bullets all over, getting pushed down, and rolling along the roads, but the students were unconcerned as they cheered and used their portable devices in recording mode. In fact, they grew more excited as they shouted support or jeers.

“Fast, quick, speed… What could I use? An airplane? A rocket? But even if we walked to District 23, I doubt they’d let me near any of those.”

While waiting with the crowd for the light to change, he aimed the scanner on the back of his portable device at a red sports car stopped nearby.

It worked differently from a flashlight. A pale ring of light danced along the sports car’s surface, but it seemed to work more like a projector.

(Huh…this light. I could swear I’ve seen it before.)

He thought for a moment and remembered.

It reminded him of the ring scan light that passed over the players’ bodies when beginning a match.

A small light flashed and Lilina, who provided navigation and alerts during a game, appeared on the screen.

“Okay, okay! Material Analyze complete. Please give the new data a name and indicate a stored preset. Go!”

“Hmm. Name the data Sports Car Red, create a new preset, and name it Preset A.”

“That’s pretty plain.”

“There’s no good reason to give them confusing names. That would just make it harder to find what I want later.”

Temjin, Raiden, and the other Virtuaroids each had their own basic specs.

They could have high speed, powerful close-range attacks, a low jump height, poor brakes, and more.

But the Material Analyze was separate to that.

“How does this work…?”

Simply put, the scanner attached to the device could read the traits and features of a material and incorporate them into your own Virtuaroid. You could make up for a weakness by giving speed to heavily-armored Dordray, or you could further expand a strength by giving even greater firepower to Raiden. The possible combinations were endless and that was one reason why there was never a single best choice of Virtuaroid.

It could be anything from a shortcake to the thick wall surrounding Academy City. Some players had even earned a visit from Anti-Skill by carelessly posting that they had incorporated a Japanese sword or explosives.

“I guess I’ll start by scanning everything that looks fast.”

“Hm?” Like cats and birds?”

“I suppose that’s an option too. I really am from Academy City, aren’t I? All I could think of were machines I’d never get access to like a fighter jet or a rocket engine. Something found closer to home might be more constructive.”

For the time being, he captured the calico cat on Index’s head in the ring of light. …He doubted the yawning kitten would be the trump card needed to defeat that blue Cypher, but the more options, the better.

And where could he find other birds, cats, and dogs?

Partially because he was sick of the crowded sidewalks, Kamijou made a suggestion.

“Oh, I know. Let’s try going to a large park.”

Part 4[edit]

“…”

Misaka Mikoto’s face was soaked with sweat.

She wore the bright purple cheerleader-style uniform of her team and she had frozen in place.

She slowly inhaled and exhaled.

Her eyes were on her portable device.

(Nothing…)

No matter how she operated the device, the desired display never appeared.

She gently clenched her teeth to drive back the dizziness.

(I keep waiting for a response, but she still hasn’t sent anything.)

It felt like having a hole in her chest.

A normal presence by her side was not there.

She could not reach that girl no matter how far she reached out her hand.

At times, she could lose sight of that girl’s value and even found her irritating.

And then that blank spot was slowly filled by some disconcerting rumors.

The Defected portable devices.

And the related penalty.

“The official Virtual-On tournament will begin soon. The players who passed the preliminaries should complete the entry process on their portable devices. Please register your unit data and the number of players on your team.”

When that businesslike email reached the small device, Mikoto’s anguish grew all the greater.

They had qualified for the main tournament as a team. This was supposed to be a day they would look back on fondly. Searching out the concerning rumors might require Defecting her own portable device. But if she did that, she could not use the device in an official match. This would ruin everything.

Misaka Mikoto shut her eyes and pictured each face in turn.

Then she opened her eyes and came to a decision.

She concluded that it was meaningless if any one of them was missing.

She spoke into the portable device.

“Lilina, send an email to the entire team saying I won’t take part in the main tournament.”

She spoke quickly, regretted it, and forced down that regret.

Defection.

She knew the rumors concerning how to do that.

And she knew the theoretical method for rescuing those who had been “swallowed”. If anyone in Academy City had any sense, people would be doing the same thing elsewhere.

She first had to Defect and contact someone who had started ahead of her. After that, she could come up with the necessary ideas for optimizing and improving the plan and even directly join in if necessary.

Part 5[edit]

Parks came in many forms.

They could be a grassy empty lot in the gap between buildings or they could be a vast forested region that provided a home for rare animals. The District 5 nature park that Kamijou and Index arrived at felt a lot like an outdoor event site.

Green surrounded a large manmade lake in the center. An indoor pool and a tennis court were located further out.

It had a jogging course and an outdoor concert stage instead of slides and swings for children, so it felt like it was meant for a slightly older demographic.

“C’mooon! The great Nakamura Mary is here, so get the viewers all fired up with an exciting battle!!”

“So this is what happens to a woman when she gets too full of herself…”

This too seemed to be a stage for the tournament. Not far away, an Apharmd and a Dordray were moving this way and that atop the neatly mowed grass and the manmade lake. Dordray had the exciting look of a giant construction machine, but Apharmd had the same “standard” image as Temjin. It was a little rounded and more humanlike and it used modern weaponry like machineguns and tonfas.

The open space was full of students and families enjoying the long weekend.

Kamijou sighed after taking refuge in a wooded area with a more obstructed view.

He could see the demarcated field with various displays dancing around, but he gave it a wide berth.

Observing the movements of those more experienced players could come in handy, but he was focused on the Material Analyze at the moment.

“There we go. There are plenty of small birds like doves and sparrows. And maybe I can ask someone walking their dog for permission to scan their pet. I might as well scan as many other animals as I can.”

“If you wish to use the Material Analyze feature, please remain within 1 meter of the target object for 10 seconds.”

“Pigeon, sparrow, bird skin, bird meatballs… Drool…”

“Surely you haven’t been adding flavor data to your Bal-Bados…”

No matter how annoyed Kamijou was, Index was still the more experienced Virtual-On player.

“So what exactly have you incorporated into your Bal-Bados?”

“Soda, of course. Mint, of course. Lime, of course. I made it just like the soda mint parfait that tragically doesn’t actually exist…”

“I was afraid of this! So anything other than food!?”

“Hm? Well, I gave it the balance of a balancing toy, the light weight of a paper airplane, and the toughness of a frying pan…but overall I guess I went for speed. Since tricky Bal-Bados’s original movements aren’t all that great.”

“Hmm. So there’s a lot you can do. With that much freedom, I feel like I’ll get lost if I don’t decide on a direction to start with.”

From there, he began his data hunting journey.

The pigeons showed zero – if not negative – caution around humans, so getting one of them was simple. They showed no sign of fleeing even with the bright lights and explosive noise of the clashing Virtuaroids. In fact, he had to be careful lest he accidentally kick one while walking around.

The sparrows proved more difficult. They were sensitive to light and noise and they refused to let him within a meter of them. 2 meters was the limit no matter how hard he tried. After some thought, he left the device on the grass and used string and wire to press the button from a distance.

He also scanned some other things he caught sight of like a grasshopper and a dragonfly. He would be incorporating their traits and structures into his Virtuaroid, so those small bugs could actually be quite useful. He had heard a lot trivia about the strength of spider webs and such.

After scanning a whole bunch of things, Lilina expressed some doubt from the screen.

“Touma-sama, what good is scanning that sign? That seems unnecessary for gathering Material Analyze data.”

“Don’t worry about it. These things can come in handy,” explained Kamijou as he walked away from the sign next to the manmade lake.

The sign was a notification concerning the water level adjustment drainage ditch.

Meanwhile, Index and the cat began to protest while following him around.

“Toumaaa, I’m hungry. It’s already lunchtime.”

“Oh? It’s that late already?”

He was worried about his finances, but he really did not want to head back to the dorm for lunch only to return to this park afterwards.

They ended up visiting the food cart zone that had appeared in a corner of the park’s parking lot through something of an unspoken agreement. The crowds were a bit of an annoyance, but these carts would not have all been there if not for the tournament.

“Lilina, perform a search.”

“Sure thing. Found something on the tournament’s official site. They have a portable device coupon accepted at any of the registered stands or carts.”

That was a relief.

He ignored all the stands selling portable device accessories such as POV cameras attached by the ear, sheet-style wireless keyboards, and drones that could be sent out for simple filming using the screen at one’s fingertips.

He focused on the ones selling food.

He saw the gold standards like ramen and oden, normal options like hot dogs and kebabs, and even dark horse options like skewered deep sea fish and peanut butter curry. Some were trailers lugged around by manpower and others were full-on vans.

“Let’s try them all! Them all!!”

“Not a chance!! You need to decide on one, Index!!”

They looked around and ended up checking out a seafood bowl place that only served rejects. Of course, the “rejects” did not refer to the customers; it referred to the fish the fishermen had thrown out because they would never sell. Since no one ate them, their numbers grew and they tended to wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

Kamijou Touma convinced Index by saying their delicious meal would double as a social service, but his real reason was how super cheap the rejects were when compared to bluefin tuna or sweetfish.

“Mmm! It’s actually really good! But what kind of fish is this tuna-like one!?”

“It’s best not to think about it, Index. The long deep sea fish name wouldn’t mean anything to you anyway and I promise you you’d regret the pictures you found if you searched the name on your portable device!”

Kamijou and Index chowed down while on their feet. The cat was able to eat a special cat bowl that the guy running the cart had prepared for them. Everything not on the menu must have been sold at a bargain price because it was actually more cost-effective than the human lunches.

“Touma, what are we going to do now?”

“It might not be a bad idea to check out the zoo or aquarium, but then again…the Material Analyze might not work right through the glass. Would it just scan the glass? But light and air don’t seem to affect it…”

Because people payed by portable device, there was a wireless router sitting next to the cart’s register.

Kamijou looked over at it while holding his styrofoam bowl.

(A communication device… But I doubt I could move at the speed of light if I incorporated optical fiber. And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to control it.)

“Ahh, that was yummy. Thanks for the meal.”

“It makes Kamijou-san a little sad you turned away from me and faced the guy at the cart when you said that…”

After they finished their lunch, Kamijou took his and Index’s bowls to a garbage can a short distance away.

(But if that blue Cypher really does show up again, how am I supposed to fight? Fire a long-range barrage to cut off their escape route? Stay close and keep attacking so they don’t have time to transform? The Material Analyze adjustments I choose will change depending on the answer.)

He opened the appropriate menu on his portable device and found 20 to 30 scan data files, from the cat and pigeon to small bugs. But they were essentially ingredients. What would he expand on and what would he throw out? He had a feeling those decisions were what mattered most.

Kamijou Touma had no way of knowing thanks to his amnesia, but the way Lilina spoke to him was like the aquatic mammal that had come with the word processor and spreadsheet software of an older age.

“Is something the matter? I am awaiting further inquiries.”

“It’s nothing.”

(I can just leave the data management to Lilina. I’ve heard some people do it all manually, though. …Maybe I should study up on all this. But if I go for it without knowing what I’m doing, I’ll probably screw it all up.)

He reached the recycling trash can while still deep in thought. Due to the crowds for the tournament, it was about to burst. But Kamijou Touma the House-Husband King had honed his lazy housework skills through life as a student, so that was not enough to bother him. He shoved the styrofoam bowls right on in.

That was when someone spoke to him from the side.

“Mumble, mumble…”

No, they may not have been speaking to him.

But he still turned a curious glance in that direction due to the location.

An impressive pile of garbage bags had formed right next to the trash cans for burnable and non-burnable trash. The clear bags seemed to contain grass clippings and fallen leaves, so they lacked the raw stench of kitchen waste.

Even so, was this any place for a girl to dive on top of the garbage bags and fall asleep?

Her bright hair was halfway between gold and silver, which he thought was called platinum blonde. Her hair was long, but the bangs covered one of her eyes and hid half her face. She was short and her slender body was covered by a blue outfit consisting of a white blouse with a large ribbon on the chest, a miniskirt, and a deep blue vest. Overall, it made her look like a ballerina or a figure skater. Although the pleated skirt was awfully short.

If that was all, he might have simply gasped.

Index VO 147.jpg

But this girl was brimming with an inhuman beauty that could almost be called fairylike.

But…

“…”

Kamijou covered his face with his hands.

The location could not have been worse. She felt as out of place as a teddy bear floating in a muddy river.

He honestly considered leaving. He even turned around, but then he faced her again.

He knew this was none of his business.

(But why is she sprawled out like that!? And with such a ridiculously short skirt!? Can’t you give me just one thing! Just one thing that makes me think she won’t be in trouble if I leave her here!?)

People tended not to gather in the trash area, but this was the day of the Virtual-On tournament and there was a thick wall of people not far away. And to make matters worse, someone could appear at any moment and yet it was a gloomy, deserted area.

He did not want to imagine what would happen in a strange collaboration between this defenseless girl and someone who lived a less-than-admirable life.

Once he finally resigned himself to his fate, Kamijou grabbed the shoulder of the girl sleeping peacefully in the pile of garbage bags. If an ally of justice arrived now, this visual would likely earn him a punishment.

“Hey, wake up! Why are you collapsed here!?”

“…Zzz…mumble, mumble?”

She woke up.

Surprisingly, her eyes were ruby red.

And they did not appear to be color contacts.

He could see no concern on her face, so it did not seem that she had fallen victim to an urban legend about having one’s organs taken after drinking too much. She looked like she had chosen this bed herself.

Still sprawled out on the garbage bags, the girl blinked her red eyes and spoke to him.

“Y-yawn… What in the world happened…?”

She shook her head, shaking her bangs in the process.

When Kamijou looked down at her face again, a strange sensation ran up his spine.

He recognized her.

“Huh? Lilina…?”

“Fweh?”

“What is it? Do you need something?”

Two voices replied.

He compared the face seen through the portable device and the face on the screen. The two girls looked almost…no, exactly the same.

There were differences in their clothing and coloring, but their appearances were shockingly similar. Confusion briefly fell over Kamijou, but after he chose not to write it off as a coincidence to just give up on thinking, 3 possibilities came to mind:

1. This girl had entered the real world from a portable device.

2. This girl was a cosplayer who had modeled her clothing after Lilina.

3. This girl was the model on which Lilina was based.

(Well, 2 or 3 would be the sensible choices.)

Then the girl said something else.

“Um, are you mistaking me for someone else?”

“What?”

“My name is Ririn. Furashina Ririn. My name is not Lilina…mumble…”

She did not seem all that interested.

It almost sounded like she was answering a wrong number in the middle of the night.

(She doesn’t seem interested in the tournament or Virtual-On either. Does that mean she isn’t a cosplayer?)

That left Possibility 3: This girl was the model on which Lilina was based. But if she was the model, then was she somehow connected to the developer of the Next Generation Game Virtual-On? Virtual-On was quite popular, but there were a lot of mysteries concerning who had made it and when. It felt like running across a living legend.

“Mumble…”

“Wait, wait, wait! Not there! Don’t go to sleep on the pile of trash!! There are plenty of better options! Like a bench!”

“I might not look it, but I’m a celebrity who can’t sleep in a bed with hard springs…”

“Aren’t you just driving up prices through inflation, you celebrity? Anyway, get out of there!!”

He grabbed her arm and tugged, but much to his surprise, she did not budge. Yes, picking up an entirely limp human being took a surprising amount of effort!!

As Kamijou grunted and groaned over the collapsed girl (looking incredibly suspicious as he did so), he spotted a familiar face walk by not far away.

It was Misaka Mikoto of prestigious Tokiwadai Middle School.

For some reason, she was wearing a light purple cheerleader-style outfit. He doubted she would choose to walk around the city dressed like that, so it may have had some connection to the tournament.

Perhaps she was cheering on a friend or competing herself.

Either way, he was glad to see her.

(I-I can’t do it on my own. This is perfect timing, so I should just ask for help.)

“Hey, Misak-…”

Just as he gave up and called out to her, something cut off his words.

Furashina Ririn had suddenly tugged on his arm. The unexpected force knocked him off balance and he was invited to the garbage bag bed as if he were lying over the slender girl.

“Wait, you-…mgah!?”

“Be quiet,” flatly said Furashina Ririn.

Incidentally, Kamijou had dived face-first into the girl’s flat chest while her hands firmly held his head in place, bringing him into a strange new zone.

But then she said more.

“She is dangerous. People like her are known as Hunter Hunters, so you need to be careful…”

“Mgah…what?” asked a puzzled Kamijou.

Was she referring to Mikoto with that unfamiliar term?

“A Hunter is a player who inflates their score by hunting down NPCs. A Hunter Hunter is a player who targets those players. And they are always residents of the Defected mode, just like you.”

His heart gave an icy leap in his chest.

How did she know he had Defected? And did that mean Mikoto had Defected too?

If Misaka Mikoto was participating in the tournament, wouldn’t that mean she continued to fight despite knowing the danger to those around her?

And if Furashina Ririn was Lilina’s model, she would have to be closely connected to Virtual-On’s developer.

How much did she know?

Could she provide a useful hint regarding the conflict with the Blue Stalker?

So many questions came to mind that he had difficulty judging the value of each individual one. His mind was near bursting and he did not have time to rank them all by importance.

“Wait, please wait. Can you explain everything from the beginning? Who exactly are you?”

Kamijou tried to get some information from her, but an unexpected interruption stopped him.

“…Touma.”

A low – frighteningly low – voice seemed to rise from the depths of hell.

“You were taking so long throwing out the trash that I thought you might have gotten into trouble. I was worried and came to check on you, but this is what I find?”

“Oh, Index-san.”

“Why so formal all of a sudden?”

“Please, please. I am trying to have an important discussion at the moment and I would greatly appreciate it if you did not complicate matters. So get lost!!”

“Not only are you attacking a girl on a pile of garbage, but you’re acting like a king too!? What is the meaning of this, Toumaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!?”

With that shout, the world was dyed red and black.

Part 6[edit]

Some girls’ voices could be heard within the crowds.

“Hyah, we’ve finally made it to the main tournament! I can’t believe we’re representing District 7!!”

“Auhh… But do we really have to wear these? Why do we have to dress like cheerleaders, Saten-san?”

“It’s important, Uiharu! This is a team battle, so we need an obvious sign of our unity!!”

“Unity, huh?”

“Yeah, I am worried about Misaka-san suddenly canceling on us.”

“Well, we know she isn’t the kind of person to ditch this without a good reason, but I can’t help but wonder what happened.”

“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we can’t seem to contact Shirai-san either. Then again, it might turn out that someone from their school found out and they’ve been confined to their dorm. They do go to a fancy school after all.”

“N-now that I think about it, aren’t we in a lot of trouble? It’s just you and me now, Saten-san, and our opponents will probably have a full team of 4.”

“Not a problem! They’ve been registered as part of our team, so they might arrive late and join in. We just have to trust in our teammates and keep fighting!”

The girls wearing bright purple cheerleader outfits vanished into the crowd.

Part 7[edit]

Kamijou Touma knew he had to do something.

The short platinum blonde girl named Furashina Ririn had disappeared without interacting with Kamijou and Index much. She must not have had much interest in other people because she had wandered off without even saying goodbye. He had wanted to run after her, but he had lost sight of her in the crowds.

“Oh, how about you purchase 3…no, 6 of the aerial filming drones from that stand over there and search for her from the sky?” suggested Lilina. “Her distinctive blue clothes and platinum blonde hair should stand out.”

“You fool, don’t underestimate the emptiness of Kamijou-san’s pocketbook.”

“Umm, according to the bank account in Kamijou Touma’s name, your remaining balance is-…”

“I wasn’t asking for an answer! And that’s scary! When did this device get linked to my bank account!? And when it’s connected to the internet!”

“Either way, I’m not sure why you would want to brag about how poor you are.”

So Kamijou assumed that was the end of it.

However…

“…Touma.”

“Yeah.”

After less than 2 minutes of walking around, they spotted Furashina curled up on the park lawn like a cat in the sun.

He shook her shoulders to wake her, but she walked off again. Then they found her sleeping underneath a fish & chips van.

Finally, they ran across her sleeping with her next to a drink vending machine. Her head was sticking inside a wire mesh trash while her miniskirt and small butt were sticking up into the air.

That was when Kamijou Touma realized he truly had to do something about this.

“Cut it out!! What do you hope to accomplish by worrying Kamijou-san’s peace-loving heart!?”

“Nfweh…?”

Furashina Ririn looked his way after he pulled her head from the trash can, but the eye visible past her long bangs looked unfocused and her cheeks were red. And her reactions were incredibly sluggish.

He was certain she was not listening.

Just like the homing instinct of a drunk, she was moving entirely on reflex.

Kamijou scratched at his spiky hair, sighed, and pulled out his portable device. He glanced over at the drink vending machine next to the trash can.

“Okay, fine. Here, I’ll give you some coffee, so drink that to wake up. This is actually weird. Not even a TV station’s AD can sleep like that.”

“Ah, no fair, Touma!! If people accept that lazing around is enough to get a treat, this country’s economy will collapse!!”

“Sounds like your lifestyle in a nutshell to me.”

Due to the crowd, some of the buttons had the “sold out” light active, but the black coffee was still in stock. He pulled out his portable device, held it up to the vending machine, and grabbed the hot can that clunked down to the bottom.

But he was soon stopped.

“Sorry, but I don’t like hot things or bitter things.”

“That’s why it’ll help wake you up.”

“I don’t like what I don’t like.”

“You mean I wasted my money!? Uhh, here, Index! Open your mouth!!”

“A chance to steal it for myself!? …Glug, glug, glug, glug…ahhh, that was refreshing.”

The black coffee effect seemed to make Index’s face look slimmer and more dignified, but he did not have time to focus on that now.

These small expenses were no laughing matter when they piled up, but he bought another one.

(Anything’s fine as long as it’ll wake her up.)

So he chose a carbonated energy drink from the drinks without the “sold out” light active. This one was known for its fairly harsh effects.

“Sorry, but carbonated drinks make me feel bloated and sick. Pass.”

“Index.”

“Gyahavobarhahhh!! I’m brimming with energy!!!!!”

After making sure the drink did not go to waste, Index had something of a punk aura around her, but that was still not Kamijou’s focus.

He could not leave that blonde napping idiot without doing something about her sleepiness.

“Is there anything I can do? I get the feeling she’ll just refuse if I try to feed her something super spicy.”

“The more fundamental problem is that sleeping is my job. Or maybe you could say remaining asleep is my duty.”

“That level of laziness might be the dream of all mankind, but…oh, I know. There are food carts here too. Come here a minute!!”

Furashina Ririn would disappear and fall asleep somewhere if he let her, so he was forced to grab her fairly warm hand as he walked through the park. Index’s spirit had been sent to the world of punk, so she was too busy headbanging to make any of her usual comments.

Kamijou returned to where they had eaten lunch earlier. As he walked around the food trucks gathered in the parking lot, he spotted the perfect one.

“A coffee jelly sundae. Hmm, that should work. …I’m a bit worried about this price that looks inflated for the tournament, though.”

“Coffee is bitt-…”

“It’s almost all syrup and whipped cream!! Can you please meet me halfway here!?”

Kamijou forced the issue and prepared to hold his portable device up to the reader on the counter.

At that very moment, Furashina puffed out her cheeks and narrowed her visible eye while still looking nearly emotionless.

“In other words, I can avoid the bitterness by keeping that from working.”

“Hm?”

Immediately afterwards, an odd tone sounded from his portable device.

“Wah!”

“What? I’m getting an error too!”

“Is something wrong with the communication base? No, this app doesn’t exchange data.”

He looked around and noticed a small commotion.

The Virtual-On tournament itself seemed to be continuing without issue, but the portable devices in this section of the rest area had all ceased functioning.

“Ahyarawarbrr!? Wh-what is with these packets?”

Lilina’s eyes were spinning on the screen.

Could it be?

“Are you hacking the device with some kind of electric or data esper power!?” he asked the girl.

“I’m not sure what you mean by esper power…”

“N-nyo, Touma-shama, this portable devishe should theoretically be immune to any attack method reliant on the shtandard binary-based von Neumann architecture. It doesh not matter if it comesh from an equation or eshper power.”

“Then what’s going on?”

Kamijou felt shocked anew, but Furashina Ririn did not hold her head high.

In fact, it drooped down.

She was preparing to fall asleep.

“Yawn… That should give me…some time to…”

“Unfortunately for you, Furashina, Kamijou-san keeps a 5000 yen bill hidden in his sock for times like this!”

“————”

“And if you don’t fix this bizarre problem right this instant, I’ll give up on the coffee jelly sundae and bring you a piping hot hell with the blackest coffee I can find! I’ll pour it down your throat whether you like it or not, so choose wisely!!”

Limp Furashina’s red eyes dilated slightly.

That was all.

“Huh?”

“It’s back…”

“It scares me that I have no idea what happened.”

Everything was back to normal.

Unsure what had happened, Kamijou looked around, but…

“Mumble mumble, zzz…”

“T-Touma. I’m about to be crushed here.”

He had to do something about Furashina Ririn, partially because she was leaning all of her weight on Index. To do that, he needed the caffeine of the coffee jelly sundae.

So he ordered one.

As the Kamijou household’s finances were driven into even more dire straits, he held up his portable device and purchased the necessary item. The three of them sat at one of the simple tables put together for the food cart customers. They were quite crowded, but they managed to find space to sit. A lot of people had their portable device on the table to watch the matches while they ate. Seeing people watch it on a video site while sitting within the actual battle stage was an odd sight.

“…Sob. This is Nakamura Mary. The next standout card is over here.”

“…”

“Here we have the Comet Strikers team that looks like out-of-control trucks after adding skates to ultra-heavyweight Dordray to forcibly give it some mobility. And their opponent is the Killer Trench team that uses Apharmds with the improved disturbance abilities thanks to stabbing their shields into the ground to mass-produce obstacles. I can’t wait to see how it turns out! Sob…”

“That’s quite the change of heart there. I’m impressed at how depressed it makes you. It really must be frightening to get your sponsor mad at you.”

It was time for the coffee jelly sundae.

The spiky-haired boy was unsure of the difference between a parfait and a sundae, but this looked like a wide container with lots of die-shaped pieces of coffee jelly poured in, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream piled on top, coconut syrup dumped over that, and finally a stick-shaped cookie stuck diagonally in. It also looked like a mas of calories that would last someone stranded in the mountains or a desert island until rescue arrived if they ate it bit by bit. Simply put, it was the enemy of girls everywhere.

“I’ve turned into something of a bad guy for ordering that for her. Well, just eat it. You can tremble in fear once your mind is functioning again. You need to find something to worry about, even if it’s just your weight.”

“Ah, the napping girl has reached the next stage!? Lazing around gets you a veritable house of sweets!?”

“Don’t you recover now! And again, that’s your normal life!!”

“And the napping girl is snoring with her face inside the container.”

“Don’t ruin it like that!!”

Hearing a strange bubbling sound from where Furashina Ririn’s face was submerged in the ice cream, Kamijou quickly grabbed the nape of her neck and lifted her head. He had bought all that coffee jelly to wake her up and yet she was about to use it to give herself eternal slumber.

“C’mon, look this way so I can wipe off your face.”

“Nfhh?”

“This handkerchief sure is getting a lot of whipped cream off. If I tied you to a tree, I bet you’d attract rhinoceros beetles…”

Even if she had a small face, it was still impressive that the sundae was large enough to contain it all. She would have had difficulty finishing it all herself, so they all shared it in a casual family hotpot style.

“Chomp, chomp!! Munch, munch, munch!! Touma, that clump of vanilla there is mine!!”

“This will be entirely useless if you eat it all! And Furashina’s about to fall asleep again since you’re excluding her!!”

The girl seemed to have almost no independence. Or rather, any time not focused on her would be entirely wasted. Kamijou finally grabbed her spoon, scooped up some coffee jelly, and developed a delivery style of culinary culture.

Index grew somewhat irritated as she watched.

“…Touma. I didn’t think I was going to see the old-fashioned ‘say ah’ here.”

“I’m well aware this is a legendary art that had supposedly faded into the mists of time, but there’s no other option here! I have to take one for the team. If I don’t throw out my shame, we’ll be stuck here forever!!”

Finally, he managed to get a bite in her mouth.

Furashina Ririn’s mouth moved like a small animals and then she swallowed.

“Gulp.”

“She swallowed it. Oh, my! This girl just swallowed my coffee jelly, Index-san!!”

“If that’s enough to move you to emotion, then I’m confident I can submerge America in a sea of tears 24/7.”

That said, Index seemed somewhat interested, so she scooped up some coffee jelly in her small spoon and carried it toward Furashina Ririn’s mouth. The girl’s mouth moved on reflex like a drunk’s homing instinct.

The caffeine’s blessing must have reached her after a short delay because life gradually filled her dull eyes.

Her wobbling head suddenly stopped.

“Mh? This isn’t good. My drowsiness is about to vanish entirely.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

She ignored Kamijou’s comment, rubbed her eyes through her bangs, and then reached upwards to stretch her back. When she leaned back a little, her sensual but undeveloped feminine bodylines showed through her blue vest somewhat. Whether sleepy or wide awake, she seemed to do things at her own pace.

Regardless, it looked like she was not going to fall asleep below a van or with her face in a trash can anymore.

“Mission complete. Finally.”

Kamijou gave into his annoyance and let his legs sprawl out in front of him while sitting in his seat. He also plopped the portable device down on the table. Just like removing a wristwatch or cellphone, it provided an illogical sense of relaxation.

He glanced down at the device.

“I need to do something about this soon. With the Defection and Blue Stalker, the problems keep piling up. What am I even supposed to do?”

“…”

Furashina Ririn’s eyes were drawn toward the portable device too.

After a pause, she asked a question.

“Do you hate that thing?”

“Hmm?”

After a glance over at Index who was consuming the rest of the coffee jelly now that it was not needed to wake up the other girl, Kamijou answered without really thinking.

“I do.”

It was a piercing answer.

Furashina Ririn gasped a bit, but he continued.

“It brings all sorts of extra problems like the Blue Stalker and such. Defection? I don’t care about that. Why would I even want ‘more’? Its only value is in being fun, so I don’t care whether or not it’s useful. But they felt the need to add on that extra stuff.”

“…”

The girl’s eyes moved so slightly no one would have noticed.

It was like she was viewing a dream.

“What is your name? She seems to call you ‘Touma’.”

“Oh, I’m Kamijou Touma. Come to think of it, I bought a giant dessert for someone I hadn’t even introduced myself to.”

“Kamijou Touma-kun. I must remain asleep.”

“?”

Kamijou looked puzzled.

The light blonde girl looked him in the eye using the eye hidden by her bangs.

“I thank you for showing me something that makes me want to wake up despite that.”

Part 8[edit]

Kamijou could not remember what had happened, but the next thing he knew, Furashina Ririn was gone. She would apparently appear and wander off randomly whether she was feeling sleepy or not. She had a surprisingly ephemeral presence for how much of an impact she left.

Kamijou was returning the empty coffee jelly sundae container to the food truck. Unlike the styrofoam bowls from before, this was an expensive-looking glass container. He had Index wait for him at the table. Not because he was spoiling her, but because taking her through the food cart zone would only increase their expenses.

And that was when he ran across someone.

“Huh? You…?”

“Misaka?”

After casually speaking her name, he recalled what Furashina Ririn had said earlier.

She was dangerous.

She was known as a Hunter Hunter.

“What are you doing here? Are you watching the tournament?”

“More importantly.” Kamijou took a step back with a quizzical look on his face. “What’s with that getup? Are you a cheerleader???”

Mikoto followed his gaze down to her chest, her navel, and below. She quickly covered her miniskirt with both hands.

She rubbed her thighs together and blushed.

“I-I have my reasons! Like friendship, or unity, or something that started as a bit of fun but turned into representing District 7!!”

“???”

She snapped back at him, but she seemed to be her usual self.

He could not tell what had made Furashina so concerned.

Mikoto spotted the portable device attached near Kamijou’s belt.

“Oh, so you’re playing Virtual-On, too.”

“I only started recently, though. I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“(I see. So he’s a beginner. Then he wouldn’t be deep enough into it to Defect. That’s good.)”

“Misaka?”

“Nyothing!!”

She shook her head, stuck her flailing hands in front of her face, and kept him from getting close.

“If I have time later, I can show you the ropes.”

“Hm? But…”

“Oh, well, you know what my school is like, right? I’m afraid what would happen if it got out I had a guy’s address registered. Unlike a cellphone, a lot isn’t known about how the data is managed, so it might be automatically linked to some SNS and the list might be stored somewhere else where the dorm manager could see it.”

“Oh, I see,” was all he could find to say.

Kamijou himself wanted to avoid playing against normal players since he had Defected. Defecting happened when you destroyed your controller while playing, but he had been inspired to do so while fighting the Blue Stalker who was a Defected player. That might not happened again, but there was still a chance of him leading someone else to Defect. And if he knew the risk, he wanted to avoid forcing that on another player.

“Well, I’ll be going,” said Mikoto. “Oh, right.”

“What is it?”

“If you see any other girls dressed like this, could you tell them I’m here?”

She clasped her hands in front of her face and made an odd request.

Kamijou looked puzzled.

“It’s not like I know anyone else from Tokiwadai.”

“They’re not actually Tokiwadai students. But if I get into the details, I’m afraid it would give you a connection to them and cause an unwanted miracle to happen. Then again, you have a way of expanding your group of friends no matter what, so that might not help much… Well, it doesn’t matter. Just please do that if you see them!”

“Sure.” After that casual response, Kamijou felt a need to say more. “But, Misaka, if things get really bad, come talk to me about it. I don’t want things to ever again end up like they did with that experiment.”

“…”

“Don’t think you’ve missed your chance because you didn’t come to me earlier and don’t assume I’ll get involved on my own when things get worse. As soon as things look bad, come tell me about it. It’s never too late to get a helping hand.”

“You…”

Mikoto started to say something, but she swallowed the words.

And she smiled.

“Understood. I won’t hesitate to get you involved next time. It doesn’t matter if you’re lined up at a ramen shop or if you’re fighting for a one-per-customer pack of eggs. You made me promise, so don’t you cry about it later.”

“Sure.”

Kamijou and Mikoto waved goodbye and parted ways.

After getting rid of the trash and taking a breath, the familiar girl was gone.

Only then did a fundamental question occur to him.

(What was she doing here anyway?)

He had no answer to that question.

He belatedly looked around the area.

But the familiar face he spotted was not Mikoto.

“Hi there, Kami-yan. I hear you’ve gotten a Defected PD and taken a step off the straight and narrow.”

He turned that way and saw short hair dyed blond, thin blue sunglasses, and gold accessories jangling from the neck. It was Tsuchimikado Motoharu. He was one of Kamijou’s classmates just like Aogami Pierce, but he had another face as well.

He was a magic side spy who had infiltrated Academy City from outside to monitor the city from within.

He was also a double spy who had worked his way into the underside of Academy City where he acted as a vanguard of the science side.

Kamijou’s mouth flapped.

“What? How do you-? How much do you-?”

“We’ll both be much happier if you don’t know the details, nyah. More importantly, Kami-yan, do you really understand what kind of situation you’ve wound up in?”

“Situation?”

“Where does the danger lie and who’s the enemy? Where shouldn’t you go and what shouldn’t you do? What does Defecting really mean? There are a lot of questions needing answering.”

“…”

Now that he mentioned it, Kamijou did not know any of that.

In his mind, gaining a Defected portable device gave your Virtuaroid much greater freedom but losing came with some kind of dangerous penalty. And during battle, there was a risk of causing your opponent to Defect if the situation was right. He had no proof of it, but that vague understanding gave off the same pressure as a minefield.

That was why his only plan was to avoid randomly challenging anyone else while finding a way to defeat the Blue Stalker who was likely to return for a rematch.

What was the penalty?

How exactly was it triggered?

“Open the search engine called Lord of Lords, change the overall search settings to a video search, and type in ‘The Phoenix’. With a Defected PD, you should just barely manage to pick up on the site.”

“The Phoenix?”

“The administrator doesn’t give a crap about ‘the right to be forgotten’, so it’s a cruel site that gathers and saves any posts, videos, streaming broadcasts, records, leaked classified data, or personal information that was requested to be deleted. If you find it, then search ‘Fate of a Defected PD’ on the site itself. That should get you all the data you want, Kami-yan.”

However, Tsuchimikado added a “but”.

A light sharper than a knife stabbed out from behind his sunglasses.

That secret plotter continued to drive home a point.

“Do not search for anything else. Don’t mistype a single character. That place is a crucible of malice and home to the people who enjoy the internet’s dark side. If a normal person stays there for too long, it’ll seriously destroy their personality. Don’t forget that, nyah.”

“You mean…”

“It’s like Kunekune or Mary-san. Make a mistake and you could star in your very own creepy online legend, Kami-yan. …And be very careful from here on out. Nee-chin and that group should be taking action soon, nyah.”

“…”

Kamijou was left entirely speechless.

What had he gotten himself involved in? And how deeply? Wasn’t Defecting no more than turning off his own security settings to let Temjin move more smoothly?

He heard a cheer erupt in the distance.

Something major must have happened in the Virtual-On tournament.

But that enthusiastic heat only made this place feel all the colder.

Tsuchimikado waved and left, but Kamijou remained motionless in front of a food cart for a while. He felt a cold weight in his stomach that should have been full of coffee jelly.

He looked down at his portable device.

Accessing some strange site felt like throwing himself into the antlion pit, so he was hesitant to take that first step.

But he would definitely fall behind without enough information.

If it was just him, that would be one thing. But what if the depthless problem surrounding the Blue Stalker also reached Index and the others?

“I guess I have to do it.”

With that annoyed comment, Kamijou operated his portable device.

He changed the settings as Tsuchimikado had said, found the site, and typed in the search terms: Fate of a Defected PD.

That text had a dangerous ring to it and it produced a few dozen results. There were too many to fit on the screen and scrolling did not immediately reach the end.

But he was surprised to find that the results were not all cruel and gloomy files.

He tried opening one and found text from a short-message SNS.

“Cat Tar: I tried out that Defection thing that everyone’s talking about. I’d heard it really powers up your Material Analyze and, if the rumors are true, it also lets you use the Reverse Convert. I’m about to go try it out, so I’m really excited.”

The image used in place of an icon was of a girl about Kamijou’s age. Of course, he had no guarantee that was actually what this person looked like.

It was something else that caught his attention.

(Reverse Convert…?)

He had never heard that term before.

He just about typed the term into the site’s search box, but then he remembered Tsuchimikado’s warning: Do not search for anything else. Don’t mistype a single character. He slowly breathed out and obediently scrolled down hoping to find an answer in the information he had now.

“There it is.”

It was in blog format, but the page made him think it was an individual attempt at writing an online encyclopedia.

Reverse Convert.

Category: Rumor.

Veracity: Unknown.

In the Next Generation Game Virtual-On, a player can use the Material Analyze function to alter the parameters of their Virtuaroid. But a Defected PD can supposedly send the customized Virtuaroid’s modification data back to the player instead.

The veracity and meaning of this are both unknown.

Is it similar to inputting an RPG’s STR, INT, VIT, AGI, MIN, and LUK stats into the human body, or is it more like drawing out the magic and skills directly? How the supporters of this rumor define it greatly changes what must be proven wrong in an argument against them.

However, how the Material Analyze applies adjustments to the Virtuaroids is still mostly shrouded in mystery, so it isn’t hard to see how that black box led to rumors of how it might affect people instead.

If this were entirely true and worked with the Material Analyze, it would go beyond the plain Virtuaroid. If the data acquired from the real world could be inputted into your unit and then returned to the player, would it mean any material, traits, or conditions from the real world – such as bird feathers or the weight of iron – be incorporated into the human body?

“Returned to…the player?”

Kamijou spoke it aloud possibly because he was having trouble processing it in his mind.

(So is it like levelling up in a game and becoming stronger in reality? But Virtual-On isn’t an RPG where you train your body. It’s about robots…)

It would definitely cause problems if playing Virtual-On made him grow to colossal size or able jump up to a high-rise building’s rooftop. He wanted a clearer definition of what this meant.

(Then again…)

This was Academy City.

Well-defined paranormal phenomena were common here.

The word Virtuaroid referred to a great variety of units and every one was different. He had selected several of them while fighting Index, and some had powerful attacks, some had thick armor, and some had high speed. There were simple ones like Apharmd which specialized in hand-to-hand fighting using nimble footwork, but there were also ones like Angelan or Specineff that gave physical form to the psychological or directly interfered with and attacked it.

What if that kind of “power” was directly drawn out?

That would mean more than just multiplying one’s physical strength, allowing them to stop a metal bat with their skin, or letting them run faster than a car. What if they could reach the kind of power that could only be described as paranormal?

Wouldn’t that mean the creation of a new “system” separate from Academy City’s?

(Esper powers and magic can’t coexist due to the side effects between them, but this could be dangerous if those side effects don’t exist.)

Academy City’s students found a great variety of ways to make use of a single power such as fire or water. So how far would things branch out if they could mix multiple powers?

For example, what if Misaka Mikoto gained the power to freeze her target’s feet to hold them in place before she fired her Railgun?

For example, what if Kamijou Touma gained any power at all to go along with his fist?

“…”

That possibility briefly crossed his mind, but Kamijou shook his head.

That seemed somehow wrong.

Even if he could easily acquire a new “system” and even if he could crawl up from being known as a Level 0, something was not right.

If he gained a power too easily, he would rely on it too easily.

If he had not faced that power over a long period of time, he would not know how to restrain himself.

And if he started using it like that, he would fail spectacularly at some point. If he broke his own bone, it might just mean a pricey bill, but if it bared its fangs against those around him, he could end up doing something unforgivable.

Plus, even if he could use the Material Analyze on himself, he could not predict how it would affect him or how far it would spread. He might combine the sturdiness of steel with the litheness of a wild beast, but that would not be thoroughly endurance tested and debugged like a corporate product. He would be incorporating it into his own body right away. The risk to himself and others was endless.

It sounded so ridiculous that he might have laughed it off if he had simply heard the rumor.

But Kamijou knew he could not do that.

Yes.

There had been an unnatural Ring Scan after he had Defected.

And he had apparently disappeared. Depending on how that worked, this could be very bad indeed.

He continued through the data and found a series of posts from a message board.

Unconfirmed Info Thread 19

Post 113:

Is the Reverse Convert really as convenient as they claim? Then again, there are some people getting all worked up over the possibility of it tearing down the current hierarchy that overemphasizes esper powers.

Post 114:

Yeah, but the risks are huge. It isn’t normal to take on characteristics of other plants, animals, and machines via your unit’s traits. It should be obvious to anyone who gives it two seconds of thought, but only people who can’t do jack on their own will fall for this Reverse nonsense. Those losers deserve to lose.

Post 115:

Plus, it’s not like you would only get the positive data from your unit. If you incorporated a fish’s gills with the Material Analyze and then used the Reverse Convert, would you suffocate? In fact, wouldn’t doing it with other animals screw with the layout of your blood vessels and pretty much always kill you instantly?

Post 116:

I don’t know about anything that extreme, but check out the video sites. When someone makes a ton of rough plays and the refs dock them tons of points, things get bad. They apparently fall into a state a lot like sensory deprivation. That might mean something’s being taken out of them, but it sounds dangerous when you add a Personal Reality into the equation. Real dangerous.

Post 117:

Personal Reality? I thought only the talentless would rely on the RC?

Post 118:

It’s actually no laughing matter. Oh, if you don’t know, sensory deprivation refers to being blindfolded and having your arms in tubes for a long period of time so your ability to think fades away. As they keep making rough plays and their debt piles up, their senses gradually dull and they end up in a similar state. And that’ll lead to a collapse of their entire personality. In the worst cases, it might mess up their motor nerves and autonomic nerves, leading to loss of muscular strength and organ failure.

Post 119:

Nice essay there, lol. But there are a lot of different kinds of organ failure. Is it gonna kill their appendix?

Post 120:

It’s the ones who laugh at it that go pale when they watch the video for fun.

Video sites.

Go pale.

Kamijou’s fingertips started feeling heavy. Ominously, this was the result of searching the site for “Fate of a Defected PD”. The closer he got to the heart of the matter, the greater the pressure grew.

He focused on the video files in the dozens of candidates available to him.

He soon found what he was looking for.

(Is this what they were talking about?)

It had likely been uploaded to some video sharing site or another. The window displayed the same girl seen in the short-message SNS icon.

However, something was wrong with her.

It was grainy footage. It looked like someone had filmed it with a cellphone or portable device instead of a specialized camera. The shaky footage appeared to be at a center somewhere and a large group of boys and girls were surrounding something. The cameraman was one of the onlookers.

That girl was at the center.

She was slumped down on the road and unable to stand on her own.

Her fingers clawed at her chest, her neck, and every other part of her body. Something not quite a voice and not quite a noise escaped the corner of her lips.

“H-hshhh…gahh, hkhhh…! S-someone…someone…!!”

Autonomic nerves and organ failure.

Wasn’t that what the posts on that message board had said?

“Fight-…cough, cough! Wheeze, wheeze…please…help…”

She lacked something.

And if she lacked something, it must have been taken away from her.

The footage was grainy and blurry, and Kamijou did not have any special video analysis software. But the odd tension escaping the small device told him all too well that this was not fake.

As the onlookers watched on in horror, a few of them finally prepared to fight her. Was that what she wanted, or was she simply so weak that lying down could easily cause her to suffocate on her own saliva? She could not walk herself, so she had to be carried to an egg-shaped cradle station inside the center. Eventually, the actual Virtual-On match began.

But.

“Hey, what’s going on? That girl isn’t moving!”

“This is bad. The negative judgment took away some of her points. She can’t fight like that. The ref doesn’t like how she’s relying on long-range and being too careful. No amount of shooting will help if she can’t score a down and she’s only losing points in the meantime. Her command log must be growing entirely black. And if she loses any more points…!”

“That’s enough. We need to get her out of there. Cut her connection!”

People quickly gathered around the cradle station. They slid open the door.

And they found something strange inside.

Or rather, they did not find what should have been there.

The cradle station was a small room with no other exit.

And yet the girl had entirely vanished from within.

It quickly disappeared, but a slight ring of light was visible for a moment.

It looked like a hula hoop and it disappeared like it had been no more than an illusion.

Come to think of it, hadn’t Aogami Pierce mentioned an unnatural second Ring Scan?

The ring of light had passed over Kamijou from top to bottom and then he had vanished.

The size more than the shape reminded Kamijou of something.

(That thing on the Virtuaroid’s back. Was it called the V-Disc?)

As a beginner to the game, Kamijou did not know what that meant, but the documents gathered for him contained a text that answered that question.

“Well, it’s only part of the game’s setting,” [but it seems like the Virtuaroids aren’t just normal robots.] <The data in> {the V-Disc on their back} (is materialized and remade into something tangible.)

Kamijou frowned.

The text and explanation seemed to jump around because, while this was generally an amateur-compiled encyclopedia, it was made to gather the corresponding keywords from blogs and SNSs all across the internet and combine them as smoothly as possible when the cursor was placed over it.

You could always just call it big data, but this was only the most trusted opinion at the moment and that did not mean it was absolutely correct. Once more posts were made, this text would change. It was only a piece of reference material and could be dangerous to simply accept.

[The V-Disc sometimes glows red.] “And the cover called the motor deck” (will pop open.) <What does that mean?> {It also glows when dashing.}

But the contents shocked Kamijou enough that he froze in place for a while.

Was that true?

It wasn’t just gathering some false information?

It was enough to make him wonder that.

“Aren’t Virtuaroids pretty slim? They don’t really have a spot large enough to fit a cockpit, do they?”

[The original setting has them being remote controlled.] (It’s true I’ve never seen any kind of door or hatch open on the armor.) {That part on the back does seem the most suspicious since they all have it in common.} “And even if they did have a hidden door, there’s no space inside. You’d be squeezed in tight.” [Maybe it’s more like being absorbed or swallowed than boarding. Where do our bodies go???]

That was no laughing matter when Aogami Pierce had said Kamijou Touma had vanished before his eyes.

Plus, this had turned up in the results of a search for “Fate of a Defected PD”. Anything here had to be related to that.

There was more written there.

It must have been locked in some way because the text here did not change.

(Personal Opinion)

I honestly think the most likely explanation for the disappearing players is that they simply do not return after entering their Virtuaroid. Is it some kind of side effect, or is it a physical phenomenon made to look like that? However, I have no idea why anyone would want to copy a phenomenon no one knows about. Copycats generally see value in mimicking a famous incident that shocked everyone.

Are these disappearances centered on the Next Generation Game Virtual-On, or is there some overlap with something entirely different or a natural phenomenon? More discussion is needed on that question.

“………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………”

He tried to say “You’re kidding, right?”, but he could not even produce a scratchy voice.

What was really going on here?

Some unbelievable incident was underway at some level or another.

“…What happened?” he said without thinking.

What did this mean? What was he supposed to ask next???

If Aogami Pierce was right, a ring of light (The V-Disc’s power?) carried the player away when using a Defected PD to fight.

So what had happened to that girl?

Could it be?

Had she disappeared and never returned?

Everything he saw here was data from the past. He could not ask it questions and expect an answer and it was impossible to change what he saw there.

But it affected him too.

He too had been thrown into that world.

So his senses could fade away.

He could fall into a state much like sensory deprivation, find himself unable to maintain his thoughts, and even have his organs fail.

And did it get even worse than that?

“You have to be kidding me. I haven’t heard much about these disappearances, but are Defected players of this Next Generation Game truly disappearing!?”

This could not be explained by the placebo effect or by light and sound stimulation.

This was touching on something related to a human’s…no, to the world’s laws.

A strange chill crawled across his skin.

Yes.

For one thing…

(I was using the Material Analyze like it’s normal, but it’s the same. It claims to be scanning the material, but how exactly does it do that?)

He tried checking through the rest of the data, but the further down the list he got, the less related the data was and he felt like the answers were vanishing before his eyes. This may have been a problem unique to the internet.

But most of the data he saw was far from reassuring.

Some were short-message SNS posts, some were requests for advice on a message board, and some were gameplay videos.

Due to the disparate formats, he felt like it was spreading to every corner of the city and it made his skin crawl. It was like flipping up the rug and finding tiny bugs covering the floor.

“No, no, no! I can’t even run 5 km anymore!?”

“I can’t see anything in my head when I read. The text doesn’t lead to any kind of image. What’s happening to me? Can I get back what was taken from me???”

“This is game, right? It’s a competition. So it’s like gambling: there’s no way to keep winning forever! Even when you’re playing fair and square, you sometimes get called on a rough play. You’ll eventually hit a slump somewhere and you can’t recover if that means something critical is taken from you. I bet they’ve only been thinking about taking everything from us from the beginning!”

Strengths, special skills, talents. It was a dance of sorrowful voices from those who had had the central pillar of their being stripped away.

Virtual-On was primarily a Next Generation Game in which one enjoyed battling others. And the Material Analyze feature allowed the players to adjust it as they saw fit. There was no single strongest Virtuaroid and people could put together their own specialized unit if they did not like who was currently at the top.

There was no way of guaranteeing victory.

There was no safe zone.

Even if a temporary one was found, the latest tactics would always be crushed by even newer tactics. From the lowest rookie to the top player, everyone would lose eventually. Even if someone tried to play fair, it was common for them to make a rough play when provoked enough. The problem was that the occasional rough play was weighted more heavily than all the times one played fairly.

Wasn’t it time to stop complaining about inconvenience?

Wasn’t it time to turn off the portable device’s wireless…no, to switch it off altogether?

Kamijou started to think so, but then some more unconfirmed information shook him to the core.

“Come to think of it, I’ve heard that some people disappeared after Defecting even when they switched off the power. Does that mean the penalties keep piling up just because you’re refusing to play? That’ll piss off the people who have switched off their wireless because they don’t want to lose another battle. Well, the Reverse Convert itself is fake, so maybe it’s all nothing more than rumors.”

There was no escape.

If there was, a search for their “fate” would not have turned up anything.

Or so it seemed after reading through this data from the past.

Part 9[edit]

Not all parts of the city were bustling with activity for the Virtual-On tournament.

Seedy darkness filled the depths of an alley.

A rhythmic clacking noise rang there. It was the sound of a modern-style cane that looked like a longer version of a T-shaped tonfa. White hair and red eyes were visible above it. Anyone even slightly familiar with Academy City would never want to meet this person in the shadows of the city. That monster walked slowly but resolutely down the narrow path.

He was Academy City’s #1 Level 5.

He was known as Accelerator.

“Is this the place?”

The white-haired monster mercilessly kicked down the thick metal door. Something unbelievable occurred. He only tapped lightly with his toes, but the locks and the hinges immediately burst off and the door itself shot inside like an artillery shell.

The door was made of the same composite material as tanks and it was more than 50cm thick even if it had not looked it from the outside. The locks had a total of 16 bolts. More importantly, this was not just a back entrance. This space was architecturally positioned so that it was impossible to set foot inside without prying open the kind of door found on a bank vault.

He ignored all of it.

There were no windows inside. A lot of LCD monitors must have been lined up like in a day trader’s dealing room, but they had all been smashed to pieces as the door shell flew by a second ago.

And beyond the bent door, the crushed contents of the sandwich uttered a messy groan.

“U-uuh…”

It was a young man. Due to living in an air-conditioned room year-round, he must have lost sight of the season. He was wearing a shirt and shorts that might have been indoor wear but might have been outdoor wear.

“Wh-who hired you? Are you here to delete a VIP’s disgraceful data? But it’s too bad for you. This is only a terminal. The online assets, that shared culture of knowledge, can never be infringed by anyone…”

“I can’t believe this,” muttered Accelerator. “I have no interest in your life.”

“…”

“Cut the crap and don’t bother looking into any of this. All you have to do is answer my questions and I’ll free you from this shitty situation. Understand the rules?”

With that said, Accelerator looked around the room just once.

Most of the monitors were spewing sparks and useless, but there were some other notable things in here. There was a logo on the wall. Accelerator had seen it here and there on the internet and this man may have designed it himself and printed it out.

The Phoenix.

That cruel hidden site claimed its objective was to preserve, release, and share the disgraceful data found on the internet.

“Who are you spreading this data for?”

“Wh-what are you-…?”

The man trailed off.

The hand not holding the modern-style cane was suddenly holding a giant scythe taller than Accelerator.

It had nothing like a sheath and it was far too large to hide.

It seemed to have simply appeared from thin air.

No.

Wait.

“You can guess what this means, right?”

“…”

“Well, if I wanted to, I could use my vector manipulation to control the electrons in your head, but if I’ve got a specialized tool, I might as well use it.” Accelerator slowly shook the scythe’s tip as he spoke. “Isn’t Specineff a Virtuaroid that specializes in psychological attacks and hits the enemy with various status disorders?

“W-wait. Wait just a- ebrmorgjah!?”

The tip of the scythe-shaped weapon named Ifleesa merely touched the collapsed man’s forehead.

His language capability collapsed, his expression faded, and his body grew limp in only a few seconds.

The #1 had clearly caused a paranormal phenomenon separate from his vector manipulation.

And it was from a different system than Academy City’s esper development.

To top it all off, he displayed no side effects whatsoever.

“…This really isn’t funny,” spat out the white-haired monster while resting the scythe’s handle on his shoulder.

The man sprawled out on the floor was now a faucet of words. It was time to get the needed information out of him.

The #1 asked the exact same question again.

“Who are you spreading this data for?”

There was a dramatic difference.

The man revealed the information with empty eyes. It was happened so smoothly it was actually creepy.

It was less like he was being obedient or cooperative and more like he had been deprived of food and sleep and then kept from resisting through violence or drugs.

“No one hired me. I had a small goal in letting it be known I was gathering articles on the Defections and revealing that hidden data.”

“Out with it.”

“Assets.”

He spoke normally.

There were none of the phony niceties found at a bank ATM.

But that created a mismatch that left no sense of a human will behind the words, so it filled the listener with an intense impression that something was wrong.

“Virtual-On rapidly spread across Academy City, right? But you can’t start that kind of movement for free. With the portable devices, the specialized centers, and how the information was advertised and spread, someone paid a ton of money to get that done. It’s the same as airing lots of ads during primetime. I heard an interesting rumor saying the user known as the Blue Stalker had started it all. Makes you wonder just how much money they’ve got, doesn’t it?”

“…”

“Of course, Virtual-On has gained an insane amount of attention. Do you call it the power to spread information? I mentioned TV ads before, but the billboards and banners at that tournament have gone way beyond that level. They’ve gained control of a very large market share. The more money you spend, the more you can earn. Construction companies, general trading companies, and famous corporations must want to contact them. They’ve spread their roots more than you can imagine.”

Even though the information was being forced out, the man spoke with more and more intensity.

It may have been his own nature influencing how he obeyed the order.

“I’ve managed to get my hands on information proving that they’ve got a hell of a sponsor. It’s a certain old man. An Academy City VIP. He’s intentionally kept himself off the Board of Directors and away from other power structures, but that lets him spread his business like crazy. So why is he giving the Blue Stalker mountains of gold to make Virtual-On a success? How does he benefit? This is something that VIP wants to succeed no matter what. If I can find his Achilles’ heel, I might be able to get my hands on the leftovers of an unbelievably large mountain. And to do that, I need to gather all sorts of information. And without anyone suspecting my true motives.”

“Such nonsense,” spat out Accelerator as he glanced toward the wall.

Several photographs were pasted there with red threads and pins connecting them. It likely diagramed the flow of money. There must have been no data on the Blue Stalker because there was only a black piece of paper as a placeholder.

Then there was the old man in question.

The formally dressed gray-haired man looked so spotless you would think he had been born wearing a custom-fitted suit. He did not give off any hint of malice and he had the kind of “roundness” that would look at home feeding pigeons in front of a museum.

But no one in the world was truly innocent.

The more someone looked like they were, the more effort they put into the illusion.

(I guess I’ll give him a visit next.)

Accelerator sighed and then Specineff’s scythe vanished into thin air.

Like a switch had been thrown, a human will and human emotions reappeared in the collapsed man’s eyes. He looked utterly bewildered like a villager who had come to in the middle of a crop circle after being abducted by a UFO.

The #1 was done with him, so he only said one thing more.

“Sorry about the mess.”

“U-uweh!? What? What happened? Oh, right. H-hey! Did you, um, know? Was this some kind of warning? If…if we’re after the same target, uh, we could always work togeth-…”

The monster brought the Ifleesa scythe back into existence and held its handle.

That weapon specialized in manipulating…no, contaminating and destroying the mind.

He whispered like the grim reaper with it in hand.

Except his words hinted at something more fearsome than death.

Do you want me to turn you into an honest man, you piece of shit?

Part 10[edit]

After scanning the swans, bugs, other things in the park, Kamijou and Index walked to the train station where they scanned the train and an extremely expensive-looking off-road bicycle. On the way, they had figured out a few methods of walking smoothly through the crowds.

Evening arrived in the meantime, so they decided to call it quits for the day.

The long weekend was not over yet. The players would advance to the finals tomorrow, so the excitement would be even greater than today.

Kamijou did not know where the Blue Stalker would appear during that.

“Touma, should I do that Defection thing too? It looks like it would let me zoom around real fast.”

“No, it would be safer to keep our options open. I want us to have someone who has Defected and someone who hasn’t. If it turns out you need a normal portable device to cancel the Defection, we would have trapped ourselves.”

“I see…” muttered Index, but he was keeping a secret from her.

Defection was much more dangerous than he had thought.

(According to Furashina…Misaka has Defected too. That worries me.)

He was both worried for her and worried about how she was using her Defected device. When he had seen her in the park, she had seemed cut off from daily life due to her cheerleader outfit. That was fine if she was only cheering on a friend, but things could take a turn for the worse in several ways if she was directly taking part in the tournament.

Plus, there was the ominous comment from Furashina Ririn, who may have been the model for Lilina and who might have a connection to Virtual-On’s mysterious developer.

What was it she had said when she saw Misaka Mikoto?

If possible, he did not want anyone else to get involved in the Defection. Of course, the rumors might only be rumors and it might all be perfectly safe, but he had a feeling that was unlikely to be the case.

If that was all this was, Tsuchimikado Motoharu would not have approached him with his “hidden face”.

And Tsuchimikado had said something else of note.

Nee-chin and that group should be taking action soon, nyah.

Nee-chin. Kanzaki Kaori. She was one of the world’s fewer than 20 Saints and an anti-magical combat expert who belonged to the Anglican Church’s 0th Parish Necessarius.

Her skill and strength were of course an issue, but there was a more fundamental problem there.

(This is spreading beyond Academy City and the science side…)

Kamijou silently gulped.

(Is this big enough that the magic side has to take action? In that case, Tsuchimikado might have been warning me as a magician. Virtual-On, a Next Generation Game, Defection, Reverse Convert… What is going on around me?)

“Touma, what is it?”

“Hm?”

Index peered up at him from below, so he smiled a little.

“We can’t eat out for two meals in a row, right? I can’t choose between tonkatsu and Salisbury steak for dinner. Since everyone’s cutting loose and enjoying the tournament, the more reliable supermarket sales might be wide open. This is our chance, Index.”

“T-Touma! I’ve heard of a wonderful term known as a mixed grill!!”

“Please give some thought to how hard something is to make!”

“But two meats might not be enough for a real mixed grill… Ah! We just have to add on crab cream croquettes for the perfect trinity!!”

“We don’t have to go with a mix. Just choose one of them!”

“Then what will it be!? What will our main dish be tonight!?”

“We could compromise and go with white flesh fish…”

“That’s worse! Way worse!! That’s not a compromise at all, Touma!!”

“Fried fish is great!! Apologize to the pollock of the seven seas!!”

Kamijou and Index bickered all the way back to the dorm.

But Kamijou realized something once they were back in their room…or rather, once he opened the fridge.

“Oh, no. We only have half a head of cabbage and a bottle of soy sauce.”

“T-Touma, you don’t need to keep soy sauce in the fridge.”

“Gwah, It’s a pain, but I guess I have to head out. I’ll stop by the supermarket, so you wait here.”

“I’ll go too! The supermarket has tasty-…”

“It’s about time you faced the facts, Index: you’ve been blacklisted from the tasty samples corner! It’s hard to get information on sales when you’re with me, so wait here until I’m back with the pollock.”

“Wahh!! Didn’t this start with tonkatsu and Salisbury steak as the options!?”

Index threw a tantrum on the floor, but Kamijou left her and the cat there and stepped back out the door.

(Now, then.)

He could set up a nice surprise for Index by coming back with tonkatsu meat after so much talk of fried fish. Kamijou Touma’s house-husband technique knew no bounds!!

And there was something else he had to focus on now.

“Lilina.”

“Yes, yeees. Should I provide information on nearby crowds and a list of sales?”

“Do that and include whether or not I can use those coupons. By the way, how is that Preset A that I put together today? Can I use it?”

“Yes, but it puts a little too much emphasis on speed. Basically, you have to make up for its thin armor by dodging, so it’s really more suited for experts. Given your average victory rate, I think it’ll negatively affect your growth.”

“Lilina, do you still have the data on the Blue Stalker battle?”

“Yes, of course. The results are automatically stored unless the data space is close to filling up. Knowing my user’s habits helps me perform my functions as a support AI.”

“Then I have a question: with all the unfair methods that thing used, do you really think a unit suited for beginners can beat them?”

“Well, no, not a chance. I suppose you should put together a preset meant for fighting the Blue Stalker and nothing else.”

He took the elevator to the ground floor and walked through the orange-dyed streets.

“Since you left your partner back there, I assume you’re planning to do more than just shop.”

“I want to see how Preset A is doing. If I can use it, that’s great. If I can’t, I can figure out how I need to alter it from here. But if I say that in front of Index, she’s sure to insist I experiment on her.”

“Yeah, and you ended up Defecting due to your battle with the Blue Stalker.”

“Lilina, can you search for those…um, the ones controlled by the CPU.”

“NPCs?”

“Yes, that. Can you search for NPC Virtuaroids? I don’t have to worry if they’re programs.”

“Yes, sir. Leave it to me.”

The small screen displayed a map of the nearby area and it was quickly filled with red dots. Each one was given a number and a different window provided a list of the unit used and the NPC’s name.

“Will I receive a penalty from repeated rough plays in an NPC battle too? And as that debt grows, I’ll enter a state similar to sensory deprivation until my personality collapses, I suffer organ failure from damage to my autonomic nerves, and possibly even disappear altogether. It’s hard to believe this could cause human beings to disappear entirely if the conditions are right, but maybe it’s just that I don’t want to believe it. I wish I knew the truth.”

“Then how about you start with the weakest NPC you can find?”

“If possible, I want one that uses Cypher.”

“Okay. Adjusting matching conditions. Searching for open users based on unit name. Hm, hm, hm…(searching)…done. How about this one, Touma-sama?”

One of the many red dots turned green.

An NPC named Strings was using Cypher.

Its win rate was below 20%. Matches against other players were the main draw of Virtual-On, so the program-controlled NPC Virtuaroids mostly only existed as practice opponents. Some of them seemed to be set up for beginners.

“There is also a Fei-Yen NPC nearby. It is named Warp Shooter. If you try to draw in the Cypher, you might also draw it in.”

“Both of their win rates are pretty low.”

“Well, NPCs are only meant to help rookies get used to the battles.”

“Okay, let’s go with them, Lilina. Our main focus is the Cypher, but we’ll keep going even if the Fei-Yen joins in.”

“Roger that. You can let me set up the match.”

Part 11[edit]

She did not have her usual voice.

Her usual friend was no longer by her side.

What had stolen those things from her?

What did she need to rescue her?

She clenched her teeth.

She slowly opened her closed eyes.

The girl made a decision.

Part 12[edit]

It did not go well.

Kamijou could not find the NPC Virtuaroid.

“That’s strange.” Lilina tilted her head on the screen. “Our coordinates are in the same spot on the simple display.”

Kamijou looked around the streets too, but the Virtuaroids were gigantic. If one really was here, it would be hard to miss. Evening was switching over to sunset, but the residual excitement of the tournament kept a lot of people on the streets. If there was a Virtuaroid around, there would be at least some cheering, but there was nothing.

After pondering that for a bit, a thought occurred to Kamijou.

“Lilina, the map is only a simple display, right? It only shows two-dimensional information.”

“Eh? Are you suggesting it’s hiding on a building rooftop or something?”

“The opposite.” Kamijou pointed at his feet. “What if it’s made its way deep underground?”

He operated the portable device to open the folder of pictures he had taken. He opened one of those: a sign standing next to the manmade lake in the neighboring district’s park.

The sign provided information concerning a water level adjustment drainage ditch.

“I’ve heard they have underground structures that guide water away to prevent flooding when it rains a lot. I was thinking I might be able to trap the Blue Stalker there so they couldn’t use their speed properly, but that might be where this one is. Lilina, check for an entrance near here.”

“Sure, sure. Wow, there really is a maintenance entrance.”

“Then let’s head there. But should I really be doing this for a game? I feel like I’m going well beyond just walking around while using a smartphone.”

A metal door was hidden in the city and it led to a gray concrete stairway that never seemed to end. Kamijou decided to obediently apologize and leave if a worker found him, but that did not happen. He doubted he was simply lucky. After all, Kamijou Touma and misfortune were constant companions. He let Lilina guide him, so she had likely chosen the most deserted route.

He ultimately found himself in a vast space lined with thick columns.

Overall, it was larger than a school campus.

It had been built with functionality in mind, but it contained the aura of an ancient temple.

And…

“I found it this time. There’s the NPC Virtuaroid, Touma-sama. The Cypher named Strings is there as you requested, and the Fei-Yen named Warp Shooter is nearby. If you challenge the one, it will end up 1-against-2, but is that okay?”

“Is that so?”

A snapping sound came from Kamijou’s hands.

He had removed the ultra-thin goggles from the bottom of his portable device.

“Then let’s practice with them.”

Part 13[edit]

The reality of it seemed to permeate not just his eyes and ears, but his nose and mouth as well.

It was less like it was being displayed in some way and more like he really had been sent “here”.

The bundles of artificial muscle could be heard expanding and contracting. The joints grinded like a car’s shift lever.

The vividness seemed to pierce his skin and dive deep inside his body with a density not found in the real world.

“…”

From within the cramped cockpit, Kamijou Touma looked to the concrete floor he was supposedly actually standing on.

There was no spiky-haired boy there.

It was of course possible the display was set up not to show him there, but he recalled what Aogami Pierce had said: Kamijou Touma had suddenly vanished before his eyes.

In that case, where was he now?

Was he inside or outside the Virtuaroid? …Or was there some 3rd possibility he could not even guess at???

He pictured the empty space in the strange video file after the girl disappeared.

It was an odd sense of unease, like clicking link after link while surfing the web and suddenly finding the “back” button and “close” button would not respond.

“Please focus on the battle before your eyes, Touma-sama. It’s starting.”

“…That’s right.”

With the announcement of “get ready”, his unit was given freedom.

This time, he was double checking how well his Defected Temjin could move. He ignored his damage percentage and relative position to the enemy while he jumped straight up. This space was large enough to forget it was underground, so he did not have to worry about bumping his head.

The cursor controlled by the FCS automatically wavered and then locked on a corner of the ground.

“Lock acquired. Distance to Cypher: 300. You only have one cursor, so keep an eye on the Fei-Yen so as not to let it move freely.”

He ignored Lilina’s report.

He ended the repulsion assistance in midair, twisted his body, spun the unit around, and swung the long, close-range sword named the Blitz Saber to irregularly shift his center of gravity. His unit spun vertically and horizontally. While rotating like a gymnast, he softly placed his feet on the side of one of the many thick columns. Then he moved to the next column. He continued jumping in a triangular pattern.

Even the floating referee sphere seemed disoriented.

“Wow…”

He heard an odd sound from behind as he pulled off the supposedly impossible acrobatics. The unit’s V-Disc was probably turning red hot at frightening speed.

He gained a renewed appreciation of how much more freedom he had.

In the Next Generation Game Virtual-On, movement was achieved through application of dash canceling and vertical canceling, but that usually boiled down to straight lines between points, combinations thereof, right angles, zigzags, and U-turns.

But this was entirely different.

The simple dividing line between movements had vanished after Defecting. He felt like he had much more control over the automatically-controlled turbo repulsion. By intentionally shifting his center of gravity, he could make high-speed reversals or adjust the direction of the turbo, and he could move his upper body and lower body separately. That led to incredible actions reminiscent of a gymnast or a break dancer.

Movement direction usually came down to the 4 cardinal directions, the 4 diagonals, and up and down using jumps, but there was no such limitation after Defecting. Arrows of freedom stuck out in all 360 degrees like a hedgehog. Instead of being able to do anything as long as he came up with the idea, it felt more like his ideas took form directly.

“This would be why a normal Virtuaroid doesn’t stand a chance. It’s like all the other pieces are stuck to the chess board’s squares and can only move on their turn, but this one piece can move anywhere it wants in real time.”

“Touma-sama. Testing your abilities is all well and good, but too many unnecessary movements will delay the battle and possibly earn you a negative judgment. And we are here to practice, so there is no need to attempt a flawless victory. As long as you do not trip and fall down, hits are not a major issue. In fact, I recommend intentionally taking some hits to make yourself look weak. Regardless, please keep the rules in mind.”

“That’s a good…point!”

He leaped from the side of a column and soared through the air. He had clearly passed the limits of a midair dash. Instead of his speed rising evenly with distance and time, he folded up his limbs to increase his aerodynamics and focused his turbo repulsion in the best direction to match the wind and air conditions. That sent him well past the preset top speed.

It only took him a moment to reach the enemy Cypher highlighted by the FCS cursor.

He could ignore the Fei-Yen approaching from elsewhere. The difference in capability was plain, so it could not catch up.

Perhaps because it was an NPC without a will of its own, the Cypher had a weightless, flat-looking visual. It was a plain and natural unit that showed no sign of a unique human inside it.

Kamijou charged in like a meteor and made a direct midair attack with the Blitz Saber.

This was not one of the preset motions.

He only had some colorful buttons and smooth sticks, and yet he had enough freedom to move each of Temjin’s fingers individually. He could not explain how. Instead of knowing the proper commands, it felt like the necessary commands simply appeared in his mind when he thought about what he wanted to do.

He landed while the NPC faltered, circled around behind it, and fired a point-blank series of glowing bullets that were meant to be used at long range. In exchange for the weapon gauge depleting, the Cypher pitched forward and collapsed.

“Legal hit: 2 points.”

Eventually, the unmanned Cypher slowly got back on its feet and made a horizontal slash of its close-range sword while turning around.

The speed was the same.

But the difference in freedom was remarkable. The close-range attack seemed to awkwardly move along fixed rails while Kamijou’s Temjin forced it back with its own close-range sword.

Then his leg flew.

There was no entry on the command list for this attack and it had no weapon gauge.

The kick hit the Cypher in the center of the gut and it rolled on and on along the ground.

And it collided with the Fei-Yen that had been left out thus far.

The two Virtuaroids collapsed together.

“Legal hit with 2 units downed at once: 4 points. Current score: 6 – 0. You’re doing well, Touma-sama.”

After taking a step back, he relocked his long-range weapon.

The Cypher and Fei-Yen squirmed in the middle of the large space for a while.

“Since the two downed units did not recover within 3 seconds, you earn another 2 points. Current score: 8 – 0.”

Their movements seemed awfully slow, but Kamijou could no longer tell if that was due to them being set up for beginners to practice on or due to his senses being sped up by Temjin.

“The Cypher has begun its transformation process. You can obstruct it.”

“No, let’s wait for it. I want to experience its top speed for myself.”

The Cypher forgot to get up, but its arms and legs folded up as it transformed into the sharp silhouette of a fighter jet. Close-range swords appeared on both sides along the edge of the main wings and they sliced toward Kamijou’s Temjin to let its speed do the talking.

The wind roared violently.

But that wind was a Temjin tornado that caught the Cypher’s straight-line path.

The explosive sound arrived after a short delay.

Temjin whirled around as if in a dance using sharp footwork, the centrifugal force of swinging around its Blitz Saber, and the invisible repulsion used for jumping and dashing. He bent over at the last second to avoid Cypher’s charge and made a top speed attack to cross that path.

It was a two-handed close-range attack.

It felt more like hitting a homerun with a bat than slicing with a sword.

With a deafening metallic noise, the Cypher was sent flying. Due to its original speed, it ended up in a crushed state halfway between fighter jet and humanoid and it once more hit the Fei-Yen and sandwiched it against a nearby column.

“Legal hit with 2 units downed at once: 4 points. Current score: 12 – 0. That was pretty decisive.”

The Fei-Yen and Cypher crumbled to the ground like a pizza slowly sliding down after being thrown against the wall.

It was overwhelming.

This was the power of Material Analyze adjustments plus Defecting. It was hardly surprising the NPC Virtuaroids for beginners could not keep up.

“I wouldn’t get anything more out of practicing with them.”

“Then why not finish them off? They’re aligned perfectly for piercing them both at once. Double destruction would probably earn 10 points.”

Kamijou now knew that his speed-focused Preset A functioned properly and that he could pilot it without losing control, so this had gone well.

Index was probably hungry, so he decided to take the standard number of points, finish them off, and end the game.

But then…

“Touma-sama. We have an intruder. A human player. Direction: southwest. Distance: 500. Here they come.”

A gigantic beam of light surged by and scorched the air.

Kamijou’s Temjin moved just before it arrived. He rotated like a figure skater, flipped around, and just barely dodged the high-power laser weapon.

He clicked his tongue as he guessed at the direction the shot had come from and circled behind a column.

(A Raiden…!? But they’ve really focused on firepower!!)

This underground area was hard to get to, so who had bothered coming here?

He wanted to avoid battling others now that he had Defected. He wanted to avoid causing another player to Defect in the same way the Blue Stalker had for him. That said, there was a hurdle stopping him from losing on purpose. When Defected players made rough plays that abandoned the match, their senses would gradually dull until they reached a state similar to sensory deprivation and their personality collapsed. There was ultimately a risk of organ or autonomic nerve failure. There were also rumors of them permanently disappearing under certain conditions, but how far he had to go for that to happen and what exactly it meant were still unknown. He was hesitant to carelessly use up his countdown toward death when he did not know how much was left.

Which meant…

“Lilina! Navigation change! Provide high-speed combat support and switch to quick attacks!! I’ll take them and the NPCs out for both sets before they can Defect like I did!! I’m not going to drag them into this dangerous situation along with me!!”

“Aye, sir! I like the sound of that. A merciless beatdown given with a considerate and peaceful heart? That sounds like your usual routine, Touma-sama.”

“What!? I’m not that kind of boy!!”

There was no cool-off period.

The Raiden must have been given considerable reinforcement with the Material Analyze feature because another beam of light enveloped everything soon thereafter. They had an advantage in a long-range shootout, so Kamijou had his Temjin dash forward to fill the gap.

His ETA was 5 seconds.

Like an anti-ship missile approaching a warship, he skimmed forward at extreme low altitude while dodging the enemy Raiden’s attacks.

Or he meant to, anyway.

The Binary Lotus laser cannon supposedly only stuck out to the side, but it changed direction to swing around behind a giant column.

“!?”

“That was close! Touma-sama, a single hit from Raiden’s laser will blast your unit to smithereens, so be careful!! Keep your balance!!”

That would be impossible for a normal Raiden.

The stress of both their actions rapidly caused the V-Discs on their backs to glow red.

The Binary Lotus laser cannon supposedly provided ultra-high power in exchange for requiring the unit to stop and fire in only one direction, but this Raiden had forcibly swung it around.

Which meant…

“Are they Defected, too!?”

The thick beam of light approached close enough to graze Temjin’s left arm.

“A hit from that means instant death! You have to dodge it!!”

Appearances no longer mattered.

Kamijou’s Temjin dove forward and rolled along the ground.

“That counted as a down and they get 2 points. But it’s better than being destroyed! Well done!!”

He could not continue rolling forever. It was all over if another shot was fired after him. Kamijou’s Temjin spread its legs while lying face down, spun around, regained its mobility like a break dancer, and got back up in a single smooth motion.

Raiden’s giant form was nearby.

For whatever reason, it was customized with a sporty light purple coloration.

“Wha-…!?”

(They’re so close!! But how!?)

Normally thinking, they would not have had time to shift into a high-speed dash using their repulsion so soon after firing. Had they used the Material Analyze feature to thoroughly improve their speed?

“Please focus! Close-range warning!!”

“!!”

The Raiden made a horizontal swing of their close-range weapon that had a bazooka-like silhouette and was more of a blunt weapon than a sword. Kamijou bent at the waist and ducked his upper body to avoid it. With repeated short repulsion dashes, he smoothly slid around and behind the Raiden.

Kamijou’s Blitz Saber gave a roar toward the defenseless back.

A moment later, the Raiden’s Zig-18 bazooka hopped up from below.

But not to target anything.

The ultra-heavy bazooka swung back as if drawing out a semicircle. The Raiden itself formed a large arc with its own body as if performing a bridge.

In other words, the Raiden’s body was dragged backwards in order to aim the bazooka at Kamijou’s Temjin.

His throat went dry.

Temjin leaped to the side and just barely avoided the released explosive.

Before the giant explosion even occurred behind them, Temjin and Raiden had made their next move.

Even the overhead referee sphere was disoriented by their speed.

“So…that’s it!!” shouted Kamijou through clenched teeth.

In the Next Generation Game Virtual-On, attacks from their weapons and their weight after jumping from an elevated position could not even damage the road. That made it easy to forget, but Raiden was heavy. But it also had the power to move its giant body. From there, it came down to how to use that power. It moved its giant body, swung around its colossal weapons, intentionally shifted its center of gravity, and made forcefully sharp turns by tossing itself around. It was on an entirely different level to Temjin which only moved left and right with the unit’s footwork.

The unnaturally quick approach after firing earlier had been done by making use of some kind of “weight” to free itself from its stiffness. For example, it could have struck a nearby wall or column with its Zig-18 bazooka and used the reactionary force to provide some initial speed.

The supposedly heavyweight Raiden ran every which way, made short hops, and attacked from straight above like a meteor. It moved at such dizzying speeds that the FCS cursor could not keep up. Even with the lock display active, he would not hit if he fired. He could not keep up, so he shouted a command.

“Lilina! Cancel the autolock!! I’ll be better off aiming manually!!”

“Aye, sir! Now you’re sounding like a real pilot. But don’t forget the risks!!”

A metallic roar rang out.

Kamijou’s Blitz Saber and Raiden’s bazooka-like Zig-18 were locked together.

Kamijou felt a chill. He took no damage, but he wanted to avoid locking himself in place so close to an enemy with such great firepower. Restricting his freedom of motion was always a bad thing.

(Who is this person…?)

He could not hope to match them. In terms of pure horsepower, the enemy Raiden outdid his own Temjin. He was gradually pushed back.

(A Defected player that butts into NPC battles. …Huh? That sounds familiar. A player who builds up their score by targeting weak NPCs is known as a Hunter and a player that specializes in defeating those Hunters is known as a Hunter Hunter…)

At that point, Kamijou gasped.

Hadn’t Furashina Ririn said that “people like her are known as Hunter Hunters, so you need to be careful”?

And who had that been in reference to?

Is that Misaka!?

He also recognized the purple coloring from her cheerleader outfit when he saw her in the park.

He received a communication request as if to answer him.

But she may not have known his identity.

“I don’t know who you are…”

The chill in her voice was enough to tell him that.

“And it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do here. But…”

She paused briefly and seemed to shove something toward him with her words.

“If you continue to use my friend as your stepping stone like you did here, I will tear you apart in Virtual-On until you break.”

The equilibrium shattered.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Wait, Misa-…!!”

The Raiden pushed Temjin’s Blitz Saber away. She then launched a powerful kick toward his gut. Kamijou moved back to negate the impact and had his hands full simply maintaining his balance.

Meanwhile, the Raiden once more opened the Binary Lotus laser cannons like parabolic antennae on her shoulders.

Fear clenched Kamijou’s heart as the color white filled his vision.

But she apparently only intended to blind him. She swept it away from him, perhaps to drive home that this was a warning. The next thing he knew, the Raiden had vanished from his FCS cursor. Misaka Mikoto was nowhere to be found.

Her friend.

A stepping stone.

Practice NPCs.

“What…is going on?”

He received a response from an unexpected place.

“Umm, maybe she meant this?”

“?”

“I was reviewing the records from the previous NPC Cypher and Fei-Yen, and look at this here.”

Lilina opened a new window and called up a battle record video.

Kamijou watched it without expecting much.

But then he thought his heart had frozen over.

Part 14[edit]

Cypher was a special Virtuaroid with the ability to transform.

It fought in both a humanoid form and a fighter jet form.

When the Cypher had charged in using its fighter jet form during the earlier battle, Kamijou’s Temjin had used a close-range to strike back and that had slammed it against a nearby column.

The fierce attack had prevented the Cypher from fully returning to its humanoid form, so it had collapsed to the concrete floor in a crushed “in between” form.

It had been neither man nor bird.

And that partially transformed state had exposed a portion of the inner structure that was normally hidden below the armor.

A giant disc had jutted out at a warped angle. It was the V-Disc which should have been neatly contained in the unit’s back. It had stopped rotating and fully cooled.

And…

The blood-soaked upper body of a girl was sticking out of it.

“What…is this…?” muttered Kamijou in a daze.

He could tell his hands were trembling unnaturally as he held the portable device.

“Analyzing footage: 94.9% probability that it is a human.”

“I know that! But what is that disc!? And I don’t mean the official explanation. Why is there a human in a program-controlled NPC Cypher!?”

The V-Converter was worn like a boxy backpack. The V-Disc was contained inside. And a human body had emerged like it was a fairy spring or a strange magic trick.

What this was and how it worked were both unknown.

But the sight forced him to conclude that there had been someone inside that unit.

He also had to ask the more fundamental question of whether people could even “ride” the Virtuaroids. Was he really inside Temjin, or was he monitoring it remotely from elsewhere? He could not even answer that, but now a girl had appeared from within an unmanned NPC Cypher used for practice.

And she was bleeding a concerning amount.

No, had Kamijou done that to her?

(Wait a second. That girl…)

Something caught his attention.

And then he remembered that site known as The Phoenix.

(Is that the girl from the video who disappeared as a penalty!?)

“Oh, right! Lilina, how much time left in the match!?”

“20 seconds. Although the accumulated damage might cause it to fall apart and be destroyed before that happens. If so, the match will end regardless of the countdown. And in this irregular situation, I’m not sure if the next set will even happen.”

“Dammit!!”

He held down the turbo and dashed forward. He charged toward where the Cypher lay collapsed on the ground. Meanwhile, the recorded footage showed the Cypher gradually transforming into its humanoid form. The V-Disk was being stored back inside as if to trap the living human within.

“What are you trying to do?”

“Pull her out of there!!”

As soon as he shouted that, he heard a light beep.

That signaled the end of the match.

Kamijou Touma watched as the scene around him changed. An out-of-place fanfare played from the thin sub-monitor. The walls that surrounded the field were removed and Temjin’s movement was locked.

Kamijou gasped at the sudden stop and he could only watch as it happened.

“Wait…”

The NPC Cypher vanished into thin air as if to say it was no longer needed.

The girl’s upper body sank back down into the stopped V-Converter.

What would happen if the Virtuaroid disappeared here? What would happen if he could not pull that girl out of there? Would other players ignorantly do the same thing Kamijou had? Would she be summoned, destroyed, sent back into the ether, and resurrected once more?

In fact, had she already repeated that process countless times?

She had been made into a zombie as she played the contradictory role of a human NPC.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait!!!!!!”

There was no sound.

The NPC Cypher simply vanished as if to say this was only a mechanical process.

He had been so close. And yet she forever vanished from his grasp.

Next, the NPC Fei-Yen did the same.

Was there someone inside that one as well? Someone who, until recently, had attended school like normal, played Virtual-On like normal, and yet had that all thoroughly taken from them?

Why had such an odd atmosphere surrounded Misaka Mikoto?

Was this why?

Then a simple string of letters expanded across his monitor: YOU WIN.

Part 15[edit]

“Dammit!!”

A banging sound rang within the cocoon-like spindle-shaped cockpit. Misaka Mikoto forced herself to breathe slow and deep as she sat in the invisible seat. She was trying to calm herself, but it was not working well.

Far too many people did not know the truth of the NPC Virtuaroids.

To those carefree players, those trapped people were the perfect targets.

“What was with that Temjin…?”

She had failed to rescue them again.

She had yet to successfully rescue one of them.

But she could not afford to give up.

Mikoto shut down the Virtual-On system and pushed the goggles up onto her forehead. The evening wind chilled her sweaty skin. She stuck the goggles back in her portable device, toyed with the device in her hands, and opened its address book.

She looked at the list of names, but did not contact any of them.

She could not contact them.

She shut her eyes, wrinkled her brow, and pictured someone.

That missing girl was a part of her team.

The girl’s usual voice was gone now.

She had been swallowed up by that giant system and was now used as an eternal sandbag.

Her desperate pleas and sorrowful cries were all sealed away.

(I have to do something…)

Mikoto clenched her teeth and repeated the thought: I have to do something.

Part 16[edit]

“…”

Kamijou Touma could not speak for a while.

He was utterly overwhelmed.

The Virtual-On match had ended and he had been thrown out into the open world away from Temjin. He trudged up the stairs and returned to the city surface.

But.

Before, there had been another person…no, two other people in this city who were no longer there.

In truth, they might still be out there somewhere in Academy City. Except they would only be there to let someone destroy them. They had been turned into zombies who were eternally defeated over and over again.

“What was that…?”

He spoke of that hopeless outcome in a dazed voice.

“That’s too cruel. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen. It’s…it’s just…!!”

He felt anger, but he had nowhere to direct it. He had no way of knowing where that girl had gone or where she would appear next.

But was it really right to do what Mikoto was doing and attack the players targeting NPCs? He knew firsthand that forcing others to keep up with his Defected Virtuaroid could trigger a new Defection.

“…Lilina.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Misaka said something about not using her friend as a stepping stone, right?”

“Misaka-san? Searching list of names…hm? Hmm???”

He realized that the previous one-sided transmission had never included the name Misaka Mikoto.

“I mean that purple Raiden that intruded on our battle.”

“Oh! Link made. I can respond appropriately from now on, Touma-sama.”

(Was that girl the friend she mentioned?)

Kamijou thought for a bit.

(No, if everyone who drops out after Defecting ends up like that…just how many players have been turned into NPCs? It’s possible that a unit other than that Cypher or Fei-Yen holds someone much closer to Misaka.)

It could be someone else from Tokiwadai Middle School.

It could be someone who was always by her side.

It could be someone who lived in the same dorm.

…It could be someone she wanted to avoid losing at all costs.

(Think…)

Kamijou Touma wrinkled his brow as he lost himself in thought.

(I’m a part of this. Since I’ve Defected, I could end up like that if I make the wrong decision. So think. What was that? Is it possible to save them, or is it too late? Whether or not you can save them and knowing how to if so is the key to preparing a lifeline in case I need it. So what am I supposed to do? Where should I start on this?)

A few names came to mind: Aogami Pierce, Tsuchimikado Motoharu, Misaka Mikoto, Furashina Ririn, and the Blue Stalker.

They were “in the know”.

They knew more about Virtual-On than Kamijou.

“Hello? Touma-sama? Should I enter power saving mode?”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Also, an odd reading is approaching from four o’clock.”

“?”

“It’s a Virtuaroid reading, but there is no sign of a match nearby.”

Immediately after that result, some rough-sounding male and female voices arrived from the distance.

“Hurry up and carry her!”

“This is a bad idea! I knew I’d think that once my head cooled, but this is really bad idea!!”

Kamijou turned toward the shouting voices and spotted a familiar face a short distance away.

(Lilina… No, is that the Furashina girl?)

But he did not have time to call out to her.

The atmosphere changed.

A section of the twilit city was filled with solid tension, like a photograph with an unnatural image pasted onto it.

Furashina Ririn was held on either side by a boy and a girl. A van sped up alongside them and came to a rapid stop as its tires screeched. The side of the van bore the name of a material transportation company that did work for the Virtual-On tournament, but that label was obviously fake.

Kamijou could tell Furashina Ririn would be stuffed in the back seat in no time.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait! What’s going on!? Did she get herself in trouble again!?”

“I have turned video recording on, but should I send the license plate number to Anti-Skill?”

“Please do. That means I’ve gotta buy some time for the grownups to show up!”

“Hm? Wait, Touma-sama, what are you doing!?”

Fortunately, the van’s path took it toward Kamijou after getting Furashina Ririn onboard. And there was a reason Lilina grew so frantic despite being a voice processing program.

Kamijou had ducked into an alley, grabbed a metal pipe from the ground, and returned.

“Wait, wait, wait! My infrared sensor is telling me that van is moving at an estimated 60kph. You’ll die! Stand up to that and you’ll die! At least let me back myself up to the cloud first!!”

“Don’t be so sure.”

Kamijou held the blunt weapon like a baseball bat.

The van made a lot of noise as it approached.

“You don’t have to smash the hunk of steel to pieces. As long as you hit it, you can stop a car.”

Just as the target vehicle was about to pass him by, Kamijou Touma swung the metal pipe horizontally like some kind of joke.

At first glance, it looked like he was sacrificing both his arms.

But.

A moment later, the bumper detected an impact and the van’s airbag triggered.

There was nothing the driver could do.

The airbag in the steering wheel prioritized the driver’s life and showed little concern for anything else. The large balloon blocked his vision and his arms were knocked outwards.

In other words, the van lost control.

It briefly swerved in an S-shape but could not regain its balance. It collided with the support pillar of a nearby wind turbine and came to a stop.

Kamijou raised his left hand to his right shoulder and spun the entire arm around.

“Let’s get started.”

“You natural monster… Wouldn’t that normally dislocate both your arms!?”

“It’s not like I pulled off some crazy stunt like negating the blow by matching the center of impact. I’m only a normal high school boy, so the most I can do is let go of the pipe just before impact.”

With that, Kamijou ran over to the crashed van. He spotted something spherical floating in the sky overhead: a Virtual-On referee.

(?)

He found that odd, but the van and Furashina Ririn inside came first.

He saw no sign of anyone exiting the van.

(Thanks to the impact from the airbag, I don’t have to worry about the driver. That just leaves however many people were in the back. I hope it was just the 2 I saw earlier.)

But even if there were 3 or more, he had little to fear when they were crammed inside that small vehicle. They would be unable to move properly, no matter how many there were. The risk of death would only shoot up if they managed to get out and surrounded Kamijou.

With that in mind, Kamijou pressed against the crushed van’s rear sliding door.

Either it had not been locked or the lock had broken in the crash because it opened surprisingly smoothly.

And inside…

A smooth, oddly lustrous, and quite large gun barrel awaited him.

“Ah…?”

The weapon surrounded the shoulder of the boy who had shoved Furashina Ririn inside.

It looked a lot like a submachinegun, but perhaps due to how smooth it looked, it seemed oddly ethereal and unreal.

The muzzle stared silently at Kamijou Touma like a dark, empty eye.

More than the gun itself or its strange smoothness, it was the scent that most insisted this was a “weapon”.

Kamijou named the Virtuaroid that first came to mind.

It was standard, but it had a rounded, more human silhouette. It preferred modern weapons like machineguns or tonfas.

“Apharmd!?”

Immediately afterwards, a string of dry gunshots rang out.

He initially began to raise his right hand, but he instead used all his strength to swing his head to the side. He could not analyze what it was that made him do that. Perhaps because the immediate danger took the form of a gun instead of an occult sword or staff.

It really was Apharmd.

That machine pistol was known as the DKAS Gun System.

But that choice paid off.

He felt scorching heat on his skin. Bullets had grazed his right palm, the tip of his little finger, and his cheek.

Red blood welled up from his right hand which could negate supernatural power.

(I can’t negate it!? Dammit!!)

He did not know how it worked, but did this contain some kind of unknown power with enough interference or sheer quantity to force back his Imagine Breaker, just like Stiyl Magnus’s Innocentius!?

He scrambled away from the sliding door.

He had heard rumors of the Reverse Convert. As a reward for Defecting, it might be possible to incorporate Apharmd’s nimble footwork, Specineff’s psychological contamination attacks, or other similar powers into your own human body.

But…

Even so…

(Can they really just pull out the weapons!? That seems way too direct!!)

His opponents did not calmly exit through the door.

Kamijou heard a loud bang and the van’s entire roof burst outwards. It looked as easy as tearing through a wet candy box.

A girl with short hair poked her head up, presumably by standing up within the van.

Something seemed to flash around her and then something floated near her shoulders. A mass of metal made from 3 pentagonal prisms appeared over each shoulder.

(It isn’t just Apharmd. Are the Virtuaroids’ weapons really appearing here in the real world!? But how? And why?)

An unpleasant term appeared in Kamijou’s confused mind: Reverse Convert.

“You can’t be serious. It lets them do that…?”

The idea of returning the traits and features of a Virtuaroid to the human had never quite clicked with him. That was because Virtual-On was not as human-based as an RPG or baseball video game.

But this was far too straightforward.

They could draw out the weapons and make that firepower their own.

He did not have time to confirm what was true and what was not.

If what that girl had was what Kamijou thought it was, it belonged to a small Virtuaroid with thick armor thoroughly placed around it and with 2 small arms and 2 large arms that made it look like it had been taken inside another larger unit.

(Grys-Vok… And that’s its distinctive shoulder units known as the Grys Units.)

“A large guided missile launcher!? Dammit!”

As soon as he yelled that, all the guided explosives were launched at once, leaving trails of smoke in their wake.

Part 17[edit]

The short-haired girl clicked her tongue.

Her vision was obscured by the explosive flames and the dust she had scattered, but the FCS cursor that appeared in her vision was still moving.

No one seemed concerned about the explosions.

That was thanks to the Virtual-On tournament. Beams of light and explosions shook the city almost constantly now, so no one was going to give this any special attention.

“Lilina! What happened to the enemy target!?”

“Eh? Oh…right. There is still a reading, so he’s still alive. …I think.”

“You think!?”

“Eek!! He is alive! Correction: he is alive!!”

She clicked her tongue again.

She lightly kicked off the van with her feet. She floated up. No, she flew. But this phenomenon was not reliant on her Defected PD or a Virtuaroid. She was using Outer Travel, her own esper power that controlled ionized particles to support her body in midair.

It was classified at Level 4.

Did a Defected PD look attractive even to someone with that much power already?

She came to a stop right next to the referee sphere and spoke without actually looking at the nearby boy.

“I’ll fly up, update my lock data, and then fire missiles down to settle this. Even if there are obstacles in the horizontal direction, the vertical direction is wide open. Human feet can’t escape guided weapons, so you search for another transport route and method. And then…”

“Hey,” cut in the boy.

The short-haired girl clicked her tongue yet again and the boy said more.

“Where’d she go? That Furashina Ririn girl has disappeared!”

“What!?”

Only then did the girl finally look in the boy’s direction.

She really was gone.

And one of the windows sat unnaturally open.

The boy and girl exchanged a glance.

After an especially displeased click of the tongue, they left their companion who had been knocked out by the airbag. The boy with Apharmd’s machine pistol stepped out onto the ground and the short haired girl with Grys-Vok’s launchers near her shoulders flew up into the sky.

They began their pursuit from two different directions.

Part 18[edit]

“What was that…?”

Kamijou Touma had fled into an alley.

Even during the tournament, there was no sign of anyone back here.

He pressed his back against the filthy wall and gulped.

“What was that, what was that, what was that!?”

“Analyzing video recording…the reading was undoubtedly that of a Virtuaroid. However, they do not follow the system of Virtual-On as a Next Generation Game.”

“If you’re going to explain this, can you make it a little simpler?”

“I’m saying there are no walls demarcating a field and there are no safety regulations. The only reason they have not destroyed the surrounding objects – by which I mean the city around them – is because they don’t want to leave any more evidence than necessary. But if they lock onto a target…”

“That target will be blown away with the weapon’s full firepower, huh?”

Kamijou looked down at his aching right hand.

One of those referee spheres was floating in the sky overhead, but he was not being given a penalty. The system was being utterly toyed with.

And since Apharmd’s gunfire had grazed him, he could not doubt its destructive power. If he was hit with a sword, he would be bisected. If he was pierced by a laser beam, he would burst into flames.

This was the Reverse Convert.

The Virtuaroid adjustments were sent back the other way.

It was rumored this could tear down Academy City’s esper development hierarchy.

“More importantly, Touma-sama, if we are assuming you are up against deadly Virtuaroids, then you are still in danger here. A lock will remain in effect even through walls, so they will know where you are.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“If you are focusing on direction, you need to escape outside of the enemy Grys-Vok and Apharmd’s field of vision. There is a risk of them reestablishing a lock through a building, but, um, if you make use of height differences by fleeing into an underground mall or waterway, you might be able to confuse them…”

“Are the weapons really all they can pull out? If they bring out a full Virtuaroid, I’ll be crushed underfoot!!”

At that very moment, someone grabbed his shoulder from the side.

His eyes widened in shock, but when he looked over, he found…

“Furashina…!?”

“I really would have preferred sleeping,” said the platinum blonde girl. “Whether it’s to flee or fight, you need to get moving if you want to survive. There are a number of strategies in Virtual-On, but standing still is not an effective one.”

“Eh? What? Wait…”

“Here they come.”

He heard a loud rocket-like sound arriving from the distance.

Just as he thought another missile had been fired, Kamijou realized that was not the case. He saw something odd in the orange sky.

“Grys-Vok!?”

“That means the Apharmd is elsewhere. He is probably moving on the ground. Do not let the flashier one distract you from his presence.”

They were technically only talking about a boy and girl who had acquired those Virtuaroids’ weapons.

…And if they could do that with a Defected portable device, then could Kamijou borrow Temjin’s weapons? If so, they would be even. He might be able to fight back and survive like that.

But in exchange, he would be accepting that one side had to die for the other to live.

“This way.”

Furashina Ririn tugged on his hand and he came back to his senses.

The heat boiling in the back of his mind rapidly receded.

And she took him somewhere unexpected.

They were not escaping into the distance. Nor were they hiding behind cover. They intentionally ran toward the enemy.

“Furashina!”

“This is the best choice. According to the rules of Virtual-On, anyway.”

They soon arrived directly below the Grys-Vok floating in midair.

Kamijou felt a chill in his gut when he heard several consecutive roaring noises, but much to his surprise, the guided missiles did not come his way. Flames exploded all around them, but he and Furashina were untouched.

“The high ground provides an advantage in Virtual-On, but you cannot maintain a lock if your enemy is directly below you. Your own body gets in the way.”

“In Virtual-On…?”

It all gradually started to click for Kamijou.

It was true that Imagine Breaker did not work and swinging a metal pipe around would not accomplish anything here. His opponents had greater firepower, locking ability, and everything else. The girl was not using a turbo-supported jump to fly. It appeared to be something else, such as an Academy City esper power, but the threat remained. These people could kill using the same movements as a Virtuaroid.

But they had not escaped the restrictions of Virtual-On.

In that case…

“Lilina! Can I directly lock onto a human with your support?”

“No, you can’t. It’s only made for use when fighting a Virtuaroid in Virtual-On.”

“I thought as much. Then what are they using to lock onto us?”

Kamijou and Furashina exchanged a quick glance.

There might still be something they could do.

Part 19[edit]

“Stop! Stop, Marika!! The explosions are spreading too far! Stop for a bit!”

The boy who had summoned Apharmd’s weapon shouted into the orange sky, but the voice he heard from his Defected PD was iciness itself. The flying short-haired girl aimed her shoulder missile launchers as she responded.

“The dust doesn’t matter! I can keep attacking as long as my lock cursor is tracking the target!”

“What about Furashina? She’ll be caught in the blast, too!!”

“Then hurry up and retrieve her!”

The boy was irritated by the extra-loud click of the tongue she gave him.

(Are you trying to kill me along with him!?)

He chose not to voice that complaint since she very well might do exactly that if he said it. He was stuck running through that deadly territory just like their target.

Even now, tons of missiles were being launched from overhead.

Their surroundings remained unscathed, but those deadly flames would selectively destroy either enemy or ally. He would have to dodge Marika’s missiles on his own.

(What the hell is going on?)

This was supposed to have been an easy job: find the girl in the photo, nab her, and take her to the designated location. The Blue Stalker had paid quite a bit up front via an online bank, so it had seemed like a blessing of a job.

(But I guess it’s the same either way.)

The Apharmd boy spoke in his heart while holding the machine pistol which looked like unreal data, perhaps because it was unnaturally clean no matter how detailed it was.

For them, success was abducting Furashina Ririn alive and failure was killing her. Their own deaths had not even seemed like a possibility because they could produce a unilateral slaughter just by standing in front of someone.

His FCS cursor was still active.

He could tell their target was moving beyond a wall.

(I should just kill that guy. Do that and the missiles from the sky will stop. Then we can take our time searching for Furashina Ririn.)

So the boy did not hesitate.

He ran roughly around an alleyway corner and aimed his rapid-fire weapon.

Then his mind went blank.

The cursor was there, but the spiky-haired boy was not.

Instead, Furashina Ririn stood there.

With a sleepy look in her eyes, she waved a small device in her hand.

The cursor in his vision followed the movement of the portable device.

(Oh, no… Did they meet up and then swap portable devices!?)

Virtuaroids were weapons meant to battle other Virtuaroids.

The game models could not lock onto anything else.

That meant they could only track the portable devices which had a connection to Virtual-On. It was just like pursuing a suspect by tracking their cellphone.

But in that case…

“Kh. Where’d the original-…!?”

He was unable to finish his question.

A dull pain pierced the back of his head.

It was like switching off the power.

The Apharmd boy wobbled on his feet and then collapsed forward. No one caught him, so he lay collapsed on the ground like a discarded toy.

Kamijou tossed aside the thick manga magazine he had found tied together with some others in the back alley. He breathed a sigh of relief that this smaller scale suited him much better than Temjin or Apharmd.

“That’s one down.”

“What about the Grys-Vok overhead?”

The two of them traded portable devices again to reclaim their own.

“Anything’s fine as long as we can escape, so there’s no need to actually defeat her.”

“But that could be a problem if this is following Virtual-On rules. If you’re still in their field of vision, they can still lock onto you behind cover. So as long as she’s in the sky, she can search all the way to the horizon in 360 degrees just by spinning around.”

“Then what are we supposed to do?”

Kamijou scratched at his bangs and Furashina Ririn modestly made a suggestion.

“Buy me 30 seconds.”

“?”

“Do that and I will take care of the Grys-Vok overhead. Can you do that?”

“…”

Kamijou thought for a moment.

“Lilina.”

“Yes, sir. What is it?”

“Just to double check, a Virtuaroid can only get data on enemy and ally Virtuaroids and on the walls of the battlefield, right?”

“That and providing advance warning of especially powerful attacks.”

“And Grys-Vok’s missiles will detonate when they hit any kind of obstacle? They can’t fail to detonate or break through a wall and pursue the target?”

“Yes, but what does that matter?”

“That’s all I needed to know. Let’s give that girl a shock.”

Kamijou picked up one of something gathered in a corner of the alley.

“A garbage bag?” asked Furashina Ririn.

“I’ll show you they’re good for something other than a nap.”

Part 20[edit]

The short-haired girl named Marika used her esper power to hover in the orange sky as she gave a displeased click of her tongue.

The Apharmd boy was not contacting her.

He did not respond when she called him and his information had vanished from the cursor.

“Was he taken out…?”

However, she felt no danger. She assumed one of her many missiles had hit him.

Grys-Vok’s missiles could only display their true strength when in a wide open space like a park. They were easily avoided in these labyrinthine alleyways since the target only had to hide behind a wall after they were fired. The guided weapons were convenient, but not very smart.

So she had wanted to finish off the target by firing down from the sky to ensure her safety before searching for Furashina Ririn on the ground. But…

“Lilina, ammo check.”

“Y-yes. With the Material Analyze customization, the shoulder missile launchers have a total of 30 missiles together. Once you have fired those, the left and right weapon gauges will need to reload.”

(That should be enough.)

She glared at the ground.

She focused on the FCS cursor.

And she launched plenty more explosives.

Immediately afterwards, a missile detonated right in front of her, swallowing her up along with the Grys-Vok launchers.

“Wha-…!?”

In Virtual-On, the explosive blast of your own attack would not affect your endurance. It was only intense light and noise and thus only worked as a smokescreen, but it still squeezed at her heart when it was so unexpected.

And what had happened?

A Virtuaroid’s weapons could not detonate prematurely, jam, or otherwise malfunction. Instead of reducing the odds of a malfunction as much as possible, it was more like malfunctions were simply not an option in the first place. Just like a polygon doll could not catch cold. This should have been the same.

Some kind of black cloth fluttered across the corner of her vision.

“What happened…?”

Marika muttered the question in a daze, but she soon realized this was not time for that.

Whatever kind of phenomenon or trick that had been, what she had to do remained the same: pursue the two who had fled. And she was up in the sky. No matter where they hid, she could remain locked onto them as long as they were somewhere in her field of vision.

This was not a problem as long as she knew where they were.

She only had to fly above them and send down another downpour of missiles.

Or so she thought.

However…

“…?”

This time, Marika saw something truly unbelievable.

What had happened?

She felt foolish for asking that question earlier.

Part 21[edit]

Kamijou’s trick was a simple one.

“Wow, that thing really flew up there…”

Lilina sounded impressed.

She was likely watching through the portable device’s scanner or camera lens.

He had created a large bag by cutting apart and taping together several of the black garbage bags that had made a revival to protect the wealthy’s privacy. By heating the air inside, the bag gained buoyancy by the same principle as a hot air balloon.

Sunlight had not been an option since it was evening, but the bundle of manga magazines from when he had knocked out the Apharmd boy were still there.

To omit the details, he only needed his portable device’s spare battery and a metal clip to start a fire. He then sent heated air inside the patched-together plastic bag while making sure the fire did not reach the bag itself. Once it was full, he simply closed off the opening.

Plus, the Grys-Vok overhead could only detect Virtuaroids and portable devices.

And her missiles would detonate the instant they hit any kind of obstacle.

What would happen if she continued firing missiles without noticing the garbage bag balloon floating up to block her vision?

This was the result.

The Grys-Vok was enveloped by the missile explosion at point-blank range.

The tape must not have held because the giant bag came apart on its own.

“But, but. An explosion from your own attack won’t damage you in Virtual-On,” Lilina reminded him. “That will only briefly blind her. What are you going to do now!?”

“Do not worry,” cut in Furashina Ririn from the side.

Her red eyes were focused on the twilit sky.

The promised 30 seconds had passed.

“It is already over.”

Part 22[edit]

Something was wrong with Marika’s behavior in midair.

More accurately, the problem was with the Grys Unit missile launchers floating near her shoulders. They were not responding.

And her Lilina navigator said something odd.

“Negative judgment: -1 point.”

“Huh?”

“Please be careful. Negative judgment: -1 point. Negative judgment negative judgment negative judgment negative judgment nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega-nega…!!”

“W-wait!?”

First of all, she was not playing a Virtual-On match right now. She was using that format, but this was an underworld fight to the death.

So why was this happening?

Panic began to fill Marika’s mind, but then she saw it.

The referee sphere floating at her same height was rolling this way and that, its focus shifting erratically.

That behavior was clearly not normal.

An unpleasant sensation ran down Marika’s spine.

(Don’t tell me… Is someone hitting the ref with a direct cyber attack!?)

She had never heard of anything like that.

But if it was possible, continuing to fight using the Virtual-On system would be dangerous. The score continued to change on its own and the FCS might not be working, so she could not trust the lock on the surface.

Plus, there were far too many mysteries concerning Virtual-On.

They could only guess at the reasons for the Defections and the penalty disappearances. If what she did know crumbled away, only an inescapable bog remained. She would not know what to believe.

The underworld was a world where the cowardly could make a name for themselves.

But if they failed to do so, they would be weeded out.

It was an industry with no safety regulations or manufacturer’s guarantees. Any weapon or shield came with the implicit warning of caveat emptor. It went without saying what happened to anyone who assumed they would be fine as they reached for a modified handgun that could blow their hand off at any time or a hazmat suit that might have a hole in it.

So she came to a stop.

Because a small element she could not accept had appeared in her greatest weapon.

“Dammit…”

The target was there.

Normally thinking, she could end this by sending a downpour of missiles toward the location of the cursor.

But Marika remained calm even as rage filled her.

She was the sort of person who could do both at the same time.

“Dammit!!”

She fired her missiles toward the useless referee sphere floating in the air.

If the alternative was wandering blindly through this bog, it would be best to reset things and see if the system would stabilize. That was the conclusion Marika’s sharp instincts reached.

Part 23[edit]

What had happened?

Kamijou was not sure even after it had saved him.

He did not know how far he had to run, but there was no sign of the Grys-Vok girl pursuing them.

“Hey, Lilina. Did Furashina do that?”

“I don’t want to analyze it… I just know that’s better left untouched. Poking around there is sure to destroy my system.”

It was also unclear why Furashina Ririn was being targeted.

But what had just happened may have been the reason.

Both for those enjoying normal Virtual-On and those plotting something with the Defected version.

Meanwhile, the girl herself was carefree.

“Looks like it worked…yawn…ah…”

“Don’t go to sleep! Hey, don’t go to sleep! We’ve got to get out of here!”

“Sleeping is my proper state…mumble.”

“I can’t believe this!!”

Unable to stop her, Kamijou was forced to carry Furashina Ririn’s small body. Identical Lilina sounded exasperated on the portable device hanging from his hip.

“You could have carried her on your back or princess carried her, so why did you go with the old-fashioned ‘rice bag over the shoulder’ style? You look like a Greek sculpture.”

“It’s art!! Listen, if you call it art, you can get away with most anything! Any other explanation and I only look like a criminal!!”

“But now that you’re carrying her, you’re realizing how soft, warm, and nice smelling she is, so the blood is rushing to your head, right?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Um, according to the heartrate monitor for the health check service…”

“Okay, fine! I admit it!!”

Human Transporter Kamijou Touma ran through the labyrinthine alleyways to quickly leave the scene.

He was wondering how far he had to go, but Lilina gave him an answer.

“We have reached 1 kilometer. We should be safe now. This would be out of the battlefield in a Virtual-On match.”

“What a pain…”

Kamijou lowered the “rice bag” and plopped himself down in a convenient bench. A girl was fairly heavy when converted into a pure burden.

“This is just way too much crap happening in a row…”

“Shall I open the To Do app and make a list?”

“There’s the Blue Stalker, there’s the endlessly battling zombie players inside the NPC Virtuaroids, and there’s Defected Misaka. And then there’s the people who used the Reverse Convert to make a portion of their Virtuaroid’s weapons their own, there’s Furashina who they were trying to abduct, and there’s her strange hacking skill.”

All of those things had Virtual-On in common, but were they really connected by a single thread? He could not tell. He had been involved in so many things, but he had not been blessed with much information on each individual one.

If he was to choose a top priority…

“Misaka and Furashina, I guess.”

He was also worried about that girl inside the NPC Virtuaroid, but he doubted pursuing her alone would solve this. He had no idea how many zombie players had been placed inside the NPC Virtuaroids all across Academy City.

There was of course the worst-case scenario in which every single NPC Virtuaroid had someone inside it.

He needed something more drastic if he was to save them all and not just one of them.

Instead of chasing the girl who he had no information on, it would probably be faster to pursue Misaka who seemed to know something about it all. But…

“The next question is whether Furashina’s incident is connected to Misaka’s problem.”

If so, it felt like all of the issues could be concentrated down to a single point, but would things really be that convenient?

Before long, Furashina Ririn blinked her red eyes while lying on the bench.

She rubbed her eyes in annoyance and then spoke.

“When you say Misaka, do you mean that Misaka?”

“Do you know her?”

Instead of a response, he heard an odd noise from his portable device.

Lilina screamed on the screen.

“Gy-gyawahh!! Please don’t access Touma-sama’s address book without permission. Damn, I can’t tell how you’re getting in! Are you directly manipulating the device’s machine language!?”

As he watched the screen scroll repeatedly, he recalled when Furashina Ririn had told him to hide when he tried to call out to Misaka in the park. She had called her a Hunter Hunter and told him to be careful.

“No, let me ask something else. How much do you know? You know Misaka is trying to rescue a friend from one of those NPC Virtuaroids, right? And what exactly is happening? Even with this Defection thing, wasn’t this all just a fun game?”

“Hm. I really shouldn’t be awake right now.”

Furashina muttered something under her breath and then answered his questions.

The changes on the screen came to a stop.

“There is a group attempting to do something about the NPC players. And their method will likely have some effect. Even if that only means rescuing an extremely small number of the victims.”

“?”

“Whether Defected or not, this is all based on Virtual-On. That means they can make use of those rules. For example…”

The portable device’s screen changed even with no one at the controls.

It displayed a round frame and a few simplified silhouettes like those on bathroom signs.

“First of all, several parameters are sent back to the Defected players depending on the result of a match. A positive result means strengthening their body or mind, but a negative one means taking those things away and ultimately causing their very existence to ‘disappear’.”

Pieces of the silhouettes were gradually taken away like a jigsaw puzzle.

Furashina Ririn explained a horrifying thing in a calm voice.

“What matters here is not their ultimate ranking or number of wins vs. losses. It all comes down to the records of their matches.”

“The records of their matches?”

“Virtual-On is essentially a competition over points and destroying your opponent is merely one way of earning points. And I assume you are familiar with the negative judgments from the referees.”

“You mean…falling down or being hit while you’re down? So a list of their past judgments is used to rewrite the human?”

“When they use close-range vs. long-range, how often they dash and jump, how they approach or keep their distance from their opponent, and all other actions are subject to the scan.”

That was a shocking revelation.

When the training command log was opened, beneficial actions were colored blue and detrimental ones were colored red. The accumulation of those was wearing down their lifespans.

“B-but the points are reset at the end of a set, aren’t they? When the ref makes their decision and you get your winning star, it’s all wiped clean and you fight over the points again, right?”

“The command log remains, so it is not difficult to calculate out the totals,” said Furashina. “The processing done behind the scenes is merely being used in a visible form here.”

It was true that modern game systems recorded data that seemed irrelevant to playing the game: how many times a game had been booted up, what games people nearby were playing, and other things like that.

“Virtual-On has rules for its point judgments, but they do not always protect all players. When a game tilts too far in one direction, the judgments will be used to reestablish stability.”

When ranked by number of wins vs. losses, a temporary crisis did not matter as long as you turned it around by the end. But this was different. It was utterly insane to remake someone’s body just because they spent too long wasting time on the field or used cowardly methods. If whether each and every close-range attack hit or missed was being thoroughly monitored, then the Defected units were at greater risk thanks to their superior freedom.

“In other words, some people end up as NPC players by being destroyed and losing repeatedly while others end up that way by focusing on victory so much they end up making multiple rough plays during a single match.”

“Losing counts against you too?”

“Because you lose points. And losing intentionally by letting go of the buttons and sticks will make the matches boring and will likely be considered obstruction of gameplay.”

The puzzle pieces gathered back into silhouettes on the screen.

Furashina slowly breathed out before continuing.

“When the negative effects of the V-Disc reach a limit, they become a man-eating unit known as a Shadow. In this case, things have shifted a bit from that. They swallow the player and transform them into endlessly fighting sandbags.”

“…”

That was frightening enough, but that was not the focus now.

What was Misaka Mikoto trying to do to oppose that horrific result?

“Basically, you distribute the debt.” Furashina got right to the point. “As the Defected players accumulate rough plays, they are eventually turned into NPCs. They lose points from getting knocked down or receiving negative judgments…but in this case, the Virtual-On game will likely be played as a team with up to 4 members.”

“Wait…you don’t mean…?”

“If anyone on the team loses a point, it is counted as the entire team’s lost point. So even if someone makes a mistake, they can make up for it if someone else helps out during the same set. They can knock the enemy down to retake the point lost to the negative judgment.”

“Oh, I get it,” said Lilina. “They can bring the NPC player onto their team and continue in what amounts to a 3-against-4 match…”

Furashina must have been controlling the portable device because 4 silhouettes appeared inside a round frame on the screen. One of them was faded to gray.

“So a good match record there will be given to the NPC player as their teammate? So even if they have a single unfair rough play as a stain on their record, it can be diluted with 100 fair plays? And if their record is cleaned, they can return to normal even after disappearing!!”

Kamijou felt like he finally saw some hope.

Now he understood why Mikoto had been so angry. Everyone had been working together to salvage the NPC player’s record, but Kamijou had butted in, beaten them up, stained their match record again, and ruined everything.

They wanted to micromanage every single dash and long-range attack, so they could not forgive what he had done.

But something seemed odd.

Furashina Ririn’s expression contained no hint of pride.

“It is not that simple.”

“Why not? If they can dilute the negative record, they can save the NPC players! They just have to place the trapped NPC on their team and then keep ignorant players from hunting them before they can recover.”

“Do you know how many hundreds or thousands of matches must be played to dilute just one person’s negative record?”

“…”

His breath caught in his throat.

The weight of the gray silhouette on the screen changed entirely.

“There are no absolutes in Virtual-On. If the players attempting to save the NPC make enough mistakes, they too will receive rough play judgments that will stain all their records. They have no guarantee of winning every single time. More players will fail and be lost than NPC players will be saved.”

Saving 1 person would mean 10 sacrifices. Saving those 10 would require another 100 to stand up.

Was that what she was saying?

“It’s like a pyramid scheme…”

“It would still be difficult even if they formed two teams and played fixed games against each other. In Virtual-On, a draw is counted as a loss for both sides, so one side would have to win every time.”

“But what if they got help from non-Defected players? If they were just playing like normal, the Reverse Convert wouldn’t happen and there wouldn’t be any mistakes if both sides stood still and constantly fired long-range attacks at each other.”

“Defected and non-Defected players view the danger of the situation very differently, so it would be difficult getting most of the non-Defected to help. Even if it doesn’t mean much, most players would not want to ruin their score. And if you showed them the problem that was occurring, they would probably want nothing to do with it so they could remain safe.”

“…”

“More importantly, Virtual-On’s rules are built to make the matches more exciting. I would prefer not to imagine what judgment they would receive if they only fired at each other from a distance or planned out a fixed game in advance.”

“But it might be nothing.”

“But testing that out requires putting someone’s life on the scales. And it would be a player who had not even Defected.”

And what if every action during a match was influenced by the Reverse Convert, from the positive ones like giving a player Dordray’s toughness or Specineff’s psychological attacks (or the more direct weapons like Apharmd’s gun or Grys-Vok’s missiles) to the negative ones like loss of motor nerve control and autonomic nerve control? Not wanting to fight seriously and keeping a safe distance could be judged by the referee spheres. If that happened, all of the participants would be thrown into a life of debt. They would be too worried about themselves to give the NPC player a helping hand.

“Then there’s nothing they can do. It might look good at first glance, but the further they go with it, the more the debt grows. Not to mention that a Defected player challenging a normal player might lead them to Defect!!”

Mikoto might be aware of that.

She might be aware of it, she might have agonized over it, and she might have had no other option.

It was even possible she was taking part in the Virtual-On tournament while Defected. If so, the fangs of Defection might be forced onto the other participants.

It would be crass to ask her what had happened.

Most likely, someone close to her had been dragged into this. And while pursuing that, she had seen a deeper darkness further in.

“But in that case, what are we supposed to do…?” Kamijou groaned while sitting on the bench. “We can’t shift the debt onto someone else. I understand that, but is there some other radical solution? O-oh, I know. You can attack the portable devices and ref spheres, right? Then…”

“It is possible I could save 1 or 2 of them like that. But that is not a fundamental solution as more and more players Defect, disappear, and become NPCs. In the worst case, the rescued players might put themselves back in danger to rescue another NPC player. …Besides, I am only using a loophole, so the giant system itself still lies in our way.”

“Yeah,” said Lilina. “There’s nothing you can do if 100 people are swallowed up in the time it takes to save 1. Eh heh heh.”

The crushed Cypher and the girl inside it flashed through Kamijou’s mind.

He understood why Mikoto refused to leave them like that.

There was nothing they could do, but that was no reason to turn a blind eye and go on smiling.

“…”

Furashina Ririn narrowed her eyes sleepily while leaning back in the bench.

And then she spoke.

“Please search for the Blue Stalker.”

“What?”

“They are the true starting point of all this. And for me, they are also the ending point…”

“Hey, wait. What are you talking about!?”

“This is…my limit… This is the most…I can do…zzz…”

She began to snore like it was some kind of joke.

But he could not have her end the conversation unfinished like that. Especially when someone he knew might be directly involved.

“Hey, Furashina! Wake up, hey!”

“…Mumble, mumble…yawn…”

“You’re still going in and out, aren’t you? I won’t let you!! Kamijou-san won’t let you sleep tonight!!”

“Warning: that phrasing contains on obscene nuance,” said Lilina. “From a video game perspective, I supposed it would be rated C.”

“Oh, shut up! And all this yelling isn’t enough to wake her!?”

Things might change if he poured ice down her back or dumped spices on her nose, but he unfortunately had neither.

He tried to think of something he could do to wake her other than just shaking her and shouting.

“I’ve heard shining a bright light on the back of the knee can adjust when someone wakes up. Just like how the morning sun rids you of your sleepiness. I think they’ve used that as a way to help prevent jetlag on passenger planes.”

“Where did you learn that useless trivia? A quiz show?”

“Don’t underestimate Kamijou-san’s habit of doing housework with the TV on. And I’ve got a light source right here! Lilina, I need your help. Lend me your screen!!”

“Eh? Ahh!?”

He would try anything with the slightest chance of working.

In that mindset, Kamijou brought the portable device to the back of Furashina Ririn’s knee as she skillfully wobbled while still sitting up. But…

“Umm, Touma-sama.”

“What is it now? I’m trying to focus.”

“The general public could easily interpret this as a lowly pervert aiming for a super low angle shot of a sleeping girl. Are you sure this is okay?”

“Oh, yeah. This thing has a camera, doesn’t it!?”

“It saddens me as your navigator that you completely forgot about my functions. And some might ask what exactly you’re trying to scan with the Material Analyze here. Are you going for a white bodied Temjin decorated with a small ribbon and that smells like a girl? That would be revolutionary…”

“I was acting based on a perfectly wholesome idea, so why does it have to end like this!?”

Meanwhile, Furashina Ririn completely fell asleep.

There was nothing he could do now.

The Blue Stalker was the starting point of it all.

And they were also the ending point for Furashina Ririn?

“…What the hell is going on?”

Part 24[edit]

Accelerator had arrived on one end of District 7.

In an abandoned subway station, he descended the stairs a step at a time, glanced over at the vast underground space that was empty now that the shops had left, and spotted a highly unnatural form enshrined there.

It almost looked like a beached whale.

The mass of metal that measured 150 meters or more was a cruise ship. Instead of water, it was supported by hundreds if not thousands of wooden pillars. It was the same weight distribution method seen at shipyards. And it was likely being used for the exact same purpose. The pieces had been carried in through the subway stations’ narrow entrance and the giant cruise ship had been constructed inside just like a bottle ship.

That ship was never expected to voyage out to sea and it instead acted as a certain old man’s castle.

This VIP had given great sums of money to the Blue Stalker, advanced the Next Generation Game of Virtual-On, and seemed to be plotting something.

Accelerator climbed the gangway to the deck and walked through the ship which was as eerily quiet as a ghost ship. He did not encounter any guards or servants along the way. In fact, the security’s power was out. Accelerator found this odd, but he soon found his answer.

“…So he kicked the bucket on his own,” he spat out.

That might not have been technically accurate. A capsule-shaped device sat on the luxurious canopied bed and the old man was contained inside it. It looked like cold sleep, but it was apparently not. His body was solidly encased in a clear substance much like glass or plastic.

Ever since the mummies left in the Egyptian pyramids, preserving the human body always came down to the prevention of rotting.

Accelerator glanced over at the bedside table. Something like a journal sat on it, but it only contained a name jotted down over and over. And there had clearly been more pressure on the pen for some than others. There were also a few bags of medicine, presumably prescribed by a hospital.

(Was he having trouble with his memory? It looks like he tried to stop time for himself before he forgot something.)

This man had given a pile of money to a stranger to achieve his goal, but that would be all for naught if he could not remember what that goal was. In a way, he had given up on the Blue Stalker. He had decided he would forget before the goal was achieved.

(But I might be able to ask him about it with this.)

The #1 monster summoned the scythe named Ifleesa from thin air. Specineff’s power could eat into or destroy someone’s mind, but it might also be able to forcibly draw information out of someone who was frozen but had active cells.

It was a device to directly touch the “mind” which existed at a higher level than the brain cells or electrical signals.

(Well, I know he isn’t going anywhere. If I have time, I should probably see what I can get out of him.)

He left the main target and checked around the other rooms.

A lot of them had strange interiors. One room’s walls, floor, and ceiling were entirely covered with pictures of a little girl. One room was overflowing with stuffed animals and toys that the old man himself would have no need for. The kitchen was plastered with recipes for childish snacks. The home theater contained a list of films that showed the recorded life of a certain girl.

It was all rather overwhelming, but once you grasped the backbone behind it, it all exuded humanity.

Simply put, this was what the old man had not wanted to forget.

The picture frames showed the old man smiling with a girl. The effort he had put into remembering this and this alone showed itself in the strange repetitiveness seen here.

(The lonely old man and his granddaughter, huh? That’s simple enough.)

As Accelerator viewed what the old man had left behind, he discovered a few pieces of information.

(His granddaughter disappeared one day…no, she was replaced by a stranger who looked identical. And while he tried to find her, he ended up on a strange path. As he ruled out all the normal options, only one option remained… What is this? The Tangram? Is that a code word or something?)

But…

He eventually ran across a different sort of room. This one alone had nothing to do with that girl. The walls were covered with graphs, diagrams, equations, chemical formulas, and some kind of schematics. It looked something like scientific technology, but some parts were unclear. Being Academy City’s #1 esper was to have Academy City’s #1 brain, but even Accelerator could not guess what some of it meant.

Limited Wars that became show business, Virtuaroids, V-Discs, Cyber Imaginary Space, data materialization, Earth Crystals, Shadows, the Original Fei-Yen, parallel worlds, the Plajiner girl, and the Tangram.

“Hold on…” muttered Accelerator.

He looked around at it all.

“Since when did the darkness of this city connect to a fairy tale world?”

The problem was not that this fairy tale was utterly absurd. On the contrary, viewing it all revealed that a single connected theory could explain it all.

And the massive amount of documents and connections the old man had collected had all been handed over to the Blue Stalker.

That left one thing to ask.

Accelerator faced the old man encased in a clear material inside the capsule-like device. He stuck Ifleesa’s tip through the case.

He forcibly shook the old man who had tried to protect his memories even if it meant separating himself from reality.

“Speak. What is the Blue Stalker?”

It seemed almost profane.

With his entire body solidified like a specimen, he should not have been able to move his wrinkled body or to speak. And yet, his mouth provided a dry cracking sound as it was moved by force. All risk was entirely ignored.

There was no voice.

But the lips finished moving.

“They are not alone.”

“?”

Did that mean it was an organization rather than an individual?

That was Accelerator’s guess, but the old man continued.

“They look like an individual, but their true essence is different. They cannot be explained using our laws, but their theories are sure to change again. If you must, read through the documents and think on it all. I will not hold anything back. I cannot. I am merely saying you can achieve more definite information that way than from my fragmentary words.”

It was true he would be unable to lie.

But in that case…?

“They are lonely, perhaps even more so than me. But there is no way to fulfill that desire, perhaps even more so than me.”

“…”

“After all, they are not alone. While I have a personal starting point, they have no goal to achieve. That might sound twisted and contradictory, but it is the truth. They are plagued by loneliness more than anyone.”

That seemed to be the limit. Even under the influence of Specineff’s power, the old man reached his physical limit and fell silent.

Left alone, Accelerator thought in silence.

What was this?

Who was the Blue Stalker?

Part 25[edit]

“So, Touma. You were supposed to be buying ingredients for dinner, and yet you return with an unconscious girl. That’s what happened here, right? So what am I supposed to do about this? Eat her???”

“Annnd there we go. It’s the usual rule of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’! I should really start charging a fee every time I get caught in some kind of battle.”

“How can you say that when you’re kidnapping someone in the old-fashioned ‘rice bag over the shoulder’ style!?”

“Lilina said the same thing. By the way, Index.”

“What now!?”

“What do you have to say about this tonkatsu roast meat in this shopping bag here?”

“Uhohoi!! That’s the perfect surprise, Touma!!”

Index’s stomach was easily won over by Kamijou Touma’s house-husband technique.

After lowering sleeping Furashina Ririn onto the bed, he began cooking dinner.

“You can make half into tonkatsu and half into katsudon. Muhah! I can’t wait!”

“If you want to sound like a grand champion, say you’re eating katsudon with tonkatsu on top, Index. But it’s easy to make, so that’s fine by me…”

A fatty fried dish was too high-level for a kitten, so the calico cat got its usual cat food. But the smell alone seemed to increase its voltage unnecessarily, so it was flailing on the floor in protest.

Kamijou made sure to prepare a serving for Furashina as well, but she showed no sign of waking. He had to place plastic wrap over that one and then a plastic bowl over that to make sure the cat did not get up to any mischief.

“Touma, they said on TV there’s such a thing as cutlet mille-feuille.”

“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that. If you’re going to slice the meat so thin, it seems like you’d enjoy it more if you made it into shabu-shabu.”

“And there are cutlets where cheese oozes out when you bite into them!”

“…”

“There are also simple radish and chicken cutlets, creamy cutlet curry with soft-boiled eggs on top, and rich beef cutlets eaten with demi-glace on top!”

“If you have a problem with my guy cooking, then just say so, Index.”

Like that, they enjoyed a peaceful dinner together.

Eventually, Furashina Ririn blinked her eyes open, perhaps roused by the smell of food.

She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and then looked over at them.

“We’re having tonkatsu tonight. Want some?”

“I do.”

“Earlier, you insisted you didn’t like hot or bitter things, but this is fine? Eating tonkatsu right after waking up isn’t normal.”

“Eh? Why not, Touma? Give me food when I wake up and I’ll eat it whatever it might be.”

This room apparently suffered from a severe lack of common sense.

After preparing Furashina’s portion which he had left with plastic wrap over it, he prepared the bath while the girls ate. Incidentally, Furashina Ririn seemed to be the type who started with the shredded cabbage. A certain nun immediately scarfed down every piece of meat she could see, so Kamijou wished she would learn a lesson from Furashina.

“Do you have a set order for the bath?”

“Not really,” replied Kamijou. “I need to do the dishes, so I’ll go last. You two figure out what to do on your own.”

After Kamijou’s suggestion, Index and Furashina Ririn for some reason decided to visit the bath together.

(Huh? Come to think of it, what’s Furashina going to do about pajamas?)

He doubted she would put back on her blue dress-like outfit, but did that mean she intended to steal one of his shirts like Index did?

While listening to the TV and the sound of the shower through the wall, Kamijou worked at washing the dishes. And he spoke to the portable device on the counter next to him.

“Lilina.”

“Returning from sleep mode. What is it?”

“I have something to ask of you.”

“If that water I hear is from a shower… Oh, no. Do I really have that kind of perverted user? I mean, I am confident in my picture quality, but I can always make sure it’s out of focus and disguise it as a photography error. Sigh…it’s so exhausting doing things that make people doubt my specs.”

“I don’t know what you think I’m talking about, but I’m just going to ignore it. We’re heading out while those two won’t notice.”

“Why?”

“To fight a battle. You need to get ready too.”

“Umm, with who? The Blue Stalker? The kidnappers?”

“Misaka Mikoto,” replied Kamijou. “If her method to save the NPC players will only make more of them, she’s putting the cart before the horse. And I want some information from her. So that’s two reasons to contact her. …Even if I have to beat her in Virtual-On first.”

“Hm, but do you know where she is? My ability to search for a match only goes so far.”

“It’s true I don’t know where Misaka is.”

He admitted that.

“But she seems to be able to tell what I’m doing. That’s clear enough from how she intervened when I was fighting the NPCs. Did she use some kind of esper power, did she take advantage of the rules of Virtual-On in some way, or does she have likeminded allies around the city who share what they see? That I don’t know.”

“Meaning?”

“She’s intervened once. It pains me to do this, but we just have to recreate that situation. If I attack another NPC player like I haven’t learned my lesson, Misaka’s sure to come running.”

“Ugh… You look hot-blooded at first glance, but you can come up with some devilish ideas.”

“That’s not it. I’m just focusing on my goal.”

Kamijou looked over toward the bathroom.

It did not look like they were going to leave anytime soon, so he slowly approached the main entrance and stepped into the outside world.

After locking the door from outside, he refocused his thoughts and spoke.

“Lilina, make the search for me. It needs to be an NPC Virtuaroid in District 7, since that’s my and Misaka’s home ground. Yes, and make it the same type as before.”

“It was a Cypher and Fei-Yen before.”

“Hmm…”

He had no proof, but Kamijou continued ahead regardless.

“Let’s start by keeping things as identical as we can. Before, we challenged a Cypher and the Fei-Yen joined in, so let’s start by focusing on the Cyphers in District 7. If that doesn’t lure her in, we can expand our range to other districts and hunt down the Cypher NPCs there too.”

“And if that doesn’t work either?”

“Then we shift to the Fei-Yen NPCs. We just keep going until she reacts.”

“Aye, sir. I’ll get started right away!”

Part 26[edit]

In District 21, sparks flew atop a crude dam.

“Set 2 complete. The Cypher was destroyed and you win.”

In District 17, a giant form raced across a deserted factory’s rooftop.

“You defeated the Cypher. There really isn’t any tension when it’s an NPC, is there?”

In District 22, sword strikes were exchanged while descending into a vast underground mall.

“Yet another Cypher. It’s right there, so are you gonna hunt it down?”

In District 15, shot after shot was exchanged while flying above a shopping district.

“Ugh. You smashed it up so bad it’s like the rules don’t apply anymore. Those Defected PDs are scary…”

No matter where he went, the world remained carefree, so a lot of boys and girls shouted excitedly and aimed their portable devices his way in between viewing a factory or enjoying a night date. They had to be connected via blogs and SNSs, so information on Kamijou’s battles had to be spreading.

And none of them realized how twisted this really was.

It was as disgusting as stuffing a rotting corpse into a cute mascot costume, sitting it on a bench, and having unsuspecting children hug it with smiles on their faces.

“…”

Kamijou’s Temjin earned more and more points with its frightening moves and won the matches. But the boy holding the portable device in his hands was clenching his teeth. From the outside, it was impossible to tell which of those NPCs had a live human inside. In the worst case, they might all be players being forced to fight as zombies. Even if it was necessary, something unpleasant built up in his chest each time he hit one of them. It was an odd expression for a resident of a city of science, but he could tell his soul was being worn down.

So he held a wish in his heart: let the end arrive as soon as possible.

And that contradictory wish was eventually granted.

It happened in District 23, on the runway of the international airport which was decorated by many guide lights at night.

The referee sphere floating in the night sky was the first to pick up on something.

“Touma-sama, an enemy unit is incoming at eight o’clock. It is a customized Raiden. Based on the images and behavior found in my cache data history, it is a 93.8% match! This is the expected target!!”

“So she’s finally here. I was about at my limit…”

Kamijou Touma wiped the sweat from his brow, rubbed his thumbs on the top of the sticks, and smiled a little.

Was that because his plan had succeeded?

Or was it because he had been freed from a hell he had trouble bearing even when he had known it was coming?

Regardless, he shouted a familiar girl’s name.

“Misaka Mikoto!!”

Part 27[edit]

This was on an entirely different level from the NPCs.

That could not have been plainer.

Orange lines tore across the international airport’s runway. Temjin and Raiden had forcibly heated their V-Discs with their extreme actions, so the red hot light lingered in the darkness of the night like tail lights.

The ultra-heavy wind named Raiden gave a roar. It rushed in, utterly ignoring its concept as a long-range focused type. Its weight would normally be a hindrance, but it used that weight. It swung around its Zig-18 bazooka to shift its center of gravity, clearly used powerful magnetism to pull in towing vehicles and fuel hoses that formed “walls” to act as footing, and otherwise made all sorts of unorthodox sharp turns. While flipping around in midair, it swung its bazooka around like a blunt weapon to make close-range attacks on Kamijou’s Temjin. It felt like being thrown into the center of a tornado.

In Virtual-On, stray bullets would not harm one’s surroundings. But that did not change the fact that a massive object was moving around and the continuous flashes of light had to have a negative effect on the passenger planes being guided into the airport at night. The Raiden’s pilot knew that, but she showed no concern for her surroundings.

“The same color of Temjin as before… You didn’t learn your lesson, did you!?”

“I thought you’d say that. Listen, Misaka! I more or less know what you’re trying to do!!”

Since they exchanged words this time instead of keeping the conversation one-sided, Mikoto seemed to realize who she was fighting here.

But she did not let up on the attack.

No, her actions briefly twisted like a wedge had been driven into the gears, but she immediately began attacking with twice the intensity.

Only the referee in the sky accurately tracked their movements.

“You…why? You said you understand the situation, so why would you do this!? Are you saying you knew what you were doing!?”

“Yeah, I did. It was a rough method, but I had to stop you as soon as possible!!”

He held her blunt weapon back with his Blitz Saber, but instead of locking weapons, he slid the blade along the Zig-18 bazooka. He pointed the tip toward the head of Mikoto’s Raiden.

His primary weapon, Sleipnir, changed form. The close-range sword became the long-range rifle known as the Neutral Launcher.

He fired without hesitation.

He launched several glowing projectiles in a row, but Raiden swung her head to avoid them all. However, she lost her balance. Kamijou’s Temjin could not normally win when it came to power, but he locked weapons with her again. And he pushed forward.

“Touma-sama, the 90 seconds will end soon and the judgment will begin.”

“But if I keep this up…”

“Gh!!”

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Zero.

Temjin and Raiden came to a sudden stop. The spherical referee floating in the night sky swiftly calculated the result and declared the winner of the set.

“We have a 1 set lead, so let’s push on through, Touma-sama!”

She did not have to tell him twice.

But Kamijou was too impatient to wait around.

He sent a transmission to plead with Mikoto.

“Your method will only produce more victims!! Even if you gather everyone who has the same idea, more than half of them will end up as NPCs themselves. It’s too dangerous. And since you’ve Defected to protect the NPC player, you could cause a new player to Defect just like with the Blue Stalker! That’s like burning down the forest to plant a single tree!!”

“!! You don’t understand…”

“I was told to search for the Blue Stalker! I don’t know that meant, but if they are at the source of the Defections and the NPC players, then I can’t just leave them out there! Help me, Misaka. They have to know something we don-…!!”

“You don’t understand!”

She roared at him.

The second set began.

The risk was great, but he was close enough to end this with a close-range rush. As soon as the set began, Kamijou planned to push down the Raiden and swing down his Blitz Saber to settle things, but that was easily overturned.

It came from one of the Raiden’s heavy machinery fingertips.

He saw the thumb move as if it were flicking something.

(Oh, no…)

A nearly instinctual sense of danger filled him.

And Kamijou Touma had his Temjin move back with all its might.

It happened immediately afterwards.

“Touma-sama, something is coming. I can’t classify it!!”

(Oh, no!!)

The air was torn apart as a metal shell raced forward at frightening speed.

“The…Railgun!?”

Kamijou was dumbfounded.

Needless to say, Raiden had no such weapon. In that case, he could only think she had added it in with the Material Analyze feature, but…

A series of frictional noises reverberated without end.

Something like a black fog surrounded the light purple Raiden. It took shape using powerful magnetism and it looked like a sword or a wing.

“What is that!?” exclaimed Lilina.

“An iron sand sword. Misaka…did she scan herself with the Material Analyze and incorporate it into her unit?”

Thinking back, Accelerator’s Specineff had shown signs of something similar when it had intervened in the Blue Stalker battle. It was true that giving a Virtuaroid the traits and features of one of Academy City’s seven Level 5s might give them a great advantage.

But…

(I can’t believe this… It’s more than just those kidnappers who used the Reverse Convert to gain a portion of their unit’s power. The dividing line between human and Virtuaroid is blurring here too!!)

Index VO 299.jpg

“My friend disappeared…”

Misaka Mikoto spoke in a low voice.

It almost sounded like she was muttering a curse.

“She is wandering this city somewhere. And she’s coughing up blood as ignorant normal players beat her like a sandbag! And yet she’s sent right on to the next battle without even a chance to complain!! I’ve done everything I can, but I can’t search for her, I can’t find her, and I can’t stop this! Do you have any idea how that feels!?”

“…”

“So I have to save them. If I can’t find her in particular, I just have to save every last one of the people turned into NPCs!! Even if it’s unrealistic and the odds are astronomical, that’s the only shred of hope I have left!!”

She was essentially cheating at this point.

The already heavily-equipped Raiden used iron sand swords, lightning spears, and Railguns to attack from all directions. She filled in all the gaps in her attacks, so there was nothing he could do. Kamijou’s Temjin continued a desperate attempt to dodge, but no matter how much he fine-tuned and optimized the turbo repulsion, he doubted he could shake free of it all.

He rationally concluded he would lose this set.

It had to come down to the third and final set. He had to focus on observing his opponent’s idiosyncrasies and means of attack until then.

And even as he did that, he thought to himself.

It would be easy enough to say that he did understand. But there would be no weight behind it and it would not resonate inside Mikoto. For one thing, he did not even know who Mikoto had lost.

But that was no reason to fall silent and turn his back on her.

He decided to set aside the idealistic statements and to stop making everything sound nice and clean.

It might be irresponsible and illogical, but he did not care.

He wanted to be here.

He wanted to intervene.

He wanted to stop Mikoto here, before she strayed any further.

If he was going to hit her with anything, it had to be that true motivation.

“Lilina.”

“Yes?”

Within the intense exchange, Kamijou let out a slow breath.

“Sorry, but I need you to stick with me through a bit more of this.”

“Don’t be sorry. I never thought I could choose my player and I will perform any action you think up and input with your fingers. If continuing forward is what you really want to do, then go for it. This Temjin will always provide the movements you want, Touma-sama.”

He had steeled his resolve.

He faced forward once more.

“Understood, Misaka… We must be on different paths.”

“…”

“And it’s easy for me to crush your path. You want to even out, average out, and share the debt. To do that, you have to build up a massive amount of points. …In other words, if I defeat you, lure you into rough plays, and stain your score, you can’t use your plan.”

“You…!!!???”

Temjin and Raiden stopped moving again.

The referee calculated out their points.

“! Just as I thought, it’s 1-1. This next set will determine everything!!”

Kamijou ignored Lilina’s warning.

He ignored her and spoke.

“So bring it, Misaka.”

With her Railgun, iron sand swords, and lightning spears, she had added a frightening variety of options into Virtual-On. The Raiden with that fearsome lineup stood before him.

And Kamijou gestured back toward himself with Temjin’s fingers to lightly provoke her.

“If you want to continue down your path, you need to crush my path first.”

Part 28[edit]

Constant explosions shook the night.

Kamijou’s Temjin and Mikoto’s Raiden clashed again and again on the runway.

This was the final set.

Whether via destruction or points, this final battle would settle everything.

The location had few obstacles and little cover. Since Raiden’s selling point was its firepower, failing to dodge its attacks might mean instant destruction. The standard method would be to take advantage of her slow speed to fire from a distance, focus on the amount left in the different weapon gauges while wearing her down to stop her, and take points that way. But Mikoto’s swift movements defied the normal assumptions for Raiden’s speed, so he could not rely on that.

The V-Discs on their backs were heated to a bright scarlet and drew trails behind their incredible movements like tail lights.

He sometimes engaged in a close-range rush similar to mixed martial arts and sometimes moved away and sniped from a distance. Just when he thought he had dodged a shot from Raiden’s Zig-18 bazooka, a lightning spear pierced the explosive and detonated it near Temjin. But in exchange for the damage, Temjin used the smokescreen and caught Mikoto off guard by rapidly approaching and slamming his Blitz Saber toward her right leg.

Their scores changed with dizzying speed and their weapon gauges continually filled and depleted.

Their primary focus was not losing the set via destruction. After that, they fought to score a down on the other.

They fought over the points.

They were also checking the total number of rough plays listed on their command logs.

Since they had Defected, this was more than just a sport for them, so that was literally a countdown to their deaths.

“Uhee!? Wh-wh-wh-what-wha-what is that!?”

“Lilina!! If the data can’t keep up, then cut it off! I’ll aim by eye!!”

“Oh, honestly, honestly, honestly!! That customized Raiden’s entire body is crackling, its surface is covered in ECMs, and who knows when it’ll make a cyber attack that can slip right through our defenses!? I know I can handle anything in binary, but it’s still frightening!”

“I see. So her hacking power is the most troublesome part. I hope that Raiden can’t use it…”

“If you get that, then hurry up and silence her!!”

On the other hand, that might mean that even her hacking was not enough to return the NPC players to normal. Furashina Ririn seemed to specialize in that, but even she had said there was only so much she could do.

Tsuchimikado had said Kanzaki Kaori of the magic side was taking action, so Kamijou felt as if formless concepts like people’s hearts or lives were showing up here.

“Are you not going to use that power you’re so proud of?” asked Mikoto.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been a Level 0 from the beginning.”

“Take me too lightly and you’re headed straight for destruction. You know it really pisses me off when I see things ‘like this’.”

Maybe so, thought Kamijou.

He still did not know why someone (probably the Blue Stalker) was increasing the number of Defected players and the NPC players that came from them. But it was true that it felt a lot like someone was toying with lives just like that experiment in which the #1 used and disposed of 20,000 mass-produced military clones.

That had stimulated Mikoto.

And it had been exacerbated by affecting someone close to her.

“But have you forgotten?” replied Kamijou as he cut off that line of thinking. “I’m not the kind of person to take even a single step back when faced with things ‘like that’.”

“!! Then what are you even trying to do!?”

Four iron sand swords surrounded Raiden and attacked him like whips. And after they cut off his escape, she launched a Railgun from straight ahead.

Kamijou used all of his invisible repulsion to make a high-speed dash.

Fleeing to the side or backwards would have been meaningless, so he moved straight ahead. If he avoided the greatest threat by a hair’s breadth, he would find Raiden defenseless thanks to the slight stiffening from the recoil of launching the attack.

With an explosive noise, Kamijou ignored all of the warnings from Lilina and moved forward.

He had heard the Virtuaroids were materialized data, but Temjin was far heavier and sturdier than a human. That worked to his advantage. He was up against the Railgun itself and the deadly shockwave and wind stirred up around it. A flesh-and-blood human would likely have been killed by those side effects alone. Kamijou’s Temjin was partially torn away in the process, but he successfully dodged the metal shell, even if just barely. And then he attacked Raiden.

“Gh…!?”

“Misaka!!”

He wielded the Blitz Saber close-range sword.

He focused his mind.

First, lights crossed paths. Then Temjin powerfully turned 180 degrees while Mikoto’s Raiden launched multiple iron sand swords directly behind her without turning around. That was the second exchange. More and more and more and more exchanges followed.

But had she noticed?

Kamijou was swinging his entire body around to slash his close-range sword while Mikoto was standing in place and relying entirely on her iron sand swords. This produced a difference in speed and instantaneous power between Temjin and Raiden. That difference grew with each attack and it eventually grew too wide to ignore.

In other words, she was ultimately unable to keep up with his attacks.

“Why?”

She forcibly turned herself around using the weight of her Zig-18 bazooka and by kicking off of a wall created by pulling in metal panels and beams with magnetism. Her top speed was greater than the customized Temjin, but the Temjin had greater mobility and stability.

“Why won’t you let me do this!? I have a way of ridding her of her pain! I have the power to pull her from the Virtuaroid where she’s forced to continue fighting even as she’s left battered and bloody! That’s all…that’s all I wanted to do!!”

“This isn’t about who’s right, Misaka!!”

Temjin’s Blitz Saber gave a roar.

“It’s about which option I want to choose! And I’m saying I can’t bear to watch as your desire to save someone ultimately puts more lives in danger! No!! Those strict words aren’t what I want to get across to you!!”

Her iron sand swords could no longer make it in time.

He dodged the attacks from straight ahead and kept a position out of reach of the powerful Binary Lotus laser weapons and her Railgun, so Temjin could not be crushed where he was.

So…

“I’m saying I don’t want to see you become a villain, Misaka!! And I’m willing to become a villain myself to prevent it!!!!!”

There was no reason for Kamijou’s Temjin to lose now.

A bluish-white light followed the path of his close-range sword and it drew a complex line that swiftly silenced the Raiden reinforced with so much firepower.

Part 29[edit]

Even if they had Defected, it was still based on the Next Generation Game of Virtual-On.

Attacks were used to earn points, not to destroy your opponent. The winner and loser were determined by the points.

And no matter how much a player wanted to keep going, their unit would not move once the match was over.

Raiden fell silent.

Kamijou’s Temjin was similarly locked as they waited for the results.

“I know Defections are common during battles with a player going by the username of Blue Stalker. They must be good at pushing people in that direction. But they aren’t the only condition, so crushing the source might not be enough to solve this.”

“So you decided to try a method other than crushing the source?”

“The Blue Stalker appears so unpredictably that there was no real way to attack them anyway.”

That meant not even Mikoto know where the Blue Stalker was or how to contact them.

“I know my method is wrong, but the fact remains that there is no better method. Assuming the Blue Stalker knows something and that there’s some way of stopping this all in one fell swoop seems like wishful thinking to me. They might just be enjoying the chaos.”

“…I know that.”

“So with that in mind, I have to ask: what are you going to do? How exactly are you going to attack the Blue Stalker?”

“The same thing I did with you.”

“?”

“I don’t know where the Blue Stalker is, so I’ll have them come to me. I just have to do whatever it is they least want me to do.”

“…That being?”

“I don’t know how they benefit, but they’ve been using Virtual-On to increase the number of Defected players and the number of NPC players from there. I don’t know which is their goal and which is a side effect, but stopping it is simple enough. …I just have to attack the legal Virtual-On in a very public way. If no one can play Virtual-On, the Defections from there will stop too. The Blue Stalker won’t be able to make their very first step.”

“Are you serious…? You mean you’re going to stop the entire Virtual-On system!? I can’t even imagine the economic losses if you cause a data blackout across all 23 districts! This goes beyond rating restaurants and getting the latest information; the people who are really into it can’t read or write kanji or even do simple arithmetic without the machine!!”

“Luckily, the portable devices used for Virtual-On are so reliant on the centers that they need to be taken there for a simple firmware update. Take out the centers and they can’t maintain the service. …But I don’t know if I’ll really do it. I hope I can lure out the Blue Stalker by only making it look like I will.”

A short silence followed.

Mikoto may have been shocked into silence.

But she finally spoke.

“Fine then… I’m a part of this too, so I guess I can help you lure out the Blue Stalker.”

“Misaka…?”

“You’re talking about taking out the centers, but you don’t really have a way of doing that, do you? Surely you aren’t thinking of pouring gasoline around to set them on fire. So if you’re going to mess with the data, you’ll want me around.”

“Wait. I…”

“Stop. You yourself said you were fighting because you didn’t want me to become a villain. Well, I’m the same. I’m not going to let you become a villain on your own. And this is for that girl too.”

Kamijou brought a hand to his forehead.

He had not expected things to develop in this direction.

He was a little afraid to let things continue like this, so he changed the subject.

“Come to think of it, who is this girl you’re talking about? Oh, or should I not have asked?”

“It’s fine.”

Mikoto replied with the voice of someone once more facing the problem they had to solve.

That girl was someone who attended Tokiwadai Middle School and was always by Mikoto’s side.

Or so Kamijou assumed. But what she said next betrayed those expectations.

“I’m talking about a girl named Furashina Ririn.”

Part 30[edit]

“Ahhh! Where have you been all this time, Shirai-san!?”

“Uiharu, I’ve been regularly reporting back while searching for Onee-sama, haven’t I?”

“Uheh. So Misaka-san has vanished so thoroughly not even a Teleporter like you can find her? But we’ve had a rough time of it, too! We managed to get through today, but I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow! We need to do our best as we approach the finals!!”

The 3 girls discussed the issue as they entered through the glass door of a fairly pricey convenience store that used only natural ingredients.

Close by, another girl leaned against the wall next to the entrance.

“Yeah…”

With her honey-blonde hair fluttering behind her, Shokuhou Misaki faced the small screen of her portable device with annoyance in her voice. She was equipped with home-theater-level airtight audiovisual goggles built with special-ordered wood cone speakers to make them more “classy”, but she was in no mood to play and only felt like losing herself in the internet.

She munched on vegetable chips as she groaned to herself.

“Whyyy is everyone spreading this story about trying to save a nonexistent girl? Then again, I can control people’s minds, so maybe I shouldn’t be lamenting the mysteries of the human mind.”

There was supposedly a girl named Furashina Ririn.

She supposedly loved Virtual-On more than anything.

She had supposedly Defected, become an NPC player, and found herself fighting battles against her will.

The word “supposedly” was always present.

Giving it any thought would reveal how unnatural the information was, but people on the internet were weak to multiple sources. By placing the same information on multiple blogs and message boards, its plausibility could be increased erroneously.

Since everyone was saying the same thing, people assumed it had to be correct and that it was universally known.

“Queen.”

A girl with long ringlet curls quietly called for her from nearby.

Shokuhou moved her large, round eyes.

“Have you figured out what is going on?”

“Yes. But I can only call it mysterious even with an explanation.”

“That’s right. This feels like it involves laws and technological abilities beyond the Academy City standards.”

There was a reason they tilted their heads.

Players would enter a state similar to sensory deprivation, their personality would approach collapse, they would have difficulty walking and breathing, and they would become NPCs. It was unclear if the rumors of players vanishing into thin air were true or not, but some had gone missing and their fate seemed to be linked to that of their unit. The proposed method of saving them was to even out, average out, and share their sullied score by forming a team with them. A single rough play was diluted within 100 fair plays.

That was a process to return the zombies to the world of the living.

That method was used to bring back those who had been lost, but what would happen if it was used on a girl who had never existed in the first place and only appeared in rumors?

Furashina Ririn.

Had something by that name truly been born in this city?

“Ahh, ahh.”

Shokuhou left the bag of vegetable chips with her ringlet curled servant, rubbed her index finger against her temple, and breathed a deep sigh.

“I was trying to defeat Misaka-san yesterday to ‘wake her up’ before she got in too deep and decided to Defect, but she just has to get so stubborn when it comes to things like this.”

Part 31[edit]

Kamijou had no idea what she meant.

Her words made not even one iota of sense to him.

“Wait,” he said in his Temjin’s cockpit. “Furashina…Ririn? Is that what you just said?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“But that makes no sense. I mean, Furashina is in my room right now! She can’t be trapped inside a Virtuaroid as an NPC!!”

“What…?”

“We need to go back over all of our information! Something isn’t right! But this contradiction is sure to be an important key to all this. So, Misaka, please tell me everything you know!!”

“There isn’t much to tell.” Mikoto seemed confused and her explanation came in bits and pieces. “There’s a girl named Furashina Ririn. She taught us about the Next Generation Game of Virtual-On, she gave us a lot of ideas about how to fight, and it’s thanks to her that we managed to defeat Shokuhou and continue onto the main tournament.”

Something seemed off.

So he asked about it.

“She gave you ideas? So this Furashina didn’t actually fight alongside you?”

“But she was part of our team!! She was the 5th member!”

“But you’ve never actually met her, have you? You were speaking with someone going by the name Furashina Ririn, but you have no proof it wasn’t someone else entirely!”

“Eh? Wait a second. Where are you going with this!? I promise you I-…!!”

Her words were suddenly cut off.

There was a simple reason.

The sound of an empty can being crushed was amplified several hundred times as it pierced through the Raiden’s chest.

“…Ah?”

Kamijou Touma’s thoughts ground to a halt.

Whether Defected or not, this was all based on Virtual-On, so no amount of hitting each other could put their lives in danger.

But the glowing projectile that tore through Mikoto’s Virtuaroid rejected that assumption.

The beam of light punched through the Raiden’s chest and out the back.

The rectangular backpack of the V-Converter was torn through, the motor deck bent out from within and was blown away, and the V-Disc contained inside was shattered.

The red hot shards flew through the air.

Like the fading flames of life, they fell to the ground and lost their light.

“…Bah…ksshh, ahh, ksssshhhhhhh…”

“Wait, Misaka.”

“Ksssshhhh!! Kssshhh!! Kssssssshhhhhhhh!!”

“Misaka!!”

“Click!! ———————”

Only a plain electronic tone sounded.

He had no idea what that meant.

But it sounded to him like the flatlining signal of an EKG.

“Ahh.”

And.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!???”

She was disappearing.

With a giant hole blown in her chest, the Raiden seemed to dissolve into the air.

He knew it was happening and he could see it happening, but there was nothing he could do.

The referee sphere overhead did nothing.

He did not recover from the wait for the results. He pressed the buttons and moved the sticks like crazy on his portable device, but Temjin did not even budge.

This was different from simple destruction.

She had been shot.

She had been defeated.

She had died.

Died!?

“Touma-sama, you are receiving a communication request from username Akj*daj5hinrl19…hm? Hmm?”

“A corrupted name…could it be!?”

After a burst of static, a young man’s voice spoke.

“It didn’t matter to me which one remained, but I chose you to survive on a whim.”

“The Blue Stalker!!” shouted Kamijou as another small window opened in the corner of his vision.

It was a chat request.

And it said:

“Furashina: My plan was to spread rumors to create an outline for the nonexistent Furashina Ririn, but since there had to be some basis behind them, I had to prepare a few things first. I registered an empty apartment with a fake name, placed a nonexistent student’s data in a school server, and left trash or a handkerchief at a meeting place to make it look like she just missed someone after setting up a meeting. I did similar things with online activity. Simply sending messages doesn’t provide much realism, so I placed hints here and there which could be combined into what seemed like a real presence. But the rumors have grown so much now that I can just sit back and watch as more and more people claim to know Furashina Ririn or that she’s a friend of a friend. Now do you understand what happened?”

“…!!”

Kamijou clenched his teeth.

He doubted this was really Furashina Ririn. It was clearly someone pretending to be her. He was being toyed with by the Blue Stalker who had tricked Misaka Mikoto into trying to save a friend from the Defection trouble.

The chat window closed and the man spoke directly once more.

“Once the results hit a certain level, I just have to wait for the final result to appear on its own. You can take your time and praise your freedom until that final moment. Although the end result will be the same no matter what you choose.”

Far in the distance, he saw a Cypher with distinctive blue coloring and yellow lines. It was lit by multiple guide lights and yet still blended into the darkness.

The Blue Stalker wielded a brutal close-range sword longer than it was tall.

But Temjin did not move a finger.

His opponent slowly turned around and transformed its humanoid form into something more like a fighter jet.

Kamijou let out a roar when he realized the Blue Stalker was preparing to leave.

“Wait!!”

“If you have regrets and still wish to struggle, then come with me.”

A repulsive pressure blew back at Kamijou as an answer.

The one who knew everything had once more stole something from Kamijou and then left before his eyes.

It was over.

Silence surrounded him.

The maddening heat in his head cooled.

He finally grasped the current situation.

Kamijou Touma screamed.

He screamed on and on as if to crush the pressure of what he had lost.

Between the Lines 2[edit]

It seems Code Phoenix will pass Stage 2.

The Plajiner bud is demonstrating behavior very different from that of the original girl loved by the Tangram, but this too must be one option among the infinitely-branching “paths”.


The human NPCs were another unexpected change, but I can accept those as another possibility for the Shadows.


At the moment, I have no chance of completing Stage 3.

I must first acquire Plajiner, the world’s greatest black box. From there, I can use that power to find a solution to Stage 3.


I am aware how pathetic this is. I keep talking about escaping the bonds of Plajiner, yet I still find myself deifying Plajiner in a way. Does this make me the same as a zoologist criticizing a witch for using a familiar?


My birthplace had passed the point of no return. Everything was quantified and calculable, so it was a world in which the field of possibilities had been closed off. The few enlarged plants held all the wealth for themselves and they created a cold cage in which overthrowing those in power was utterly impossible.


Within that, there was one symbolic existence. The V-Crystals, Cyber Imaginary Space, Virtuaroids, the original Fei-Yen, and the Tangram. Beyond all that advanced technology stood the name of a single researcher. In other words, that name was synonymous with technology and anyone chosen by that name was blessed with technology. That deified and sacred researcher became the winner.


L’Ln Plajiner.

The scales of the world took the form of that girl and I will smash them to smithereens. I will bring possibility back to the world. And to do that, I have come to another “path” using the Tangram’s rejection.

I will do this even if it means relying on the other Plajiner, Furashina Ririn.


Now, let the final game begin.


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