Instead of lying on a bed, Kamijou Touma felt more like he was reaching both hands up from the bottom of a full bathtub. The voices and sounds around him were muffled and oddly distorted, like there was a thick layer of water between them and him.
His vision was just a strange array of colors as voices reached him from the surrounding chatter.
“We have a reading, but it’s weak! Give him another countershock!!”
“You’re kidding, right? We’re lucky this car battery still worked after expanding so much from the heat. If we keep this up, Kami-yan might explode…”
“But we know he’ll die if we don’t do anything! Stand back!!”
With a tremendous shock, Kamijou’s entire body formed an arch. A scorching heat started in his heart and spread to every part of his body. It felt like having silk wadding removed from his throat. His pointy-haired head finally left the phantom bathtub and he could breathe oxygen into his own lungs.
“Cough, agh…!? What…? This is…the infirmary?”
When he shook his unsteady head and looked around, he saw Fukiyose in her black bikini and Aogami Pierce in his swim trunks. Frighteningly enough, teary-eyed Fukiyose held large crocodile clips in her hands. The cables were connected to a car battery that had swelled out like a black melon.
“Y-you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not an ecofriendly hybrid…”
“Do you!! Have any idea!! How worried we were!? You don’t get to just quit while you’re ahead!!”
“Gyaaaah!! I get that you’re feeling emotional, but let go of the clips before hugging me!!”
Kamijou just about set sail for Nirvana once more, but he somehow avoided becoming an electric roast.
They had somehow survived. He and Fukiyose were both safe.
In that case, he knew what to worry about first.
“What happened to the water?”
That was when a modest knock came to the infirmary door.
After the door cracked open, the Jumpy Bunny and a glasses boy poked their heads in. They belonged to the student council of the school from which Kamijou and the others were borrowing classrooms after losing their own school. They also must have succumbed to the heat because the small Jumpy Bunny was facing this crisis in a frilly pink one piece and the glasses boy had for some reason chosen a speedo.
They were holding a few 500mL bottles.
“W-we’ve already distributed the water to everyone. This is your share.”
“Don’t tell anyone, but you all get just a bit more since you put in the most work.”
Kamijou sighed and slowly got up from the bed.
He grimaced as a dull pain ran through his bandaged lower stomach and Aogami Pierce frantically called out to him.
“I’m fine. I can’t hog a bed in such a nice place forever. The people taken out by heatstroke are all inside the stuffy gym, right? I can’t waste this space on myself.”
That was why Tsukuyomi Komoe, Yomikawa Aiho, and the rest of the teachers were not here. They would want to put an end to the students’ dangerous behavior, but they had their hands full taking care of the sick and could not patrol the school building very well. If they did not focus on those in the gym, some of them really could lose their lives at any moment.
Kamijou looked around again.
The room was only dimly lit, but not just because the LED lights on the ceiling had no power. All of the outside windows were covered with impromptu barricades. They were not entirely sure that just piling up desks and chairs was enough to keep those Elements out if they made a serious attack, but it was better than nothing.
Kamijou borrowed one of the label-less plastic bottles the student council was carrying.
“How many liters of water do you need in a day again?”
“If the sports drink ads are to be believed, about 2-3 liters.”
The glasses boy could only smile bitterly as he answered.
Kamijou shook his head and walked out into the hall.
All of the windows here were covered too and barricades blocked off the hallway here and there. Boys and girls from the same school were leaning against the walls and passing time amidst the great heat however they could. No one had any real ambition, so it looked like a scene from a field hospital.
However, the barricades were not perfect.
There were gaps in places and they allowed a view out, just like a castle’s arrowslits.
The hallway bordering the courtyard gave a view of a concrete structure.
Normally, that would never see the light of day during winter.
“If only we could drink that pool water.”
“Yes, but it’s the green December water.”
No water could be seen, but not because there was none there.
To keep as much as possible from evaporating, they had placed a large sheet over it. The thick sheet had come from the gym. It was normally used to keep the folding chair legs from damaging the floor during graduation.
“We’ve tried boiling it, running it through filters made from pebbles and gravel, and chemical sterilization using chlorine. It’s mostly been the chemistry club doing the testing, but the risk of food poisoning remains far too high. It’s because so many germs have all sorts of resistances these days. It’s the downside of everyone using antibacterial sprays so much.”
Still, that was plenty for anything other than potable water: for washing their bodies, for washing their clothes, or for the bathroom. They had reached a dead end, but they may have been blessed more than others since they “only” had to worry about potable water.
(I’m seriously worried about Misaka. But our phones don’t work, so I have no way of contacting her.)
The thought came to him for no real reason. This went beyond not being able to eat something that had fallen on the floor. He had a feeling that a high-class girl would be more fragile than a commoner in situations like this.
A strange heat wave had settled in and Elements covered the ground.
The standard expectations of Academy City in December had crumbled away almost too easily.
The Jumpy Bunny fidgeted in her frilly pink swimsuit and spoke to him.
“U-um, Mie-chan and the others want to speak with you about what to do next, so if you can move, I’d like for you to stop by the student council room.”
Kamijou was not the representative of his school, but to the glasses boy and Akikawa Mie, he would be the easiest one to speak with. (Although the real Jumpy Bunny would feel like she had barely even met Kamijou since Kihara Yuiitsu had taken her place before.) If they wanted to speak with him, it would have to be a fairly delicate issue.
Black Bikini Fukiyose stepped out of the infirmary.
“I’ll go too. He’s still in a dangerous state, so I can’t bear to see him walking on his own.”
“It’s not so bad I need to borrow your shoulder…”
But he felt this was not the time to press the issue.
As soon as he supported himself on her shoulder, a sweet aroma reached his nose. It was likely her hair or her sweat and it put an indescribable look on his face. Plus, this gave him plenty of shameless skin contact with the bikini girl. He did not want to raise his body temperature in this over 55 degree world, but there was nothing he could do. And if she noticed, she would probably mercilessly punish him with a fist despite his injury, so he did his best to restrain his body’s reaction.
Incidentally, a number of theories with little grounding in fact had spread among the girls who had an especially wide selection to choose from. Some said a swimsuit that covered more of the body would protect them from injuries and UV rays. Some said more fabric meant more that could be torn and that the smallest tear could spread like a run in a stocking and ruin the entire swimsuit. Some said that covering up too much skin, such as with a rash guard, would bring on heatstroke. But looking in from the outside, Kamijou had no way of knowing what had led Fukiyose to choose a bikini.
Meanwhile, he was not the only one noticing the sensitive gazes piercing them from all over the dark and gloomy hallway. Those eyes were gathering on their bottles of water more than Kamijou and Fukiyose themselves.
Just think of the situation here.
Kamijou’s school was only borrowing classrooms here, so to the original school’s students, they were an unnecessary drain on their resources.
When Kamijou entered the student council room with the help of the black bikini girl, he found Modern Middle School Girl Akikawa Mie who had (without even noticing) essentially taken over the student council in the name of helping the Jumpy Bunny. She was wearing a standard school swimsuit.
She looked at the glasses boy, the Jumpy Bunny, Kamijou, and Fukiyose (who was a new face for Akikawa). The glasses boy waved a hand to say it was okay to speak and Akikawa Mie nodded.
Yes, those were the only ones here.
Fukiyose had no way of knowing, but someone was missing.
The boy who had lost his right hand was no longer here.
The heat wave was melting the asphalt and the mysterious Elements had appeared. It had created enough of a panic that all the normal assumptions crumbled away. Without cellphones or the internet, they could not communicate with anyone. It was possible Kamisato was running around in this chaos and he may have ended up taking shelter in another school.
What if that was not the case?
(Is this your doing too?)
Kamijou had no proof of that.
But it was true that boy had been best positioned to destroy some “sanctuaries”.
Speculation may have been meaningless.
He needed to focus on overcoming the obstacle before his eyes.
And Modern Middle School Girl Akikawa Mie was most familiar with that hurdle since she was managing the shelter and all of its problems.
After gathering the people she could trust, she got right to the point.
“We don’t have enough water.”
“!! Do you have any idea how much danger we put ourselves in!? And now we’re out of smokescreens and flash grenades for emergency evacuation!!”
Kamijou called the name of the classmate lending him her shoulder as she shouted in anger.
“That’s because I screwed up. It isn’t her fault.”
The student council was doing a lot of paperwork to preserve the peace of this small world known as a shelter. That was absolutely necessary, but a certain division had appeared between the students here.
The shelter contained students from two different schools (it was technically three since the original school was a middle and high school), so one school protected the building while the other went out to secure water. There was a simple reason for that and the decision had been made on the first day of the heat wave.
Kamijou’s school had arrived later, so the original students could have found it unfair if the new students simply received the same resources as everyone else. To avoid any needless conflict as the shelter split in two, Kamijou’s school had needed to prove their worth.
They had needed to venture into the dangerous “outside” and gather valuable water to become an indispensable cog in the machine.
But Fukiyose gave the student council members a look of blatant distrust.
“We’re putting ourselves in danger to achieve ‘equality’. If you think that’s established a hierarchy and that we’ll just do whatever you want, you’ve got this entire thing backwards. We’ve reported everything honestly. If we had wanted to, we could have consumed most of the water we found and insisted we’d only found a little bit.”
Akikawa immediately nodded. She had no intention of objecting to that.
But at the same time…
“But if we’re worn down little by little, there’s a risk of that mistaken hierarchy setting into everyone’s minds. …I thought simply gathering water would have enough of an impact, but I was too naïve. We need some greater impact to break free of this atmosphere. That’s what I want to discuss.”
“Fine. Fukiyose, let’s hear her out.”
At Kamijou’s prompting, Fukiyose pouted her lips but reluctantly relented. Due to his injury, the pointy-haired boy was the master key to their anger. If he criticized the student council, the others would join in. If he said it was okay, the others would have no reason to stand up in defiance.
Akikawa bowed in apology and spread a large piece of paper out on the table.
It seemed to be a diagram of the middle and high school.
“I don’t know how Academy City as a whole will settle this, but I think waiting is all we can do for now. Simply put, we can’t move from here. Now, what we need most is water. And I mean more than just gathering a few days’ worth when we need it. If we can get so much that we’re practically swimming in water, then, um, Kamijou-san, I think your school would be seen as heroes.”
The modern middle school girl’s index finger tapped a part of the diagram.
It was a rectangular area separated from the school building.
“The pool, hm?”
“It’s an outdoor pool in December, so it’s full of moss and bug carcasses. And all the resistant bacteria makes it a real gamble. But if we could drink this water, the situation would completely change.”
“But didn’t four-eyes say you’d tried a number of things, but you couldn’t get rid of those resistant bacteria and the risk of food poisoning remained?”
“Well, um, all of our attempts were pretty amateurish.”
Akikawa was quite blunt.
She may have been the type of person to completely change hobbies and to quit something without a second thought when it came to it.
She next spread out a map of District 7 as a whole.
“The district water department is located near this school on District 7’s southern end. It won’t be any use with the power out, but it might have some professional water purification equipment if we’re lucky. If we can find the culture medium for the tanks of organic microbes that consume bacteria…that is, a special sort of mud, it should make short work of everything, including those resistant bacteria.”
Kamijou and Fukiyose exchanged a glance at close range.
Akikawa pointed with her thumb at the thick stack of documents covered in labels that she had pulled from the library since the electronics had been rendered useless by the heat.
“The entire student council investigated it. We will of course run some tests with a test tube and microscope first, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Once the microbes eat the resistant bacteria, we can use chlorine, boiling, and a filter for good measure. Then we should be able to drink all the pool water.”
“Just mud? All you want us to bring is mud?”
“Yes. Of course, it will take quite a bit of it for the purification microbes to cover the entire fifty meter pool, so it should be similar to the previous water hunts. However,” warned Akikawa Mie. “This will of course require going outside. And while this will resolve our current water problems, it is also a surprise event meant to set your school up as heroes. We can’t help you until this is complete. Is that okay with you?”
Fukiyose did not wait even a second.
She spoke up while lending her shoulder to the pointy-haired boy who seriously may have had a hole in his gut.
“Give us a second to discuss this.”
With a confused “Hey?”, Kamijou was dragged out of the student council room by Fukiyose.
The black-haired forehead girl crossed her arms and leaned against the door as if to seal the others inside the room.
“Is it possible they made up a convenient story to send us to our deaths and reduce the strain on their resources?”
“She isn’t that shrewd. The thought might have occurred to her, but she wouldn’t succumb to emotion and go through with it.”
“Sorry, but I don’t know their student council that well!”
“That’s fine.” Kamijou spread his arms and turned his palms toward Fukiyose. “Fukiyose, you stay behind on the next water hunt. We were always volunteering, so you don’t have to go. Just don’t raise your hand and that’s that.”
“I’m going. What other choice do I have? If this shelter splits apart, we’ll be the ones that are driven out. They’re a middle and high school, so they have us outnumbered two-to-one and we don’t stand a chance when it comes to academics or powers development. If it comes to a serious conflict, the group of failed students will be wiped out in no time. And even if we managed to put up a fight, we would only trip each other up and doom us both. There’s no way we can actually win.”
“Have you forgotten your heart actually stopped!? Whatever we choose, you’re the first one that needs to stay behind!!”
But Kamijou shook his head.
“This is about more than just the school for me. It’s about Index, Othinus, and the calico cat too. Those freeloaders from my dorm are a drain on the resources here. I have to repay them for accepting those three.”
“So I can’t run away. It’s like a family issue. I brought this on myself, so you don’t need to worry about it, Fukiyose.”
His black bikini classmate scratched at her head and screamed.
And after a large sigh, she rudely jabbed her finger right in front of his nose.
“Fine, I’ll go with you just this once! It’s true nothing could be better than solving both our water problem and the power balance between schools all at once. But I still think this all sounds a little too convenient!!”
Kamijou honestly felt he had a good friend in her.
So he reached for the fingertip jabbing toward him and shook hands with the classmate who was always looking out for him.
When Fukiyose pouted her lips and stepped away from the door, the Jumpy Bunny peeked out.
“So wh-what will you be doing?”
“We’ll do it,” answered Kamijou. “But if it’s supposed to be a surprise, we’ll have to do it in secret. It’ll take some time to plan it out without your school finding out and to get started while hiding what we’re up to.”
Fukiyose cut in with a lower tone than when speaking to Kamijou. Her voice had softened somewhat, but she could not entirely rid herself of mistrust.
“We will also need to construct a route to the water department since we can’t exactly go for a carefree hike across the ground.”
“No one will go along with this if we can’t explain how this helps us. I’d like to know more about those microbes that girl was talking about. I’m basically going to be running an infomercial where people pay with their lives, so I’d like to memorize as much about the product as I can in the limited time available.”
“Half a day.” Fukiyose raised her index finger. “The preparations will take at least that long. That’s fine, right? We brought back enough water for at least today. And risked our lives doing so.”
“Y-yes.” The Jumpy Bunny nodded a few times while shrinking down like a turtle ducking into its shell. “Of course. Of course. Please do all the preparation you need. …We can’t leave here even if we wanted to, so we can’t help you. We can’t head out to rescue you either. If we did, it would ruin your heroic legend. So please tell us if you need anything ‘before that’. We’ll help in any way we can.”
Fukiyose seemed taken aback.
The other school could not leave here even if they wanted to.
If they gave a helping hand, it would establish the hierarchy between schools and apply decisive pressure to Kamijou’s school.
She may not have thought of that possibility until now.
With a light sigh, Kamijou placed a hand on the Jumpy Bunny’s head.
He thought this might be getting too friendly, but there was something he wanted to say.
“It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. We’ll end all this here. Once we can drink the pool water, we can get through this. After that, we just have to wait for the important people with their paintings on the wall to solve the fundamental problem. That’s why we have the…um, what were they called again? Y’know, that high-paid board of directors.”
The Jumpy Bunny nodded and watched Kamijou and Fukiyose walk away from the student council room.
After descending the stairs and moving out of view, Fukiyose’s shoulders drooped in exhaustion.
“Do you think I was too hard on them? Maybe I’ve gotten a little too on edge.”
“Ideally, you would tell them that.”
“True enough,” said his black-haired forehead classmate. “Kamijou, I’ll draw out some routes to the water department on the map. I want a few different options in case we run into something unexpected. You look into the specs of the water purification microbes. …It would be best to lay the groundwork for gathering volunteers all at once instead of doing it bit by bit. Hit them with a ton of information at once and they won’t be able to scrutinize it as carefully.”
“We’re going to be relying on each other out there, so I don’t want to deceive them.”
“You’re the one that said this is like running an infomercial where people pay with their lives. Saying they’ll only be accepting calls up to half an hour after the broadcast is pretty much the same thing. We need to hurry them along.”
A single foolhardy individual could not gather all the mud they needed from the water department’s purification tank. They would need a certain level of manpower for that.
And this was after Kamijou’s heart had been stopped, so a mood of fear could set in if they spent too long debating this.
“This will end it all. No, we will end it. So we need to do whatever it takes.”
“Right.” Kamijou nodded and took a large step away from Fukiyose. “Half a day later means after midnight. We’ll be fighting the heat in the middle of the night.”
“The most important thing for you might be getting a nap to regain as much strength as you can.”
“Before that, I want to rid myself of some regrets. …That way I can focus on this final battle.”
“Oh, it’s Touma!”
As she raised her voice in excitement, Index’s small body was contained in a white one piece swimsuit. She may have wanted to maintain some pride as a nun because she still wore her usual hood.
That said, she would have collapsed from the heat otherwise. Kamijou had not arrived in a stuffy room somewhere; he was in the direct sunlight of the school’s roof.
“Wait, why do you have bandages around your stomach!? Did you get hurt again!?”
“It’s nothing out of the ordinary. Don’t worry about it.”
He was lucky he could still stand on his own two feet and walk around. In this hell of over 55 degrees, that felt like a talent in and of itself.
“You don’t have to work out here, you know?”
The direct sunlight was their enemy, but it was also a protector.
It no longer mattered once they ran into an Element, but those things tended to like hiding in dark or cool places. So comparatively speaking, the sunlight was the lesser of two evils.
“But I guess there might not be any other empty space for you.”
The gym had become an emergency clinic filled with the people who had collapsed from heatstroke and the school’s classrooms were filled with supplies and the students themselves, so there was no space for working with anything relatively large.
The scorching concrete must have been too hot for her bare skin because Index was sitting on one of the mattresses used for the vaulting box. Home carpentry tools were scattered around her. A few other small groups had formed and they were combating plywood and metal pipes.
It looked a lot like the preparations for the Daihaseisai or the Ichihanaransai, but they were constructing barricades to protect themselves from the Elements and the tightropes used to cross between buildings. The wire slides used wires as skinny as one’s little finger, but by weaving in copper wire braids or pickpocket prevention wires, something handmade was good enough. An uneven thickness could create “lumps” which could bring them to a sudden stop between buildings, so they had to be careful.
The calico cat was stretched out on its back on the mattress. Its body looked unnaturally long. And even though that pet cat was always chasing her, palm sized Magic God Othinus was placing a folded handkerchief on the cat’s forehead.
“Cursed cat beast, did you think everyone would spoil you if you lay there looking so cute? And this change from your usual excessive energy has me worried because I can’t predict what you’re going to do.”
Despite her complaints, she did not stop looking after the cat.
And a distant look filled Kamijou’s eyes.
“Why do you actually look more normal in a bikini, Othinus?”
“Because you are trying to judge a god by human standards.”
Her arrogance did not seem to have changed. That said, it was a relief knowing she was her normal self even in this intense heat wave.
“By the way, what are you making, Index? That isn’t like the other barricades.”
“Yeah, I’m making what was asked of me!”
For some reason, Index puffed her chest out proudly while seated.
When Kamijou saw the beads of sweat on her neck dripping into her swimsuit, it filled him with a somewhat sinful feeling.
Oblivious, Index continued speaking.
“Heh heh. This is a secret weapon!! It’s a secret, so you’ll have to wait to learn what it is!”
“This will make your fight a lot easier, Touma.”
Index was battling with…something. It was made from several metal pipes and synthetic fiber fabric. It was not a parasol or a tent. He could not seem to figure out how it was used.
Then someone else walked over.
It was Black Bikini Fukiyose whose skin had a somewhat alluring shine. She had likely just put on some sunblock cream.
“Hm? So this is where you went?”
“Fukiyose, aren’t you supposed to be staring at that map?”
“I’m gathering the supplies we need.”
That was all she said.
She then looked down at Index fiddling with the mysterious secret weapon on the mattress.
“This girl couldn’t do anything at first, but she’s a quick learner. You just have to show her once and she memorizes the whole thing, so it doesn’t take much effort. It’s helped a lot with the construction work I need.”
Well, she does have a perfect memory, thought Kamijou.
It may have helped that Index was using old-fashioned wrenches and screwdrivers instead of power tools.
“I made the secret weapon!”
“Good girl, good girl.”
Fukiyose patted the silver-haired nun’s head.
Did that mean Fukiyose had drawn out the plans for this and it was not something Index had thought up?
Or was there no real rhyme or reason behind it?
The proud look on Index’s face suggested it had some meaning. At the very least, it was better than fighting the pressure of simply being in the way in these harsh circumstances.
Everyone wanted to be useful.
Everyone wanted a place where they belonged.
The mysterious Elements were wandering the surface during this unnatural heat wave.
Kamijou once more knew he had to protect this place even if he had no fundamental solution and even if they could only hole up here. This was no time for a conflict with the other people sheltering in the same school. To bring them all together, he had to overcome the biggest hurdle: water.
(This will end it.)
The two of them must have gotten along well because Index and Fukiyose were smiling as they chatted. The sight filled Kamijou with silent determination.
(We won’t need to worry about whether we belong here and we won’t have to fear being kicked out. We’ll have the leeway needed to accept everyone like normal. The only way to do that is to get to the water department and bring back that water purification microbe mud. Then we’ll have a pool full of water.)
“What is it, Touma?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head and intentionally smiled. “It’s nothing.”
Heading outside was scary. No one knew how long those handmade tightropes would last and he did not have it in him to face those giant, translucent, and mimic-loving Elements. But that fear was exactly why he had to do it. He had to improve the worsening situation as much as possible so they would not run out of strength before reaching the final moment.
While speaking with Index and Othinus, Black Bikini Fukiyose still seemed to suspect the latter was speaking through ventriloquism, but Kamijou felt some of the weight leave his stomach for the first time in a while.
The things he had to protect at all costs were not a burden.
Discovering that gave him great strength.
He parted ways with Index who still had work to do and he started back indoors.
Swimsuit Aogami Pierce (a sight no one had asked for) was staring off into the distance near the door.
“You just feel a need to protect them, don’t you?”
“I know what you mean.”
“Yeah, anyone our age would pick a fight with the world for some swimsuit girls.”
“I was wrong to ever think I agreed with you.”
Kamijou asked a question of the classmate next to him.
It was evening and they were not inside the dimly-lit school building with its doors and windows sealed by makeshift barricades. They were near the faculty parking lot out back. The trash dump for the middle and high school was nearby and the incinerator that had caused so much trouble a few days before was still sliced in two.
The Elements with their translucent bodies and love of mimicry were a threat, but the boys had a simple reason for heading outside despite the danger.
“What do you think is the greatest luxury?”
“Sitting in this damn heat and casually eating the instant ramen we won. Heh. We sure are civilized for boiling our limited water to eat some hot food in this 55 degree weather. We’re the intellectual class.”
Simply put, they were cooking. With gas burners in the chemistry room and gas stovetops in the home ec room, the school did have special classrooms with heat sources. There would be even larger scale kitchen behind the cafeteria counter.
But none of that was usable. The electric ventilation fans were not running and using fire with all the windows and doors sealed introduced another problem.
Namely, carbon monoxide.
“You can’t survive just by fighting the Elements. Everyone’s doing their best to stay alive.”
Kamijou breathed a heavy sigh.
“Dammit. I’m feeling the joy of life from a five-pack clearance item. There aren’t any vegetables or even an egg. Why am I so easily swayed!?”
“At least you have an appetite. Lose that and you’ll be in the gym before long.”
The best areas were outside, but the students were generally limited to the elevated spaces like the rooftop and emergency staircase landings to avoid the Elements. Most of the students would use binoculars to check for Elements out the hallway windows. If they saw an opening, they would head out into the dangerous outdoors to cook and fill their stomachs. Of course, if there was any hint of danger, they had to drop everything and run back inside.
In addition to Kamijou and Aogami Pierce, other small groups of swimsuit boys and girls were working at cooking. Luckily, the Elements either had no hunger or had inhuman senses of taste and smell because the smell of cooking did not attract them.
Kamijou and Aogami were boiling water with the portable stove, the pot with a collapsible handle, and the other camping goods that Aogami had gathered, but the others had engineered their own methods. Some created three sides of a square with concrete blocks or bricks and threw a bunch of used chopsticks into the makeshift stove. Others had modified a metal handle in the engineering room and attached it to a portable stove’s gas can to heat the bottom of a pot with a burner-like flame.
Kamijou poked at their pot with a fork and spoke to a familiar boy working nearby.
“What are you doing, four-eyes? Checking for a satellite broadcast?”
“Seriously!? We might get the late-night anime infrastructure back up!? In that case, I’ve got to survive this post-apocalypse!!”
The student council boy who was always helping the Jumpy Bunny looked unsure how to respond to Aogami’s excitement as he pointed an upside down umbrella toward the sun. The inside of the umbrella was covered in aluminum foil, so it looked like a parabolic antenna.
“No. With this heat, I was thinking I could gather the sunlight to make a solar cooker.”
“Tch. So my shut-in life will have to wait… Well, anyway, that sounds nice. Leave it to the student council intellectual. You might even find a way to generate some electricity. Oh, if we could only fix the equipment in the AV room, I bet we could get it to play optical discs!”
“What have you been carrying around in all this confusion, Aogami? Are you like the guy who goes out of his way to wear weights in the martial arts tournament to determine the ruler of the world?”
Since almost all electronics had been ruined by the heat, electricity alone would not help much. Water quality aside, they needed to transform precious water into steam if they wanted to turn a turbine. …They knew that, but electricity was the symbol of civilization to them. Nothing else could provide greater psychological support.
But the glasses boy shrugged in his speedo (that no one wanted to see).
“Well, it would be nice if was that easy. As you can see, I haven’t had much luck. The calculations say I should be gathering the light, though…”
“Maybe it’s just the limits of a quick and dirty handmade device.”
“So what do you have in the pot attached to the handle?”
“Prepackaged curry. It’s easier than cooking vegetables from scratch and you can heat the sealed package in dirty water and then eat it just fine.”
“Dammit, I’ll help! Just hand over some of that curry when it’s cooked. We can make curry ramen with our camp pot!!”
“Hah hah. You’re not worth that, so no thank you.”
“But curry? Won’t that just make you want water?”
“I can eat the medium spicy kind without any water.”
“Huh? Four-eyes, so you like spicy foods?”
“No, I just like to focus on the flavor of the food while I’m eating it. It doesn’t matter as much with soup or stew, but I don’t like to dilute it or mix it together with water or tea. You could say I like to drink my drinks as drinks.”
Even if they were not promised a share, Kamijou and Aogami Pierce still began helping with Prototype Solar Cooker Mk. 1. They never met any success, but working with their hands helped free them from the pressure bearing down on them.
“Four-eyes, cooking the curry is good and all, but what about rice? Washing and cooking the rice uses a lot of water, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s why I’ll be eating it with bread.”
“I see. Western curry, huh?”
“Don’t look so smug when you’re wrong, Aogami Pierce. Western curry uses rice too.”
They chatted as they worked, but there was no sign of any improvement. The angle of the umbrella’s frame may have been poor for gathering light or the surface area may have been inadequate. They would have to research those issues if they hoped to continue.
“You look happy for failing so much, four-eyes.”
“I’m glad I could work for myself to find what I need to do. Then again, this might be a lot like finding a manga while cleaning your room and reading that instead of cleaning.”
“I get it, but what about the curry?”
“Could I perhaps borrow your camp equipment?”
“Curry ramen then?”
The negotiations were complete.
The glasses boy gained some hot curry and the other two had a new topping.
“Oh, man. These chopped carrots and potatoes are incredible. Ah! I’m being moved to emotion by carrots, a constant presence in the top three worst vegetables!! Hey, Kami-yan, were meat-loving high school boys really this health-conscious?”
“Carrots are an indispensable part of fried rice and white stew, aren’t they!? Besides, Kamijou-san is a well-balanced modern man who loves tofu and seaweed!! …Come to think of it, when did we get so good at this?”
“At negotiations or bargaining or whatever. I feel like we’ve gotten stronger or bolder or something.”
“The one with the best survival skills is you, Kami-yan. You’re eating and you didn’t prepare any tools or food.”
“Well, grade schoolers are being taught about the economy and the stock market these days, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
They greedily devoured their various feasts.
They dumped their share of the prepackaged curry on the noodles boiled in the camping stove and single-person pot. Then Kamijou and Aogami Pierce began sticking their forks in to eat. The remaining soup went to Aogami since the cooking equipment was his. The sight would have made a qualified nutritionist scream.
After parting ways with Aogami Pierce and the glasses boy, Kamijou returned to the barricaded school building.
It was evening, but no one was naïve enough to expect the temperature to drop. The hellish heat would continue even after the sunset. And the waiting seemed to last forever in that scorching hell. It would roast their nerves like plastic expanding in the heat. The 55 degree heat wave had wiped out all the machines, so it was hard to find a functioning clock and that may have helped mess with their sense of time. That may have been why the principal and vice principal had gathered a lot of attention for their old-fashioned hand-wound wristwatches.
(If I borrowed one of those watches, I bet I could make a sundial.)
But Kamijou felt he was better off than the others.
At the very least, the end was in sight for him. He had a goal.
That was the water department and the purification microbes.
That alone meant a lot. Anyone’s mind would raise the white flag if they had to suffer through the never-ending heat while everything seemed stuck in an infinite loop.
And as he thought about that, someone called out to him.
A boy was slumped against the dim hallway’s wall like a corpse. Thanks to that, Kamijou had entirely overlooked his presence. And he did not recognize the boy.
The boy had several plastic bottles lined up on the floor. They were the stereotypical 500mL size. If they were behind a glass door in a convenience store, they would have been full of ice cold soda.
But there was no sign of that here.
The labels had been removed and they were full of dried sand presumably dug up from a sandbox.
“Need a water filter? With one of these, you can turn even the muddiest water into pure drinking water. I’m willing to part with one for just a bottle’s worth of water. You hear that? Just one. One bottle’s worth and you can get as much water as you want. A good deal, don’t you think?”
Kamijou ignored him. This was just like a questionable infopreneur advertisement claiming their half hour class could teach you the investment techniques needed to become a millionaire. If they actually had those techniques, they would not need to sell them to others. They could just use the techniques themselves. That meant they were making their money some other way.
Those things were almost always fake.
A bunch of plastic sheets were fluttering in the scorching wind while hanging up in the front schoolyard like drying laundry. By laying those out over the ground, the moisture evaporated from the dirt would supposedly gather on them as drops of water. However, the schoolyard was already dried and cracked. No one knew who owned those anymore, but someone had definitely traded a water bottle for one and then cried over being deceived.
(I just hope Misaka wasn’t tricked too…)
Just as he thought that, a few boys descended the stairs.
Their build was about the same as Kamijou’s, but they were probably from the other school. Almost all the boys wore blue swim trunks, but the designs were subtly different.
The boys were laughing as they spoke to each other.
“Anyway, I heard him out since he had three bottles of water, but what do you think he wanted? My swimsuit. He wanted me to sell it to him.”
“What the hell!? Why would you want a guy’s swimsuit!? And a used one too!!”
“Don’t get caught up in the details. And does that mean you’d buy a girl’s swimsuit?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Realistically though, you think he wanted to pretend to be from our school? I mean, their school is in a pretty sad state.”
Kamijou passed by the laughing boys. And one of them blatantly bumped into his shoulder in the process.
Was this a post-apocalyptic world?
And this was just a “trial run”. Did they think this commotion would last for a decade or a century? Did they not realize that their lack of restraint during the emergency would only get them beat up the second standard law and order returned?
(What am I supposed to do until nightfall? I feel like I’m trapped in a locker that’s being cooked from the outside and it’s going to drive me insane. Maybe I should look for something I can help with like Index is doing.)
That had to be why violence was not running rampant even though the environment could hardly be worse. People’s hearts would succumb to the pressure if they did not focus on some productive and hands-on work. It was unclear whether all of the students heading out on the dangerous water hunts were really doing so for the efficiency and logic of needing water.
Kamijou recalled the glasses boy who had enjoyed fiddling with the solar cooker that may or may not have actually been useful.
(So should I head to the Jumpy Bunny’s student council, or…)
As he was wandering around in thought, he saw someone moving around in an empty classroom with barricaded windows.
That free spirit was an upperclassman at Kamijou’s school, but it was a little unclear when she actually went to class. She had shoulder-length black hair with the bangs held up by a headband. The mature girl(?) never forgot to have a daring smile on her face. He could not imagine what kind of life she lived. To a high school boy like him, she seemed to live in an entirely different world, just like college girls or female teachers.
“Oh,” said the busty upperclassman when she noticed him.
For some reason, she was wearing a work apron and nothing else.
At first, Kamijou did not know how to react.
He considered the possibility that he was hallucinating after succumbing to heatstroke.
“Hey, what’s with that wide-eyed look? Is it that weird to see me in something other than my uniform?”
“Oh, no. the hallucination is talking to me now. No, wait. This is no hallucination! But that means she’s wearing a naked apron at school!! That’s pretty dangerous in an entirely different way!!”
“What, are you feeling sexually frustrated? Well, I guess I can’t blame you in this situation.”
With an exasperated sigh, Kumokawa Seria turned a bit to the side.
That revealed the truth.
She was wearing the apron over a girl’s swimsuit just like Fukiyose and the others. She just looked naked when viewed from straight ahead.
Kumokawa also held something odd for someone in a swimsuit or someone in an apron.
It was a hand pump used to pump kerosene from a plastic tank. The sight only filled his mind with pointless trivia like the fact that the original inventor had developed it to transfer soy sauce instead of kerosene. His memories were acting oddly and he worried that he was getting a little heatstroke.
“You want to know what this is for?”
“Yes. What are you doing, Senpai?”
Kumokawa waved the hand pump to beckon him into the empty classroom. After he tilted his head and shut the sliding door behind him, she used the pump to point to a corner of the classroom.
“What do you think that is?”
“Um, a heater?”
“Yes, but not the usual kind.” Kumokawa grinned in her pseudo naked apron that was actually a swimsuit apron. “It’s a hot water heating system. It boils water, sends it through the pipes running between classrooms, and uses the heat to warm the air.”
Kamijou repeated the words as if pondering the sound.
“So you’ve caught on. Yes, there’s water inside here. The device is useless with the power out, so it isn’t even boiling.”
Kumokawa had removed the lid at the top of the boxy device. She stuck the hand pump inside and began sucking out the clear liquid. She filled a two liter bottle in no time at all.
“W-wow… There’s so much of it!”
“It’s pretty iffy whether we can drink it, though. Since it’s for heating, it’ll be left in the tank for months on end. They might refill it to replace what evaporated, but that’s just little by little. They don’t actually replace it all. …That means it could be full of germs. In fact, I’d be amazed if it wasn’t completely rotten.” Kumokawa laughed. “But water has its uses even if you can’t drink it. Kamijou Boy, Little Miss Hardheaded in your class might not think of it, but an obvious reward is more important than a justification if you want to invite people to possible death. If they know they can get a nice shower before heading out, you’re sure to get more volunteers. Especially from the girls.”
“C-can we really get that much…?”
Kamijou was skeptical. Or rather, he was putting up his defenses to protect himself from the disappointment if it did not work. Kumokawa’s response was to casually grab one of the two liter bottles from the floor. At four times the size of a 500mL bottle, that rare item was valuable enough to trade for mint body gel or a sun-blocking tent.
And she dumped it over her head without a second thought.
She did so as boldly as baseball or soccer players celebrating a victory.
The clear liquid splashed and dripped down the sexy upperclassman’s hair, face, apron, swimsuit, thighs, and legs.
She shook her head like a large dog after a bath.
“Well, you get the picture. And I’m allowed a reward too since I was the one that actually found and retrieved the water, right?”
Kamijou gulped as he watched that waste of water.
“It’s gotten all see-through. O-oh, no. That’s really lewd, Senpai!!”
Kumokawa looked confused and glanced down at her own chest.
The work apron had soaked up the water and grown see-through, so the colors beneath were showing through. But…
“Yeah, but I’m wearing a swimsuit underneath.”
“I know that! I do, but this feels like an extra bonus. It’s different from just seeing the swimsuit! W-wait a second, Senpai! Give me a second to analyze why I find this so hot! I want to categorize it properly!!”
Kamijou Touma, the pointy-haired truth-seeker, entered a zone of intense focus rivalling a professional shogi player and dove into a trance so deep he thought he could see the ends of the universe. A distant look entered Kumokawa Seria’s eyes as she stood in front of him.
She must have been a little bothered by the moisture inside her swimsuit because she reached down to her butt and fixed the swimsuit.
“Hmm. Boys are still quite the mystery.”
“That’s lewd too, Senpai!! But all you were doing was casually fixing your swimsuit!?”
“What, is everything lewd to you?”
“Oh, I get it. It isn’t the actual phenomena or actions before my eyes! Maybe it’s you yourself that’s lewd!!”
Kamijou opened his eyes with such force that one could almost hear a weird sound effect.
That was what led Kumokawa to raise the light hand pump in preparation to attack.
It was two in the morning.
The hellish heat wave showed no sign of fading even after sunset.
The heat of a fierce summer night filled the air evenly.
The school had several buildings and Kamijou’s group of water hunters were gathered on the middle school rooftop because it was closest to the outer fence.
A metal wire as thick as their little fingers had been tossed over the railing and it was diagonally connected to the roof of the multi-tenant building outside the fence. The kind of thick S-shaped hook used to hang large equipment in a garage had been bent slightly to grasp the small wheel of a roller skate or a skateboard to create a pulley. This “tightrope” would take them straight to the other side. Their route back stretched from the multi-tenant building’s roof to a window in the middle school building.
They were about to leave on their mission.
Once outside, falling to the surface would mean instant death or a slow, painful death. However, the more elevated routes were still far from safe.
Kamijou, Fukiyose, Aogami Pierce, and other girls and boys wearing swimsuits, gloves, and scarves were gathered with a single middle school girl from another school entirely.
It was Akikawa Mie.
She too wore a swimsuit, but she lacked the gloves and scarf meant for touching heated metal. In a way, she was unequipped and defenseless. She gave a deep bow to Kamijou and the others.
“Thank you. We’re counting on you here.”
“Sure thing. This water is a pretty urgent matter for us too.”
Kamijou and the others waved without looking back and then jumped out into the dark sky.
They first slid down the tightrope to reach the neighboring multi-tenant building. They then moved to another tightrope that took them to the emergency staircase partway up the wall of another building. For light, they had wrapped bandages around the ends of bats and sprinkled on ethanol disinfectant for primitive torches. They were afraid to produce their own light with countless Elements lurking around them and they thought they would burn their own hands while holding the torch and S-shaped pulley at the same time, but they could easily fall to their deaths if they tried to navigate these dark elevated places while blind.
The power was out and the LED lights were dead, so the city was frighteningly dark.
They felt like the world was covered in thick ink, but they saw similar flickering light sources in the distance.
With torch in hand, Kamijou set foot on the emergency staircase landing and finally had it in him to focus on his surroundings.
“What is that? Students from another school?”
He briefly thought of a high-class Tokiwadai Middle School girl. He was pretty sure she lived in District 7 too.
But Fukiyose was more skeptical.
“I’m not so sure. At this distance, those have to be more like flamethrowers than torches. The height is odd too. That’s probably fire being blasted up from the ground.”
In other words, those were Fire Elements.
They had not done any detailed research on those lifeforms(?), but they seemed to like mimicry. That meant they did not normally draw attention to themselves. If they were spraying fire like that, then they may have been in battle.
But with what?
Were the Elements fighting each other or were they attacking humans?
“This is no time to go find out.”
“There might be Elements that lure people out like this. If they use mimicry, it means they’re smart enough to take advantage how we’ll react to what we see.”
“So you’re saying those are like footballfish that use light to lure in their prey?”
“It would be one thing if this was right after the heat wave started, but we’re 72 hours in now. How stupid would someone have to be to directly take on the Elements at this point?”
Now that she mentioned it, that did seem odd.
It was the standard answer, but perhaps it was strange to find the standard in such nonstandard circumstances.
Also, the Elements preferred dark and cool places.
That meant they were generally nocturnal. Unless they had a definite goal worth exposing themselves to such a threat, no one would set foot on the surface at night. The boiling heat remained even without direct sunlight, so nothing was gained by heading out at this time.
Not to mention that Kamijou’s group could not take a direct route to reach whoever or whatever this was. They would have to use the roundabout route supplied by the irregularly placed tightropes and there might not even be a tightrope leading there.
“Anyway, Fukiyose, what happened to that ladder? Y’know, the one to cross between buildings.”
“We don’t need it this time. We’re using this instead.”
Fukiyose indicated the long object on her back. It was wrapped in a synthetic fiber material instead of showing exposed metal.
(Is that the thing Index was working on during the day?)
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Kamijou looked confused and he carried one of the spare water dispenser bottles they had acquired before. It was the size of a large daruma doll. It was light now, but it would be a hellish burden on the back once it was full of mud.
After climbing to the top of the emergency stairs on the outside wall, they were on a roof twice the height of the previous one. From there, they passed over a few more buildings.
Kamijou had no idea where the water department was since he never had to think about it, but according to Fukiyose, who had planned their route, it was not far away.
“It’s only about five hundred meters as the crow flies.”
“As the crow flies, huh?”
The tightropes were set up where they were convenient at the time, so there was no overall plan. The only unwritten rule was that no tightrope was removed once it had been set up. It was possible they would have to circle around and around in a gradually approaching spiral.
Kamijou prepared himself for that possibility as they continued on.
But even that was too naïve.
They all came to a stop.
Aogami Pierce spoke up in a scratchy voice without even touching the metal railing.
“As the crow flies or not, there’re no tightropes leading to the water department at all!”
He was exactly right.
They had makeshift torches made by wrapping bandages around bats and soaking them in alcohol and they had makeshift reflectors made by placing aluminum foil on the inside of plastic umbrellas, but they could not find any wires even after focusing the torchlight here and there.
The water department was a fenced-in flat concrete building and a smooth rectangular high-rise building that likely contained several septic tanks stacked vertically. From the rooftop, they could see no tightropes leading there. And not just from this building. They saw nothing from any direction.
It was more than fifty meters away.
With too much of a height difference, they would pick up too much speed on the wire slides.
That meant height was another factor they had to take into consideration, but that did not matter now.
“Wait. We didn’t bring anything to build a tightrope or even the ladder that can only take us a fifth of that distance. There’s nothing we can do but sit here and stare at the gap!”
“Don’t be so sure.”
In the hellishly hot night, Fukiyose lowered the object on her shoulders to the concrete. She had been carrying this in place of the usual ladder. It was the secret weapon that Index had helped her build.
The collection of metal pipes and synthetic fiber fabric was not shaped like a parasol or a tent.
Fukiyose bent the joints in the metal pipes, spread out the cloth, and fixed a few latches in place with her fingers. This created a silhouette much like a two meter wide stingray.
Now that he finally recognized it, Kamijou groaned the answer.
“A hang glider…”
If they could glide through the night sky, the absence of tightropes would no longer matter.
“But are you insane? The real ones aren’t that small. Don’t the wings have to be really large to keep a single person afloat!?”
“Again, don’t be so sure.”
Fukiyose seemed to have already taken that into account.
She used the back of her glove to wipe the sweat from her brow.
“It’s true you need pretty big wings to get enough lift in normal circumstances, but the air temperature alone is 55 degrees right now. The heat in the asphalt has to be even worse. …And that heated air will rise. Would you understand if I said the entire city is covered in gentle updrafts?”
“We just have to borrow the power that’s already there. And that means we can shrink this down to a portable size.”
The intense heat wave was more than just a nuisance.
They could use that greatest obstacle to continue forward.
Even ignoring the specific method of ignoring the terrain as they flew through the sky, the way of thinking alone seemed like a huge breakthrough. It was like the light of an exit found after wandering through a cave after being buried alive.
Then Fukiyose sighed.
“We couldn’t make enough for everyone, so we’ll have to ride them two at a time. Sorry if that leaves anyone out, but you can stand watch here. So I may not like it, but let’s go, Kamijou!!”
“Eh? Wait! Wah!?”
As the other girls spread out similar hang gliders, swimsuit Fukiyose grabbed the horizontal metal bar and began to run, as if to show how it was done. This was too much for Kamijou who was forced along with her. He tossed the bat and bandage torch aside, grabbed the bar, and moved his legs so he would not be dragged along. The metal railing on the edge of the roof was right in front of them.
Before reaching it, his body floated up.
The soles of his shoes softly stroked the railing and his mind went blank with the same strange floating sensation as when riding a roller coaster.
“We’re flying!? We’re really flying!?”
“We’ve caught the updraft more than the wind. If my calculations are correct, we can continue flying indefinitely.”
If so, that was amazing.
They had been so restricted by the terrain and the Elements, but this would allow them to travel so much further. In fact, it was possible they could even escape outside Academy City.
But as he thought about that, a question occurred to Kamijou.
“Huh? Then why did we bother using the tightropes like normal to get this far? We could have flown straight from the school rooftop.”
Instead of just gliding downward, they could actually ascend like this, so they should have been able to do anything.
But as Fukiyose sweated in her black bikini next to him, he had a feeling not all of that sweat came from the heat. In fact, she was clearly doing her best not to look him in the eye.
Then she made a confession in a nearly inaudible whisper.
“(With the constant updrafts everywhere, we can go up, but we don’t really have a way of going down…)”
“D-don’t shake it, Kamijou! We’ll lose our balance!!”
“But, that means, but!? So this was like tying a giant balloon to our waists and floating up into the sky!? Not even the pre-Wright Brothers inventors were this bad! Why would you drag me along on a flight with a 100% chance of crashing!?”
“I didn’t give it that little…thought!!”
He heard a metallic sound behind him.
By the time he realized Fukiyose had kicked something with her heel, he heard the sound of a fishing reel rapidly unwinding.
He looked down and saw a metal wire as thick as his little finger. Dangling from that was the kind of J-shaped metal hook used on the ends of cranes.
It hit the asphalt, dragged along the ground, and scattered orange sparks in the darkness a few times. Suddenly, the glider was tugged to a stop.
“Don’t let go, Kamijou! That was just the brake catching!!”
They had been sewn to the spot when the hook had caught on a buffer stop or a guardrail on the surface. Using Kamijou’s balloon analogy, this was like a string tied to a tree branch.
“Wait a minute… Then this is more like being tied to a giant kite than riding an airplane! Isn’t that more from the world of comedy than from historical dramas!?”
“If we survive this, we can submit our names for a world record. And this will hardly be a comedy if we kept going and then fell.”
In other words, they could keep flying indefinitely, but if they went any further than this, they could no longer descend safely. Once the glider passed the wire’s height, they could no longer use the brake. Afraid of the inevitable fall to their deaths, they would be forced to continue rising with the glider.
“But what do we do now?”
Even if they would not rise any further, they still had no way of getting to the ground either.
As he tried to figure out a plan, Fukiyose flicked the latches on the metal bars. She was allowing the joints to move once more.
In other words, she was folding up the wings.
Once the area shrank, the amount of buoyancy and lift would also shrink.
This was far from the stable descent of an airplane or helicopter. It was more like a gentle stall or emergency landing that could not be stopped once it started.
“Oh, ohhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
“Enough with the weird voices! If I mess this up, we won’t be able to control the fall!!”
“Surely you understand the human heart enough to know that’s what’s so scary! Ooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!?”
They did not have a pretty landing.
They nearly fell onto their sides but managed to keep their balance as they set their feet down on the water department’s flat roof. They had descended in a small arc around the hook, so they had not lost their speed. If they had tripped, they would have been wiped like a rag along the concrete roof. After being tossed around, they managed to get rid of their speed by crashing through a clothes-drying rack likely used by the workers.
Kamijou collapsed on the spot despite the floor feeling like a scorching stone after all the heat it had absorbed.
He had not fallen onto his back, so the container for the mud was safe.
“I feel like the value of my life has gone way down recently.”
“That’s better than losing it, right?”
As she spoke, Fukiyose pulled a cheap lighter from her black bikini’s cleavage. She had likely borrowed it from the faculty room. Similarly, she bent her index finger like a hook, reached into the hipline of her bikini bottom, and pulled out a rag the size of a handkerchief.
“What choice do I have? Swimsuits don’t come with pockets.”
She may have been trying to stay calm, but her face grew red.
The bikini girl crouched down on the spot, used the lighter she had swallowed her embarrassment to bring along, and used the flame as a landmark and a signal.
A successful run gave everyone else more momentum.
More and more stingray-like hang gliders flew from the opposite building.
Fukiyose grabbed a long pole from the clothes-drying platform they had crashed through and tossed it to Kamijou.
“Just in case a hook doesn’t catch on the ground, poke at it or otherwise get it to catch something on the roof!!”
“You’re kidding, right? I’ll be killed if one of those heavy hooks hits me in the head!”
“I’m more worried about someone dropping the wire too early and crashing into the ground.”
He could not stop the squeezing at his heart from this unpracticed challenge, but none of his classmates’ flights ended in disaster. Some of them tripped on the roof, were dragged along the roof, or had their water dispenser tanks or water bottles burst or break, but they all managed to reach the water department.
“We’ll have to do this at least once more on the way back, won’t we? And it will be even harder to balance with the water purification microbe mud on our backs.”
“Oh, no. I’ll have to numb my heart by focusing on the dream of the swimsuit girl next to me feeling her heart pounding thanks to the suspension bridge effect or something.”
Faced with the difference between the modern strong-willed girls and that more moe vision, Kamijou reflexively silenced Aogami Pierce with a smack to the head.
The water department’s rooftop door was locked, but they managed by working together. When Kamijou and four or five other boys kicked in unison, the door bent and the metal lock burst off.
It was dark inside the door and some cool air drifted out.
Living in a world of 55 degrees may have thrown off their senses. It may have still been above 40 degrees in the digital world and it may have been hotter than a bath.
But Kamijou felt a shiver run through his entire body.
It was a shiver of protest over this unexpected luxury suddenly arriving with no warning.
“What is this? What’s going on?”
“Whether we can drink it or not, there might still be some water in here. Maybe the evaporation heat is lowering the temperature?”
They combined first aid bandages and ethanol with the clothes-drying poles to create torches. It may have been to divide up who was carrying what, but the girls kept pulling all the supplies from their swimsuits and Kamijou was unsure how to react.
As they walked through the water department with their makeshift lights, they found the hallway floor was unnaturally damp.
“Oh, the heat must have taken out the more easily melted parts of the sprinklers. What a waste…”
Since they had been traveling from building to building, they had pretty quickly thought to check the water storage tanks on the roofs, but the tanks had all been empty due to malfunctioning sprinkler systems. The systems were there to prevent the buildings from burning down, so they were not made to preserve water.
Kamijou felt dizzied by the price of that luxury.
“Instead of lamenting this lost bonus prize, let’s get to the water purification microbes. If those water tanks are also empty and the mud is dry and cracked, we’re in real trouble.”
The water department had two buildings: a flat one and a tall one. The microbes would be in the purification building with tanks stacked vertically. Kamijou and the others followed the passageway in that direction.
On the way, the temperature continued lowering.
For an instant, Kamijou had a vision of everything dumped on the ground and their plan ruined.
But that was not the case.
Aogami Pierce could not help but react out loud.
There were no internal walls dividing up the floor. A large square hole took up the entire area of the building. It was more than five meters deep and forty meters long and wide. It looked like a pool with the water removed, but there were still some puddles at the bottom.
And the uneven distribution of puddles was proof that it was not flat concrete at the bottom.
There was a layer of brown mud there.
If the information Akikawa Mie and the others had gathered was accurate, that was the culture medium for the water purification microbes.
“We’re saved… It’s really there!” rejoiced Aogami Pierce. “If we scoop up the mud from those wet parts, an entire pool full of water is ours! We might really make it!!”
They checked around tank and found a metal ladder for maintenance along the wall. They touched it and found it was almost painfully cool. It reminded them of an ice-cold glass of soda.
It was time for the boys to get to work.
They climbed down the ladder with their water dispenser tanks, water bottles, gas cans, and any other empty container they had found. Their feet sank ankle-deep even in the parts that had looked dry. That meant the mud was still “alive”. Filled with joy, they began scooping the mud into the containers with both hands.
The more they filled the containers, the harder it would be climb back up the ladder.
But they forgot all about that and Kamijou found he was laughing.
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha!! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
His throat was dry and every drop of sweat was a waste, but he forgot all about that and even let tears well up in his eyes. Now that they had made it this far, they would be all right. They had won the bet. That incredible sense of relief washed over his body. Not even a high-class Tokiwadai Middle School girl given the VIP treatment at a casino on an overseas trip would feel this excited. They had risked their lives and would return with what it took to save so many others’ lives. Only the commoners like them could make such a large gamble without thinking about the risks. Some of his classmates collapsed onto their sides in the mud. Some rolled onto their backs and laughed like idiots despite the containers of mud on their backs. The cool sensation of the mud must have felt nice.
With the weight of the water dispenser bottle on his back, Kamijou forced down his endless urge to laugh.
The mud was heavier than water.
It was heavier than a girl.
But it did not feel like a burden. He was carrying “salvation” on his back.
“We can survive now. We can protect our school! Everything’s finally going to get better!! We’ve switched over to a new set of rails!!”
Kamijou dragged his muddy body over, grabbed the ladder with his slippery hands, and clenched his teeth as he climbed. With each rung, he felt joy grow in his heart until he thought his chest would burst. He felt like he had grabbed the spider’s thread dangling down into hell. When he passed the final rung and threw himself safely onto the floor, it almost seemed too easy.
Black Bikini Fukiyose crouched down to get closer to him and spoke.
“Good job, Kamijou. Maybe we should have found a rope and pulled the containers up. Like a game of tug-of-war.”
“Don’t be ridiculous… That’s like adding an elevator to the top of Everest. You’ll understand if you do it yourself. Don’t take away the joy of living.”
The way Kamijou laughed may have seemed creepy under normal circumstances, but Fukiyose narrowed her eyes and smiled back.
Aogami Pierce and the other boys climbed the ladder one by one, looking like muddy zombies. They were all exhausted, but they were grinning like idiots. They looked like had just climbed a great mountain.
“Let’s get back… Let’s return everything to normal.”
“It makes me sick just to think about heading back out into that heat. It might be best to get going before we get any more accustomed to this.”
As they discussed what to do, Kamijou and the others started toward the passageway to the other building.
The water department was no further use to them. The only challenge left was the gliders. They had no idea if they could maintain their balance with the heavy mud on their backs, but as long as they could do that, they just had to slide down the wires back to school.
Or so they thought.
However, something had slipped their minds thanks to their comfortable exhaustion and sense of accomplishment.
The Elements preferred dark and cool places.
That was why the people were so very cornered during the heat wave and why their hiding places were so very limited.
The flames flickered on the ends of the clothes-drying poles.
No, the scene beyond the flames was shimmering.
“Oh, no! It’s an Eleme-…!!”
Before Kamijou could finish yelling, a giant form appeared within five meters of his pointy-haired head. It blocked their way down the passageway.
The bizarre bug had eight legs, several eyes, and clicking mouthparts. It was modeled after a maneki-gumo, a spider that excelled at mimicry.
At Class 2, the monster was six meters long.
A yellow will-o’-the-wisp could vaguely be seen in the center.
(Yellow!? This isn’t the Fire we usually see! It’s a rare Wind core!!)
A moment later, it fired something other than strange venom or web.
It was more like a solid wall than a gust of wind.
Holding the clothes-drying pole torch in both hands proved a mistake. He stabbed the monster in the eye with the fiery pole instead of his right hand, but it was not enough.
It only slightly diverted the path of the attack.
He and around ten other boys and girls were struck by the raging wind. Once he noticed his feet lifting from the floor, it was all over. They were thrown to the side, the glass surrounding the passageway shattered, and they were literally tossed into the empty air.
They were only two stories up.
The soft mud-packed container on his back may have helped too.
But when he heard the squishing sound and felt the blow soften, he knew the water dispenser tank had burst. His vision grew dark because that was more precious than his own life.
Meanwhile, the maneki-gumo was still on the passageway.
They could not finish off an Element without Imagine Breaker. If the classmates with usable mud were taken out, the school’s pool would remain useless to them. Would the people there wither away or would they drink the dangerous water and grow weak from food poisoning? He had to bring a third option to the table.
He slowly got up amid the sticky mud and grabbed the clothes-drying pole that was still burning thanks to the ethanol.
He threw it like a javelin toward the broken passageway.
It did not do any real damage, but it did direct the maneki-gumo’s attention his way.
Kamijou ignored it and yelled up into the building.
“Go on ahead!! We can’t escape this dead-end without getting that mud back to the school!!”
Aogami Pierce shouted back down at him, so Kamijou sighed in relief that the boy was safe.
Then the six meter spider jumped down to the ground.
Kamijou somehow managed to roll out of the way despite how much muddier it made him. Without even using any claws or fangs, the spider’s weight alone sent thick cracks running through the asphalt.
Meanwhile, Black Bikini Fukiyose Seiri groaned from the ground.
Without a mud container to cushion the impact, the fall may have been harder on her.
“What are we going to do, Kamijou…?”
During the day, Kamijou had faced an Element and been hit by a painful surprise attack, so he wanted to avoid facing one directly. He wanted to drive it off and escape to higher ground.
“You still have that infinite glider, right? We need to head for a rooftop and get into the air.”
Fukiyose had not recovered from the fall yet, so he supported her as he made his suggestion.
Meanwhile, something else walked along the surface.
It was an octopus with eight tentacles and a giant head. Since they liked mimicry, it may have been a common octopus. And there was a blue will-o’-the-wisp glowing in the center of its round and inflated head.
At Class 3, it was twelve meters tall.
The top of its head rose higher than the passageway above.
(That’s a Water-…)
He did not have time to finish his thought.
Ultra-high pressure water shot out like a laser beam and mercilessly sliced through the passageway.
It was a vertical slash from top to bottom.
The sturdy passageway of reinforced concrete tilted like a poorly-made slide as it crumbled.
There was no human flesh among the rubble.
Luckily, Aogami Pierce and the others had somehow escaped to the flat building.
But now that they were in this thing’s sights, fleeing into the sky would be suicide. They could glide forever thanks to the heat wave’s updrafts, but it would be slow going. Who could say how many times over they would be shot down before reaching the other rooftop?
To reiterate, Kamijou could not allow everyone to be wiped out here. The entire school would dry up without potable pool water and he was not going to let himself lose a classmate here.
As the Element itself reacted to the great noise, Kamijou slammed his right fist into the arachnid Wind Element that had approached quite close. The yellow light inside vanished, it stopped moving, and it collapsed to the ground like a building block robot with its joints removed.
He doubted these things could understand him, but he yelled at the other one.
“Over here, monster!! I’m the only one with the power to kill you!!”
He did not wait for Fukiyose’s response.
He ran in a different direction from her. And he made sure to kick the head of the unmoving maneki-gumo’s corpse on the way. He had no idea if the Elements had a sense of camaraderie or if they even had a concept of disrespect to the dead, but the common octopus Water Element clearly changed tactics.
Without even looking toward the fleeing pointy-haired boy, it fiercely pursued him with its many tentacles.
He could never escape on foot.
It had another specialty attack.
A laser of ultra-high pressure water shot through the night. He did not have time to aim his right hand, so he dove to the ground and somehow managed to avoid it.
When he looked back, something was not right.
Fukiyose and the others who had been thrown outside should have been by the broken passageway behind the common octopus, but the area was being enveloped by something like a giant fluffy mass of white cotton candy.
He soon found the answer.
A few torrents of water lost their momentum and rained down on the road.
It was nothing but water.
To Kamijou’s group, it was the symbol of blessings.
But the asphalt had soaked up as much heat as a stone stove, so a fierce change came over the water upon contact. In the blink of an eye, the liquid became white steam and spread out across the entire area.
“Wah, cough, cough!!”
The reading from his body’s thermometer clearly changed.
The apparent temperature in a sauna was adjusted by throwing water on a heated stone. The actual air temperature did not change, but gasses and liquids could change the heat on the skin and one’s rate of exhaustion.
Their stamina would quickly be worn away with the water being scattered so indiscriminately.
The common octopus’s greatest strength was not its anti-air cannon.
By scattering steam over a wide area, it wore down people’s stamina and created a smokescreen . Then its powerful and speedy attacks could finish them off.
(But even before that…)
The common octopus’s giant body burst through its own wall of steam as it approached.
Its tentacles were thicker than steel beams and they reached out to grab and twist apart the boy’s body.
As soon as a tentacle wrapped around him and lifted him up, Kamijou reflexively used his right hand to punch the translucent appendage.
Whatever else it could do, this Element could be stopped with Imagine Breaker.
But then the entire tentacle fell off at the base.
No, had it been cut away to prevent his power from propagating to the rest of it!?
Even if it had been destroyed, he still could not move with the tentacle around his torso.
Then the common octopus with the blue willow-o’-the-wisp targeted him from just barely out of arm’s reach.
It would show no mercy as it fired that ultra-high pressure water.
(Is this the end?)
Was Fukiyose’s group all right inside all that steam? Was Aogami Pierce’s group okay inside the flat building? Would they get the water purification microbe mud back to the school to secure the pool water? Would everyone at the school be okay? Would Index and Othinus be okay?
Nothing was certain.
He clenched his teeth.
And at that very moment, a great number of lights dropped from overhead and pierced the Class 3 common octopus almost too easily.
Kamijou had no idea what had happened.
It almost looked like a precision guided bombing with accuracy down to a few dozen centimeters. The common octopus’s giant body shattered like glass and the tentacle binding Kamijou’s torso was torn to pieces. The boy was thrown to the scorching asphalt, but he could not get up and simply stared up into the night sky while lying on his back.
The curtain of steam had been blown away and the moon was visible.
A strange form cut by overhead as if to slice through that bright heavenly object.
It flew in a straight line.
It flew in something like an invasion route while launching a great downpour of attacks. Some looked like metal shells and others looked like laser beams. The attacks had to be targeting the other Elements on the ground. Despite the intense explosions, there was no sign of the building collapsing.
The heat wave should have brought down all the next generation electronic weapons that Anti-Skill used.
But that was not what surprised Kamijou the most.
He stared up at the weapon tearing through so many targets on its first attack run as it made a calm turn in the night sky.
(That isn’t a fighter jet or an attack helicopter. That silhouette… That’s a human!?)