Urban Sociology Professor Alfonso Brookman once said a bizarre social order exists in Academy City.
80% of its population of 2.3 million is made up of some kind of student. That creates an overwhelming number of minors, yet the city still ensures ease of use for the aged in its roads and elsewhere. Nor is its automobile industry in decline. Smoking areas are maintained over a surprisingly wide area and the convenience stores and supermarkets sell alcohol like normal.
Despite its unique population distribution, Academy City supports all ages in a wide variety of ways. The many do not crush the few with the tyranny of an overwhelming majority. That might sound nice, but there is a small loophole here.
Since their social system is built to match that of the outside world, the city’s majority is burdened with the obligation of maintaining that. Even if the odds of selection are as low as being struck by lightning, they must fulfill that role to their fullest once they are chosen.
…How does that city’s court system work?
To be honest, few people would know what you meant if you mentioned Sakugawa Middle School. Typing the name into a search engine would only turn up a few results and the school’s official website would only receive a few hundred hits in a good month. Not even all the school’s students would know the site existed.
But even that plain and ordinary public middle school had a certain minor event: a field trip.
“Ohh, ohh. We’re actually at the Central Anti-Skill Station.”
“Saten-san, your eyes and voice look and sound dead. The Anti-Skill officers working here have done nothing wrong, so let’s not do that.”
Uiharu Kazari, a girl with lots of flower decorations in her short hair, gave that exasperated comment to her sailor uniform friend who had long black hair.
Officially, it was the school bowing its head and requesting a visit, but adolescent sensibilities could be cruelly honest, so if they were not interested, they were not interested. Saten Ruiko would have been more excited attaching a rubber band to her smartphone for a simple VR that let her peer into a world of swords and magic. She only felt any excitement at all because this got her out of having to take classes on a school day.
“Besides, Saten-san, I thought you liked hearing about crimes and such.”
“C’mon, Uiharu. My specialty is rumors and urban legends. I can irresponsibly enjoy those because they’re so vague and uncertain. I’m not so indiscriminate that I’d drool over some legit crime that’s not just in the online news but on the old-fashioned TV news and newspapers. I mean, you know someone’s really suffering then.”
The Central Anti-Skill Station was about the same as a prefectural police headquarters outside of Academy City. Saten was looking up at no more than a box of thick reinforced concrete. Since it was a government office, it was not given any unnecessary decorations. And unlike in a TV police drama, there was no one shooting their guns out front and no dump trucks crashing into the front entrance. To be blunt, it was a boring visual.
An Anti-Skill woman clapped her hands a couple of times to gather the uniformed boys’ and girls’ attention.
She wore a track suit instead of a proper uniform.
“Okay, okay. It’s time for the tour! We’ll start with the main lobby. And there’s no reason to be nervous just because it’s an Anti-Skill station. Most of the people here are submitting lost item reports, renewing licenses, and other standard business. It isn’t just wicked criminals who have business here.”
There were more than 100 curious or inattentive middle schoolers, but the Anti-Skill woman managed to keep them together as she guided them. That may have been due to Anti-Skill officers generally also working as teachers.
They walked through the thick glass door and found a lobby much like in a city hall or bank. Several counters were lined up alongside each other and each booth was given a number. There was also a machine that spat out numbered tickets.
A bank or hospital would have TVs set up, but an Anti-Skill station could not do that. They were meant to preserve order in the city, so it would damage their reputation if they angered ZASRAC.
“This is the general reception area. As I said, this is the main lobby for the people here for completely ordinary matters such as lost items or licenses. Dramas tend to show the arrested criminals taken in the front entrance while handcuffed, but we make sure normal people and suspects are never in the same area. Now, let’s head further in.”
The bulletin board was covered in posters with advice for avoiding bank transfer scams and how to use fire safely. But in an age of smartphone VR, the hand-drawn portrait drawings stood out. Would the day ever come that you could put on some goggles and view them from any angle?
“Uiharu, have you ever been to Anti-Skill before?”
“I barely interact with them at all.”
Just then, Saten came to a stop while the group followed their guide.
“What is it, Saten-san?”
The posters were all standard for an Anti-Skill station.
…Wanted for arson. Urgently seeking all information. Have you seen them? This is their last known appearance. The reward money period has been extended. The reward is set at a maximum of 6 million yen. Do not let them get away with robbery! The security camera footage of the Nichimaru Department Store stun gun incident has been released to the public…
Anti-Skill would seek information from the public for anything from locating a missing minor to identifying a wandering old person they had taken into custody, but Saten was looking at the section for wanted criminals with reward money being offered. Red, black, yellow, white… Those posters were given highly contrasting colors to draw the eye and they were covered with images of mean-looking people taken from licenses or security cameras.
“Hoehhh. These are wanted criminals, missus.”
“And the rewards have reached the millions because they’re so hard to catch.”
“I’m not interested in capturing them. I just want a photo of these. Doesn’t it make you feel like a bounty hunter in a video game!?”
“That’s actually a real job people do, you know?”
Just then, Saten’s smartphone made an odd noise.
The two of them frowned and looked at the screen to see something flashing at the top right corner of the photo management app. It was informing them of one of the app’s functions.
“What’s this? The album has started organizing the photos on its own.”
“Which means…the facial recognition kicked in? Eh? It found a connection between the wanted criminal poster…and the photos you’ve taken…?”
They looked in the app and saw two photos in an automatically-created folder.
One was the poster Saten had photographed.
The poster’s photo seemed to be taken from security camera footage. The person had their hoodie’s hood up and it was too grainy to see much of the face within.
They could not tell what the person looked like, but the machine had apparently done some kind of processing to see the face in the darkness.
Then there was the second photo.
It was a perfectly ordinary photo already on Saten’s smartphone.
She had probably wanted to show off on social media that she had gotten a convenience store’s new seasonal product before anyone else, but the selfie showed Saten sipping a toxically pink liquid through a straw.
“Ah, look! There’s a cursor over here…”
“You can barely see someone on a bike in the back. Isn’t that the same person as the security camera footage on the poster?”
“Yes, we are right in front of District 7’s Central Anti-Skill Station! Boy A, who was arrested without a warrant, was just transported here, so the press is rushing the place!!”
“It is possible that the person known online as Loophole was working alone. As you might guess from his name, he has committed various brutal crimes as a way of pointing out the flaws in our legal and social system, so we can predict that he has simply gathered a large number of followers from the people who are displeased with Anti-Skill and Judgment.”
“You can’t find this on TV! They’re stuck following those boring broadcast regulations!!”
“Here is the information we have on the suspect, Innai Chigiri (15).”
“These are the cases most likely connected to Loophole: the Suicide Assistance Video Case (In which an incurably ill individual was sought out and euthanized. Was it acceptable or not to free him from his pain?), the Loan Shark Office Arson Case (In which a registry of people with multiple debts was burned. Was it acceptable or not to free people from debt placed on them through illicit means?), the Takarabune Bank Vault Imprisonment Case (In which a banker was threatened and locked inside the vault while the air was gradually removed. Was it acceptable or not to leak the internal structure of the vault to an external rescue team in order to save an individual?)”
“And the Cold Sleep Murder Case. A frozen girl’s corpse was discovered below a skating rink in District 15, which is known as Academy City’s largest shopping district.”
“Be as accurate as possible: the frozen girl’s name was Asajimo Saemi.”
“Have you seen what they’re saying on TV? The murderer is only called Boy A while the victim’s full name is given. There really is something wrong with this country…”
“Mattsuu> Huh? If she’s in cold sleep, isn’t she still alive?”
“ANZEN> Her brain and heart aren’t functioning and is there any way to safely unfreeze her? Biologically it’s uncertain and legally she’s probably considered dead. Even if she’s left like that for a few days, she’s officially in cardiopulmonary arrest until a doctor signs the documents. This really is the kind of thing Loophole would be a part of.”
“A comment on this article: Tah dah☆ But is this guy a winner or loser as far as esper powers go? Is he a high level intellectual? Or a Level 0?”
“Not much information has been released so far. Among the employed, unique abilities are more often seen as something that creates a feeling of alienation from those around you…”
“Chief! The investigation was having difficulties and rumor had it the case would never be solved, so what was it that led to this arrest!?”
“Well, I can only say that the tireless and diligent efforts of our many investigators have borne fruit. But this was also in large part due to a civilian-supplied photograph showing a bike thought to belong to the suspect. The license plate was a fake used by the current suspect and it led us to his hideout.”
“Once Boy A has had a psychological evaluation by an expert, it seems likely the prosecution will indict him to a criminal trial. This has been brought to you from in front of District 7’s Central Anti-Skill Station.”
“…Ugh. This has gotten out of hand.”
It was the next day. The entire world seemed to have changed in just one day.
Saten Ruiko commented on the current age of maximum speed trials.
The administrative agencies were gathered in District 1. She did not visit that area often, but today she had been brought there by a black van. Their destination was Academy City General Courthouse. It was generally known as a “court of first instance”, but they did not approach the front entrance. Needless to say, that was due to the TV and newspaper reporters and the voyeurs who claimed to be online journalists who were waiting outside.
The prosecutor in the van with her was supposedly the person who cornered the defendant until they were found guilty, but…
“L-let’s do our best, okay!? After causing so much trouble, that Loophole boy has finally been arrested and indicted, so we have to free the victims from their regrets and bring a normal life back to the surviving families!! Let’s do this!!”
(Ehhhhh!? We’re about to start the trial of the century, but this adult sounds panicked and can barely get the words out!? I thought prosecutors were supposed to be people who were nicknamed “the demon” and stuff like that!?)
If even a carefree middle school girl like Saten Ruiko was growing pale, then the world truly was over.
But while dramas often depicted the choice between a court-appointed attorney and a private defense attorney, they rarely showed a change in prosecutor. This woman in a cheap and baggy suit looked like a puppy giving you an upturned look. She wore her hair up to force a formal adult look, but it seemed more like something from the Shichi-Go-San festival. She may have been even shorter than Saten, but now that things had started, she would have to stick with it to the end!
She must have noticed Saten’s extremely uneasy gaze because thus spoke the puppy prosecutor (who was more toy poodle than Doberman):
“It’s unlikely, but there can be a risk if a witness’s identity is discovered. So your personal information will be hidden as much as possible. That’s standard practice.”
“U-um, then do I really have to speak from the witness stand…?”
“Your photograph was the defining piece of evidence in arresting and building a case against Innai Chigiri, so you need to provide testimony on the circumstances of taking that photo. I know it won’t be easy, so thank you for cooperating!”
It was not supposed to be like this. Saten Ruiko felt like holding her head in her hands.
She had not wanted to become the talk of the town and she had not wanted the reward. She had even refused the reward, but Anti-Skill and the prosecutor had not left her alone. Having lost the reward and gained nothing, Saten Ruiko was on the verge of tears. For one thing, she had not done anything at all. It was her smartphone that had found the suspicious face in her album app. But next thing she knew, all of this was going on. Part of her seriously wished they would just take her smartphone into the interrogation room and feed it the katsudon.
Her name had yet to appear on the internet, but for the past few days, she had felt a squeezing at her heart every time “the person who supplied the crucial information” had come up on message boards or social media.
Discussing these things online was so much different than being the topic of discussion.
A large group of complete strangers were searching for information on her. That was more than enough to scare her. Plus…
“L-Loophole has followers, right? I heard he has a lot of secret fans.”
“He is Innai Chigiri, the defendant. No more and no less, kay?”
“They won’t try to take r-revenge on me for testifying, will they!? Will they!?”
“If you’re worried about any risks, then the best course of action is to make sure Innai Chigiri is found guilty and sent to the juvenile hall. Letting him go free would be the most dangerous option.”
Saten Ruiko really did hold her head in her hands now and the baggy suit puppy tossed her something wrapped in clear plastic.
“Um, what is this?”
“Let me ask you something instead: Do you really plan to appear in court wearing a uniform that identifies your school? Didn’t I say it’s standard practice to hide as much personal information as possible? C’mon!”
While wondering if this was some new diet that helped you lose weight by making sure you did not have an appetite, Saten tore open the plastic and spread out the contents.
It was a suit made of thick black rubber.
She could only assume it would be skintight from the neck down. Her bodylines would be entirely visible. Why did this dog prosecutor have what looked like a costume for a female phantom thief?
“…Are you serious?”
“Very serious. These days, the reporters can use a single strap to determine what store you bought it at and the general area in which you live. It wouldn’t hurt to get rid of every little thing of your own.”
The black van pulled around behind the courthouse, drove down a gentle slope, and entered an underground parking garage. A few people in black were waiting there. Fortunately, this was not a foolish team of 101 tiny puppies, so Saten breathed a sigh of relief. The suit-wearing Dobermans had apparently already gotten rid of any reporters trying to disguise themselves as staff members.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Wah, wait! The zipper! I still have to zip it up!!”
Blushing, Saten pitched forward and stumbled out into the parking garage.
The puppy prosecutor stretched upwards and confiscated Saten’s flower-shaped hair decoration.
“I said a single strap, didn’t I?”
While surrounded by men in black like she was the president, Saten was led through a space of bare concrete. She nervously looked around, and…
“Wh-where are we going now?”
“There are waiting rooms for witnesses. There are snacks and drinks there for you, so try not to come out until the trial. If you absolutely must use the bathroom or something, use the phone in the room to contact us. We will construct a safe route for you.”
“During the trial itself, you will be partitioned off by frosted glass so the defendant and gallery can’t see your face. The only real danger is when you’re waiting in the back. A lot of different people claim to be journalists these days. It isn’t unusual for them to use the internal staff or small robots, so don’t trust someone just because they’re walking around like they belong.”
She smoothly answered Saten’s questions, but it was not that reassuring when the woman looked like a puppy. Were they really headed in the right direction? She wouldn’t accidentally open the wrong door and dump them right into the middle of the press, would she? Saten could only pray that hellish kind of thing did not happen.
They rode up in an unusually small elevator, walked down a small hallway that made lots of twists and turns, and finally arrived in an area that looked like a hotel. Either that or the waiting rooms in a TV station. A long hallway was lined with doors that needed a card key to open.
The prosecutor in a black suit opened one door, but she did not give Saten a card key.
“Even if someone knocks, tells you it’s time, or yells that there’s a fire, do not carelessly open the door. Make sure to check over the phone first. Do you understand?”
“It’s not like I have any other option…”
“Um, uh, couldn’t you leave someone in front of the door?”
“Umm. Only if you want to advertise which of these many doors has the witness behind it.” The prosecutor clenched her tiny fists at face height and gave a snort from her nose. “Okay, let’s work together in court!”
“Oh, and…become deliiiicious!!”
(I’m super worried!!)
After the men in black left, Saten was left all alone and the loneliness pressed in on her from all directions.
Actually being part of a criminal case was so different from just hearing about them.
And this case was not normal.
Unlike a movie or a drama, the prosecution and defense did not keep their evidence hidden and reveal it during the trial itself. They would declare in advance what their claims were and request for the evidence they needed. Even if they needed some other evidence afterwards, they could not bring it to court if they failed to request it. In other words, there would be no unexpected twists from a shocking new piece of evidence.
Thus, Saten had already been given an overview of the crimes committed by Loophole, aka Innai Chigiri.
The focus this time was on the Cold Sleep Murder Case.
A 14-year-old girl named Asajimo Saemi had been abducted, stripped naked, and frozen. The ice in the center of a District 15 skating rink had been removed and the “coffin” had been placed inside instead. Then water had been sprayed in from above to fill in all the gaps and the rink was back to normal in time for business hours the following morning.
The first to discover the corpse had not been an employee at the skating rink.
After seeing the perfectly smooth ice surface, they had apparently opened the rink like normal. It had been one of the first customers who screamed.
The crime scene investigation was complete and the part of the thick ice containing the girl had been cut out and sent to a university hospital for storage.
The culprit’s identity had been unknown because he had cleverly avoided the surveillance cameras when entering and exiting the skating rink late at night, but that was where Saten came in. Her selfie had coincidentally photographed him leaving the skating rink and preparing to board his bike.
Her cellphone itself had not been confiscated. She looked down at the screen out of unease and loneliness and she saw a few emails and missed calls. Misaka Mikoto, Shirai Kuroko, Uiharu Kazari… She smiled at the names of those friends who knew her situation, but then doubt crept in.
(…Huh? I can’t let people know my phone is here, can I? With the signal, I mean.)
She just about replied out of habit, but her fingers stopped. She breathed in and out. And she reconsidered. …It would be best to avoid any risk. So she decided against replying and turned off the phone altogether.
The public prosecutor was a government worker. And the defense attorney would protect the defendant.
But what about the witness?
Saten Ruiko belatedly realized she had fallen into an unexpected gap, so she breathed a heavy, heavy sigh in the empty room.
She was certain today would be an adventure.
But what good was an adventure she could not post about online?
“Oh, the line’s moving. And everyone’s getting a lot noisier.”
Meanwhile, Misaka Mikoto was standing in a very long line of people that stretched outside of the courthouse.
District 1 was seen as a strict place what with all of its administrative agencies and Mikoto felt like she would drown in the atmosphere if she stood still for too long. Other than one convenience store sign with restrained colors, nothing seemed allowed to draw attention to itself. Instead of the normal drum-shaped cleaning robots, Anti-Skill was accompanied by quadrupedal armored robots that played the role of military dogs, so everything felt higher pressure than in other districts.
“Y-you sure are lucky, Misaka-san. Weren’t the odds of getting into this trial 1-in-208, making it a new record?”
“Uiharu-san, I’m more impressed with you and Kuroko for casually getting in using special educational Judgment slots…”
Mikoto stood in the line of gallery members who had won the lottery for a ticket. They passed through a metal gate, underwent a security check, and stepped into the courthouse.
“Uuh, this is all so annoying…”
“That gate there is emitting far infrared beams. By intentionally messing with our body heat, they can lead already unstable people to make a mistake, allowing easier detection of suspicious people. It’s a civilian application of an anti-sleep weapon. It only raises your body temperature by 0.5 degrees, but by emitting the far infrared beams in a grid, it can stimulate individual organs to leave you in an unstable state of mind.”
As their gadget expert, Uiharu Kazari explained it for them.
Shirai Kuroko looked exasperated as she walked by Mikoto’s side.
“…This is a normal school day, Onee-sama. There’s something wrong with how the world works if Tokiwadai’s Ace is skipping class for some stuffy court case.”
“I submitted the proper paperwork so it will count as an extracurricular lesson on the justice system. Of course, that means I’ll have to write a report on it afterwards.”
“That wasn’t my point.”
“I’m better than them, aren’t I?”
A deep electronic tone sounded. A girl hanging her head such that her bangs covered her face was caught by the metal gate and had a digital camera and voice recorder confiscated.
“A blogger claiming to be a journalist?”
“She might just be one of Loophole’s followers.”
“If cameras and recorders aren’t allowed, isn’t it weird for them to let us keep our phones?”
“Please turn that off, Onee-sama.”
Photographing the trial was not allowed, especially during a case involving minors. …And yet 80% of the city’s population was some kind of student.
Uiharu spoke nervously as she caught up from behind.
“Th-these Loophole-related cases have given him cult-like popularity online, haven’t they? The odds of getting a ticket were 1-in-208 and I heard people were reselling tickets or counterfeiting IDs to get in.”
“And the people who lost the lottery are gathered around the courthouse. It’s like a concert for some famous person. …And if they’re treating a criminal like an idol or cult leader, the electronic world must be as insane as ever.”
“Well, that actually helps us out in a way.”
They were not foolish enough to mention the name Saten Ruiko here, but it was said that a tree was best hidden in the forest. It might have looked suspicious if Saten alone took the day off of school, but with this many people skipping school, she could pretend to be the same as all of them.
“Gallery members, please follow the officials’ instructions and move to Court 103. I repeat…”
An announcement played, but a few young people were arrested after pretending to be lost and heading toward the off-limits waiting rooms.
Mikoto’s group obediently walked to their destination.
The double doors opened and they entered the courtroom.
“It’s just like a drama set,” said Uiharu.
“…Isn’t that because the drama staff did their homework?”
A few rows of benches were lined up like in a movie theater. Those were the gallery seats for Mikoto and the others. A metal fence blocked the way to the actual courtroom that felt separated from ordinary life.
The witness stand was in the center.
The prosecution’s seats were on the left from Mikoto’s perspective.
There was a wall behind the awfully-short prosecutor and it blocked off a box of frosted glass. That probably surrounded a door. That would be for witnesses who wanted to remain unidentified, like Saten. The double doors opened and someone entered the box, but they could not tell if that was Saten or not. They could not exactly call out her name or wave to her.
The defense and defendant were seated on the right.
That meant Innai Chigiri, who went by the name Loophole.
Out-of-place cheers filled the courtroom.
While the female glasses attorney whispered something in his ear, the boy leaned back in his chair, looking completely relaxed. His facial features had an androgynous beauty that made him look unrealistic and fairy-like. His beautifully glossy black hair and bright white skin had such fine lines that he looked like he would melt away like snow in your hand if a human so much as touched him.
His esper power was unknown.
Was it high or low? What kind of power was it? To protect a minor’s personal information from the press, the Bank had been locked down, but that had only added to his strange charisma.
It was thanks to people wanting to see him like this was a concert that the odds of winning a ticket had risen to 1-in-208. Just like a bizarre medieval torture device, he had something that charmed people and drove them mad.
“(A criminal’s charisma, hm?)”
Loophole certainly had that, but the female glasses attorney by his side also looked the part.
They looked like a handsome male idol and his beautiful manager.
“(Tsujinaka Kyouka, was it? They mentioned her on TV so much I couldn’t help but remember her. That lawyer has grown quite famous. She’s been active on video sites as something like the midpoint between a sharp-tongued commentator and a fashion leader.)”
“(So by sending a friend request to a serial killer’s social media account, you might have a chance at making a name for yourself?)”
“(I can see how he got so many irresponsible followers…)”
At the very back of the courtroom, the seats for the judges and lay judges were lined up alongside each other. The presiding judge sat in the center. There were three professional judges, including the presiding one, and there were six lay judges chosen by lottery. Some of the lay judges wore sailor uniforms or blazers, but others had changed into black full-body tights, perhaps to hide what school they attended.
“The lay judges are the same age as us. Well, I guess that’s not surprising when 80% of the population is students…”
“They apparently have a large computer assisting them so even minors can fulfill their civic duty.”
Uiharu was right. Every seat had a flat-screen monitor, but the lay judges’ seats had far more equipment. The gravestone-like box was not the computer itself. It was the relay equipment that connected to a giant supercomputer.
“So they go through the trial in the same patchwork way as someone using their phone’s word prediction?” Shirai sounded exasperated. “That seems a little too casual to me…”
The sound of a wooden hammer filled the courtroom.
The trivia that Japanese courts did not use a gavel flashed through Mikoto’s mind, but when she looked closer, she saw the presiding judge had placed a finger on his keyboard to play an electronic sound.
The elderly man spoke through a microphone.
“Order in the court. It is time. The court will now begin the trial and I would like to start with the oaths.”
He lightly raised his right hand and continued.
“We, the judges and lay judges, hereby swear to follow the fair and strict ideals of our judicial branch and to reach an impartial judgment for this Cold Sleep Murder Case with no falsehoods or exaggerations.”
The judges and lay judges to his left and right repeated the exact same statement. The middle and high school lay judges chosen from the population at large sounded nervous. It was a lot like a choir competition in which the entire school year participated.
Next it was the prosecution’s turn.
“We of the prosecution hereby swear to follow the fair and strict ideals of our judicial branch and to pursue an impartial judgment for this Cold Sleep Murder Case with no falsehoods or exaggerations.”
It was almost the same with just the relevant parts swapped out. It seemed to be a standard statement that they did not give much thought to. Court was apparently not a place in which people suddenly pushed their glasses up their nose and shouted at the top of their lungs.
The opening oaths had seemed like a tedious rite of passage, but that came to a premature end.
The entire courtroom was enveloped in the same uncomfortable tension as hearing a record needle skip.
That was due to the excessive time the next individual took.
The glasses attorney sitting next to the defendant slowly opened her mouth.
She was just like a stage actress.
She knew how to gather people’s attention and manipulate a crowd’s emotions.
“I apologize for the suddenness, but I cannot make that oath.”
“Objections are made during the prosecution’s closing argument or during the defense’s argument. The defendant has no such right during the opening oath. As an attorney, you should be familiar with these rules.”
“But I cannot make an erroneous oath. My contract with the defendant obligates me to faithfully defend him, so I am unable to bear false witness against him.”
“Continue with this and I will advise that you are removed from the court. You are no more than a private defense attorney, so you are not a necessary part of the court proceedings. We can always bring in a court-appointed attorney and reopen the trial. We are seeking a reliable trial, not a hasty conclusion. Do not forget that.”
If she took this too far, she could be removed for contempt of court or obstructing the trial.
Defense attorneys came in a variety of skill levels and attitudes. As you might guess from the fact that most defendants paid high prices to choose their own attorney, a private attorney whose remuneration was influenced by the outcome would participate in the trial much more actively than a court-appointed one that was paid the same either way.
But the glasses attorney did not stop speaking.
Was that due to her own charisma, or was she merely borrowing the charisma of the pretty boy seated next to her?
“My conclusion is as follows: the Cold Sleep Murder Case mentioned in the oath does not exist.”
Did everyone there realize the significance of her choosing that word in particular?
Her opinion was so extraordinary that it inspired blank stares and confusion before anger or animosity.
“The brain and heart of the frozen victim, Asajimo Saemi-san, have ceased to function. Simply looking at her brainwaves or heartrate might lead you to believe she is no longer alive, but since she was put into cold sleep, she can be brought back to life if she is unfrozen using the proper method. Thus, this is not a murder case. I cannot disadvantage the defendant by discussing a crime that never occurred in the first place.”
The cracks of that silence were smoothly filled by the voice of the pretty boy’s representative.
Even a representative could fill in and solidify that space.
“And allow me to provide one piece of ‘advice’.”
This was the same as primitive humans acquiring fire to sweep away the darkness and gain peace of mind.
You felt uneasy when you did not know what a creepy person was going to say, but once you knew their reasoning, you could accept it. You felt like the danger had passed. That was why the words of a madman had such a strange power. If you understood them, you could predict their next action and restrain them. This took advantage of how reasonable people found peace of mind.
“Of course, I will not say he was entirely unconnected to this case, but the techniques used remain hidden in his mind. He can revive the poor victim. But if you mistake the charge, meaninglessly extend this trial, and find him guilty, that could change. If his freedom is unjustly taken from him, the frozen girl will die with no chance of being revived. …There are many different kinds of cold sleep, after all. With some varieties, long-term storage will damage the cells and make it impossible to unfreeze the subject once enough time has passed. You can think of it like the juices leaking from a block of frozen tuna if you leave it in the freezer for too long.”
The glasses attorney’s mouth split open in a crescent moon smile as she made her final statement.
“…It is not he who will decide whether the poor victim lives or dies. It is your judgment here which will make that choice.”
At that very moment, someone silently raised his hand.
It was Loophole, aka Innai Chigiri.
That pretty boy, who took his nickname from the legal loopholes he took advantage of, opened his mouth for the first time.
“Trial results are a noble thing. And that is why you must choose very carefully.”
His statement was short in comparison.
But its attractive power was far greater. The true, non-borrowed charisma bared its fangs.
“You may not be charged with a crime, but the fact that you killed someone will be forever recorded in a public institution where anyone can view it.”
The victim was not yet dead.
Whether the frozen 14-year-old girl would live or die was in the hands of those making the judgment.
“Hey, what do we do? What do we do about this? I-is there a precedent!? Is there anything to guide us here…? We’re not bearing all the responsibility here, are we!?”
“Order! Order in the court!!”
“Kill…eh? What? Anyone can view it…you’re kidding. Why does this have to happen when we’re doing this? I’m sorry, wait, can I go to the bathroom? I’m feeling…u-ugh, gehhh!!”
The pressure of that simple fact was far greater than what they had been expecting. The lay judges had simply been chosen from the public at large, so one of them fell from her chair and began convulsing. It was the same as vomiting after seeing a photograph from a gruesome murder scene. This was made all the worse by the fact that she knocked over the computer terminal when she collapsed. Academy City’s speed trials required the support of those machines, so the trial was sent into recess as soon as it had begun.
“Wait, what do we do, Kuroko!?”
After the judges, lay judges, prosecution, and defense had all left, there was no point in remaining in the gallery, so Mikoto, Shirai, and Uiharu left the courtroom and began a strategy meeting in the lobby built in the hallway for taking breaks.
“Confirming his claim takes top priority, of course.” Shirai Kuroko placed a hand on her chin. “But I bet the defendant, Innai Chigiri, completely ignored the normal court proceedings with this absurd defense in order to mess with the computer.”
Uiharu nodded at Mikoto’s question.
“Um, lay judges are chosen from the general public, but 80% of Academy City’s population is made up of students, right? We’re minors, so we can’t necessarily make choices that influence the rest of someone’s life. So a large computer is used to support their decision making.”
“It is not a sentient AI or anything like that,” said Shirai. “It is a learning machine that contains the results of hundreds of thousands of past trials. After all, precedent is everything in trials. Because of a past judgment, you know what to do with a very similar case in the present. Teach the computer those precedents the same way you teach a spam filter and the number of years in prison or total fine will appear on the screen like your phone predicting what you will type next. The middle and high school lay judges just have to judge whether those numbers seem too light or too heavy. However…”
“There’s nothing it can do when there is no precedent, hm?” muttered Mikoto.
Uiharu rubbed a finger against her temple.
“Without that specialized computer, they’re nothing more than middle and high school students just like us. Tell them they’ll be killing someone and that the record of that will be forever viewable by anyone, and of course it’s going to cause a panic. Especially since the lay judges didn’t volunteer for this, so not all of them wanted to do this in the first place.”
“As I said, precedent is everything in trials. So the legal world wants to avoid setting a bad precedent at all costs. That would be like teaching your spam filter the wrong thing. Their focus might be on the influence this will have on the next decade of trials rather than on whether or not the defendant is guilty in this specific case. Without the support of the machine, can they properly judge this villainous criminal known as Loophole? It is possible the government will put a stop to all of this out of fear of a mistaken judgment.”
“…Um, uh, I only vaguely remember it, but wasn’t there a m-molestation case where it became apparent during the trial that the accusations may have been false as part of a scam? The computer could not handle having the position of the defendant and accuser swap out like that, so it crashed, right?”
“Is that why he started saying those ominous things about the lay judges killing someone and the result being a noble thing…?”
“With tricky judgments like this, it is possible to make an exception to the lay judge system that uses normal people and instead hold a trial judged only by professional judges. But the trial had already begun in this case, so it’s too late to request that kind of change. …They made it look like a simple case and then turned that on its head. If they investigated the system’s vulnerabilities to take it down, then Innai Chigiri and the lawyer next to him are something else.”
But there was still the fundamental problem.
Misaka Mikoto frowned.
“Isn’t taking this all so seriously exactly what…Innai Chigiri, was it? Isn’t it exactly what he wants? Besides, this city is full of doctors, professors, and other experts. Can’t we just have them unfreeze the girl?”
She looked back and forth between Shirai and Uiharu.
They seemed to know something.
“…To dig a little deeper into this, cold sleep is not a medical technique recognized by this country.”
“Since it is not a medical technique, it cannot be performed at a hospital. Whether they have the skills or not, it would be like having a doctor give you a piercing or tattoo in the operating room, right?”
“Then what about a university professor!?”
“They can try. But if they fail and Asajimo Saemi really dies, things are a little different from attempting a surgery but failing to save the patient. Um, it would count as a clinical trial or human experiment, so they could be charged with professional negligence resulting in death.”
So no one would attempt the dangerous unfreezing.
It might be possible to save her with their techniques, but they could protect themselves if they turned a blind eye.
Sparks burst from Mikoto’s bangs.
She consciously took a deep breath to calm herself before she continued the conversation.
“…So did Loophole know this would happen from the beginning?”
“The arrest itself only happened because of the selfie that, uh…she took, right? I doubt he predicted that. But I can’t deny he could have started gathering useful pieces after he was arrested and built the current situation using those.”
Innai Chigiri was not after a not guilty verdict.
He wanted to erase the crime itself. He wanted the case dismissed.
“If this goes the way he wants, what will happen to, um, her?”
If they were not careful, they would accidentally use Saten’s name.
They had to pause for a second to rephrase it.
“The prosecution is only protecting the witness because she is necessary to get a guilty verdict,” said Kuroko. “If the entire trial falls apart, that will no longer be necessary.”
This was not an issue of guilty or not guilty.
If the trial itself went away, the position of witness went away with it.
“Plus, Loophole will gain freedom. And she is the one and only person who cornered him to this extent. To put it another way, she marred his record of perfect crimes. It could not be more obvious who his next target will be once he is free once more.”
That was all the more creepy when his esper power was unknown in the name of privacy. They had no way of knowing what method he would use once he was free.
“C-can’t they get Innai Chigiri to tell them how to unfreeze the girl?”
“Uiharu. That is backwards. The process follows a standard order: arrest, questioning, indictment. After the indictment, Anti-Skill and Judgment cannot question him further.”
Once he had been sent to trial, he was actually off limits.
He could calmly break the rules and make exceptions, but they had to do something about it while constrained by those rules. Just thinking about it filled the pit of Mikoto’s stomach with irritation.
“…We of course can’t let the unthinkable happen here. Giving Loophole freedom and thus a chance to attack her is out of the question. It would be dangerous to ignore the shaken judges and lay judges.”
“But a human life carries a lot of weight,” said Shirai. “If the chosen lay judges continue to refuse the role, the trial itself cannot continue. After finally getting Innai Chigiri into court, the prosecution will want to stick with it, but they will not want to take the blame for losing a life that could have been saved.”
“Let’s not forget how many followers Loophole has. Whether they’re just joking or not, if they make a fuss online about this and it fills the lists of trending words, it could easily influence the decision of those at the top.” Uiharu looked worried. “Are you familiar with the concept of double jeopardy? Because double jeopardy is forbidden, you cannot repeat a trial that already reached some form of result. And that applies not just to a guilty or not guilty verdict but also to cases that are dismissed like this one would be. But we can safely assume that Loophole has committed several serious crimes other than the Cold Sleep Case. So even if he escapes justice here, he can be found guilty of a different crime and sent to juvenile hall. It is possible the judges will use that reasoning as an excuse here.”
But there was no promising evidence or testimony for any other case.
If Innai Chigiri was allowed out, he would effectively be free. Volunteers might keep an eye on him, but he would be free to wander the city and pursue his next target. And his gaze would most likely be on Saten Ruiko. He had an inscrutable power and anonymous followers. If he took action, it would be difficult to defend against it in advance.
What were the hurdles here?
Was there nothing they could do?
Mikoto mentally gathered what information they had and resumed speaking.
“…Yes. We’ve identified the problems here, so we’ll have to work through them one at a time. Kuroko, you said the trial won’t resume for a while after Loophole shook everyone so badly, right? Then we should be able to leave for a bit.”
“First, let’s find out what this cold sleep of his is all about.” Mikoto licked her lips. “Then we find a way to unfreeze the girl without relying on Innai Chigiri. If we can save the victim…Asajimo Saemi-san, was it? Save her and he’ll lose his bargaining chip. Then the trial would proceed as normal and he’ll be found guilty.”
The strict atmosphere of a government office filled every nook and cranny of District 1. Leaving the courthouse was not enough to escape the oppressiveness of it all. The streets contained electronic guide posts that worked like AI speakers and fully-equipped Anti-Skill officers were patrolling with quadrupedal armored robots.
“Hyah. Even the convenience store has dull colors.”
“Try calling it a chic color scheme. They do the same thing in Kyoto and Ise, so it isn’t that unusual.”
Mikoto’s group held that conversation on the way to the subway station.
Having Judgment members with them meant a lot.
After being cut out of the ice, Asajimo Saemi, the girl who had been caught in the Cold Sleep Murder(?) Case, had apparently been transported to a university hospital in District 2.
They placed an IC card in the ticket gate and entered the station. Mikoto gave a curious glance toward the Anti-Skill officers who were standing on stepladders to view the crowd from a step above.
“Low temperature chemistry is a fairly major field of study, isn’t it?”
“Cooling technology is a foundation of modern society. These days, everyone uses a refrigerator or freezer, not to mention air conditioning. Computers and cars need cooling systems as well. Get a bit more specialized and you have the superconductor technology related to your Railgun, Onee-sama, the safe storage of germs and microbes, artificial weather alteration, the exterior wall settings for space ships and stations, and the methods to remove a mammoth from giant hunks of ice.”
The mention of giant hunks of ice brought a slight silence over Mikoto, Shirai, and Uiharu.
They boarded a train and traveled to another district.
District 2’s hospitals had expanded so much because the entire district specialized in vehicle development and the handling of explosives. They had the means of transporting delicate patients.
Presumably so they could contain so many patients, the university hospital looked like a stylish tourist hotel that stretched out lengthwise. A few out-of-place young people were loitering around it. They may have been people with too much time on their hands that fancied themselves internet journalists and wanted to sneak their smartphones in.
“Kuroko, you got us an appointment, right?”
“I merely made the suggestion and they did not respond. Although I cannot imagine why they would refuse. And I know you, Onee-sama. You plan on disabling their security if we don’t have permission, don’t you?”
The trio entered the university hospital through the main entrance and asked about their appointment at the reception desk.
Despite the suspicious people hanging around outside, they were readily allowed in.
There was a TV in the front lobby. A male host with a self-satisfied look was speaking on a morning news program.
“Next up is the popular segment where we dig deeper into the top trending terms on social media. Today that word is unprecedented. Yes, unprecedented. During a trial being held today, the suspect took advantage of a computer vulnerability to have the trial sent into emergency recess…”
“…Why is that information already out?”
“The reporters aren’t allowed to inform the news agencies, but they sometimes use a loophole where they claim they’re only gathering information found online. It’s the same idea as intentionally gathering negative opinions from message boards and then denying any and all responsibility for the statements because you were only relaying the general consensus.”
If so, the dangerous situation would spread to the hospital where the frozen girl was being stored. Onlookers could rush to the hospital to see for themselves whether Loophole would show up or not. The hospital’s immediate acceptance of Judgment members like Shirai and Uiharu may have been a sign of their concern.
There were apparently treatments that used liquid nitrogen to take care of athlete’s foot, but Mikoto’s group was led to a back corner of the hospital that felt more like a den of researchers than a hospital.
Hearing the response to their knock, they opened the door.
And they immediately reacted with shock.
A black-haired girl was sitting in a chair there.
And it was the exact girl who should have been frozen in a thick piece of ice.
“…Is something the matter?”
Asajimo Saemi wore a white coat over a blouse and tight skirt. When she looked puzzled herself, Mikoto felt the need to say something.
“Oh, that. I’m her sister.”
The girl sighed and added that.
She flicked the ID card on the chest of her white coat.
It did indeed provide the name Asajimo Mebuki.
“My sister is in the cold storage room in the back. Given how she’s dressed…or rather, undressed, I don’t really want to show her off to people.”
In the back was something like the silver refrigerators seen in restaurant kitchens. However, it was even larger than those industrial ones. The door alone was taller than Mikoto and it contained a round window like on a ship.
The double layer of insulated glass showed a world of death.
The digital display said it was 30 degrees below freezing. It must have been specially treated because it had none of the frost found in normal freezers. There was nothing more than the thick block of ice looking like a coffin inside the plain box.
That was Asajimo Saemi.
A cold girl without a shred of clothing.
She was in an incomprehensible state that was neither living nor dead.
That may have been why the scene felt almost divine in an odd way. After some thought and deciding this was a lot like being in a museum and seeing a mummy or death mask that showed some vestiges of what the person was like in life, Mikoto shook her head to drive out the unpleasant thought.
“We’re twins, so people have always gotten us confused.”
“Um, excuse me, but…”
“Setting this up over email probably confused some things. Since we’re twins, that means I’m 14 just like her. But I am a legitimate university professor. I specialize in low-temperature medicine, chemistry, and physics. Well, I skipped ahead to university overseas and entered Academy City as a professor, so now I’m relearning the tech here as a student.”
Despite her apathetic tone, Asajimo Mebuki grabbed a digital picture frame from a steel desk. No, it seemed to be a smartphone sitting on a charging stand.
She slid her thumb across to unlock the biometric identification, flicked through an album app, and showed them a photo.
It showed two identical girls in the same frame.
They were holding out some kind of certificate with Western writing on it, but it seemed to be a diploma.
“Oh, and this is my sister’s smartphone. Um, I thought it was still too soon to cancel the service.”
Doing that would mean accepting her family member’s death.
Accepting the death of a girl who looked just like her.
Mikoto wrinkled her brow like that had touched on a bitter memory, but then she realized something.
“…Huh? But didn’t you just unlock the biometric identification?”
“Because we’re twins,” she explained. “There are theories saying identical twins won’t have the same fingerprints and irises, but in our case, we’re similar enough to fool a normal cellphone. A premium model for a corporate contract might be a different matter, though.”
In the photo, it was hard to tell which was which. The one holding the diploma was likely Asajimo Mebuki, but Saemi also looked delighted as she hugged her from the side with a smile.
They must have been friendly sisters.
And that may have been why the girl in a white coat gave an exhausted smile.
“I believe I have at least a general understanding of the situation. Although I was a little shocked when the morning talk shows got here before Anti-Skill or Judgment.”
But perhaps because she was with Judgment, Shirai Kuroko was willing to go ahead and ask what questions she had.
“Hm? But your sister is still in the ice. How did you get just her phone out?”
“I called her on the night the incident supposedly happened.” The white coat girl slowly shook her head. “But she seems to have left her phone in her room that day, so there was no response. I thought that was strange, but I didn’t think too much about it. …That may have been some kind of sign. It might not have changed anything, but I can’t help but wonder if she wouldn’t have been frozen in ice like this if I had immediately left my room and gone looking for her.”
Frozen in ice
The phrase held more weight from an expert and a relative of the victim. There was a strange pressure behind it. Mikoto found herself gulping. It was a perfectly normal phrase, but it was a shock to hear it used for a human.
“So…how bad is it?”
Mikoto hesitantly asked and the girl who looked identical to the frozen one breathed a slow sigh.
They were twin sisters – blood-related family.
If there was a way to remove her sister from that ice, she would have no reason to keep things the way they were.
That was how Mikoto saw it, but it seemed the situation was a little different.
“It might be difficult to understand if you only look at it from one angle.”
“With the thick ice in the way, we can’t do a detailed analysis, but there is one oddity I can see just from an exterior examination.”
Asajimo Mebuki pulled a medical chart from a shelf and spread it out on the desk.
“There seems to be a large vertical wound on her back. It was likely a sharp incision made with a scalpel. Simply put, she was cut open like a mascot costume’s zipper and then rapidly frozen without stitching it up.”
“Wait a second. So even if you do know how to unfreeze her…!?”
“Yes. The wound looks closed at the moment, but as soon as the ice melts, my sister will start hemorrhaging blood. That prevents us from using any normal unfreezing process.”
The medical chart was so full of small writing and arrows that there was barely any white left.
She had not been sitting around doing nothing this whole time.
She had been looking at every single idea that occurred to her, even if it was like grasping at straws. These were the records of her agony as she desperately wanted to save her sister but could not.
“Even if she is still alive, we would be delivering the finishing blow by melting the ice. So the situation is set up so whoever tries to save her will become the actual killer.”
This was exactly the rebellious setup that demon would like.
“But isn’t it dangerous to delay unfreezing her?”
“It is. Of course it is. The criminal permeated her cells with a saline-based preservative to prevent damage to the cellular membranes during freezing and unfreezing, but to be honest, that is an outdated method.”
“In this case, it refers to water with a salinity of 0.9%, but I doubt that’s what you meant.” The 14-year-old professor slowly sighed. “The volume of matter changes when it goes from liquid to solid and vice-versa. Have you ever heard of drink bottles bursting when placed in the freezer?”
“Yes, I have…hm? Oh, I get it now.”
“I’m glad you’ve caught up. The body is 70% water. If there is too great a difference between the expansion/contraction rate inside and outside the cells, there is a risk of the cellular membranes rupturing during freezing and refreezing. That is the purpose of the saline which matches the human body as closely as possible.” Asajimo Mebuki paused for a second. “Of course, using saline as a cold sleep catalyst is an outdated method used only during the early stages of research into the field. These days, the leading method uses a synthetic preservative derived from the structure of egg white. There are several fields of medical research that have taken that in unique directions, such as artificial blood and collagen for treating burns.”
“Outdated?” asked Mikoto. “So is there a problem with that method?”
“Yes,” confirmed the white coat girl. “Do you think anyone wants to have their gut opened up with the Edo period surgical instruments you see hanging in a museum? Because that method does not quite cut it, it’s possible my sister’s body is being further harmed as we speak. We can’t try to unfreeze her, but we can’t delay making a decision either.”
“If we do nothing, she will merely die. On the other hand, if we do something, we will be held legally responsible. Thus, the higher ups will not give me authorization.”
It was like a puzzle that used a human life.
And it was not a cruel puzzle with no answer. Loophole, the creator of this deadly artwork, said he could solve the puzzle.
But how exactly would he do that?
After returning to the university hospital’s front lobby, Mikoto’s group sat on a random bench and looked over at a poster on a nearby column.
“Neat. You can use cellphones in hospitals these days.”
“They still ban them around the operation rooms and examination rooms. But who was it that claimed cellphone signals would damage medical equipment anyway?”
They needed to organize what information they had.
“Oh? Onee-sama, you still aren’t using a smartphone?”
“I’m attached to this flip phone. And it can use the internet just fine.”
They attached rubber straps to their multipurpose mobile devices and positioned the screens in front of their eyes like goggles.
The images presented there were reconstructed using the footage taken by other cameras. In their case, they used the cameras on each other’s phones.
Mikoto looked around.
“Huh? Is this our classroom???”
“I chose that setting. The classrooms and gyms of prestigious schools like Tokiwadai and Nagatenjouki are pretty popular backgrounds.”
Uiharu must have already set everything up for them. Several files were pasted to the blackboard and entries were linked by red and blue lines of light.
Someone was here who should not have been.
She must have been sitting on a chair or sofa in the courthouse waiting room, but that data was not here and she looked like she was sitting in empty air with a smile on her face.
Mikoto widened her eyes in surprise.
“Should you really be doing this? Using your phone might give away your location. If it gives a reading from within the courthouse…”
“Oh, I borrowed a phone and web camera from the prosecutor, so it doesn’t matter if this phone’s location is discovered.”
…That sounded like it would cause other problems, but the trial was stopped for the time being. Since Saten was a witness instead of the defendant or accuser, she may not have been as strictly monitored.
“Ho, ho. Uiharu-san, what kind of technology is this? I see it can reproduce things perfectly even down here.”
“Gyawah!! Do you have to look there even in VR, Saten-san!?”
“…In the courthouse, wouldn’t it look like she’s just crawling around on her own?”
“That no one is getting after her for that motion may be all the proof we need that she is being kept safe,” said Shirai.
The pervert was not bothered by the perverted action.
At any rate, Shirai Kuroko got down to business.
“Now, we went over this with an expert, but the thread only feels more tangled.”
“At least we have a clear view of what hurdles we have to overcome. It’s no longer a tangled mess of video cables, is what I’m saying.”
They began by sharing their information, including what Saten had inside the courthouse.
According to Asajimo Mebuki, the low-temperature chemistry expert, melting the thick ice to remove Asajimo Saemi would be a gamble. And even if the ice did melt well, the large wound on the girl’s back would open up and she would hemorrhage blood.
The standard method of closing a wound was to wrap it with bandages or sew it up with thread, but they could not do that while she was frozen.
They needed to treat the wound before melting the ice, but they had to melt the ice before treating the wound.
It was a lot like locking your key inside an auto-locking hotel room.
Mikoto viewed the documents covering the blackboard and gave a frustrated sigh.
“…I knew it was going to be bad, but this is even more twisted than I was expecting.”
“But looking at it in reverse, Loophole, aka Innai Chigiri, may have actually been afraid.”
“What do you mean, Uiharu?”
“I mean, since he included the wound on her back as insurance, he must have considered the possibility of her being unfrozen from cold sleep, right? So there might really be a way of safely unfreezing her.”
Incidentally, the simple VR using a mobile device was not completely immersive. Mikoto’s group could still hear the noise and chatter of the hospital lobby.
Within that was the lobby’s large TV continuing to discuss the top trending terms on social media. People made a fuss about TV going into decline and the internet rising to the forefront, but since the TV programs were not making anything original and simply relying on topics and videos from the internet, it felt like they had just given up resisting it.
And those people were holding the following discussion while taking no responsibility for their statements:
“The top trending term has been updated. Oh, what’s this? We have a very interesting topic in first place: the accusations against Boy A might be false? What does this mean, Sensei!?”
“According to those in the know, a new email from Loophole has arrived at various news organizations. Needless to say, Boy A could not have done this since he is in the courthouse.”
“I see. But couldn’t that be set to a timer like is often done with blog posts these days?”
“You can tell when these things are done on a timer, but there is no sign of that here. This is no more than online speculation, but the consensus seems to be headed toward the idea that the true criminal is someone else.”
Mikoto could not believe her ears.
“W-wait, what is going on!?”
Saten tried to stop her, but Mikoto removed the cellphone affixed with a rubber strap.
The real scene of the hospital lobby filled her vision, but nothing really changed.
The irresponsible content was still coming from the TV.
“I can’t believe them…”
“What they are saying is awful, but it does seem to be true.”
Shirai and Uiharu also removed their mobile devices. Rules against mobile usage in hospitals had been relaxed in recent times, so Uiharu pulled out a mobile device resembling a handheld game system and gathered information from a browser.
“Someone claiming to be Loophole is making posts to video sites and message boards as well: ‘I have no words for that poor, foolish Boy A, but I will continue to commit my crimes as before. I have no intention of forcing all responsibility on him and making a clean escape.’ …Quite a few people think this person is the real criminal and Boy A being held in the courthouse has been falsely accused.”
“B-but! This is just on a computer or with a program, right? If he had set this to post with a time delay, Innai Chigiri could be the one sending these messages, couldn’t he!?”
“At the very least, this does not appear to be a simple timer.”
“Innai Chigiri? We still don’t know what his power is, so could he be using that?”
“I don’t know how rare his power is, but using a unique power would be like leaving a calling card. And none of Loophole’s crimes have shown any trace of an esper power being used,” explained Uiharu. “But Loophole does have a lot of followers online. So even if this isn’t him, it is possible a follower of his is posting these videos and messages and the others are agreeing with it to suck up to him. The change was too soon after the news came out and I doubt the trending word could have naturally risen quite that quickly.”
…If there was a direct connection between Loophole and his followers, he could even order them to rid him of the troublesome witness.
Not even Anti-Skill or Judgment knew how many followers he had in all, so it would be almost impossible to fully ensure someone’s safety.
The only remaining option was to swiftly divulge Loophole’s crimes, reveal that there never was a perfect crime, and disillusion his followers. They had to prove that his wicked charisma was a sham.
Mikoto glanced over at the lobby TV and placed a hand on her slender chin.
She set aside the fact that the producers had given up on making anything of their own and were entirely reliant on the internet.
“If the followers did this all on their own, then wouldn’t it be outside of Loophole’s own expectations?”
If they spread the false idea of a “true criminal” and that was easily revealed to be a lie, then the suspicion against Innai Chigiri would only grow. Was this situation actually working against him?
“The effect seems too big for that.”
“The message supposedly from Loophole may have started out as something his followers invented, but it seems to have gathered the interest of completely unrelated people now. It’s a lot like how people will line up for a restaurant they know nothing about just because they see it has a line.”
“…So this wasn’t just a spontaneous occurrence. Should we assume the email message and masked video were prepared in advance?” Mikoto thought for a moment. “Maybe this was a form of insurance. Innai Chigiri could have left his more trusted followers with this material and instructed them to start distributing it once they received some kind of signal.”
“Since he wants to have the case dismissed before the issue of guilty or not guilty even comes into play, pressure is what he should want most. If this grows into a social phenomenon, it will be all the harder to keep the trial going.”
“B-but how would he give a signal!?” asked Shirai. “He’s being confined and monitored and they won’t allow minor suspects in front of the cameras. He won’t be allowed to so much as touch a mobile device or computer. Even if he had his followers waiting, he has no way of hitting the activation switch!”
“Could he have borrowed a phone from someone like Saten-san did?”
“I think the actual defendant would be treated differently from her.”
Mikoto sighed, but something about Uiharu’s comment gnawed at her.
“…Could the trial going into recess have been the signal? No, that introduces the risk of it being triggered by some unexpected turn of events. I’m not an expert at psychological warfare like that stubborn #5, but I’m sure that delicate give-and-take is important. So you wouldn’t use a method that prevents you from putting on the brakes if necessary. If you want to effectively attack in waves while adjusting to the situation, you would want to give direct instructions.”
Loophole, aka Innai Chigiri, could only contact so many people.
Mikoto did not want to think a follower had worked their way into the security personnel. It was the higher ups that decided who was assigned to that position, so they would have no way of knowing if they would be assigned to Innai Chigiri’s security today. It seemed unlikely he would include a gamble like that in his insurance.
It would have to be someone he knew would be by his side no matter what happened.
“…His lawyer,” said Mikoto. “Tsujinaka Kyouka, was it? He whispers something to her and she uses her phone to call up his followers. That allows him to get his instructions out there.”
Shirai Kuroko and Uiharu Kazari of Judgment frowned at that.
“If that came to light, she would more than just lose her license to practice law. No matter how clever she might be, I doubt she would go that far.”
“And cell phone anonymity is not as convenient as it might seem,” added Uiharu.
“Then maybe she isn’t using her phone. She just has to use a payphone instead. There are some in the courthouse…but she might be overheard there, so I guess she would head outside. Uiharu-san, can you check for the location of any payphones near the courthouse?”
“Y-yes, I can do that.”
“But even if you can find who the call was made to, you can’t know who made the call, can you?” asked Shirai. “Even if we have the call data, it will not be enough to corner that Tsujinaka Kyouka lawyer.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
If the case itself was dismissed, it was all over.
Loophole, aka Innai Chigiri, would be freed and he would almost certainly target Saten Ruiko.
To prevent that, they had to do something about the both the Cold Sleep Case and the commotion on the internet.
They were definitely approaching the end of this.
Mikoto’s group left the District 2 university hospital and returned to District 1.
On the way, they passed a police van that looked like a large bus covered with armor panels and wire mesh. They mixed into a group of people carrying smartphones to broadcast a report on a video site and they entered the courthouse.
“Misaka-san, that’s the far infrared beam grid coming from the gate. It’s to locate suspicious people, so try to get used to it!”
“…Does this mean Onee-sama is a powder keg waiting to go off?”
It seemed more than one trial was being held that day.
There were a surprising number of people moving every which way.
“This is Nakamura from the prosecution. I have the evidence needed for the phone scam trial. It’s about 30 cellphones in all.”
“Thank you. It’s the same place as always, but I’m obligated to explain it to you: the temporary storage room is around the corner in the hallway to the left.”
“Thanks. And thanks for signing the form.”
Mikoto’s group cut across the main lobby while giving a sidelong glance at the adults casually discussing a topic that would determine someone’s future.
Tsujinaka Kyouka, the female glasses attorney working for the defendant, was sitting on a sofa in the break area lobby. She was nonchalantly viewing her smartphone and smoking a cigarette. Or perhaps moving away from strictly-monitored Innai Chigiri gave her the chance she needed to use her phone freely and send out some instructions.
“Oh, and who might you be?”
Hearing that, Mikoto immediately shut her mouth. With that shady group’s information network, they might be able to determine the witness’s identity, but telling the enemy she was “Saten Ruiko’s friend” would still count as offering up a sacrifice.
Shirai Kuroko stepped forward instead.
“Excuse me. I am from Judgment.”
“The defendant has been placed in the prosecution’s custody, so there is nothing for you to do here.”
“Concerning the charges he was indicted for, yes. But that changes if he is currently spreading false information to obstruct the trial’s progress. We must gather the necessary information, take appropriate countermeasures, and bring an end to this confusion.”
Then Uiharu spoke up as another Judgment member.
And this field was her specialty.
“Tsujinaka-san, you have turned off your cellphone three times since the recess began, haven’t you? And for about 10 minutes each time.”
“I must express my shock that you would abuse your investigative abilities to research that, but I have a habit of shutting off my phone when I take a bath or use the restroom. Or do you need me to tell you which floor’s bathroom I used and which stall I was in? I have a right to privacy.”
“During the time your phone was off, suspicious phone calls were held at the payphone at the convenience store in front of the courthouse. And instead of calling someone else from the payphone, someone called to the payphone. The times match up perfectly, so do you have any idea why that might be?”
The female glasses attorney laughed and showed her smartphone’s screen to Mikoto’s group.
It showed a social media app with various messages popping up in real time.
“Are you trying to say this was the defendant’s doing? You can make whatever accusations you like, but I seriously doubt he could trigger a social phenomenon while trapped in a small room and monitored at all times.”
“That’s why he gave you his instructions and you relayed them to his followers outside! And you used the payphone so there wouldn’t be a record!!”
Mikoto shouted at the woman and Tsujinaka raised both hands.
She showed no sign of fear.
“Now, now, sheriff. Act all courageous if you like, but to be honest, I don’t really care.”
“I remember now. I saw you in the gallery.” Tsujinaka Kyouka laughed. “You know someone involved in this case, don’t you? These days, it isn’t unusual for people to monitor the lay judges and show up in the courtroom to intimidate them. It would seem you wish to ensure a guilty verdict no matter what it takes. Perhaps by intimidating me and having me back out as his attorney?”
“I don’t want you of all people treating me like a criminal…!!”
“You can’t, Misaka-san. Grab her and you really will be breaking the law!!”
When Uiharu stopped her, the female glasses attorney shrugged with a triumphant look on her face. But Uiharu was from Judgment and she did not want to protect the woman.
“All unnatural social phenomena fall apart eventually. Overseas, supporters of a bill banning UFO research used bots to make more than a million posts that pushed support for the bill into the trending topics, but once the method was discovered, public support fell away. Your confidence will not last forever.”
“You really shouldn’t criticize people with baseless speculation. If we were in court, I could accuse you of a crime for saying that.” Tsujinaka placed her cigarette back in her mouth. “No matter how much you struggle, this is a constitutional state ruled by the people and the results apply equally to everyone. This trial cannot continue. If the pieces cannot advance along the board, they cannot pass a verdict. And you cannot make someone guilty with mere assumptions and speculation. That is how the system works, thank you.”
Mikoto immediately snapped back at her.
“Did you really think you wouldn’t leave any trace at all if you turned off your phone and used a pay phone?”
“Oh? Are you going to use hacking this time? Falsified information or information gathered through illicit means has no power as evidence.”
“…This trial is gathering a lot of attention.”
Mikoto licked her lips.
It all came down to this, so she gathered her focus.
“The odds of being selected for the gallery were 1-in-208. The people who weren’t chosen still wanted to ride the wave of popularity, so they took the day off school and surrounded the courthouse. There are a lot of eyes out there. And a lot of phones and cameras too. No matter how sneaky you were, you would have left some trace.”
“What, do you think you can use facial recognition on every single social media photo to find me hunched over with the payphone’s receiver held to my mouth?”
The woman’s words were infuriatingly smooth.
She may have seen this as a possibility from the beginning.
“Yes, a picture could be difficult.” Mikoto grinned. “But what about your voice?”
“Smartphones, car navigation systems, electronic guide posts, AI speakers – the streets are overflowing with internet-connected voice recognition services these days. We live in a crazy age, don’t we? You’re essentially surrounded by listening devices at home, in your car, and wherever you might go during the day. And just like a fingerprint, a voiceprint can be used for biometric identification. You sometimes see products to fool facial recognition since it’s so well known. Like how you see people wearing masks even though they don’t have a cold or allergies. But what about your voice? Even if you place a machine over the receiver to change the tone of your voice, any surrounding speakers will pick up your original voice. So the odds are pretty good that the unaltered conversation data can be found somewhere.”
The attorney’s words had been so smooth before, but now they ground to a halt.
It had the same awkward feeling as a record needle skipping, so this was probably the real deal.
“Changing your voice on the level of breathing in helium can be corrected for with a computer. And since we can speak with you normally now, you probably didn’t even do that. If you really were holding a suspicious conversation at the payphone by the convenience store, some of it would have been picked up by the devices flooding the streets. …But if you really believe that data doesn’t exist, then you can relax. Just like the story of the tortoise and the hare, we will slowly but surely catch up to you. Modern program analysis is incredible, you know? Software for use on criminal sites and message boards can sort through the hundreds of thousands of posts on a server in no time at all.”
With that said, Mikoto snapped her fingers.
After signaling to Uiharu who held a mobile device, she spoke a few terms with a pause between.
“You know what. The incident. The goods. Ice. Sugar. In the bag. Dispose of. Eliminate. A feeling. Extract. Take care of it. Reward. The usual place. Can I ask that of you? Adjustment.”
The Judgment device emitted an electronic warning noise before she had said even half of them.
But Mikoto finished the list regardless and winked.
“See? If you can do it with text, you can do it with voice. Even if you avoided the more incriminating terms and used code words, you shouldn’t think you can escape.”
“…Nothing you say will change the conclusion.”
The flame in the cigarette brightened and faded irregularly.
She was breathing erratically.
“The defendant was indicted on false charges and he has not participated in a single crime. I will follow my own ethics and beliefs by justly defending his dignity and right to a free life.”
“A single witness brought an end to Loophole’s legend. Once his identity was known, Anti-Skill narrowed their focus onto him, so they searched his home and found plenty of material evidence. There is simply no way he can be acquitted!!”
That was obvious enough from the fact that they were trying to prevent the trial from continuing instead of winning a not guilty verdict. This defense attorney was well aware that he could not be acquitted by any normal means. Even with all the dirty methods she was familiar with.
But she showed no sign of concern.
Mikoto’s group had supposedly played the perfect hand. The payphone conversation data had reached the point that she could not ignore it. And yet it felt like she was slipping from their grasp. It was not quite like they had been off base. They had to have done some damage. And yet she would recover from that.
She would make a comeback.
She still had something hidden up her sleeve.
The attorney breathed out some cloyingly sweet smoke and spoke with a smile.
Her words seemed more like a mantra to calm her heart than something directed at Mikoto’s group.
“…A pile of cardboard boxes may have been taken from his home, but how long will those last?”